Let’s face it: the horror movies I’ve been watching so far are way too good.
“Let the Right One In” is a modern classic, a contemplative, high-quality rumination on the ambiguity of good and evil; it is a beautiful love story above all else. It is eminently classy. “The Thing” is decidedly less classy, but makes up for it by being a perfectly constructed meditation on uncompromising paranoia. It is a masterpiece of fear and mutilation. Don’t get me wrong, I hope to see many other great films, as great as these, and they’re out there in droves; but if I ever want to get a feel for what the horror genre means to the people who love it, far and wide, I’m also going to have to start watching some film’s whose appeal lies somewhere else altogether. Part of being scared and having a good time doing it is checking your regard for capital-A-Artistry at the door. If I really want to dig in here, I might have to leave the gilded halls of respectability behind me and drive down to the seedy side of town for a bit. I need to head down to the intersection where Camp Avenue and Exploitation Street meet.
I fear I may have overcompensated a bit on this one. You see, “Blacula” — which was released in 1972 at the height of a movement which saw studios attempting to get young, urban blacks into theatres by creating quick, low-budget films with African-American protagonists — is a film I have wanted to see for years because I have more than a fleeting interest in “blaxploitation” cinema and I never got around to seeing it last time I took an interest in the subject.
Inevitably, out of that context, the film let me down a little bit. During a blaxploitation marathon, “Blacula” would have a been a nice change of flavor, a supernatural schlock-fest with a terrific leading performance by a respected stage actor slumming it in a low-budget horror film. For a month of horror, however… “Blacula” falls a bit short of the mark. Rather then making being scared an enjoyable pursuit, “Blacula” makes trying to be scared, but being decidedly not scared at all, a completely tedious pursuit. (Keep in mind this film was sold as “the most horrifying film of the decade” and it won a Saturn Award for best horror film in 1973, so they were serious about making this film terrifying, which, considering what it turned out to be, is a terrifying thought in itself.)
The film is, well… exactly what it sounds like. Blacula is the black Dracula. If you think this sounds absurd and perhaps a little insensitive, you are mostly right. Like much of blaxploiation cinema, the idea of subbing in a black archetype for a white one simply by changing the character’s name to reflect skin color is vaguely racist. The film deals heavily in stereotypes (its treatment of two gay characters who end up being Blacula’s first victims is almost unbearable), which is ironic considering these film’s were intended in part to cash in on trying to make a marginalized minority feel a sense of empowerment. At a time when horror cinema was reclaiming its hold upon America and getting huge budget allowances because of it, Blacula was also a bit of a low-budget mess, with some of the straight-up worst make-up I’ve ever seen. It is mostly blind to what actually makes people frightened, even though it touches a bit on some very frightening things we have done in the past, such as slavery and racism and urban decay.
So “Blacula” falls short on many counts. But what if I told you that Blacula was an African prince? What if I told you his name was Mamuwalde and that his motivation for visiting Count Dracula (played quite effectively as a sort of plantation aristocrat with a killer goatee transplanted to an eerie castle) at his Transylvania estate was to plead for an end to the slave trade, making his ultimate enslavement to this paragon of white corruption, murder, greed and opulent wealth all the more ironic and meaningful. The you might say this is all still absurd, but they’ve got something here. That’s how I feel about “Blacula.” The film’s trailer absurdly calls Blacula “Dracula’s Soul Brother!” as if they hang out jamming to Otis Redding records on weekends, but the fact that the two characters share this inextricable link — that of vampirism, which makes you kin with whomever grabbed you by the neck and took ownership of your soul regardless of race or political persuasion — is made, in its own way, deeply twisted by the fact that Mamuwalde makes clear, before he is turned, that he utterly and completely despises, to the deepest core of his being, everything that Count Dracula stands for.
Before the fangs come out, Dracula is almost hilariously racist in that grating gentleman’s way that dictates that a black man should find it appealing if not downright uplifting to think that a white man, especially one as wealthy and well-bred as Dracula, might want to purchase and then brutally rape his beloved wife because, of course, he is one of the civilized souls who admits openly to finding the black female attractive enough to want to steal and own. Mamuwalde does not find this insinuation nearly as charming as Dracula thinks he should, an affront which apparently rankles the ire of the vampire king so much that he does not stop at turning Mamuwalde into a blood-craving fiend; he also locks him in a coffin for three centuries, essentially starving him of the blood he needs to survive, while also cursing him with his own name, taking from him the name Mamuwalde and bestowing upon him a new name, a name which reflects both Dracula’s derision for his new minion and his stamp of ownership — Blacula. Before he is killed, Mamuwalde calls Dracula an animal and spits out the movie’s best line: “Sir, I suddenly find your congac as… distasteful as your manor.” In Dracula’s final return volley before he gets all fangy, he snaps back: “Let us not forget, sir, it is you who comes from the jungle.”
So… this film starts off with a bang. The opening scene is arch, well-acted, and deliciously smart and snappy. It achieves everything I think this film hopes to achieve, but the rest of “Blacula” never delivers on the promise. Because, as soon as this tense exchange is over, a bunch of vampires show up and they look like this:
And that’s about all I need to describe the rest of the film. It pretty much drops the slavery subtext completely, not another word is said about it, which means that, if you watch the film with that scene constantly in mind, you get a fairly rich experience where any interaction between characters in 1970s Los Angelas could be reflective of the film’s outspoken stance on the treatment of blacks by whites, especially as that treatment relates to a rich African heritage of great pride and great beauty; or, if you watch the film having almost completely forgotten about that scene because it was just so darn long ago (as I did), you get a pretty bad B-movie about the spread of a dangerous epidemic through a high-risk area filled with homosexuals, prostitutes, strippers and angry black women who drive cabs recklessly. This disease kind of makes the afflicted want to drink blood, but it mostly makes them yell a LOT in a really annoying way, and it makes their hair crrrazy! In short, if a vampire isn’t Blacula in this movie, they suck and they need to just shut up and stop shrieking in my ear!
It’s not as bad as all that most of the time. Whenever this film’s Van Helsing is doing his thing, the film is a pretty good pot-boiler: the hero, Dr. Gordon Thomas, is suitably heroic while also treating the idea of vampires on his home turf with the incredulity that notion deserves. He is funny because he wants to be and not because we are supposed to see him that way, he is supremely confident, and he has an interesting working relationship with his white friend, Lt. Peters. In other words, as a blaxploitatio hero, he’s on the right side of the exploitation line, actaully a fari role model, not drawn in overly masculine or demeaning terms.
William Marshall is great as Blacula when he’s being extraordinarily proud or when he is teasing Thomas about his suspicions. Marshall, who suggested to the filmmakers that the black vampire be an African prince and not simply a dude walking down the street (which means that he is primarily responsible for everything that is good or interesting about this film) was the perfect choice for this part. He seems like he’s acting in another movie altogether, but the movie it seems like he’s acting in is a way better movie, so it’s always fun to see him do his thing.
In fact, pretty much the only thing that doesn’t work at all in this otherwise suitable film is that it involves vampires that look like a kiln exploded all over them. Why does Mamuwalde grow ridiculous facial hair when he is about to attack? Why does he have to roar and moan like that in such an unseemly and undignified way (this is when Daniels performance seems most strained)? Why do some vampires wake after a few days and others immediately turn? The vampires here are silly and they make no sense. They simply don’t work. They don’t make me think “epidemic.” They don’t make me think “parasite.” They make me think “Shoot that make-up artist! NOW!” It is that absurdity which makes this film not really work all that well, and also, ironically, this very absurdity that has made this film stand out more than your average 70s black cop in the white city procedural. The very idea of a noble vampire essentially showing up on the wrong soundstage on the studio backlot and ending up in a ghetto movie is what makes “Blacula” persist to this day as this kind of perfect example of camp meeting exploitation. It’s something you kind of have to see to believe. Problem is, while Blacula is a perfect example of all that, it is hardly perfect, and I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re looking for a good scare.
- Scariest Scene: In a movie that wasn’t even remotely scary, I have to pick the scene that was the most effective as a piece of horror cinema and that would have probably scared me if I were in a more indulgent mood. From the moment a photographer snaps a shot of Mamuwalde, we know she’s pretty much meat, but it’s fotunate for us that Mamuwalde waits until she is in the dark room to strike. The red glow of the room adds the perfect touch of eerieness and suspense to this particular kill, which is really the only one in the movie that works for me.
- Best Scene: Two way tie: In the first, Dr. Thomas and Mamuwalde spar with eachother much like Dracula and Mamuwalde did earlier in the movie, except that now it is Mamuwalde who holds all the cards and who has that vengeful glint in his eye. “Are you into the occult?” Dr. Thomas growls. “Well, we can’t ignore what the world characterizes as the Black Arts, now can we?” the cat who ate the canary responds back with a grin, oozing charm. When Thomas insinuates they will find his coffin and destroy it, Mamuwalde hisses back, “Perhaps the modern vampire does not require a coffin… They are rather elusive you know?” And then he just chuckles malevolently. The second scene I’ve chosen is actually the final fifteen minutes of the film, which pretty much ignore most of what has come before (all the other vampires completely shacked up together so they all died in a fire, leaving only Mamuwalde to contend with) and set up a pretty entertaining and legitimately daunting set-piece that William Daniels gets run all around while being brilliant at his job. He mourns the shooting of his beloved wife reincarnated and regretfully turns her. He kills a bunch of cops, getting genuine glee every time one of them tries to kill him with mere bullets. And then, after his love has been staked and he sees no more reason to live, Mamuwalde lurches up the stairs into the sunlight, where he falls to the ground and dies. This scene, with it’s harpsichords and its emphasis on movement and shadows, reminded me of Nosferatu, and I wish the rest of the film had been as eerie and operatic.
- The Worst Scene: Pretty much anything with Mamuwalde’s reincarnated wife. I found her pretty much intolerable. She goes from fearing Mamuwalde to being completely in love with him in one encounter, and I know I’m supposed to believe its a trance thing, but it just felt like bad writing and bad acting. Plus, I hated how every scene between them felt the need to be acked by sexy saxophone music as if her wooden love of this man she did not know was supposed to be super sensual. Yuck.
- The Black Guy Dies First Scoreboard: Obviously you know where this is going. The black guy most definately dies first. I’m going to count it even though he subsequently walks the Earth for the rest of the movie and ends up being the last person to really cease existing before the credits roll. So we are now at Convention 1, Black Guys 2.
- One other interesting thing about this film: If it came out now, like if there were a serious remake tomorrow (which I doubt, but stick with me), the black vampire at the center of this narrative would be this noble creature torn at the notion of having to kill innocents, especially other African-Americans, in order to feed the beast within him. I think this film is all the better for not going that route: Mamuwalde can clearly restrain himself for long periods of time, but being a noble black man and feeding on innocents does not seem to be that big a conflict of interest for him. He just kills at will, it never once seems to trouble him. I would have found it trite if Blacula had shown remorse. Fortunately, for the sake of William Marshall’s nuanced performance, the film leaves things much more complicated than that, leaving us conflicted when we see that he has died for his lover: “Yeah, so you were capable of love and in life you were an upstanding dude, so what?” we ask. “You were also a monster.” Actually it pulls this feat off much better then “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” which used the same reincarnation love plot, but which I don’t think ended as effectively.