Blacula (1972)

blacula_poster_02Blacula (1972)
Director: William Crain
Writer: Joan Torres and Raymond Koenig
Cast: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Thalmus Rasulala, Denise Nicholas, Gordon Pinsent, Charles Macaulay, Elisha Cook Jr., The Hues Corporation

When I was a kid, the Fox affiliate out of Chicago would run back-to-back episodes of Small Wonder every Sunday afternoon. Not having a lot of TV stations in those days, I would usually sit through whatever shows aired before it (Star Trek and Mission: Impossible were the norm). Sometimes they’d run a movie – The Black Stallion, Krull, and My Bloody Valentine were staples. One afternoon, as I anxiously awaited the adventures of the Lawsons and their robot daughter, the station aired a promo for something called Blacula. The only thing that stuck out in my 9-year-old mind was that it had the King of Cartoons from Pee Wee’s Playhouse in it and he was a vampire. I immediately looked it up in my trusty Video Movie Guide and searched for it in the local video store, but they didn’t carry it. As the years went on, it faded from my mind…until one magical night, my friend Sean (https://seanofthebeer.wordpress.com) gifted me an old VHS tape of…Blacula! I was finally going to see this Blaxploitation gem! At that point I was well versed in the genre, yet I still hadn’t laid my eyes upon this sure-to-be-ridiculous nugget. It was with trembling hands that I inserted the tape into the VCR…

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The movie opens in Transylvania, 1780. African Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) and his much younger bride Luva (Vonetta McGee) are enjoying a couple of cocktails with their buddy, Count Dracula. Seems the good Count has some influence over the slave trade, and Mamuwalde wants him to abolish it. What interest the King of the Vampires would have in slavery is anybody’s guess, but apparently he’s up to his fangs in it. A touchy subject, the conversation quickly goes south and Drac ends up knocking Mamuwalde unconscious and biting him, cursing him to be a vampire forever. If that wasn’t drastic enough, he also locks him in a coffin, so he will spend eternity craving blood that he can’t get to. As for Luva, she is left to die and rot in the dungeon next to her husband’s coffin. Before the Count leaves, he gives Mamuwalde his new name…Blacula…and the opening credits roll.

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Cut to Transylvania, 1972. Bobby and his lover Billy, a pair of stereotypically flamboyant interior decorators, are in the process of acquiring a bunch of old furniture from Dracula’s castle. The owner tells them how it used to be the property of the undead, but the two laugh it off as camp and forge ahead with the ill-advised purchase . Back in California, they excitedly look over their choice finds, which include the coffin containing Mamuwalde. Attempting to break the lock on the coffin, Billy cuts his arm. While Bobby tends to his wound, the coffin lid rises…and awakening from a slumber of 200 years…OMG it’s motherfuckin’ BLACULA!! Except for some silly mutton chops, a fuzzy unibrow and a small afro that comes to a widow’s peak, he looks like the same old Mamuwalde from the opening scene.

Without taking a moment to acclimate himself to standing up for the first time in two centuries, Blacula attacks the couple and drinks their blood. He then gives a hearty laugh and retreats to his coffin. Not a bad day’s work for a new night stalker.

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Let the cartoon…er…bloodsucking BEGIN!

A few days later, Bobby’s friends Tina (Mina?), Michelle, and Dr. Gordon Thomas gather to pay their respects at the funeral home. Gordon is a police pathologist, and becomes suspicious when he realizes there’s no blood in Bobby’s body, despite not having been embalmed yet. At the same moment, we find out Blacula is just hanging out at the funeral home, peeking out at folks from behind a curtain like a goddamn weirdo. Spotting Tina and realizing she looks exactly like his late wife (because it’s the same actress) he follows her out into the night. He tries to explain to her that he’s a vampire and she’s obviously a reincarnation of Luva. For some reason this scares her, and she hauls ass to her apartment, accidentally leaving behind her purse for Blacula to use at his convenience for further stalking. Then he gets hit by a cab.

The cab driver jumps out and sasses the hell out of him for standing in the street. He takes umbrage to this and kills her. Don’t fuck with the Blacula!

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The following evening, Tina, Michelle and Gordon gather at a nightclub to celebrate Michelle’s birthday. Blacula, using some sort of vampire GPS, arrives on the scene with the intention of apologizing and returning her purse (and to maybe smoke that ass). Gordon is annoyed by this, as is their friend Skillet (!), but Tina is quickly enveloped in Blacula’s 200-year-old scent and becomes smitten. Unfortunately, some pain-in-the-ass cocktail waitress takes their picture, which enrages Blacula (he doesn’t want everyone to know he is a fiendish ghoul). He excuses himself and follows the waitress to her house…which is conveniently located right next to the nightclub. While she develops the pics in her darkroom/kitchen, the unholy prince sneaks in and drains her of her plasma. Don’t fuck with the Blacula!

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Weeeeell..one quick peek won’t hurt…

Gordon, still puzzled by Bobby’s death, begins investigating the murders of the cab driver and the waitress. He then takes a scientific leap of faith and concludes that these are being perpetrated by a vampire (don’t worry, he researched it. There were a couple books at the local library on the subject). He tells his friend Sam, who runs the morgue, to keep an eye on the cab driver’s body. Sam fucks up that simple instruction and meets his doom when she wakes up, thirsting for sweet blood. Don’t fuck with the Blacula’s minions!

Gordon convinces Michelle to help him dig up the grave of Billy to prove his theory. No sooner do they get the lid open when Billy springs up, with a mouth full of plastic fangs! Gordon quickly dispatches him with a stake to the heart, which causes Michelle to have a nervous breakdown for a few minutes. After consoling her, Gordon heads over to Lt. Jack Peters office and tells him that he can relax – he has solved the case! It must be the new dude in town with the cape and widow’s peak! Jack is relieved, but…how do they stop this ancient evil?!?!?!?!?!

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Baby, they hadn’t even invented latex the last time I did this.

While Gordon and Jack rack their brains to come up with a plan of action, Blacula is racking up a little something of his own with Tina at her place. I guess you can fuck with the Blacula!

Gordon and Jack decide to check out the warehouse where Bobby and Billy were killed (and where Blacula chills in his off-hours). Once they arrive, they are swarmed by a horde of blue-faced vampires! The fellas use some old gas lamps like molotov cocktails and destroy them, but Blacula lap dissolves into a joke-shop bat and awkwardly floats away. He swings by Tina’s place and tells her they need to get the fuck out of town…so naturally they go to the big water plant to hide out until it all blows over.

Why so blue, Mr. Simmons?
Why so blue, Mr. Simmons?

Gordon and Jack, along with a bunch of faceless cops, track Blacula to the plant. He kills most of the officers, but before he can dispatch the meddlsome Gordon, Tina is accidentally shot. Blacula puts on his thinking cowl and decides he must turn her to save her, so he bites her neck, making her a fellow creature of the night. He places her in his coffin until he can find more permanent digs. Jack and Gordon come upon the coffin, expecting to find Blacula, but end up staking Tina instead. This proves to be the last indignity for Prince Mamuwalde, and he decides to end it all by going out into the sunlight, where he sorta melts. Gordon and Jack then enjoy a couple of ice cold Coors (they don’t show this, but I presume that’s how they celebrated).

Well played, sign.
Well played, sign.

The Good:  You might look at the genre and silly title and assume it’s just gonna be a bunch of soul music, funny trash talk with pimps and caddies, and a tenuous plot involving a vampire, but thats not the case at all. Blacula tries its best to be a legitimate horror film, keeping the traditional mythos and tropes in tact. It stays pretty true to the spirit of the Universal version of the Dracula story, with eternal love being Blacula’s motivation (and not just evil for evil’s sake).

While its bargain budget definitely shows (in the case of the make-up and the bat transformation, painfully so), the professionalism of William Marshall’s performance really keeps the movie afloat. Matter of fact, I’d say the film drags the most when he isn’t on screen. He was a Shakespearean trained stage actor, and its evident in his grand gestures and line delivery. I read somewhere that when Marshall read the script, he thought it was a piece of shit, which makes his performance all the more admirable. Regardless of what he thought of the project, he treated the part with respect, and that’s the mark of a true talent.

Thalmus Rasulala also gives a pretty solid performance in the hero role. He has that sort of smooth Billy Dee Williams-Fred Williamson charm that works really well. Plus he sports a fuckin mustache that would make Burt Reynolds crawl into a bawl and weep.

I really liked Charles Macaulay’s brief turn as Dracula. He plays it like Vincent Price, but a little…I don’t know…sleazier? He also cries blood after he bites Mamuwalde, which is cool. Oh! And when he gives Mamuwalde his new name, he throws up the metal horns. Well, look at you, Blacula! Ahead of your time!

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Elisha Cook, Jr, who plays the ill-fated Sam, has a hook for his right hand. Not explained…not utilized…its just there.

Skillet. Let’s talk about Skillet. He looks a little like Michael Strahan. He enjoys hitting on waitresses…Tina…Michelle…basically anything female. He repeatedly refers to Blacula as “one strange dude,” when he’s not trying to buy his cape off him. He is only in two scenes, but he should have been Gordon’s sidekick. I hope he shows up in the sequel. The guy just loves hanging out in nightclubs.

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The Not-So-Good: My biggest gripe with the movie is the missed opportunity regarding Blacula’s resurrection. As far as we know, Mamuwalde is a great, respected man. He makes the trek from Africa to Transylvania to end the atrocity of slavery, and what does he get for it? His entire life taken away from him and a cursed existence as a bloodsucker. I would have loved to see how he adjusts to this new world of 1972. The clothes, music, cars, basically everything. But he doesn’t. He wakes up and its like he’s been rockin’ in LA his whole life. How  much fun would it have been to see him walk into a McDonald’s or a movie theatre? I don’t mean turning the movie into a comedy akin to Love At First Bite, but I think a scene or two dedicated to his confusion with a new world would have been tremendous fun. And what about his emotional angst and despair at losing the last 200 years of his life? That’s some heavy shit that could have been explored. Maybe that’s asking too much from a flick called Blacula, but the opportunity was there and I’m sure William Marshall would have been game.

When Gordon and Jack show up at the warehouse, they are attacked by a half dozen vamps. When did Blacula have the time to do this? We’re with him for a lot of the movie and only saw him kill Bobby & Billy and the two women(and one of those newly-turned women attacked Sam…what happened to him?) Besides that, why was he building an army in the first place? His whole reason for being was to hook up with Tina, not prepare for a war. He winds up needing them, but how would he have expected Gordon to come after him…he’s only been an upwardly mobile vampire for a few days!

The two fuckin lap dissolves when Blacula turns into a cheap plastic bat…those were terrible. We were getting better transformations in the 1940’s on less money. They could’ve come up with something better.

Blacula’s demise. He just gives up! I know he feels he can’t go on without his reincarnated wife, but come on! You, sir, are the King of the Vampires! You’ve only just begun to explore your powers! Before you throw it all away over a broken heart, try enjoying some nightlife. You live in Hollywood and its the 70s! Party, have fun, get some of that disco ass! Or if you’re adamant about dying, go out in a blaze and kill Gordon and Jack before you toss it all away. I’m disappointed in you, bud.

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Final Thoughts: Blacula kicks ass. It hits all the notes I expected from it. Obviously its not for everybody, but if you love vampire movies, blaxploitation movies, or just the low-budget programmers that American-International routinely put out, you will have a great time with this. I don’t wanna go so far as to call it a classic of the genre, but its something a serious horror geek should see, if not own. I mean, the Count Dracula Society declared it the Most Horrifying Film of the Decade…in 1972…

Droppin’ Knowledge: Thalmus Rasulala’s real name was Jack Crowder. Guess he wanted to change it to something a little easier to pronounce.

Trailer:

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