February, as you probably know, is Black History Month. In honor of this, I’m focusing on some of the amazing cinematic accomplishments by African American actors and filmmakers, such as BLOOD AND BONE. But February is also notable for Valentine’s Day, which I celebrated last year with the vaguely Valentine horror X-RAY. This year I decided to combine the two with a classic Blaxploitation horror flick with a great romantic story at its heart. Then I completely forgot about it and missed Valentine’s Day. So now I present—a bit late—the 1972 better-than-you-would-expect vampire love story, BLACULA!
In 1780 Transylvania, erudite African prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) is discussing the finer points of having his nation recognized by the European world. Unfortunately, his dinner host turns out to be Dracula (Charles Macaulay), who is a rude, racist son of a bitch. And also a vampire. He bites Mamuwalde and locks him in a coffin to be eternally tormented by an unquenchable thirst for blood. He also leaves Mamuwalde’s still mortal wife (Vonetta McGee) locked in the same room to be tormented by her own thirst—and hunger—for a much shorter period. Two centuries later, a pair of interior designers purchase the coffin and ship it to Los Angeles, where they unleash Mamuwalde on the modern world of 1972. Shortly after breaking his 200 year dry spell, he is stunned to encounter a woman named Tina who looks exactly like his long dead wife. Tina is unaware of his true nature, but is inexplicably drawn to him. It doesn’t hurt that he is a charming motherfucker with a badass cape. Her friend Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) is suspicious of this smooth talking mystery man, though. He works for the police and has been puzzled by the recent number of bodies found drained of blood. Can he and Tina’s sister, Michelle (Denise Nicholas) put the pieces together before Mamuwalde turns Tina into his bloodsucking bride?
Let’s get this out there right out of the gate: it cannot be overstated how much Dracula is a racist dickhole. Gary Oldman really glazed over that aspect of the character, but Charles Macaulay brings it with full force. Before the fangs ever come out, he condescendingly ridicules Mamuwalde’s desire to eliminate the slave trade and suggests that it has its merits. He even offers to buy Mamuwalde’s wife, acting like it’s some great cultural honor. Then he has the nerve to take offense when Mamuwalde very urbanely disses his company and cognac. Entombing the guy to suffer for all eternity and leaving his wife to starve to death is a bit of an overreaction, if you ask me. For an ancient lord of darkness, Dracula has very thin skin.
He’s also the asshole who comes up with the whole “Blacula” thing. After Dracula bites Mamuwalde, he makes a big deal about cursing the prince with his name. The only thing is, Mamuwalde is unconscious at the time, and Dracula doesn’t engrave it on the coffin or anything. Two hundred years later when the coffin is opened, there is no one left who remembers Dracula’s clever little wordplay. Mamuwalde is the only name he goes by for the rest of the film. You failed miserably on that one, Dracula. Sad!
I was hoping the ending would be a Dracula vs. Blacula throw down where the jerk finally gets his comeuppance, but no. Once it switches to modern times, the castle's real estate agent explains that Dracula was taken out like a chump by the Van Helsings (the whole family?). I guess the director figured Dracula had gotten enough attention with all the other Dracula movies, and his racist ass didn’t deserve anymore screen time.
This is not a tale of revenge, though. It is a love story. Mamuwalde encounters the reincarnation of his beloved wife, Luva, very soon after being awoken. His only motivation suddenly becomes insuring his love is by his side for eternity. He doesn’t overpower her, or beguile her with his vampire powers, he doesn’t need to. Tina doesn’t recognize Mamuwalde and is at first frightened by him, but soon finds herself drawn to the man. It’s not just because he is charming and well dressed (lucky they had such fly tuxedos in 1780, because he never changes outfits). She instinctively believes Mamuwalde when he explains his story, accepting her role as Luva reincarnated. The choice is entirely up to her. Mamuwalde promises never to bother her again if she refuses to be his vampire bride. She doesn’t hesitate to accept. I believe it’s meant to be fate, the reunion of two tragic souls, rather than just an incredibly wild coincidence.
Of course, not everyone finds it so romantic. Especially Gordon Thomas, Police Doctor. It’s never established exactly what Dr. Gordon does for the police. He’s not a forensics guy or a medical examiner. He basically runs the whole department, though. Even Lt. Jack Peters (Gordon Pinsent), the highest ranked cop in the movie, is constantly deferring to him. He is certainly the most competent person on the force (the look that Gordon gives Peters when he asks if the two bloodless corpses they found could be related to the Black Panthers is priceless). Naturally, Gordon becomes suspicious that the string of exsanguination murders just might be connected to the mysterious dude in the cape hanging out with his girl’s sister.
Gordon has his work cut out for him, because Mamuwalde is one cool cat. For someone locked in a casket for almost 200 years, he adapts to modern life remarkably quickly. He struts into the swinging nightclub where Tina and her friends hang out less like an 18th century aristocrat and more like a L.A. regular. Nothing fazes him, not electricity, or television, or automobiles. Well, one taxi does faze him, but only because it runs him over. Even that seems to be more from the shock from seeing Tina for the first time than from being plowed into by a horseless carriage. It does offer the sassy cab driver a few moments to yell at him for running out in front of her before he turns her into a vampire.
The movie uses low impact vampirism rules. Mamuwalde just has to drain a person and they return as one of his undead servants. By the end of the movie, he’s amassed quite a little army. Gordon and Lt. Peters find themselves in a pickle when they track down the nest and find themselves surrounded. Lucky for them that these vampires follow the same habits as the ones from VAMP, and make sure their hidden lair is stocked with plenty of flammable liquid.
Ultimately, it all ends in [spoiler] tragedy. Gordon, Michelle, and Lt. Peters make a last ditch attempt to rescue Tina before she can fly away (as a bat) with Mamuwalde. In all the cop killing chaos that ensues, Gordon accidentally stakes the freshly minted Vamp Tina. With nothing left to live for, Mamuwalde leaves Gordon and the rest alive and exposes himself to the sunlight. It is practically Shakespearean, but with more shriveling flesh and maggots.
The movie does have a few of the weirdo moments I live for. Famous character actor Elisha Cook Jr. plays a crotchety morgue assistant with a hook hand. I didn’t notice until his second scene because no one ever mentions it and it has absolutely no purpose. My theory is Cook just showed up wearing it.
I did notice that Dr. Gordon’s lab desk has a large jar simply labeled POISON. You know, for that authentic medical professional look. It’s not as great as an open container of ACID perched on a top of a shelf, but I’ll take it.
My favorite bit of strangeness is Skillet (Ji-Tu Cumbuka), a guy from the nightclub who just inserts himself at Tina, Gordon, and Michelle’s table and totally ruins the mood. They never establish his relationship to any of the characters, he’s just a mooch who drinks their champagne and hits on the cocktail waitress. I kept waiting for him to run afoul of Mamuwalde (like the cocktail waitress does when she takes his picture) or to factor into the story in some meaningful way. But nope, he’s just Skillet, baby.
Director William Crain was one of the first African American filmmakers to hit it big, commercially. BLACULA made a huge amount of money for American International Pictures (AIP) and spawned a slew of Blaxploitation horror films, including the eventual sequel, SCREAM BLACULA, SCREAM (starring Pam Grier!). Crain himself did one more, DR. BLACK AND MR. HYDE, before moving into television (including, inexplicably, The Dukes of Hazard).
Overall, it’s a pretty solid production for such a low budget, and more dignified than one would expect from the title. Mamuwalde is a very sympathetic character, despite him being a murderous fiend. His scenes with Tina are incredibly romantic, and I can’t be the only one who wanted them to get away together. Not everyone comes off in the best light (the gay interior decorators are cringe worthy stereotypes), but the main cast, the heroic Gordon, the brave Michelle, and the well intentioned Lt. Peters, come off looking good. Except for Dracula. Man, fuck that guy.
P.S. I can't believe I went the whole piece without equating racist Dracula to Trump.
P.S. I can't believe I went the whole piece without equating racist Dracula to Trump.