Going black in time
It's time to get funky, you jive turkey. OK, I promise never to do that again, but I couldn't help it. Today's movie comes from the deepest, darkest depths of movie hell: The 1970's. The era of unrest, ridiculous clothes, and disco did manage to spawn some great horror movies, but it also brought about the exploitation era. Many of these movies found their way into grindhouse theaters due to their high levels of violence and sex. With the exploitation movies came the blaxploitation movies, which was geared towards the African American community. It was only a matter of time before horror made it's impact on the sub genre.
Blacula is a 1972 vampire movie starring William Marshall (Pee-Wee's Playhouse, Scream Blacula Scream) as Prince Mamuwalde, the leader of a small African nation. The prince is visited by Count Dracula and asks for his help in stopping the slave trade. Dracula refuses and attempts to capture Mamuwalde. When he fights back, Dracula bites Mamuwalde, changing him into a vampire, and imprisons him in a coffin. In 1972, the castle containing the coffin is purchased by two interior decorators, Bobby McCoy and Billy Schafer. They open the coffin, awakening Mamuwalde, now Blacula, are both killed. At Bobby's funeral, Blacula meets Tina who looks identical to his now-deceased wife. Believing she is the reincarnation of his wife, Blacula pursues Tina, posing as a human Mamuwalde. At the same time, Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala, Sanford And Son, Mom And Dad Save The World) and Lt. Peters begin investigating the strange deaths around town. Eventually Tina begins to fall in love with Mamuwalde. The victims of the strange murders change into vampires and soon join Blacula as his undead army. After finding a picture in which Mamuwalde does not appear, Gordon and Lt. Peters, joined by the police, move in to stop Blacula. Will they be able to save Tina before she is turned into a vampire?
Don't fall for Blacula's "Free Hugs" trick
I have to say, I haven't seen many exploitation and blaxploitation movies. Most of my knowledge probably comes from other mediums making fun of the movies. I was expecting Blacula to be an over-the-top, jive-talking, funky vampire movie with goofy rhyming lines and the word “honky” being thrown around like a baseball. Much to my surprise, this wasn't the case. Blacula is far more of a real movie than I could have expected. That's not to say it isn't ridiculous, but it has character motivation and a somewhat decent story. I think a large part of the movie being watchable is the good performance of William Marshall . A veteran of stage, opera, and screen, Marshall brings an air of legitimacy to the role. Surrounded by polyester and blaring funk, Marshall's portrayal of Blacula is both regal and scary. Some may find his performance hokey, but I would attribute that to the rest of the cast playing their characters straight. Unlike many other vampire movies, Blacula manages to actually make the head vampire a sympathetic character.
The movie is very much a product of the 1970's which should be a surprise to no one. There are plenty of bell-bottoms, afros, and unnecessary long scenes of funk bands playing. The movie never goes full “blaxploitation” but you can still sense the racial overtones. While there isn't much in the way of racial slurs, the word “faggot” is used quite a lot. As they say, it was a different time. There are some scenes of violence, but I wouldn't call Blacula a scary or even creepy film. I think part of that is due to seeing the movie through 2012 eyes. The supporting acting is quite bad and certain scenes jump around with no explanation. It's not particularly clear just how Blacula made it to America, although I could have easy missed it while blinded by the ridiculous clothes. There are plenty of holes in the plot, but when you're watching a movie called “Blacula” were you expecting Citizen Kane?
Is it too soon to make a Whitney Houston joke?
Blacula is a fun and bewildering look into a strange time in American cinema and cultural history. Deeply entrenched in the 70's, the movie is full of stereotypes and certain language that would almost never fly in movies today. William Marshall is fun to watch, but he doesn't get a lot of help from some of his supporting cast. There is some violence, but not a whole lot of blood or gore. Blacula spawned a few other horror related blaxploitation movies such as Blackenstein, but I don't think I'll be searching for that one any time soon. Ultimately, Blacula has lots of problems, but it's still an entertaining watch, sometimes for the wrong reasons.