The blaxploitation cinema of the 1970s was a great trend. Empowering blacks by turning them into action heroes who spouted colorful, quotable lines and battled the oppressive white Establishment, these films were exploitation at its best. So it was only natural that the trend would eventually cross over with film’s longest running exploitation genre, horror. The result was Blacula, a Sam Arkoff- American International Pictures film with a very dark sense of humor and some even darker scares.
From its very opening scene, Blacula balances blaxploitation and horror perfectly. When a racist Count Dracula invites Prince Mamuwalde and his princess Luva to his castle, the couple falls into the master vampire’s trap. Dracula bites Mamuwalde and leaves Luva with him to die in the mortuary. With its dark lighting and creepy music, the scene functions as a perfect setup for a vampire flick. But there’s a whole other layer here: an Eastern European white man, the "master," has enslaved the black man (here with the vampire’s bite) and left his beauty to rot. Metaphorically, it’s brilliant.
After an eye catching credit sequence, where an animated black bat follows a spot of blood that turns into a woman, the film flashes forward to contemporary times. Two gay antique dealers buy a number of Dracula’s possessions, coffin included, and transport them from Transylvania to Los Angeles. When one of them cuts his arm, Blacula’s bloodlust wakes him, and sets him loose on the streets. There, he finds a modern day woman who is the exact image of his Luva. As Blacula’s victims breed more victims, a black coroner and a white cop team up and try to stop the master vampire.
The plot is nothing new to horror fans. In fact, the whole movie could’ve ended up just another generic monster flick, but for one thing: the performance of William Marshall as Blacula. Marshall was a classically trained Shakespearean actor with a deep bass voice; he portrays the vampire as regal, eloquent and dignified. Even though he’s forever destined to be a bloodsucker, Blacula never forgets that he’s also a prince. Marshall is equally effective when Blacula’s on the hunt; with the minimalist addition of some extra facial hair and fangs, he transforms the character into a chilling beast that is the dark side of his noble prince. The character’s another example of how blaxploitation flicks’ leads were all about black empowerment: the well spoken man of political power who also knows how to kick ass. In the hands of a lesser actor, this character may have failed, but Marshall plays him perfectly.
Blacula establishes a tone that every horror fan should appreciate. Its use of music is both creepy and contemporary. Locations such as the graveyard and morgue stand out as typical horror venues, but Blacula also preys on the street, so nobody’s safe. Slow motion attacks throw the audience off balance. The acting is appropriate for a vampire flick, except for Vonetta McGee as Tina, the modern day incarnation of Luva; her performance is more wooden than a stake. The vampires look a little silly, with blue painted faces and foot long fangs. It’s a minor issue, though, because after all, this is an exploitation flick. Less acceptable is the film’s latent homophobia; constant gay cracks made toward the two antique dealers are an embarrassment in these more open times.
The film reminds the audience frequently that it’s blaxploitation. The loud fashion sense and colorful dialogue are right out of the Shaft school of filmmaking. My favorite line is when Prince Mamuwalde tells his nemesis at a night club that he’s into the "black arts." The night club also provides us with several funky songs from The Hues Corporation (of course it does; it’s an AIP film).
Because this is a minor effort in the cycle, MGM only provides a theatrical trailer on the disc. It’s a good trailer, but anyone who appreciates the film will want more.
Of course, the only way anyone would appreciate Blacula is if he’s a fan of this cycle of movies. Fortunately for me, my inner black male has loved the blaxploitation films from a very early age. Shaft and Black Caesar are among my guilty pleasures, and I own every film that Pam Grier made during the cycle. Because I’m also a horror fan, Blacula falls right in among my blaxploitation favorites. Bottom line: If you shun the masterpieces of Richard Roundtree and Fred "Hammer" Williamson, avoid Blacula. But if you’re down with those brothers, Blacula is a great late night flick.