BLACULA: Biting Genre Work

The night side of African royalty

The following contains spoilers for the 1972 film Blacula.

Blacula: A relic, a punchline. Better than its reputation suggests, Blacula is a strange film of mixed intentions and execution. In the light of Black Panther, released this week, I thought about this film (which I have been going over in my mind, in some capacity, since I first saw it). Aside from the fact that both Blacula and Black Panther are pulp stories about fictional African royalty, there’s also a slight bookending effect present in each. Blacula, which followed on the heels of a long string of vampire films where the lead monster (often Count Dracula himself) was portrayed by white actors, is like Black Panther and the Marvel films in looking at both the things it did the same and differently than the movies that came before it.

Blacula opens in Transylvania in 1780. African prince Mamuwalde (portrayed by 6’5” giant of a man William Marshall, who speaks with a voice so rich and deep it’s located somewhere in Barry White’s basement) is at the castle of Count Dracula with his wife, Luva (Vonetta McGee). Prince Mamuwalde is there to meet Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay) to discuss ending the slave trade of his people, the Abani. Based on the fact that Mamuwalde wears clothes that wouldn’t look out of place in the 1970s and Dracula looks like he shops at the Quaker Oats Men’s Wearhouse, we can assume Mamuwalde’s nation, like Wakanda in Black Panther, is more advanced. The fact that Mamuwalde will eventually express no culture shock upon entering the modern age also points us toward this. At the very least, we know his home is more advanced socially.

After an evening in which we sense there was an uneasy comradery, Dracula is appalled at the idea of ending the slave trade and begins patronizing Mamuwalde about how ridiculous his idea is while they sit around the dinner table. When Mamuwalde presses the issue as the count directs insinuations and insults at Luva, Dracula turns on him. He decides to turn Mamuwalde into a vampire due to having the temerity to ask that his fellow countrymen be no longer treated as chattel by the moneyed class. In other words, the black man got uppity and needed to be put down for it. This idea is made even stronger when, pre-dating Roots by five years, Dracula takes Mamuwalde’s name from him. Count Dracula, having fed on Mamuwalde, gives him his Toby moment and tells him he now bears the vampire curse and will be known as Blacula. The count traps him in a coffin and then leaves Luva behind to die after witnessing what happened to her husband, closing her up in the tomb like Fortunato.

Away my minions! To the Hot Topic!

Cut to the today of 1972, nearly two hundred years later (which begs the question of why the film didn’t just begin in 1772 so it could slap up a “Two Centuries Later” title card, but go figure). We’re introduced to a mixed-race couple of ridiculously campy gay interior decorators, Bobby McCoy (Ted Harris) and Billy Schaffer (Ricky Metzler) who are in Transylvania to get a bargain on the belongings of the former Castle Dracula. They coo over how much all the gothic bric-à-brac will go for back in the States while the estate’s salesman warns them about Dracula and how he was very real, a notion blown off by the two as they count the spoons.

Once they get back to L.A. and start to inventory their recent purchases in earnest, the couple takes stock of their extensive collection of used coffins. Bobby wants to see inside of one of the coffins and begins trying to break it open, unleashing Blacula who springs to life, hungry for blood and going for fast food (or not so fast as it happens). He goes for the two, turning them into the first of his new acolytes. One problem Blacula has, you see, is he never kills outright. His meals always turn.

By unboxing Blacula, his collector’s value went way down

From there the film becomes a vampire movie in earnest. Blacula bites cab drivers and hostesses, building his vampire army. In the meanwhile, Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala), the film’s equivalent to Professor Van Helsing, who suffers the Cassandra-like fate of being the only one to recognize that the situation is abnormal and probably vampires from the word go must struggle to prove it to everyone including his lady, Michelle (Denise Nicholas), and his police colleague, Lt. Jack Peters (Gordon Pinsent). While Dr. Thomas sets about this task, Blacula comes across Michelle’s sister, Tina (Vonetta McGee, again), and sees her as his former wife, Tuva, reborn (in one of the earliest uses of the reincarnated former lover plot point in a vampire movie, an idea first used in the 1932 film, The Mummy). He seduces her to the point where they become lovers all the while being hunted by Dr. Thomas.

Eventually Dr. Thomas finds the vampire’s lair, the warehouse where Blacula was first reawakened. Blacula has fled, but while there Dr. Thomas and the LAPD dispatch a horde of vampires. They chase Blacula down afterwards, going after him in the chemical plant where he’s holed up. In their pursuit they come across a coffin—except, in a horrific twist, it contains the recently turned Tina who Peters stakes by accident. Heartbroken at losing the same woman twice—once in his life and once in his unlife—Blacula walks upstairs and into the sun, killing himself. The end.

A face to die for… again and again.

The film looks cheap, but it’s hard to gauge how much of that comes from the low budget and how much from the fact that the 1970s in general is a cheap, polyester decade. Partly it comes down to the fact that the film’s production company, the House that Roger Corman and Vincent Price Built, American International Pictures, had begun moving onto dramas and quirky youth films by this point and partly that, unlike Hammer, they didn’t make much in the way of monster pictures. Technicolor gothics, sure. Monster pictures, no. The lack of being a monster movie house is best evidenced in the cheapness of the makeup effects—the vampires are putty gray ghouls wearing Halloween party-favor teeth and Blacula himself gets a nasty case of sideburnitis whenever he’s on the prowl. In terms of Blacula the vampire, overgrown sideburns is as much his signature as the bloody tears Christopher Lee cried in his umpteen incarnations as Dracula (and which AIP blatantly copied for their Count Dracula in the first prologue scene). As far as the rest of the film itself, there’s a weird vérité quality as if we’re watching vampire footage crammed into documentary recreations of the culture of the era.

The term “blaxploitation” feels like a misnomer. It’s an odd way to say a film has a majority black cast and a slightly amateur feel. Lumping together all sorts of films (made for what was ten percent of the population at the time) in a such a way sits uneasily with me especially as the term has come to be partly derogative. Blacula is blaxploitation because it has a black vampire and a punny name. But it’s weird that something like The Scars of Dracula, then, isn’t whitesploitation. To make films for a black audience, there seemingly has to be a reason for it. We see the same argument coming up with Black Panther now. It’s about something. As if being entertaining wouldn’t be enough. My rules for art are simple, and I think they can be applied universally—or, in other words, try ‘em, you might like ‘em. They are as follows: 1) The piece must, in some way, explicate the human condition, and 2) the piece cannot first be explicitly made for advertising (or propaganda which is, essentially, advertising a political ideology). Now, that said, if a piece can go beyond just explicating something about the human condition (i.e. love overcomes, justice prevails, sometimes something as simple as the cathartic notion that bad guys need to get walloped) and get into real social stuff and still be entertaining about it all, then good for it. But it’s not a requirement. Except to certain types.

There’s an odd sort of a racial demand to requiring a movie made about black people be about something. You can almost imagine the producer of the movie sitting there behind his desk, hands folded across his belly, head faintly glinting through thinning hair, cigar poking out of one side of his mouth: “Sure, sure,” he says, “the movie will cater to 10 percent of the population, or 1 out of every 10 people. I get that. But why? What’s it about?”

Well, if it’s a regular vampire film it’s about sex and death and Victorian hypocrisy and hints about the Ripper killings and malign foreign influence and all the sorts of things that it’s always been about since F.W. Murnau fudged his way through getting the rights to Dracula and Christopher Lee fudged his way through Dracula’s satanic rites. But to get a check cut for a film like this, it has to be about something. Blacula doesn’t get to spend its time mired in the past adapting previous stories or existing, as the Hammer oeuvre does, in some quasi-perpetual end to the Victorian era which lends everything a removed, almost fairytale quality. You can’t make a black vampire movie on the heels of the Civil Rights movement without it being about something, and Blacula very much is.

Beginning with our back-to-back prologues, we begin to get some of the mixed messaging. Coming in 1972, the film is, in many ways, ahead of the social curve. And in many ways behind it. The messaging is muddled and complex partly the way life is and partly the way slightly amateur filmmaking is. The film will often present a social message that it then undercuts and then supports again. Take the opening metaphor. It presents the audience with a strong, noble black figure and his wife, fighting for the rights of their people, who are put down by Count Dracula—a literal honky devil—in perhaps the most on-the-nose take on the Civil Rights movement possible. And, in a way that seems prescient of the AIDS movement years before there even was an AIDS movement, Blacula eats his way through the local community, attacking gays and blacks alike. The simplistic, negative take would be that Blacula is only devouring his own people, an argument which I see on the surface, but which doesn’t resonate with me at all nor jibes with the story. Marshall, in one of the most layered vampire performances, plays a guy with an addiction—and not one he’s proud of. You can see it in his eyes. There is a level of “Oh, damn,” in their expression before he starts into bloodsucking, hating himself and being unable to stop himself simultaneously. The fact that Blacula preys on his own community (ostensibly because the film features a majority black cast by way of being part of the “blaxploitation” category) seems as much of part of his curse as anything else. A man, once a fighter for the rights of his own, is now reduced to treating them as meals and hating himself for it.

The film also stumbles in presenting the gay couple. It acknowledges, in a post-Stonewall climate, that gay people do in fact exist and participate in society. Further, it’s a mixed-race couple, a novelty at the time even amongst straight couple depictions. But then the film refers to them, using that dreaded modern F-word, as faggots over and over again. As far as 1972 goes, amongst an urban environment, this is to be expected, but it still sends out a weird message. These two aren’t judged personally, just by the existence of their lifestyle, in the much the same way a Victorian anthropologist might refer to a certain tribal group as pygmies. There’s something more taxonomic than personal about it which is, of course, its own form of dehumanization. It’s the generic societal contract that places this couple into this insulting box. The film then undercuts this again when it presents the open-casket viewing of Bobby with his family, Michelle and Tina, visiting and mourning him without judgement, a group of people for whom the man came first in their feelings, his lifestyle not at all. And when it comes to hunting down Blacula for his crimes, Dr. Thomas treats these victims as no less important a motivation for stopping the vampire than any of the number of other people Blacula kills throughout the film.

There’s a minor subplot in the film that struck me so much I can recall it with almost perfect clarity. It, end to end, is as perfect a small vampire story, an almost completely self-contained little gem, as has even been done. Dr. Thomas, Tina, and Michelle are in a club listening to soul from The Hues Corporation while celebrating Michelle’s birthday. Blacula makes an entrance and starts chatting up the table, ostensibly to get closer to Tina. Nancy (Emily Yancy), a club hostess, comes over and offers to take the group’s photo so they have a memory of the night. She, when not mincing around the club scantily clad, has a small photo developing dark room in her house down the street with which she supplements her income. The ending is, of course, that she discovers that there’s no Blacula in the photo of Blacula and Tina that she develops so Blacula enters her home and sucks her blood to protect his identity. Watching this little story, in which we get to see the home life of a woman not in the main cast, really brought to life the feeling that I got watching the movie that it had less to do with vampires and more with the society of the time. The aspects of this scene alone contain multitudes: Women having to work multiple jobs, women with technical skills having to use their bodies first, black women in the labor force, the predations of men, male on female violence, the upper class feeding on the lower, and on and on. There are shades of Manson in the break in and murder of a beautiful woman. Yancy is so good in this little section that your heart breaks when she gets turned. This is a woman living her own story cut down in the prime of her life by the vampiric nature of the very society she inhabits. The movie has something to say and it says it.

Now you know why photographers are so fussy about dark rooms.

Watching Blacula, the one movie that came most to mind, instead of any turn by Lugosi or Lee as the vampire, or any of the other 1970s re-adaptations of Dracula (the Kinski/Herzog Nosferatu remake, the Langella film, or the Palance TV version) was Dirty Harry. That 1971 film which must, by any measure that would consider Blacula blaxploitation, be considered whitesploitation (or even conservsploitation), attempted in the same way Blacula does, to depict the society of the time, with little vignettes punctuating an overarching crime story. Harry Callahan hunts down Zodiac stand-in, the Scorpio killer, in early ‘70s San Francisco while Dr. Gordon Thomas hunts down the titular monster, Blacula, in early ‘70s Los Angeles. Along the way we get a more intimate portrait of the world in which the film is set, a deeper, more gritty look at the time than was normally depicted even if Harry is the more reactionary movie.

One more thing Blacula brings to the table, that Black Panther does now, and Blade did when this whole superhero shebang was kicked off in a modern way, is representation. When I saw the movie, the first thing that struck me was how a child might’ve felt seeing themselves represented up on the screen. Black people, for decades, had been invisible men and women, but now they got to be the lead in their own monster mash. Now a child who grew up on Creepy and Eerie comics (and the EC Crypt, Haunt, and Vault series, depending on how old they were) got to participate in pulp horror. A black man could lead a franchise like this. How wonderful that must have been.

In the end, Blacula earned over a million dollars making it one of the most profitable movies of 1972. It spawned a sequel, Scream, Blacula, Scream, from AIP and another company made a Black Frankenstein (aka Blackenstein) movie to capitalize on its success. In the mid ‘70s a film called Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde was also made. But Blacula saw little more. Had it kept up the interesting scripts rather than fallen into the trap of sequels becoming generic, Blacula might have spawned its own universe of black monster movies. We might have gotten a Blolfman, a Hunchblack, a Creature from the White Lagoon. As it is we got a supremely interesting movie and a less interesting sequel. Blacula will probably never become my favorite vampire film, and it may not be great art, but that seems a dubious distinction to me. It made me think during it and I’ve kept thinking about it as I said in the beginning, in some form or other since, chewing over scenes and meaning in my mind. Very few films, let alone horror films, can make that claim. Most have the lasting impact of popcorn fluff.  I’d recommend the movie to everyone and in that sense, that I think it’s a film everyone needs to see, especially every genre fan, it’s great art. It will make you think. It will make you feel. And it might just quicken your pace when you walk home at night.