Monday, July 19, 2010

Blacula (1972)

Our movie opens in Transylvania, 1780. Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) and his wife Luva (Vonetta McGee) are the guests of Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay). Over dinner, they attempt to convince the Count to join their mission to abolish the slave trade. As well as being an undead fiend who feasts on the blood of the living, Dracula turns out to be a racist. After taking time out to mock and insult Manuwalde and Luva, he bites Mamuwalde, turns him into a vampire, locks him into a stone coffin, and seals up Luva in the same chamber to die...

Blacula sleeps

In the early 1970s American movie studios woke up to the fact that although they had a long history of exploiting black people, and an equally long history of exploiting audiences, it had never really occurred to them to exploit black people as an audience. Writer/producer/composer/director/star Melvin van Peebles showed the way with his independent movie Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which made a huge amount of money for him and co-financier Bill Cosby. MGM "legitimized" the trend with Shaft, an even bigger hit with the added bonus of a smash-hit award-winning soundtrack album. Suddenly every producer in town wanted a movie about a cool black dude who beats up honkies to a hot funk beat.

In an always-racially charged country going through a particularly stressful time, a prominent black cinema could have offered a chance for expression. As is so often the case with a new trend, the first wave of movies out the gate were exploitative and often unpolished. Many of these movies were consciously made with mostly black crews, who had been locked out of the unions until very shortly beforehand. Because of this there was a dearth of experienced black talent. The first wave of blaxploitation movies (as they came to be known) offered a training ground for a new black cinema.

There should have been a renaissance of black-led cinema at this point, but an unfortunate series of events prevented this. The first was simply that audiences tired of the movies becoming too formulaic. At first the mere depiction of the black experience onscreen was considered to be a revelation; a number of people have written about how it felt to see Richard Roundtree being unable to hail a cab at the start of Shaft because nobody would stop for a black man. Black leads had been incredibly rare until then (just look at how everybody still points at Night of the Living Dead, from 1968, as being a real marvel because its lead role just happened to be played by a black man - the idea that a character could be written without any regard to race and then cast as black was completely unheard of before this). There was an element of overcompensation to many of these heroes: Sweet Sweetback floored many people just because the hero actually survived past the end of the movie, but later movies would feature leads who were effectively superheroes. But when people eventually tired of this specific portrayal of black characters in movies, producers interpreted it as meaning that audiences were tired of black-oriented movies.

Another factor was from pressure groups (particularly the NAACP, the Urban League and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who joined forces to form the Coalition Against Blaxploitation) who were dissatisfied with the portrayal of black people in blaxploitation movies. They did have a point, as a number of the most prominent movies featured pimps and drug dealers as heroes, although this was not true across the board. But this controversy, combined with audience drop-off and the (mostly white) producers' failure of imagination, lead to the cycle being shut down pretty quickly. No new attempts to reach a black audience were made, except by a handful of (mostly black) independents, and the cliché of "the black character dies first" picked up where it left off. The next wave of black filmmaking didn't really take hold for over ten years, with actors like Eddie Murphy and directors like Spike Lee breaking into the studio system on their own terms.

All of which is, I think, much more interesting than the movie currently under discussion, but let's get back to that anyway.

After a fun animated opening credits sequence involving a bat chasing a woman (see the YouTube video at the bottom of this review), we cut to 1972 where two gay-stereotype interior decorators have bought the entire contents of Dracula's castle, including Mamuwalde's coffin. When they break it open,he promptly bites them and escapes. Before long he runs into Tina (McGee again) and realises that she is the reincarnation of Luva.

Blacula gets some

Mamuwalde divides his evenings between romancing Tina (who doesn't need much convincing about the reincarnation idea, and who is remarkably calm upon learning that her beau is a vampire) and biting more people. He wants to turn Tina into a vampire so the two of them can be together forever, but he only wants her to come willingly. As played by William Marshall, a very tall actor with a Shakespearean background, Mamuwalde is an old-school gentleman with impeccable manners, charm and style. Though he is slightly out of place in 1972 (as one guy keeps saying, "That is one straaange dude!") he seems to adapt to the modern world with no difficulty at all.

The modern world

He also has no problem with killing white cops who would shoot an unarmed black person in the back. This is really the only way in which he is a typical blaxploitation character.

Mamuwalde's nemesis is Dr. Gordon Thomas, a forensic scientist working with the police who was a friend of one of the interior decorators. Dr. Thomas is another atypical character for the genre - he's not a criminal and he's not precisely a cop. He's also highly educated, intuitive, and figures out that Mamuwalde is a vampire who's killing people very quickly. Unlike many vampire hunters in movies he doesn't run off at the mouth about his theories and get judged as a nutcase, but gathers actual incontrovertible evidence that he can present to his white cop buddy to gain the support of the police force.

Inevitably, things do not go well for Mamuwalde and Tina/Luva. After she is shot in the back by a white cop while unarmed and running away, Mamuwalde is compelled to bite her in order to save her life. Unfortunately she is swiftly staked by Dr. Thomas's white cop buddy. All the fight goes out of Mamuwalde at this point, as he considered her to be the only thing worth living for. He goes up onto the roof, exposing himself to the sun, and melts away to a skeleton in a nicely disgusting worm-eaten finale.

The death of Blacula

Blacula was the first blaxploitation movie to move away from the action genre. It takes a similar idea to the same year's Dracula AD 1972 in bringing the story of Dracula (if not the character, in this instance) into a contemporary setting. The Hammer movie was a lot more polished, but Blacula is more in touch with its time; where Hammer made a movie that was so self-consciously modernised that it instantly became a period piece, Blacula is just a movie that's typical of its milieu.

I'm spending a lot of time avoiding the point here: Blacula is a bad movie. It's one of those movies where you can see the blocking. The cinematography is borderline inept, and there's no atmosphere to the movie at all. The acting ranges from competent to dreadful, with Marshall the one notable exception. The music (by Gene Page) is far from the best that the genre has to offer, though the musical interludes in the club are fun. The script is terrible, as is the pacing. None of this stops the movie from being perfectly entertaining, especially if you're a fan of cheesy low-budget horror movies or blaxploitation.

Lead actress Vonetta McGee sadly died ten days ago, so I'm not pleased to report that she is the worst actor in the movie. She looks lovely, but she's completely wooden. William Marshall, on the other hand, is terrific as Mamuwalde. Marshall has a deep and very theatrical voice, and is completely convincing as an essentially good-hearted aristocrat who loathes what he has been turned into. He is commanding and dignified, though his dignity is slightly dented by the silly vampire makeup he wears in a few scenes.

This is a movie that the Coalition Against Blaxploitation would probably have had little problem with. None of the characters are pimps, drug dealers or criminals. The villain, though black, is portrayed with dignity and his villainy stems from being infected with vampirism by a white racist. The hero, also black, is a forensic scientist whose white cop buddy is deferential towards him. It also features strong anti-racist rhetoric, though mostly in the pre-credits sequence.

If you want to see a cheesy horror movie packed with early '70s decor, fashion and music, Blacula should fit the bill nicely. If you want a good movie, best to keep moving.

As for the Dracula factor, the appearance of Dracula himself is not inconsistent with the novel or with other portrayals. As the pre-credits sequence is set a hundred years before Bram Stoker's novel, the idea of Dracula as an internationally-known dignitary is not completely unreasonable. His treatment of Mamuwalde is reminiscent of the legend about Vlad Tepes (Dracula's main inspiration) where, when foreign ambassadors refused to remove their hats for cultural reasons, he ordered them nailed to their heads. And given the nationalistic fervour he has in the novel, it's not at all surprising that he's hideously racist.

Dracula: Prince of Racists

The theme of a vampire encountering a reincarnation of his lost love centuries later was later used in two Dracula movies I know of, the 1973 tv movie written by Richard Matheson and starring Jack Palance, and the 1992 movie directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Gary Oldman. I'm sure that it must have appeared earlier than in Blacula but nothing immediately comes to mind.

I'm planning to watch the sequel Scream, Blacula, Scream soon, but I'm unsure as to whether it actually counts as a Dracula movie. Given that Dracula himself appears in this first movie (but presumably not in the second) and that Blacula is a racist epithet bestowed on him rather than his name, I'm reluctant to view Mamuwalde as a Dracul substitute. He's far too distinct a character in his own right anyway. But what do other people think?

This is the trailer, showing most of the 'best' scenes:

This is the fun opening credits sequence, featuring Gene Page's theme music:



  1. Unsurprisingly, I like this and Scream Blacula Scream. Certainly no Rudi Ray Moore, but fun none-the-less. Having said that, even I, may, if pushed, agree that SBScream may not fall in the Dracula genre.

  2. I'd say the 'reincarnated love interest' concept probably started with 'The Mummy', but as far as vampires go, it seems to have first been used in the 'Dark Shadows' series, where Maggie was the reincarnation of the vampire Barnabas' lost love, Josette. In these movies and shows,, the reincarnated character is invariably portrayed by the same actress! Odd, that.

  3. Thanks Stephen - I hadn't yet seen any of Dark Shadows when I wrote this, but I should have remembered The Mummy!