A closer look at the classic 1972 blaxploitation horror film
One wonders what director William Crain’s early 1972 blaxploitation horror film Blacula would have been like if it wasn’t for the presence, dignity and creative input of actor William Marshall. The theatrically trained performer was brought on board early enough that he pushed for what was then just a quickie American International Pictures joint about a jive-talking bloodsucker to have a kind of grace and a soul that strayed beyond Gene Page’s bass-heavy afro-funk vibe. Because of Marshall, Blacula still stands as not just a high-point in the strange “urban” horror film sub-genre of the 1970s, it remains one of the best horror films of the decade full stop.
Blacula was a project put together after the global success of films like Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Badassssss Song and Gordon Park’s slick actioneer Shaft, both movies that signaled a rougher, edgier and sexier American action picture populated by and targeted to African Americans. But, especially in the case of Shaft and later, Larry Cohen’s Black Caesar, these movies were embraced by a wide audience whose skin color and societal perspectives were varied and diverse. Because of this, AIP saw an opening to cash in, blending their profitable Gothic exploitation horror films with a contemporary vibe, something Hammer was doing with their fun and innovative Dracula A.D. 1972. The result was Blacula. In it, a vampire named Andrew Brown was meant to maraud around L.A. looking for blood, the envy of every street corner pimp. But Marshall would have none of that.
The actor – who by this point had a smattering of film credits and a rich history of stage work – came up with the idea of giving the character some royal pedigree, lacing his story and motives with liberal doses of Shakespearean tragedy and ample pathos. With Marshall’s influence, Blacula became an African Prince, the noble Mamuwalde who, in the hastily shot opening, travels to Transylvania with his Princess Luva (played by genre regular Vonetta McGee) to break bread (blood?) with Count Dracula (Charles Macauley) and discuss the termination of the vile slave trade that has long plagued Mamuwalde’s people. But it’s a trap, of course. Unbeknownst to the Prince, Dracula is a vampire and the meeting is a ruse designed to first ridicule Mamuwalde (in a genius stroke, Dracula is a strong advocate for the slave trade and a cackling racist bastard) and then to make an example of him. He calls forth a horde of his ghoulish undead slaves and, with Luva restrained, he puts the bite on the Prince, hissing a soliloquy (while accidental but effective tears stream from his contact-irritated eyes) about how Mamuwalde will be punished for his audacity with a eternal lifetime of vampirism. He re-christens the now undead royal “Blacula” (a fantastic and kinky way to justify the silly title) and entombs the newbie vampire and his screaming bride in a chamber in his castle, where they are never to be heard from again.
A century later, two flamboyantly gay antique dealers show up at the castle and giddily pack up their finds to be shipped home. Amongst their loot is Blacula’s coffin and pretty soon the ravenous ebony ghoul wakes up and, with feral eyebrows and out of control sideburns, he kills and drains his effete liberators. If there’s any real drawback to Blacula, it’s the portrayal of these characters. For all of Marshall’s efforts to give depth to his vampire Prince, no respect was shown to this pair and they’re written and played as mincing gay camp cartoons. Worse, after they die, other heroic characters sneeringly refer to them posthumously as “a couple of faggots”. Sure, we can write it off as a sign of the times, as ignorance. But it also speaks, not-so-quietly, of the double standard that was coursing through so many of these movies, like despite the empowering of black actors and characters, we still needed to have one of society’s less defended minorities to laugh at and ridicule.
But if you can let that bit of unpleasantness go, Blacula is a marvel. Marshall’s vampire walks the streets in his cape, speaking eloquently and pining after the woman who appears to be the reincarnation of his long-dead lady love (again played by McGee). It’s amazing to watch Marshall hold court, to see the peripheral cast (including Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent) bow to his massive shadow. Marshall’s Mamuwalde doesn’t want to be a vampire. He wants to go home. He wants to re-connect with that which makes him human. He wants love. His bloodlust is a distraction. When his attempts to connect with McGee are foiled by a tough-talking female cab driver, he has no initial aim to kill the woman. He’s annoyed by her and, as he’s brushing himself off, he involuntarily devolves into that hirsute-browed, wild-eyed fiend, attacking and killing not out of malice or sadism but because of the damned curse that his white slave-trading antagonist Dracula put upon him. Marshall sells this conflict and duality brilliantly.
Blacula is scary too. Crain gives his black vampires a powder white sheen that makes them look authentically ghost-like but also adds an odd, disturbing reverse-minstrel aesthetic, as if the characters have to turn into “whitey” to exemplify their evil. This device is likely accidental, but that’s irrelevant. It’s there. And when those ghouls go for their prey, they run screaming in slow-motion. their fangs bared, like banshees from the pits of Hell. There were no vampires as savage as these prior to Blacula‘s release and they are unforgettable.
When Blacula reaches its sad, slow climax, it recalls another vampire film released that same year, Javier Aguirre’s Spanish Paul Naschy vehicle Count Dracula’s Great Love. Of course, there is no connection between the films. But the same romanticized device where both vampires, denied the love they have long sought, opt to kill themselves and end the pain of their shattered hearts. In Blacula, with his lady dead in his arms for a second round, he quietly tells his attackers to stand down, bows his head in misery and simply walks into the sun, the credits rolling mournfully over his disintegrating face. It’s not a happy film and the emotional smack the film carries is all Marshall.
Because of Blacula‘s runaway success, AIP hired their Count Yorga, Vampire director Bob Kelljan to make a sequel the following year. That film, Scream Blacula, Scream, is a much more violent and eroticized affair, pushing the previous film’s mild PG rating to that of an R and trading romanticism for cruelty. Because of Marshall (and a very young, gorgeous Pam Grier), the movie is still great, though in a very different way, with voodoo and revenge driving it and more of a focus on Blacula’s vampirized victims. But it’s no Blacula.
Incidentally, I have shown my kids Pee Wee’s Playhouse for years. They love the show. When I told them that “The King of Cartoons” was in fact played by the same guy who played a vampire in the movie Blacula, they didn’t buy it. And then I showed them the movie. And their minds were blown.
We lost William Marshall back in 2003. It was a great loss, one that should have been felt by all of Hollywood, not just the handful of maniacs who thrill to the world of Blacula. It’s important that we never forget him. He was, in his way, a trailblazer, bestowing beauty on what would otherwise have been just another crass piece of commercial fangwork. Blacula forever.