He’s a baaaaad muther-biter.
African Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) and his bride Luva (Vonetta McGee) visit Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay) to ask him to help them end slavery. Dracula thinks the Prince’s idea a really funny one and offers to buy Luva instead. When Prince Mamuwalde objects to this, Dracula bites him and chains his wife to the wall to teach him a lesson. Many centuries later, the contents of Dracula’s castle are sold and ‘Blacula’ is transported to the U.S. in his coffin.
Because, naturally, no one would look inside a heavy coffin before shipping it overseas….
So now there’s an old black vampire loose in LA, which probably sounds pretty good and, happily, it mostly is quite good. This film follows the core of Bram Stoker‘s original story Dracula much more closely than is typical of Dracula films. Prince Mamuwalde returns to the modern world – in this case 1970s Los Angeles – and seeks the reincarnation of his bride, Tina (also Vonetta McGee). In between his moments of stalking Tina, Mamuwalde manages to give the bite to several minor characters including a couple of fey interior designers, a cabbie who annoys him, and a photographer who takes a photo of him which, of course, shows nothing. Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala), a police forensic scientist, takes on the role of Van Helsing and, astoundingly, gets the police to help him; maybe it’s not that surprising after Mamuwalde kills a cop. Interesting for the time, the film lacks many of the blaxploitation tropes common to black films of the era, instead playing the film straight, which, given the material, is the best possible approach.
Much of the quality of this film comes from William Marshall‘s strong and memorable performance in the title role; he was also a Shakespearian stage actor, and it shows. Mamuwalde is equal parts savage monster and debonair gentleman, a much more nuanced vampire than we often get despite the original source material’s take on the vampire legend; Dracula was, after all, a nobleman before a vampire. While the film would be much less without William Marshall, his powerful presence is supported well by the rest of the cast. The innocence and confusion of Tina, as she’s both drawn to and repulsed by Mamuwalde, shows a woman torn between what she wants – or feels she needs – and what society expects of her; it’s as tough role to play well and, happily, Vonetta McGee is up to the challenge. Even the minor characters are played well, especially the sour assistant coroner (Elisha Cook Jr.) who has to deal with the problems caused to the coroner’s office by vampires stalking the streets.
This film was far from a polished, big-budget project, but it’s still pretty good. The makeup and other special effects are fairly primitive and low-budget, even for the 1970s, but they are, nonetheless, effective enough. Usually the makeup is little more than some pale skin powder and fangs, but some of the special effects are pretty good, especially a number of immolations. One really notable bit of makeup is the bit at the beginning when an undertaker shows a wound covered with makeup, which is of course, makeup on top of makeup, that looks very real. Because of the low budget, some shots are re-used in different scenes and the colors and lighting don’t always match within a scene, but an attempt is made to keep everything looking real. Even the music, generic 70s funk with a few dramatic tracks, is well-used to add to the mood rather than simply be there.
Despite all its virtues though, this film is still flawed. For a horror film it’s terribly tame, there is little blood and the action sequences are as standard, weak and banal as one would find in a made-for-television action film. The lack of gore in a vampire movie is never good unless one has lush visuals to stand in for it, but this film can’t manage that because of the low budget. The dialog is good, the actors are good, but the execution leaves something to be desired as, again, the lack of a budget kept many of the scenes from being realized, probably because of a quick production schedule making re-shoots impossible. The script also, as happens often in cheaply-made films, moves along at a brisk pace but tosses common sense aside as needed to keep the characters in dangerous situations into which no intelligent person – and these characters are supposed to be intelligent, seasoned cops – would allow himself to be trapped. The soft edge of the film blunts what would otherwise be a classic.
Still, Blacula is one of the first blaxploitation / horror films and so deserves some sort of recognition for recombinant chutzpah. I suppose all the other blaxploitation / horror films that followed are recognition enough though. Some of the imitators are actually better as well.