Drive-In Dust Offs: BLACULA

2016/01/16 19:13:24 +00:00 | Scott Drebit


Blaxploitation films burst onto the scene in 1971 with the huge success of Gordon Park’s Shaft. By 1972, audiences were clamoring for more, and filmmakers and studios were keen to jump on the bandwagon. While most of the majors were focusing on the Shaft formula of hot chicks and cool Dicks, American International Pictures saw a void that no one had filled yet: the black horror film. And so, with as little money as they usually invested, they sent forth into the world Blacula (1972), and wouldn’t you know it? Audiences loved it.

Just don’t call it Blaxploitation—because it isn’t. Blacula, surprisingly, showcases little of the developing tropes already established by Shaft. There is no "jive" talk, no gratuitous nudity or overwhelming violence. And I say "surprisingly", because it would have been so easy (not to mention profitable) to follow the formula set in motion by Shaft, Superfly, etc. Instead, the filmmakers decided to make a straightforward horror film set in a black community of Los Angeles, with a very talented cast to prop up, at best, an uneven screenplay and mostly pedestrian direction. Blacula works because a) it has a lot of great individual moments, b) strong, earnest performances by a solid troupe, and c) it paved the way for future black filmmakers with a thirst for horror.

Our film opens on a stormy night (of course) in Transylvania circa 1780 at the manor of one Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay—Airport ’77). Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall—Abby) and his wife, Luva (Vonetta McGee—Repo Man), are on a mission from Africa to seek support in eradicating the European slave trade. Dracula, who turns out to be quite racist, isn’t on board, and curses Mamuwalde with vampirism before locking him in a coffin in his basement. Oh, and for kicks, he locks Princess Luva in the basement too, so Mamuwalde can hear his wife die. And to really show what a prick Dracula is, the filmmakers have him dub Mamuwalde with the name "Blacula."

We flash forward to Dracula’s castle, circa 1972, where two antiques dealers from Los Angeles are purchasing not only the castle, but all the contents for their business back home. And if I told you that since this was the early ’70s, the antiques dealers were a gay couple, would you believe me? And if I told you they were painted in the broadest strokes by the screenwriters (not to mention referred to by the "F word" later on in the film), would you believe that too? Our dealers haul the artifacts back to L.A., including Mamuwalde’s coffin. Naturally, they’re victims one and two, as Mamuwalde is freed from his tomb and carouses the streets of L.A.

He stops by a local nightclub where he meets Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala—New Jack City), his wife, Michelle (Denise Nicholas—Capricorn One), and her sister, Tina (McGee again), who of course is the spitting image of his long deceased wife. As the body count rises, Dr. Thomas grows more suspicious of Mamuwalde, especially his intentions towards his sister-in-law. Will Mamuwalde succeed in turning Tina into his undead bride, or will he be sent back to the earth forever?

Blacula should be given credit for attempting a modern update to the hoary old Dracula tale. It’s a shame, then, that it doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity to comment on the disparities between the old world and the new, but rather has Mamuwalde focus on his intense desire to claim Tina as his bride. And I understand, as the budget was probably not willing and the screenwriters (Joan Torres and Raymond Koenig) were perhaps unequipped to provide the necessary contrast and pathos.

This is where William Marshall comes in. Upon seeing the script, Marshall thought it was missing an opportunity to provide Mamuwalde with dignity and strength. Marshall changed the character from a regular citizen of L.A. to the regal Prince, on a mission to stop slavery. He wrote the opening scene, and without that tragedy set in motion, the film would lose its momentum. This gives him a gravitas, nobility, and ultimately a sadness that buoys the screenplay to be about something.

This was important to Marshall. Before this (and after), he was regarded as one of the greatest Shakespearean actors to walk the boards. Yes, he wanted to headline, but most definitely on his terms. His Mamuwalde is alternately charming and terrifying, with a basso profundo voice as old and seductive as time itself. He also wanted to ensure that, this being a flagship black horror film, it came off as professional as possible, which wasn’t always an easy proposition when dealing with AIP.

However, with a fine cast by his side (I almost forgot to mention Dr. Thomas’ police cohort, played by Away From Her’s Gordon Pinsent), a few effective scares staged well by otherwise lackluster TV director William Crain, and an overall sense of spooky fun, Blacula provides the viewer with a fast-paced good time at the Drive-In.

Even more important than what it provided is what it inspired: a chance for people of color in the industry to make their own horror films. And in return, it showed that black boy or girl reading Famous Monsters in their bedroom that one day they could make their own horror film too. That’s a cause that Mamuwalde himself would get behind.

Blacula is available on Blu-ray as a Scream Factory Double Feature with its sequel, Scream, Blacula, Scream.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: STAGE FRIGHT
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.