Review: Blacula (1972)

Director: William Crain

Starring: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Denise Nicholas

Release Date: 25th August 1972 (US)

Many films come to us with the weight of history behind them; Blacula comes with twice the weight, and to use the iconography of vampirism, this makes for a greater cross to bear. The first horror film of the early 1970s ‘blaxploitation’ wave, Blacula must contend with both the (often shameful) treatment of blacks in American cinema, as well as the history of the vampire in Western culture, and its place in contemporary society. This gives us the problem of examining two sets of reference points when it comes to a critical analysis of a film which came about through a dual set of historical circumstances. Most people with a serious interest in film possess a working knowledge of Dracula and vampires in terms of Vlad the Impaler, Bram Stoker and Nosferatu, but as Blacula is the first blaxploitation film we have looked at here, it’s worth a brief look at what we mean by the term.

Despite what the name suggests, blaxploitation isn’t the exploitation of black actors or issues by white film-makers for the amusement of white audiences. “In fact,” notes William Higham of Bizarre magazine, “blaxploitation were perhaps the first films with black actors in not to do that.” Blaxploitation is more the exploitation of what was the zeitgeist, Black Pride, race riots, the Black Panthers, and the development of a distinctive visual black culture. Seen in this way, blaxploitation films are as valid a movement as the alien invasion films of the 1950s, inspired by the reds-under-the-bed scare, or the spy films of the following decade, motivated by the machinations of the cold war.

Before we get too carried away with what looks like Hollywood developing a social conscience, we should recall the primary motivation in exploiting such trends was financial, making a fast buck out of a new audience. Aside from anything else, blaxploitation films were usually made by small independent companies, rather than the major studios, just as concerned with keeping under budget as making political points. As British broadcaster and one-time presenter of the BBC’s Film review show, Jonathan Ross, says, “within the studios, there were producers and directors working in the low-budget end of the market who were adept at spotting trends. The growth of the civil rights movement in the 60s and 70s was to provide them with an ideal new tag on which to hang their exploitative fare.”

Films made with a specific color of audience in mind were not unique to the 1970s. Back in 1937, jazz musician Herb Jeffries (who passed away only last year at the age of 100) both funded and starred in Harlem on the Prairie, talking cinema’s first all-black Western, featuring Jeffries as Bob Blake, ‘the Bronze Buckaroo,’ who sang and kept order along the wild frontier while riding his trusty horse Stardusk. The first of five such Westerns with Jeffries, Harlem on the Prairie gave black audiences their own hero to cheer, but only from cinemas which, like so much of America in those days, were subject to strict segregation laws, especially in the South. To a white audience of the 1930s, more used to stereotyped black performers such as Stepin Fetchit and Sleep’n Eat, or white ‘comic’ acts sporting blackface as with The Two Black Crows, an all-black Western would have provided no more than a novelty on a par with the infamous ‘dwarf’ Western, The Terror of Tiny Town (1938).

By the time of Blacula‘s release in 1972 however, black cinema had returned with a vengeance. The best known remain classics like Shaft (1971), Superfly (1972) and Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song (1970), while genre films were retooled for a new audience with gangster epics such as Black Caesar (1972) and Godfather of Harlem (1972). Women were well represented, notably in the form of Pam Grier, star of prison movie The Big Doll House (1971) and ‘revenge’ film Coffy (1972); they also had an action hero, Cleopatra Jones (1973), played by 6″ 2′ Tamara Dobson. Inevitably there came black horror films, and leading the charge was Blacula, made by that great home of exploitation films, American International Pictures.

For the all-important title role, the makers made an excellent choice in hiring respected classical actor William Marshall, a tall, cultured and intelligent man renowned for his Othello, among other great roles upon the stage and Broadway (Marshall possessed a deep bass voice to match his 6″ 5 frame). Star Trek fans will recall Marshall as Dr Daystrom in the 1966 episode ‘The Ultimate Computer,’ and such is the cult nature of fantasy TV and film that, along with his role as Blacula, these remain Marshall’s two most fondly remembered performances in an illustrious career. Marshall returned to the blaxploitation horror genre in 1974 with Abby, AIP’s ‘take’ on the hugely successful The Exorcist (1973).

Marshall dominates from the start, in what is a competently performed film throughout. The year is 1780, and the African prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) and his wife Luva (Vonetta McGee) are visiting a member of East European aristocracy in the hope of enlisting their host’s statesmanship to “bring my nation’s culture into the community of nations.” Over dinner, Mamuwalde presents the aristo with a list of his nation’s objectives, starting with the abolition of slavery. Progressive stuff, but unfortunately for Mamuwalde and Luva, several factors work against their hopes: firstly, this part of Europe is known as Transylvania and the dignitary in question is Count Dracula; secondly, Count Dracula is a complete dick (as I explore in my screenplay Dickula, for some reason currently stuck in development hell); thirdly, it’s 1780 and no-one wearing a powdered wig gives a vampire bat’s behind about the liberation of slaves.

Dracula (Charles Macaulay) dismisses such notions, but does his bit for equality by wishing to add the “delicious” Luva to the household staff, wink wink. “You behave like some animal,” says Mamulwalde. “Let us not forget, it is you who comes from the jungle,” replies Dracula, taking the ‘o’ out of ‘Count.’ Offended, Mamulwalde and Luva try to leave, but Dracula commands his guards to restrain Mamulwalde while female vampires carry Luva away. Subjecting Mamuwalde to the dreaded neck bite, the Count informs the prince he’s now condemned to an eternal “living hell..a wild, gnawing, hunger for human blood…I curse you with my name. You shall be Blacula!” showing the Count likes a pun just like the rest of us.

Mamuwalde is locked into a coffin and sealed into a secret room, with Luva thrown in also, to comfort her husband with her screams of torment as she slowly starves to death. Despite this misery, the opening titles are a chirpy affair, reminding one of Terry Gilliam’s various James Bond-esque spoof credits for Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

We’re now In the present day of 1972, and Blacula demonstrates its subversive qualities by presenting us with a mixed race gay couple, black Bobby McCoy (Ted Harris, who sports the best afro in the film) and white Billy Schaeffer (Rick Metzler). The couple are scouting out the abandoned Castle Dracula for antiques to take back to Los Angeles, and scoff when the estate agent (Eric Brotherson) insists “Dracula was terribly real.” “Yeah, I know,” snipes Billy, “I’ve seen all his films,” raising the idea that in the world of this movie, Dracula was both real and the subject of horror films (come to think of it, British studio Hammer made Dracula 1972AD, so maybe that’s a documentary about the old bloodsucker moving to England).

The antiques the couple take back to LA include Mamuwalde’s coffin, as Bobby thinks this would make a nice coffee table in the lounge. Quite an aesthetic leap for a man who dresses like a synesthesiac’s impression of the Tower of Babel; a goth this cat is not. Bobby breaks the locks on the coffin, then assists Billy who’s cut himself on his shirt collar. Mamuwalde emerges from his coffin…and you can guess what this means for Bobby and Billy. Mamuwalde, after his first snacks for 192 years, then gets cape, wears cape – he’s fly!

Three mourners arrive to view Bobby’s body at the chapel of rest: police pathologist Dr Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala, who resembles a skinnier version of Richard Roundtree’s John Shaft), his girlfriend and lab assistant Michelle (Denise Nicholas) and her sister Tina (McGee, in a dual role). Out of professional interest, Dr Thomas examines Bobby’s neck wound, supposedly a deep rat bite cosmetically covered up by the obsequious mortician, but Dr Thomas notices the body’s lack of blood. Asking if Billy’s body is available for view, Dr Thomas is told no, as “we don’t get many whites in here”; social segregation exists even in death, it seems. Dashing off, Dr Thomas ignores the mortician’s offer of help. On his own, the mortician muses “that’s the rudest n***** I’ve ever seen.” Well, ‘reclaim the word’ and all that, I guess.

Tina and Michelle go their separate ways, only for Tina to bump into Mamuwalde, who recognizes her as his late wife, Luva. Tina is soon trying to outrun her stalker – not easy in purple high heels. Pursuing the girl, Mamuwalde is hit by a taxicab driven by fast-talking Juanita Jones (Kitty Lester), who gives the prince quite the tongue-lashing. A fun, lively character, it’s a shame Mamuwalde responds to the tongue-lashing with a neck-biting, but Lester makes the most of every second she’s on screen.

The police department, and with the camera apparently dropped onto the floor for the scene-setting shot, we return to a normal view as Dr Thomas visits mortuary assistant Sam (Elisha Cook, perhaps the most familiar face in Blacula) to examine Juanita’s body. Sam discourses in an ill-judged manner on Juanita’s chosen career: “a fine job for a woman, running a cab. If you ask me, she’s looking for something. Know what I mean?” Dr Thomas asks Sam to fetch him a coffee before he gives him a left hook to match the hook on Sam’s right hand. Inspecting Juanita’s neck, Dr Thomas chuckles in way not unlike that other great black hero of medicine, Dr Hibbert from The Simpsons, as he realizes the strange connection between the deaths.

Dr Thomas discusses the case with Lt Jack Peters (a tense, hardbitten performance from Gordon Pinsent) in a scene which comes closest in Blacula to dealing with the racial tensions in America at the time. Lt Peters tells Dr Thomas the department has lost the report on Billy and Bobby’s murders. “They always lose the report on black victims,” notes Dr Thomas. “You’re getting paranoid,” replies the white detective, who muses “there’s been a lot of Panther activity lately.” Dr Thomas is unconvinced to say the least: “two faggot interior decorators and a lady cabbie, panthers?” Annoyed, the doctor demands Peters locates the missing reports that night.

Dr Thomas spends the night at his favorite nightclub, celebrating Michelle’s birthday with Tina; his rollneck sweater, though surely far too warm for a night of clubbing, does at least provide protection against neck-bites. A horrific Godspell-style band in loose blue tops and an unhealthy degree of enthusiasm are frenetically belting out a song called ‘There He Is Again,’ when who should show up but Mamuwalde, returning the handbag Tina dropped in her panic the previous night. It says something that Mamuwalde doesn’t look out of place in the club; in fact, he’s the most normal-looking person present, though the handbag does spoil the ensemble somewhat. Joining Tina’s party, Mamuwalde orders champagne and explains he followed Tina only because she resembled his late wife.

Skillet (Jita Cumbuka), the club owner, brings the birthday girl cake as Nancy (Emily Yancy), one of the waitresses, (Playboy bunnies more like, given their skimpy attire), takes pictures of the group with a camera that last saw service taking jacket pictures of Mark Twain. The flash photography disturbs Mamuwalde, who leaves the club, but not before Tina promises to meet him again. “That is one strange dude,” comments Skillet. “Who is he?” “One strange dude,” replies Dr Thomas.

Nancy develops the pictures in her apartment’s darkroom. Noticing a lot of nothing on the photographs instead of “that big dude with a cape,” the girl wonders aloud where he is, not a question you should ever ask in a horror film. Suffice to say, Nancy won’t be spending the tips she earned this evening, though at least she’s spared Skillet’s jokes and the shrieks of the damned in Hell can’t be any worse than the club band. Undead Nancy then sticks it to The Man by staggering into the street and killing a cop who comes to her rescue by drinking his blood.

The next day, with still no report, Dr Thomas requests Lt Peters’ permission to dig up Billy’s body. Permission denied, so Dr Thomas kisses Michelle into agreeing to help him dig up the corpse, a tactic he could have tried with Lt Peters (you never know).

Mamuwalde visits Tina at her apartment. Explaining his ancestry, Mamuwalde tells Tina his family, part of the Ubani tribe, “renowned as hunters,” originated from north-east of the Niger delta. Despite this impressive family tree, Tina is still unsure about this tall, dark stranger. “I have not lived again to lose you twice,” Mamuwalde tells Tina, but adds he will not take her by force, unlike that uncouth Mr Lugosi, who would have been doing his staring eyes and twisted hands act by now. Tina, unable to resist, asks Mamuwalde to stay the night and removes his cape. Mamuwalde will leave before daylight (“to stay is to die”) but hey, he’s hardly the first guy to do that to a girl. Cult movie historian Danny Peary notes of this scene: “interestingly, this vampire can fall in love (how happy he is – you’ve never seen a vampire smile so broadly and sincerely – when McGee hugs him and asks him to spend the night).”

Dr Thomas and Michelle are also sweating while getting deep down and dirty – grave-digging, that is. Opening the coffin, the pair find Billy Schaeffer isn’t at all resting in peace and Thomas kills the screaming vampire with a stake through the heart. Calming Michelle down, Thomas remembers Juanita was killed by a vampire, so must also have turned into…

Frustrated writers complain the mobile phone has ruined fiction writing, and it’s hard to imagine a scene in a modern film in which our hero drives like a dervish to find a phone booth, but find one he does, clearly having learned his parking skills at the Lt Frank Drebin School For Driving. Dr Thomas phones Sam, telling him to remove Juanita’s body from the deep freeze and then lock the office door behind him. Sam does the former but not the latter, getting interrupted by a phone call (note to anyone phoning an office – you are inevitably interrupting someone trying to do their job, usually mine). Juanita thaws out and kills Sam in a frenzy of slow motion close-ups and reverberating screams, in one of Blacula‘s most effective sequences. By the time Dr Thomas and Michelle arrive at the mortuary, Sam is not so much an employee as a patron. Thomas repels Juanita with a crucifix and destroys her through exposure to sunlight.

Dr Thomas advises Lt Peters that “vampires multiply geometrically.” I think the good doctor meant ‘exponentially,’ but we take his point. Lt Peters does not, feeling unable to put out an APB for the undead, fearing he may join the ranks of the unemployed and in this deadbeat economy, who can blame him.

If in doubt, head for the club, where the house band, rightly shamefaced after the previous night’s shenanigans, play a slower, more soothing song. Tina, prepared for the worst, sports a flapper-style tin foil hat as Dr Thomas and Michelle tactfully bring up the subject of the black arts. Mamuwalde admits he finds the subject “possibly the most fascinating of all.” After a pleasant chat on the role of the coffin and the modern vampire, Mamuwalde and Tina leave just before Skillet appears asking if anyone has seen Nancy, as he’s “got something groovy for her,” ulp, ick, yuck.

Taking the narrative hint, Dr Thomas rummages within Nancy’s darkroom (stop making up your own jokes out there) and finds the incriminating photographs, incriminating in the sense of who isn’t on them. Racing to Tina’s, Dr Thomas barges in on the pair and tries to punch out Mamuwalde, who splits the scene (sorry, but the patois is kind of catchy). Out in the streets, the sight of a black man running attracts the attention of a cop car (plus ca change) and two officers follow Mamuwalde on foot into a side alley where, in an ironic reversal, two policeman are killed by the black man, all to the tune of a funky wah-wah guitar.

Michelle, Dr Thomas and Lt Peters convene at Tina’s to discuss plans. The only hope our heroes have is in the knowledge that Mamuwalde must return to his coffin before nightfall and this leads to an uncomfortable scene in which a patrolling police car radios back to base complaining “they all look alike,” on trailing a black suspect. Nonetheless, Dr Thomas and Lt Peters set off at once, although the cops lose the suspect in a side alley.

In another scene made redundant by history, Dr Thomas has a radio operator go through all the buildings listed on this particular street (I know LA is a city of suburbs, but do cement factories really operate next door to clothes stores?) until hitting upon the magic word “warehouse,” where the first two killings took place. Police surround the warehouse, and Dr Thomas, Lt Peters, Michele, and a random cop who’s probably two days away from retirement enter the building. Soon, the vampire acolytes, last seen in 1780, emerge and attack the group, killing the unnamed cop who if he wasn’t a redshirt before, certainly is now. Luckily, the warehouse contains a consignment of good-to-go gaslights which Dr Thomas and friends use to engulf the acolytes in purifying flame and my goodness, didn’t the stuntmen earn their corn on this particular day.

Escaping the inferno, Thomas and Peters run into Mamewalde. “Good evening gentlemen,” proclaims the vampire, in his most grandiose voice, “were you looking for me? I should’ve told you, tonight I moved my coffin.” Claiming an urgent appointment, Mamuwalde promptly turns into a bat and flies off into the night. Back at Tina’s, the besotted young woman is persuaded by Dr Thomas and Michelle to act as bait to help police capture the vampire.

While it’s good that AIP gave Blacula the budget to film crowded street scenes showing scores of police cordoning off the area and telling people to stay indoors, it does rather give the game away, as Mamuwalde observes all this activity from a rooftop. Tina is bidden to come to Mamuwalde by his telepathic powers and is soon following him through the streets, hypnotized.

Thomas, Peters and Michelle are relaxing with a few drinks as they ‘keep an eye’ on Tina, and once they stop drinking and get round to checking on her, find Tina’s bedroom is empty. Their police colleagues meanwhile have followed the pair to an underground chemical factory. Inside, a cop fires upon Mamuwalde only to shoot Tina instead. Mamuwalde beats the cop to death before cradling the dying girl in his arms: “Tina, my Luva, I cannot lose you again,” he murmurs, nuzzling the girl’s neck…

Mamuwalde’s voice echoes through the factory as the detectives arrive: “Dr Thomas…not one man will leave here alive…this will be your tomb!” As Thomas, Peters and Michelle search for the coffin, Mamuwalde picks off various uniformed saps one by one, through electrocution, vicious beatings, or the simple but effective method of hurling barrels onto a cop’s head from a great height.

The soundtrack fills with the heart-like pounding of the factory as our three heroes find the vampire’s coffin. Dr Thomas opens the coffin and Lt Peters plunges a stake into the chest of – vampire Tina! Michelle becomes hysterical (little wonder, as this is now the third time Luva/Tina has died) and is led away as the two men ponder Mamuwalde’s whereabouts. “I’m right behind you, gentlemen,” declares Mamuwalde. Kissing Tina’s hand, the vampire states he has “lost his only reason for living.”

William Crain’s rather standard direction steps up a notch as Mamuwalde walks up towards the roof, where the morning sun blazes down upon the vampire (if intentional, the ‘no smoking’ sign near the roof doorway is a nice touch). By the time Dr Thomas and Lt Peters reach Mamuwalde, the sun’s rays have reduced him to a pile of smoldering, maggot-strewn bones.

Not that such a simple matter as the lead character’s destruction deterred the film-makers, who brought Mamuwalde flapping back to cinema screens with Scream, Blacula, Scream (1973), a less serious effort, with William Marshall returning to the role alongside the queen of blaxploitation, Pam Grier. If nothing else, this sequel gave the Medved brothers an amusing anecdote about watching the film for their Golden Turkey Awards book, and inspired rockabilly rockers Rocket From The Crypt to name an album under this sequel’s name in 1995.

As critics have noted, Blacula, for all its garish trimmings, is a basic reworking of the usual vampire films, and veers into formulaic ‘detective thriller’ territory, not helped by Crain’s straightforward direction. The performances are solid throughout however, with both Marshall and Rasulala playing their roles with dignified charm, though some justified anger at the police’s racial inequities would have made Dr Thomas a more credible character (in the Aurum Film Encyclopedia of Horror, Phil Hardy notes Blacula doesn’t make “use of the protagonist’s blackness for any purpose of social or philosophical provocation”). Marshall works hard to lend Mamuwalde sympathetic qualities and receives strong support from McGee, Nicholas and Lester. The only character which doesn’t entirely work is Charles Macaulay’s bland Dracula, although the unexplained motivation behind his accepting the two Africans to his castle doesn’t help.

Despite the fashionable new duds, Blacula doesn’t feel much different in atmosphere from the darker TV offerings of the time. In fact, the color issue aside, much of the action could come from an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, ABC’s short-lived supernatural series of 1974-75. For all its concerns with the difference between black and white, Blacula needed just a little more color to succeed in its own right.