WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS!
Dracula is a timeless character that has been portrayed in all manner of ways in print and celluloid. He has been everything from a hero, to a villain, to a vicious apocalyptic threat, to a forlorn being, cursed to walk the Earth forever alone. He has battled Van Helsing, Abbott & Costello, the Frankenstein Monster, a family of kung-fu brothers, and even a group of scrappy pre-teens. Dracula has done it all!
But then, in 1972, during the height of the Blaxploitation genre, novice screenwriters Joan Torres and Raymond Koernig collaborated on an altogether different spin on the Dracula mythos, resulting in BLACULA! While you may automatically assume that this film is a spoof (like I initially did), it isn’t. Surprisingly, it is a straight-forward horror film!
BLACULA begins in Transylvania in the year 1780. Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) has arrived at Castle Dracula with his wife, on a diplomatic mission to end the slave trade in Africa. At first Count Dracula is a polite host, but soon reveals himself to be a pro-slavery advocate, much to the chagrin of the proud African dignitary. The Count gets mouthy with Mamuwalde, and soon a fight breaks out. Mamuwalde is subdued, bitten on the neck, rechristened as Blacula, then locked away in a coffin to starve for all eternity.
Two hundred or so years later, two homosexual antique dealers purchase numerous artifacts from Castle Dracula, including a certain coffin. Once back in Los Angeles, they open it up discover a very angry, and hungry, vampire within. Thus begins Blacula’s reign of terror in L.A., where he begins creating a small army of the undead, whilst trying to woo a gal named Tina Williams (Vonetta McGee). Tina looks just like Mamuwalde’s wife Luva and he believes her to be the reincarnation of his long lost beloved.
However, Mamuwalde’s shenanigans have not gone unnoticed, as Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) has been studying the victims of Blacula’s nocturnal feeding habits. Though he is a man of science, Dr. Thomas theorizes that a vampire may be loose in Los Angeles, and begins doing some digging (both literal and figurative) before enlisting the aid of the L.A.P.D.
As the film rushes to its conclusion, Mamuwalde is trapped in the bowels of a water treatment plant, surrounded by police officers. During his battle with them, Tina is mortally wounded by a stray bullet. Mamuwalde turns her into a vampire, but its all in vain because she is soon slain permanently by Gordon’s sidekick, Lt. Jack Peters (Gordon Pinsent).
Losing the love of his life a second time proves to be Mamuwalde’s undoing. He makes a dignified exit from his would-be sanctuary, and is destroyed by the rays of the sun, never to return… until the following year, with the release of SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM.
BLACULA is a surprisingly good film considering its subject matter (and title). While it is a bit campy at times, BLACULA plays everything straight, and works because leading man William Marshall is a fantastic actor. With his imposing physique, and deep voice, the eventual “King of Cartoons” (from the second season of PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE!) commands your attention in every scene he’s in.
Also good is veteran actor Charles Macauley, who portrays Dracula. He chews the scenery a bit, but reigns himself in enough to give a menacing, yet oddly polite performance as the insidious Count. It’s truly a shame that he has so little screen time in this production. It would have been cool to see both he and “Blacula” come to blows, reigniting their centuries-old feud in “present day” Los Angeles.
Speaking of Dracula, he had a stalwart nemesis in the form of Abraham Van Helsing, so it is only fitting that Drac’s vamp from another tramp has a foe of his own. (Can you dig it?) In steps Dr. Gordon Thomas, played by Thalmus Rasulala (best known to me as “General Afir” in MOM & DAD SAVE THE WORLD). Dr. Gordon (who bears a strong resemblance to Michael Jai White’s “Black Dynamite”) is intelligent, rational, respected, and works closely with a mostly white police force.
Unlike many other characters in Blaxploitation cinema who were fighting against the establishment, Dr. Gordon works with “The Man” in order to solve the baffling vampiric crimes. While a character like this is the norm in today’s cinema, this must have been rather unexpected, perhaps even a refreshing change of pace, back in 1972.
BLACULA is a solid film that successfully blends the horror and Blaxploitation genres. The script is a little weak, but the strong performances definitely help raise the bar. In the end, I wanted more Dracula, and also would have appreciated some “fish out of water” moments in the film. (I’m a sucker for those!) When Mamuwalde awakens in modern Los Angeles, he doesn’t take any time to survey his surroundings in wonder.
Electric lights, cars, the abolition of slavery… nothing seems to shock or astound him once he wanders out into the night after killing his first two victims. When someone snaps a photo of him, Mamuwalde doesn’t gawk at this modern marvel, especially since he was locked up about fifty years before the first photograph was ever taken. Instead he acts annoyed and later bumps off the photographer, somehow knowing that he would be invisible in the developed pictures.
All that aside, I definitely give BLACULA my recommendation. It’s a little rough around the edges, but it’s worth watching for William Marshall’s performance alone. If you’re feeling the urge to watch a Blaxploitation film, or just a vampire movie with something different to offer up, then give this one a look! I hereby bestow the film debut of “Dracula’s soul brotha” with a rating of: