Friday, February 22, 2013

Blacula (1972) review


William Marshall (Mamuwalde/Blacula), Vonetta McGee (Tina/Luva), Thalmus Rasulala (Dr. Gordon Thomas), Denise Nicholas (Michelle), Gordon Pinsent (Lt. Peters), Charles Macaulay (Count Dracula)

Directed by William Crain

"You shall pay, black prince. I shall place a suffering on you that will doom you to a living hell... a hunger! A wild, gnawing, animal hunger will grow in you... a hunger for human blood. Here you will starve for an eternity... torn by an unquenchable lust. I curse you with my name! You shall be... Blacula..."

The Short Version: William Marshall is bloody brilliant as the title bloodsucker in an interpretation that's presented as more tragic than the average teeth-in-neck extravaganza. Modeled on the COUNT YORGA template, it's been tweaked into a unique vampire movie dressed up as a blaxploitation film. Easily among the best horrors of that decade boldly anchored by the mesmerizing Marshall. It's occasionally cumbersome, and dated, but Crain makes it work along with his remarkable star. Did I mention William Marshall is brilliant? There's nothing anemic here. BLACULA has much blood coursing through its celluloid veins. 

In 1780 Transylvania, Prince Mamuwalde dines with Count Dracula to seek his help in abolishing the European slave trade. The Count has no intentions of doing that, nor allowing the Prince and his wife Luva to leave his castle alive. Enslaving the Prince by vampirizing him, Dracula entombs Mamuwalde in a hidden room locked in a coffin to starve for all eternity with Luva left to die with him. Flash forward to modern day 1972, two interior decorators purchase a number of artifacts from Dracula's castle, including the coffin containing Mamuwalde. Shipped back to Los Angeles, the vampire Prince awakens, and as fate would have it, he finds what appears to be the living embodiment of his long dead love, Luva.

William Crain's interpretation of DRACULA was the natural progression for the black cinema movement of the 70s, which was still riding high in 1972 with such notable action dramas as BLACK CAESAR, ACROSS 110TH STREET and TROUBLE MAN. There hadn't yet been a horror film with a black lead, so this was the perfect time, as was the casting of stage and screen actor William Marshall.

What's of special note regarding BLACULA is that, while it does present stereotypes some might find offensive in the mollycoddling society we live in today (the flaming homosexual interior decorators), it's pretty balanced where its race relations are concerned. Aside from the opening seven minutes showing the real Count Dracula as a racist slaver, there's nary a bit of the anti-establishment ethos that defined the bulk of these movies born out of the socio-economic times of the 1960s and 70s -- most notably the Civil Rights Movement.

The script (from Joan Torres and Raymond Koenig -- their only documented credits are the two BLACULA movies) lightly touches all the bases of the blaxploitation genre, but never dwells on them. There's slight humor derived from a black funeral service owner slighting Rasulala's character in private as the "rudest nigger I ever seen in my life", Rasulala referring to Blacula's first two victims as "faggots" and Lt. Peters attributing the murders to possible Black Panther involvement. Otherwise, Crain's film stays its course as a horror movie first, in what amounts to a serious envisioning of a modern day Dracula as essayed via mostly black performers.

It's difficult to label this as a bonafide blaxploitation movie (for me, that is) since it strives to be more than that. Imagine how different BLACULA would have turned out had it been more interested in parlaying the escapist entertainment of other films, and the exploitation potential the film contained: "BLACULA -- A soul brother bloodsucker puts the bite on white! Blacula! He stalks the city streets seeking revenge on the man!" The movie never settles on being straight exploitation and it would be difficult to imagine the esteemed Marshall essaying a comic book approach in the vein of Jim Brown or Fred Williamson. One gets the impression AIP wanted one movie, and either Crain or Marshall wanted something else entirely. So what we have is a curious blend of an alternative Dracula tale occasionally yielding, but never succumbing to blaxploitation conventions.

A couple years earlier, AIP had scored a major box office winner with COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (1970), a creepy modern day vampire yarn from director Bob Kelljan that clicked with audiences. A virtual remake followed in 1971 that was even more polished with some new additions to the mix. In 1972, AIP would appear to have taken the YORGA blueprint and refurbished it as a horror film with a predominantly black cast. They ended up with another winner on their hands that led to an inevitable sequel.

Hammer Films would follow suit with their own modern Dracula with DRACULA AD 1972 (1972) and enjoy less success with their result. BLACULA is a stand out amongst vampire cinema, and not solely for having a black actor in the lead. Speaking of 70s Hammer, BLACULA features vampires who immediately become the undead after being bitten, while others stay dead for a time before returning. This is never explained, of course.

There's a hint of racial subtext regarding the blacks Mamuwalde fought to free in the 18th century and those he encounters in the modern times. It's not explicit, but in Marshall's mannerisms of the character. This is noticeable in the club sequences when Mamuwalde is confronted by Skillet (Jitu Cumbuka). His more mannered, respectable demeanor seems to be at odds with Skillet and his more laid back, playful, "jive-talkin" style. Skillet speaks to him a few times, but Mamuwalde simply ignores him, or just nods with a slight grin on his face. This would be explored in a more direct fashion in the sequel, SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM (1973) when Blacula is confronted late at night on the street by two pimps.

Crain's film isn't so much interested in social themes as it is presenting an ethnic version of Stoker's classic and there couldn't have been a better acting choice than William Marshall with his deep baritone voice and commanding presence. Unlike so many Dracula interpretations, Marshall's is among the few sympathetic portrayals. The ending is totally unlike what you'd find in your typical bloodsucker movie. Paul Naschy's sole Dracula interpretation also from 1972 features a similar climax.

Mamuwalde is a tragic character if there ever was one. The curse placed on him by Dracula and the indignation both he and his Luva are subjected to are reason enough for audience identification. Once he finds his reincarnated love, he refuses to force his bite on her, preferring her to willingly accept it. Most of the scenes they share together, you almost forget that Mamuwalde is no longer among the living. We're reminded by the slew of corpses in his wake.

The make up design for the vampires is genuinely creepy, although the pronounced fangs making the vamps look like sabre-toothed tigers sometimes looks goofy. Regarding Blacula's vampire design, when he turns into full on vampire mode, he has these peculiar patches of hair aligning his cheekbones. It's definitely unique and grabs ones attention. He also transforms into a giant bat (via animation) during the last half.

The make up for the many other blood-drinking minions have that YORGA look about them looking far more dead than the average pallor of vampirized victims in these movies. There's some choice stunt work here, as well. The warehouse attack sequence is especially impressive resulting in a fiery finish as both Rasulala's Dr. Brown, Lt. Peters (Gordon Pinsent) and a clutch of officers search for Blacula.

By the way, Blacula is only referred to by that name once, and that's during the opening Transylvania sequence after Count Dracula vampirizes him (and again briefly during a voiceover as Mamuwalde remembers what the Count said to him). For the rest of the movie he's called by his name, Mamuwalde.

"I've lived again, to lose you twice."

When he's not putting the fangs to the necks of the supporting cast, William Marshall brings something to the part of Mamuwalde lacking from virtually every other portrayal of this classic role. He brings a humanistic quality to this accursed, undead creature. As mentioned elsewhere, while there are noticeable plot holes, Marshall's performance is the life's blood that holds it all together.  

Marshall was a stage and screen actor of much repute. A prominent singer and Shakespearean performer, he did very few movies in a lead capacity, but did do a nice selection of guest star roles on Television shows. Of these his role as Dr. Daystrom on the season two episode of the original STAR TREK ('The Ultimate Computer'), and his villainous turn as Alamek in the season four episode of THE WILD, WILD WEST ('The Night of the Egyptian Queen') are of special mention. He returned as Mamuwalde in 1973s SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM co-starring Pam Grier. He also played the exorcist in ABBY (1974), the black version of THE EXORCIST (1973).

Thalmus Rasulala (born Jack Crowder) is the determined investigative scientist, Dr. Brown. He's fine here, but his delivery seldom display much in the way of emotional range. The actor will be familiar to fans of this genre and 70s television programs. His role here as a scientist represents one of achievement despite the strife and racism blacks had overcome the previous decade. He has a respectable and cordial working relationship with the white police officers he collaborates with, and unlike most films of this genre, we see them working together; although Rasulala is clearly "in charge" throughout. Rasulala also played the nemesis to Fred Williamson in BUCKTOWN and Pam Grier's object of desire as a wealthy businessman in FRIDAY FOSTER (both 1975).

Vonetta McGee is a beautiful actress with a mesmerizing face and stunning eyes. I never thought much of her as an actress, but she lights up a room nonetheless. She had quite a career beginning on a strong note with the spectacularly downbeat Euro-western THE GREAT SILENCE (1968). She also had roles in HAMMER (1972), DETROIT 9000 (1973) and the TV terror of THE NORLISS TAPES (1973) among others.


The music by Gene Page -- a well known name in the music industry of the day -- is also noteworthy. It wasn't uncommon -- in this genre -- to see a band playing that would eventually go on to big things. In this case, it's The Hues Corporation, who, in 1974 had a massive hit with 'Rock the Boat'. They contributed three songs to the BLACULA film score and can be seen in the two club sequences over the course of the movie.

William Crain tried his hand at horror for the second and last time with DR. BLACK AND MR. HYDE in 1976; a lesser film that was more in the blaxploitation style. BLACULA has its silly moments and its dated 70s fashion and decor, but it's also occasionally creepy (especially the morgue sequence with an unthawed vampire and a hook handed Elisha Cook Jr!); and possesses a stoic performance by William Marshall holding it all together. The finale is exceptional as is the tragic, unusual ending. For 70s and horror enthusiasts, BLACULA is worth sinking your teeth into.

This review is representative of the MGM DVD.

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