Details: 96 mins, United States, English
Synopsis: Cultivated and articulate African Prince Mamuwalde is bitten by Count Dracula as is his destiny. He develops the requisite insatiable hunger for blood and must do all that he can to satisfy the craving. Two centuries later, the princely ghoul is unwittingly transported to modern day Los Angeles where bloodthirst is a way of life. Blaxploitation and the horror genre mingle in this creature feature that inspired the sequel Scream Blacula Scream.
Blacula is, like most remnants of the 1970’s, dated, kitschy and utterly adorable.
Nobody speaks of American International Pictures (A.I.P.) with much respect. Sure, film historians register their output from the 1950s onwards as being solid commercial pulp – how could you not, with a catalogue featuring the likes The She-Creature (1956), Attack Of The Puppet People (1958), Teenage Caveman (1958) and, ahem, Attack Of The Giant Leeches (1959).
I mock, I know, but I shouldn’t. A.I.P. did produce films that still exhibit the work of fine craftsmen, hold a certain thrill and show a flair for commerciality that has maintained their reputation to this day. For example, Roger Corman’s series of B-literature adaptations featuring Vincent Price – The Fall Of The House Of Usher (1960), The Pit And The Pendulum (1961) – and their masterwork, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven (1963, the same year a young Francis Ford Coppolla made Dementia 13 for the A.I.P. studio).
Come 1972, and the finely-honed formula that had kept A.I.P. going for two decades was in full-flight. Ray Milland’s career had taken him from Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder to the terror of an amphibian onslaught in Frogs; Dr Phibes Rises Again, again. But the most brazenly ambitious film on the A.I.P. slate in quite some time premiered in 1972 and, for its sheer audacity, remains an intriguing, compelling oddity – William Crane’s Blacula.
The racially-charged story starts in 1780, when African prince Mamuwale (the majestic William Marshall) and his bride Loova (Vonette McGee) visit Transylvania to ask Count Dracula (a wonderfully hammy Charles Macauley) to help stem the flow of slaves from the prince’s homeland (lot of African slaves in Transylvania in 1780, apparently, or at least enough to warrant a royal visit*). Seems Dracula’s vampirism isn’t his worst trait – he’s also a seething racist, who leers at, then kills, the prince’s wife and condemns Mamuwale to a life as one of the walking undead.
Following a very cool, Bond-like credit sequence that follows a little black bat as it chases and humps little red women, the film jumps ahead 200 years to New York, pulsing to the beat of 1970s disco. Having scored the auctioned leftovers from Count Dracula’s castle, two comically-gay interior decorators unwittingly awaken Mamuwale from his coffined slumber – and Blacula is reborn! After disposing of the gay designers in a screeching display of merciless bloodlust and sequined limb-flailing, Blacula hits midtown. He chews on a lady cabbie who runs him down then gives a little too much sass, and stumbles across Tina – who is the spitting image of his long-lost princess love (figures, cos she\'s played by Vonette McGee again).
As the bodies start to pile up, a suspicious Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) pieces the clues together – those clues being lots of dead brothers with two holes in their necks – and, with the all-white cops ambivalent to the bloodshed, soon discovers the secret and the terror that is Blacula. The film finds its feet in some late sequences, notably when Blacula’s army of the undead arise to protect his resting place.
The showmen at American International Pictures must have salivated at the prospect of giving a cinematic icon a racial twist. Blacula was shot and released less than 12 months after Gordon Park’s Shaft (1971), itself an inspired retelling of the tough white-cop genre that had peaked that very year with William Friedkin’s The French Connection.
The film’s hit status lead to a rash of African American horror retellings – American International’s very own Abby (1974), in which a Nigerian sex demon was used instead of Linda Blair to rip-off The Exorcist, and Sugar Hill (1974), featuring voodoo-induced zombies, became must-sees. Blacula’s director William Crane made Dr. Black Mr Hyde (1976), a surprisingly well-received film starring Bernie Casey whose medicinally-induced alter ego is a white-faced serial killer.
Ultimately, Blacula is, like most remnants of the 1970’s, dated, kitschy and utterly adorable. It’s redeemed somewhat by a cool soul soundtrack and a lead performance by the classically-trained Marshall, who displays a reverence for his iconic role that the filmmakers could have heeded.
Drum roll.... Like its title character, the film is cool but sucks most of the time (Yes!)
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