Blacula: cheap and campy cult classic given backbone by its monster

William Crain, “Blacula” (1972)

In 1780, a noble African Prince (William Marshall), known as Mamuwalde, visits Transylvania with his wife Luva to solicit the help of Count Dracula in ending the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Unfortunately Mamuwalde has come to the wrong place: not only does Dracula support slavery but he insultingly makes a pass at Luva by suggesting she join his harem … so Mamuwalde valiantly defends her honour but is overpowered by Dracula’s henchmen and turned into a vampire by the evil Romanian aristocrat. Mamuwalde is locked into a coffin to suffer for all eternity while Luva (Vonetta McGee) dies from suffocation locked in the crypt with the coffin. Nearly 200 years later, two interior decorators in Los Angelese acquire furniture from Dracula’s castle and unwittingly come into contact with the revived Mamuwalde, now become Blacula, when they unlock his coffin. Mamuwalde / Blacula later comes into contact with Tina (McGee again), who resembles Luva, when he sees her at the funeral home witnessing the body of one of the interior decorators he has killed. Blacula becomes obsessed with meeting Tina again (and again) in the hope that they might become a couple (again, in his mind). Meanwhile, a friend of Tina’s sister, police pathologist Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala), becomes suspicious over a trail of murder deaths in which the victims’ necks show bite marks and he suspects that a vampire is on the loose.

Thus begins one of the earliest blaxploitation films “Blacula” in which the leading roles (hero, villain) are played by black Americans. Much of the film reflects US mainstream culture’s stereotypes circa 1970 about urban black people, how they act, dress and speak. It’s to the credit of Marshall on insisting that he be able to play Blacula as a tragic character, originally a man of nobility and integrity in his desire to save his fellow Africans from being enslaved but degraded by a villain into becoming a monster with an insatiable appetite for human blood. As a vampire, Mamuwalde / Blacula spreads fear and panic in Los Angeles as the number of his victims increases almost exponentially as more of them become vampires themselves. His loyalty to and sincere love for Luva becomes perverted into lust for Tina. The film treats Mamuwalde / Blacula in a respectful way, compared to its portrayal of the interior decorators (who happen to be a gay couple), and the paradoxical result is that the vampire appears more monstrous than he would otherwise had he been played as the film-makers had intended.

Apart from Marshall’s Blacula character, the rest of the film is cheap and campy, and the various characters, even Rasulala’s police pathologist turned vampire hunter, are rather one-dimensional. Had the film-makers had access to a bigger budget, they might have invested some of the money in some character development so that Thomas and detective Jack Peters (Gordon Pinsent) could prove worthy adversaries of Blacula, and Tina an equally tragic figure worthy of true sympathy as a woman who finds true love at last … from a monster. The plot needs an overhaul as well so that the theme of exploitation might be better explored, from Dracula’s degradation of Mamuwalde to Mamuwalde’s manipulation of Tina, among other possibilities. But then “Blacula” probably wouldn’t have been the cheap and cheerful cult classic it is, posing a challenge to audiences to root for the noble killer monster rather than the dreary heroes who must rid their city (sleazy and superficial) of his menace.