Reassessing the blaxploitation horror classics of the 1970s.
The Blacula films have always stirred mixed emotions in me. As a kid, the very idea of these movies intrigued me, thanks to striking stills and write-ups in horror movie books, and as an adult, I really wanted the films to be great, given that they combined two genres that I loved – horror and blaxploitation. Yet my first viewings of the films left me rather disappointed. The movies failed to live up to the expectations that I had, and I was subsequently rather dismissive of the pair. Catching them again now, I can appreciate their qualities more, but I still think they are a mixed bag. These are, after all, films with a catchpenny title character and gimmick, and yet they seem to struggle to match the excesses of other blaxploitation cinema of the era – this is strictly PG-rated horror (we’re talking early Seventies American PG, admittedly) and both films seem overly restrained when you compare them to anything from Superfly to Coffy. And both – the first in particular – suffer badly from pacing issues, lacking in incident and not seeming to really know what to do with the lead character.
And yet both films are a lot more serious that you would expect from a film called Blacula. If the title screams trashy exploitation, the actual films are more thoughtful. Much of this is down to William Marshall, who brings the titular character rather more gravitas than you would’ve thought possible. ‘Dignity’ is the word most often used to describe the properties of his performance, which is a word loaded with racial suggestion perhaps, but is also accurate. His Blacula is dignified. This is a character than could – and indeed should – have been cheesy, comedic, stereotyped. Marshall, much to his credit, works hard to ensure that isn’t the case. His vampire is at once tortured, savage and romantic, able to move from urbane to monstrous in a moment, and he is one of the few vampire figures of the era to be a somewhat sympathetic character, as much victim as villain. It’s possible that a trashier Blacula would’ve made the films into more the sort of thing that the titles suggest, but it’s in large part down to Marshall that they remain as well-remembered as they are.
The first film starts impressively, with Prince Mamuwalde (Marshall) visiting Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay) in order to enlist his support in stopping the slave trade. Clearly, he hasn’t done his research very well if he thinks Dracula is some sort of humanitarian, and the pair quickly disagree. Dracula vampirises Mamuwalde and has him locked in a coffin, destined to live out eternity suffering from an unquenchable lust for blood. This is a striking start. Dracula, for no reason other than it looking incredibly cool (and maybe an unintentional make-up reaction with the actor’s eye), has a bloody tear run down his cheek as he curses the black prince with his own name – “you shall be Blacula!”. It’s a scene that should be tacky, but the two actors bring a seriousness to it.
Blacula is then released in ‘the present day’ by a pair of screamingly camp interior decorators who have bought the contents of Castle Dracula, and is soon leaving victims scattered across Los Angeles. But when he encounters Tina (Vonetta McGee), he is struck by her resemblance to his wife Luva, and he begins to romance her. Meanwhile, her friend Dr Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) is reaching the conclusion that the series of strange deaths taking place are the work of a vampire – and that the vampire is Mamuwalde (in classic horror movie style, he reaches these conclusions with little evidence other than hunches). Will Mamuwalde persuade Tina to join him amongst the undead before the cops close in?
Blacula suffers from the problems faced by Hammer with some of their Dracula films – namely, how to find enough for their monster to actually do. Marshall gets to monster out on a few occasions (and the film has him transform into something more animalistic looking, with facial hair suddenly sprouting, as he becomes Blacula) but all too often is left to mope around looking lost. The attempts to make him both scary and violent and tragic and tortured result in a rather schizophrenic feel to the film, and it’s hard to decide if we should be rooting for him as a hero or fearing him as a villain. But the film is smoothly handled by director William Crain, has interesting characters and manages to balance straight-faced drama and comedic moments. The whole ‘reincarnated lover’ angle is a cliché now of course – and increasingly seems part of the Dracula movie narrative – yet it was a new idea here. And it leads to one of the oddest endings of any vampire film, where Mamuwalde, his newly vampirised love interest having been staked, loses the will to live and wanders out into the sunlight to commit suicide. As horror movie endings go, it’s a little weak – an anti-climax, almost. But it’s certainly unusual, and the disintegration scene is impressively icky.
Blacula was back a year later in the rather better Scream Blacula Scream. This film improves on its predecessor in several ways. Director Bob Kelljan had previously transplanted a Dracula-like figure into modern-day America with Count Yorga, Vampire and its sequel, and he brings some of the same style to this film – a slow-motion attack is very Yorga in feel, and there’s more overt horror in this film. It also has Pam Grier, who is an asset to any film and here provides a more interesting female lead. Voodoo cult priestess Lisa Fortier might not have the kick-ass attitude of most Grier characters, but at least she’s given more to do than simply be love interest or victim. And the voodoo theme not only makes the story more intriguing but also ties it to Mamuwalde’s African roots.
In this story, Blacula is resurrected by Willis (Richard Lawson), a bitter cult member who has failed in his bid for power and wants revenge. What he gets is vampirised by a Mamuwalde who no longer seems as tortured by the loss of his great love – certainly, all thoughts of suicide seem to have left him, and he’s soon collected an entire band of vampire followers. Why, of course, is never made quite clear. Lisa’s boyfriend Justin (Don Mitchell) is an ex-cop who starts putting the pieces together, even as Mamuwalde convinces her to use her voodoo powers to rid him of his curse.
This is an interesting twist and allows some character development that we rarely see in Dracula films. Mamuwalde is evil, yes – but not through choice. He has no control over his actions, and in lucid moments wants to be released from the curse of vampirism. It’s a nice moment of ambiguity – is he sympathetic or not? And is he worse than the muggers, dealers and pimps he encounters and attacks who are, as he says, worse than slavers because they enslave themselves and their own people? The idea of Blacula as some sort of moral avenging angel might have been an interesting one to explore, but the film doesn’t really it very far.
Like Blacula, the sequel is better than it should be in many ways, and is certainly better paced than its predecessor. It still feels a little plodding and restrained, but on the whole it is a lot more fun, and Marshall seems entirely comfortable in the role.
So while neither of these films could seriously be called great, both are entertaining examples of early Seventies horror cinema (and it’s the horror genre that they both feel a part of now, rather than blaxploitation cinema). They are certainly better films than they really should be, and the title character is one who I wish we’d seen a little more of.