Blacula

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(Written in 2007 for the “Retro Cinema” feature at Cinematical.)

The No. 1 film in America last weekend, with more than $21 million at the box office, was Tyler Perry’s “Why Did I Get Married?” — and I don’t know a single person who saw it. That’s not a reflection on the movie’s quality, nor do I mean to suggest that somehow those figures aren’t accurate. All it means is that I’m white, and that almost everyone I know is also white, and that the few black friends I have are irreligious males, not the Christian females that are Tyler Perry’s most ardent supporters.

For someone who’s used to being in the racial majority, it’s strange to realize that a movie can be THAT popular and still be entirely disconnected from my world. It’s kind of cool, actually — especially when you consider that barely 35 years ago, no one was making movies specifically for black audiences at all.

With that in mind, I watched “Blacula.”

“Blacula” came out in 1972 and was one of the first so-called “blaxploitation” films. The definition of that genre is fluid, and you could argue that many films classified under the category don’t fit because they were made by black directors and crew members, and were thus not exploitative.

“Blacula” is more about empowerment than exploitation. The title character is Mamuwalde (William Marshall), a refined and eloquent African prince who, in the year 1780, visits Count Dracula at his castle as part of a diplomatic mission to end the slave trade. Dracula, unsurprisingly, is racist (among his other, better-documented faults) and responds by vampirizing Mamuwalde and sealing him and his still-living wife in a tomb.
Mamuwalde next awakens in the present (that is, 1972) when Dracula’s castle is purchased by an interracial gay couple, interior designers who bring all the furniture and coffins back to L.A. because they think vampire stuffy is kitschy. (The gays are always on the cutting edge of style.) Unfortunately for them, Mamuwalde arises from his coffin with a thirst for blood, and their bodies contain a lot of it, and their primary defense when this strange dude suddenly gets out of a presumed-empty coffin is to just stand there and look at him.

Mamuwalde is next seen lurking around the funeral parlor where the black interior designer will be memorialized. Why he would do this, I don’t know. I’m not even sure how he got in, since it’s daytime. At any rate, the dead guy’s friends are there, and one of them is a woman named Tina (Vonetta McGee) who looks just like Mamuwalde’s beloved wife Luva. Luva died almost 200 years ago, of course, but Mamuwalde doesn’t seem to realize how much time has passed. Then again, he’s not fazed by cars or telephones, either. My guess is that Mamuwalde just isn’t thinking things through very carefully.

He befriends Tina (after freaking her out at first) and starts dating her. Tina’s sister Michelle (Denise Nicholas), meanwhile, is dating one Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala), who has a connection to law enforcement that is not adequately explained. He’s a doctor, not a cop, but he investigates deaths, too, but he’s not part of CSI or the coroner’s office. He’s a sharp dresser and he has a mustache, though, which automatically makes him the hero in a 1972 black movie.

Gordon’s looking into the recent strange deaths that have involved bite marks and that have left the victims sapped of their blood — a detail which seems to have escaped the small, elderly coroner. It’s worth noting that this coroner is a white man whom Gordon bosses around, a motif that reverberates through this and most blaxploitation films.

Now, I could make fun of “Blacula” all day. Its exceedingly low budget and inattention to plot details are often hilarious. The scene where Mamuwalde finally explains everything to Tina, who proves to be remarkably easy-going about the whole I’m-dating-a-vampire situation, is priceless.

But I am impressed by how seriously the filmmakers seemed to take it, apparently trying to make a fairly straightforward horror film. The title — which I suspect was conceived first, before the story — is silly, but the movie isn’t, or at least not intentionally. Only Dracula ever calls Mamuwalde “Blacula”; the word is never heard again in the film. (It can be heard dozens of times in the trailer, though — I guess then, as now, trailers didn’t always represent their movies accurately.)

It’s hardly even a “black” movie, but rather a vampire movie that happens to have black characters. Most of the racial elements are subtle, like the aforementioned theme of Gordon being talented and effective while the white authority figures are useless. The white characters aren’t prejudiced against the black ones (except for one cop who observes that they “all look alike”), nor do the terms “honky” or “cracker” appear, as they often did in the more blatant black-vs-white films of the ’70s. In fact, the only people who get derogatory treatment at all are the ill-fated gay couple, who are casually referred to as “faggots” after their deaths. On the other hand, they were an interracial couple at a time when even interracial straight couples weren’t looked upon favorably, in movies or in real life, so maybe the film was being progressive there, too.

As a vampire movie, “Blacula” is certainly not the worst I’ve seen. (That would be “Dracula 2000.”) A few scenes are genuinely creepy, and director William Crain (who would go on to make “Dr. Black & Mr. Hyde,” naturally) did what he could with his limited resources to create an appropriate atmosphere for a horror movie, while maintaining the funky music and hip attitudes that black audiences responded to. Considering that horror and blaxploitation are two genres that easily lend themselves to campiness, “Blacula” is probably as good a combination of the two as could be expected. Whether Tyler Perry’s films, despite being more technically proficient, are any better, is a matter for another day.

B- (; PG.)

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