A Bomb in the Lasagna: My Evening with Blacula

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Where would internet film critics be today without bargain DVD bins? Probably writing run-of-the-mill clickbait lists, and we know you don’t want that, do you? Case in point, after failing to find anything I was exceedingly eager to write about on the usual streaming service scan, I decided to drop by my local record store to check out what treasures might await me in the hallowed plastic storage tubs of DVDs at the store’s entrance. And those bins did not disappoint.

In addition to a copy of the Replacements’ Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash (because you were dying to know, I’m sure), my record store sojourn also graced me with a double feature DVD of Blacula and its sequel Scream, Blacula, Scream. And as any reasonable human would do, I watched both in one evening.

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American International Pictures

Despite existing at the intersection of two of my favorite genres—old school Universal-style monster horror and 70s Blaxploitation—I had never seen Blacula or its sequel; my knowledge of the character mainly stemming from a kind of cultural osmosis. The films existed in my mind largely as shorthand for the silliness of a lot of blaxploitation films of the early 70s in the wake of movies like Super Fly. I came in expecting camp and low production values, but what I found were fun, if uneven horror movies that were surprisingly well thought out (with low production values).

Blacula (1972)

The Plot: African Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) and his wife travel to Transylvania in 1780 to ask the help of Count Dracula in ending the slave trade. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dracula is pretty cool with slaves and promptly turns Mamuwalde into a vampire and kills his wife. Mamuwalde—christened (anti-christened?) “Blacula” by Dracula himself— lies undisturbed for nearly 200 years until a pair of antique dealers purchase the effects of Castle Dracula and unwittingly bring the vampiric Mamuwalde to 1970s LA. Blacula is content to feast on the living until he meets Tina (Vonetta McGee), who bears a striking resemblance to dead wife. As Blacula terrorizes LA and romances Tina, he is tailed by pathologist Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala), a man who’s become suspicious of the number of bodies turning up all over the city drained of blood.

Blacula has its feet in two worlds and understands both well. Even in 1972, many of the tropes and stock characters of the genre are already in place: jive talking pimps, musical interludes in nightclubs, foot chases set to funky, wah-pedal tinged guitar, and surly, old white cops who aid the heroes with dashes of skepticism and weariness. Blacula utilizes and lays the groundwork for these elements to great effect, building a familiar world in which to unleash its monsters and mysticism. And it’s here that the influence of old Universal films come in. Like many of the Universal classics of the 30s (or 50s in the case of Creature from the Black Lagoon), the monster at the film’s center is magnetic and sympathetic. Instead of having the titular character be a blaxploitation caricature of a vampire, Mamuwalde is, at heart, a Universal monster that’s been transported into a blaxploitation world and acts accordingly. When not feeding on the living and brooding, Mamuwalde takes in the loudly colored world of 1972 with a mix of amusement and confusion that is a lot of fun to watch.

And what a world it is. -Source

American International Pictures And what a world it is.

Mamuwalde is key to why the movie is able to tow the line between horror and blaxploitation so well. Portrayed by classically trained actor and opera singer William Marshall, a character that could easily have been as ridiculous as the name “Blacula” suggests becomes a dynamic screen presence easily rivals the vampire likes of Bela Lugosi, Christpher Lee, and Peter Cushing. Marshall has fun with the role but also clearly tries to respect it. Marshall plays Mamuwalde with nobility when interacting with other characters, savagery when with his victims, and a pained vulnerability when the script calls for it. It’s largely because of this last quality that the reincarnated love conceit (beating Francis Ford Coppola to the punch by two decades) works at all. It’s also worth noting that with his excess hairiness and bushy mustache Marshall is closer to Stoker’s physical description of the Count than most versions of Dracula on screen.

It' also worth noting that despite the existence of Dracula films in this universe, no one ever questions the dude dressed exactly like him. -Source

It’ also worth noting that despite the existence of Dracula movies in this “Blacula”, no one ever questions the dude dressed exactly like him. American International Pictures

While the film gives us the best elements of blaxploitation and old school horror, it also gives us some of the worst elements of both as well. Some elements, such as the cringe-inducing gay stereotypes that accidentally bring Mamuwalde stateside, leave a bad taste in the mouth, particularly since they, and other gay characters are almost exclusively referred to as “faggots”. It’s a gross reminder of the culture of the early 70s and the less-enlightened elements of blaxploitation that tend to be omitted in retrospectives. Vonetta McGee’s Tina is a Universal damsel character, decidedly for the worse. Despite fleeing in terror and being ready to knife Mamuwalde in their first encounter, she starts trusting him way too easily after he finds her at a nightclub and returns her purse. Despite some obvious red flags, Tina becomes deeply and frequently infuritatingly infatuated with the vampire. I found myself yelling at the screen over Tina’s increasingly long chain of poor decisions in a way that I haven’t since I watched The Dunwich Horror.

Grim reminders of the less-than-rad elements of Universal horror heroines and 1972 aside, Blacula was a surprisingly engaging horror film that mixed its scares and laughs pretty well.

Scream Blacula Scream (1973)

 

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American International Pictures

The Plot: After Lisa (Pam Grier) takes control of a voodoo cult, Willis (Richard Lawson), the spurned son of the former leader swears vengeance, attempting to curse the new leader with a spell using the bones of Mamuwalde, accidentally resurrecting the vampire. The resurrected Blacula ingrains himself into the cult, converting its members into his vampire army, leaving Lisa as the police’s no.1 suspect for the killings. Mamuwalde protects Lisa from the attacks of the other vampires, including an undead Willis, hoping that she will be able to cure him of his vampire curse so that he may return to his homeland. But with cult member and former detective Justin Carter (Don Mitchell) and Police Lt. Harry Dunlop (Michal Conrad) on his trail, will Mamuwalde be able to complete his ritual and resist his vampire urges to spare Lisa?

With its opening on a voodoo ritual, Scream Blacula Scream is already in much stranger spiritual territory than its predecessor. The first film was very much a classic European vampire story set in black, urban LA , whereas as the sequel tries to connect with Blacula’s origins as an African prince in a way that the first didn’t. While this is an interesting concept, its not as well realized as it should be. We never learn as much about the cult or its internal structure and formation as one would like, leaving the central institution of the film (outside of Mamuwalde) a vague outline of something greater.

The pacing of the film suffers as a result. The opening and the ensuing ritual that raises Mamuwalde feel like the middle of a conflict we didn’t see the beginning of. The vampire action of the first feels further spaced out and, while fun when it occurs is often spaced between over-long discussions of voodoo and spirituality. The detective story of the film is nearly identical to that of the first, with the exception of the pathologist of the first film being replaced by an art collector and cult member, and to lesser effect. Mitchell’s spiritual bent should make his search for the vampire more intriguing, but often just feels like a rehash of what came before, but this time the surly, old white cop is older and surlier. Admittedly, Mitchell does get the best (only) anxiously reloading a crossbow during a vampire attack scene I’ve ever witnessed.

I demand more conveniently placed crossbows in horror movies. -Source

I demand more conveniently placed crossbows in horror movies. American International Pictures

Once again, Marshall is the engine that makes the film work even in its sleepier moments. This time, he plays Mamuwalde as much more tragic character, a vampire who hates his curse even as he is slave to it. That’s a pretty common concept now, but is pretty unique for the time. His facial expression after draining a victim of blood can be likened to a drug addict getting a fix, the relief and guilt in his eyes adding a poignant touch to Marshall’s portrayal. William Marshall is incredibly likable in the role and easily carries the film.

I was excited to see Pam Grier, the undisputed queen of the blaxploitation genre, cast in the sequel, especially after McGee’s passive performance in the last film. I was hoping Grier would play the strong, capable female character she’s known for in films like Foxy Brown and Jackie Brown (no relation), but was disappointed to find she wasn’t given much to do here. Despite being the leader of the cult, Grier spends most of the film scared and hysterical as vampires threaten her life. Lisa does exert some agency at the end, but ultimately spends most of the film doing Mamuwalde’s bidding, which was disappointing. She is a strong, independent character only when compared to Tina in the first film.

Why couldn't you be this freakin' calm and collected in the actual movie? -Source

Why couldn’t you be this freakin’ calm and collected in the actual movie?American International Pictures

Scream Blacula Scream is still a fun watch, and has plenty of interesting ideas, but is too frequently unfocused to realize most of them in a truly satisfying way.

Ultimately, my evening with Blacula was an enjoyable one. Marshall has a fantastic screen presence and its criminal that he’s not lauded more often for his performance. Occasionally dated, and often in painful ways, Blacula is an excellent marriage of genres and an immensely enjoyable and quirky horror film (I didn’t even get to talk about the grumpy morgue employee who has a hook for a hand for some reason). Scream Blacula Scream is certainly fun, if not as essential and suffering from poor pacing. So the next time you find yourself around a bargain DVD bin, keep your eyes open for Prince Mamuwalde. You won’t regret it.

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