Welcome to the swingin’ Seventies! Vietnam and civil rights vied for headlines, funk and prog rock vied for headphones and exploitation films meant big box office. One of the biggest films of 1972 turned out to be–surprise!–yet another version of Dracula. But not just any version! Blacula (1972) helped kick off the blaxploitation genre that began with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) and lasted throughout the decade. Unlike many similar pics, Blacula featured literary underpinnings and more than a dash of horror to go with all that soul.Surprising no one, this isn’t a garden variety adaptation of Stoker’s novel. The fun begins in 1780, well in advance of the Count’s usual Victorian shenanigans. Dracula appears in the first scene, long enough to host African Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) at his humble Transylvanian castle, then curse him with vampirism and seal him in a coffin when Mamuwalde has the gall to suggest slavery is bad for business. Cut to the (then) present, as a flamboyant gay couple–both interior decorators, natch–clean out Dracula’s castle and ship his belongings home to Los Angeles for the kitsch factor. The treasure trove includes the sealed coffin of Mamuwalde–rechristened Blacula by the Count himself(!)–and he wastes no time trolling for jugulars. While acquainting himself with modern L.A. night life–set to several kickin’ live sets by the Hues Corporation before their big break–he runs across a familiar face. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: he recognizes Mina stand-in Tina (Vonetta McGee) as the reincarnation of his lost love, Luva. Dracula filmmakers do love this trope, don’t they? He pursues her across town until he runs afoul of Van Helsing stand-in Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) and Lt. Peters (Gordon Pinsent). There’s a hilarious and kind of awesome set piece in which all of Mamuwalde’s victims corner our heroes in a warehouse. The vampire hunters throw unlit oil lamps that somehow become flaming molotov cocktails when broken, cleaning up the lesser fiends. When Tina is killed in a tragic accident, Blacula reveals his classy side by offing himself in the sunlight, realizing he’s lost his reason for un-living. The films stands out for several reasons. First, it’s an exploitation flick with a surprisingly credible story, and it’s the first of a small wave of similar horror films. It’s a welcome respite from the usual thugs-and-drugs fare of the genre. Second, it’s our first metanarrative within a Dracula film; the Count is a well-known figure to the characters, and they’ve watched his previous films! It’s also the first to bring the Prince of Darkness into a whole new age (along with Hammer’s Dracula A.D. 1972 in the same year). Finally, this film is a product of its time, including the use of several slurs against several groups that burn modern ears like a vampire in sunlight. Blaxploitation films have received praise and condemnation, both with good reason. If casual use of offensive language isn’t your thing, proceed with caution.
Whatever your stance on (or tolerance for) exploitation films as a cultural force, this is a Dracula film that’s better than it has a right to be. William Marshall and his announcer-worthy voice lend enough gravitas to Mamuwalde to keep the whole affair from sliding into inanity. All the same, this is ’70s exploitation, afros and bellbottoms and all. And now I have to hunt down the sequel at some point, because Pam Grier! That prince had better watch his ass.
Blacula earns 1.25 out of 2 fangs out. Outasight!
Up next: Universal at last!