Blacula (1972, William Crain)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: After a prologue at Castle Dracula in 1780, we cut to the modern day (ie, the early 1970s). There’s a scene in Transylvania, then the bulk of the film takes place in Los Angeles.

Faithful to the novel? No, but Count Dracula appears in the prologue (played by Charles Macaulay). He’s entertaining two dignitaries from Africa, but offends them by defending the slave trade. Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) gets annoyed so Dracula responds by turning him into a vampire (“You shall be… Blacula!”) and locking him up in a coffin… Two centuries later, American interior decorators called Bobby and Billy (Ted Harris and Rick Metzler) buy up the contents of the now abandoned Castle Dracula and take the coffin to LA, where Mamuwalde awakens. Interestingly, the interior decorators have heard of Dracula and have “seen all his movies”. After Mamuwalde kills Bobby, a mourner called Tina (Vonetta Williams) just happens to be a dead ringer for the vampire’s long-dead wife. This plot device is now a standard part of the Dracula mythology, but this movie is one of its earliest appearances – maybe the earliest. Mamuwalde kills again and woos Tina. Her friend Jack (Thalmus Rasulala), meanwhile, is a cop who investigates the deaths.

Best performance: The 6’4” William Marshall was a well-respected actor, known for both Shakespeare and Star Trek (he’s in an 1968 episode called The Ultimate Computer). He gives Mamuwalde dignity and strength, and the character is almost sympathetic. Aware of the racial significance – rather shockingly, Mamuwalde is cinema’s first ever black vampire – Marshall insisted on the character’s backstory being changed from a tourist to an African nobleman.

Best bit: Singer Ketty Lester has a fun cameo as a feisty cab driver who is turned by Mamuwalde (“You’re the only imbecile on this street… boy!”), but the vampire’s attack on a woman in a darkroom has good shock value.

Review: This film has a low budget and, in some areas, a low ambition. The direction is often more like TV than a vampire movie. A plot point concerning a minor character with mirrored sunglasses, for example, is lost because of poor storytelling. And the cast is quite variable. But the movie has its charms. There’s a hip, jazzy score by Gene Page, while scenes at a nightclub allow full-length performances by The Hues Corporation (of Rock The Boat fame). The story is also played straight, even if the vampire make-up can be unintentionally funny… Blacula was part of a wave of films in the 1970s known as the blaxploitation genre: a subset of movie featuring largely black casts, urban settings and modern music. And it doesn’t shy away from cultural issues. Count Dracula is a pointedly racist character, but Jack is a respected policeman (and none of the white characters has an issue with that). Also Bobby and Billy are gay and while there is the odd homophobic insult, the film generally presents them as decent, sympathetic characters. There’s also an interesting climax to the story. Having seen Tina killed by a stray bullet, Mamuwalde actually commits suicide by walking into the sunlight… An entertaining if flawed 90 minutes.

Six Bloody Marys out of 10

Next time: Scream Blacula Scream

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