Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Blacula (1972)

Title: Blacula (1972)

Director:  William Crain

Cast: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Thalmus Rasulala

Blaxploitation films started as a genre with one of two films, depending on whom you ask, the first blaxploitation film was either Melvin Van Peeble’s Sweet Sweetback’s Bad Ass Song (1971) or Gordon Park’s Shaft (1971). Some don’t consider Sweet Sweetback’s Bad Ass Song an exploitation film, so they give the title of first blaxploitation film to Shaft. Point is that after the release of these two films many more blaxploitation films followed, most of them focused on drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes or tough cops, but not one of them was a horror film; until Blacula (1972) came along that is! After the success of Blacula, more blaxploitation horror films followed. For example we got Abby (1974), Ganja and Hess (1973), Blackenstein (1973) and Dr. Black and Mr. White (1976). So Blacula is an extremely important film in the sense that it’s the first African American Blaxploitation horror film; and the first time we ever saw an African American vampire! 

In Blacula we meet Mamuwalde, an African prince who has come all the way from Africa to visit Count Dracula in his castle; apparently Mamuwalde doesn’t know that Dracula is the king of all bloodsucking vampires! But anyways, Mamuwalde being an African prince has a political agenda in mind. He’s come to get Dracula to sign a treaty that would end slavery, an arrangement that does not sit well with Dracula at all! Instead Dracula decides to curse Mamuwalde by turning him into a vampire and christening him ‘Blacula’! Then Dracula has Mamuwalde locked up up in a coffin, leaving him there indeterminately. Mamuwalde becomes a tortured soul for many years because he has not only become a vampire, but since he is locked inside of a coffin, he can’t satiate his vampire blood lust! He can’t feed! So anyway, fast forward 200 years and an unsuspecting gay couple opens Mamuwalde’s coffin out of curiosity  and out comes Blacula into the modern world! With a hunger he hasn’t been able to satiate in 200 years! So of course, he first feeds on the two gay dudes! After that, Blacula decides to walk the streets of the modern world and it is during this walk that he stumbles upon a woman who resembles his late wife, so then it becomes his mission in life to make this woman fall in love with him. Will Mamuwalde ever find love again?

"You shall be known as Blacula!"

In many ways, Blacula plays out like your basic Dracula adaptation, going step by step through the same basic structure of a Dracula film, only difference is that Blacula is set in modern times and Dracula is black this time around. On Blacula, Mamuwalde finds the re-incarnation of his long lost love, which comes in the form of a young woman named Tina, a young lady that Blacula begins to court; so like many vampire films, Blacula is essentially a love story about a vampire looking for someone to accompany him through eternity. But where Blacula takes a left turn is when they set him in the modern world, which means placing Blacula in Los Angeles, circa the early 1970’s, which is really the funniest aspect of the film for me. Actually, when we really get down to it, this film plays out a bit like Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows (2010), because it is the same basic idea of having a vampire locked up inside a coffin many years and then releasing him into the modern world. But in my opinion, Blacula didn’t really exploit this whole idea of thrusting a character from ancient times into modern times; it really didn’t play with that ‘fish out of water’ angle that Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows played with so well. On this one, Blacula stumbles upon the modern world and fits right in; he doesn’t seemed amazed at all by the ‘modern world’ of the 70’s. I mean, to him cars should be magic! But no, on this film Blacula walks into a nightclub and asks for a ‘Bloody Mary’ as if he’d done it ten thousand times before.

In that sense, the film has a couple of plot holes in it. Not to mention that Blacula walks around the city streets wearing a freaking cape! What I thought was hilarious about this movie was how so much of it revolves around Blacula visiting this nightclub to meet up with Tina and have a couple of drinks. That’s right my friends, on this film you’ll see Mamuwalde visiting a nightclub, talking to babes, having a couple of drinks, socializing and listening to soul bands playing funky music all night long. This is something that happens a lot in blaxploitation films, I remember a similar scene in Super Fly (1972), where a funky band plays in the background and takes a few minutes of screen time to show what they are made of. This is all cool in my book if you ask me, very funky, very 70’s, very black and it’s what blaxploitation cinema is all about. I don’t know if they realized they were making a funny movie or not, I think Blacula is unintentionally funny and simply a product of crazy ass 70’s blaxploitation scene, but I gotta tell ya, I love it just like it is. There’s something really funny about Dracula being in a nightclub listening to a funky soul band, which by the way was a real life soul band known as ‘The Hues Corporation’. Some might find that it takes away from the horror element of the film, but I say it’s what makes Blacula unique amongst other Dracula films.

There’s an underlying social message within the film because Mamuwalde is turned into a vampire by a racist, cold blooded, unforgiving Dracula, a white man who wants to hear nothing about abolishing slavery. On this film Mamuwalde is cursed by the white man! Anyone, be they black or white can enjoy these films, but they were primarily made with black audiences in mind. American International Pictures promoted it by pushing the slavery angle, so this is probably the reason why in some scenes white characters are portrayed as dumb and incompetent, or play second banana to the black characters. In fact, one of the main characters is a black doctor called Gordon Smith who is in charge of the investigation; he is portrayed as smarter than any cop in the film, with the white cop always two steps behind. So what we have with Blacula is a film that has strong black leads, which was something rarely seen in those days in cinema, with the exception of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), strong black leads where unheard of. The interesting thing is that sometimes Blacula doesnt feel like a blaxsploitation film at all. For example, director William Crane didn’t use an all black cast, his cast was actually multiracial, and had the black man working alongside the white man in unison, which I think is a very positive thing about the film, it doesn’t do the stereotypical thing of always portraying the white man as “evil”.  

Blacula stands as a bonafide cult classic, mainly because it was the first film in which we see a black vampire and because it was the first blaxploitation horror film ; something that up to that point hadn’t been done before. Eddie Murphy attempted a similar thing when he played ‘Maximillian’ in Wes Craven’s Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), an underrated vampire flick if you ask me and a film that holds many similarities with Blacula. I’m sure that Eddie Murphy and Wes Craven had Blacula in mind when they made their film, they probably wanted to ‘up the ante’ with their film. Blacula does suffer a little bit from a low budget aesthetic, I mean, the sound is terrible in certain moments and so is the lighting, but I still found myself enjoying the film. I felt a certain type of empathy for Mamuwalde. True Mamuwalde is a vampire, a killer, but same as many vampire films, you feel a certain kind of empathy for the character. He seems to be truly in love with Tina, and Tina with him, yet there’s always that conflict of “but he is a cold blooded killer!” You’ll find yourself rooting for Blacula anyways which is something kind of interesting about the film. So my friends, Blacula is a blaxploitation classic, it got the ball rolling in terms of horror blaxploitation films and has an important African American director behind it in William Crain, one of the first black directors who worked on television, and the guy who made the first blaxploitation horror film with Blacula, which by the way made a lot of cash for American International Pictures. In fact, Blacula was so successful that it spawned a sequel entitled Scream Blacula Scream (1973), a film I will be reviewing soon. Make it a point to check out this excellent, historically important slice of 70’s horror blaxploitation, you’re sure to have some fun with it.

Rating: 3 out of 5

In some parts of the world, the film was marketed as "Black Dracula"


jimmie t. murakami said...

Fred Williamson has always been extremely offended by the word "blaxploitation".

Franco Macabro said...

Funny thing for a guy who appeared on a film called Boss Nigger (1974) with the tag line "White Mans Town...Black Man's Law!"

It's just a term, I don't think it's offensive. It simply explains what these films did...exploit something, in this case, they exploited the market for black audiences. It gave black audiences and anyone else who ventured to see them a lot of "blackness"...with a low budget, sometimes even low moral and a b-movie sensibility, to mention just some of the many things that characterize an exploitation film. Blaxploitation films exploited the black culture, just like sexploitation films exploit sex.

robotGEEK said...

Gotta check this one out for "Bad Movie Night". Thanks for the recommendation, and great job man!

venoms5 said...

Great review, Fran. BLACULA is a favorite of mine. The soundtrack is excellent, too. There are so many good things in this movie, although it's a product of its time.

Regarding Blacula going to the club, I think he was just going there to see the lady who looked like his dead wife Luva; and of course to find a victim or two. William Marshall was amazing here and in the sequel. A shame they didn't do a third film.


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