William Crain, 1972
Starring: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Denise Nicholas
In the sixteenth century, African Prince Mamuwalde is turned into a vampire by Count Dracula when he seeks the Count's help in abolishing the slave trade. In support of slavery and craving Mamuwalde's beautiful and beloved wife Luva, Dracula also imprisons him in a coffin and later kills Luva. Two hundred years later, two decorators purchase the contents of Dracula's castle in an estate sale, which includes Mamuwalde's coffin. They open it at their L.A. home and are quickly killed by the vampire. At a local funeral home, Mamuwalde first meets Tina, who appears to be the reincarnation of his long lost Luva.
A forensic pathologist, Dr. Thomas, suspects supernatural foul play on the bodies of the two decorators, meanwhile Mamuwalde adds more victims to his list. Tina begins to fall in love with him of her own accord, despite the growing number of vampires in the city. The hunt begins in earnest for Mamuwalde, but he is a vicious predator and will not be so easy to subdue…
Surprisingly, Blacula was of the most successful films of the year and even won some awards despite a mixed critical reception. As with the somewhat similar Count Yorga, Vampire, Blacula was produced by horror-focused studio American International Pictures, who were at that point in their decline and hoping for a new, unpredictable success. This film was the first portrayal of a black vampire on screen, though in the following year it would be eclipsed by the obscure, but powerful Ganja and Hess.
Blacula was also part of a wave of early '70s horror films that placed the vampire in a modern, urban setting, such as the aforementioned Count Yorga, Vampire (1970), Kolchak, The Night Stalker (1972), and Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972). It was also the first blaxploitation film to move away from action/crime and into horror. Its popularity would ensure a small wave of similar films, such as a sequel, Scream Blacula Scream, Blackenstein, Abby, The House on Skull Mountain, Sugar Hill, and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde. The Bond film Live and Let Die also treads on similar ground as one of the main villains is a voodoo practitioner.
The film is surprisingly enjoyable, and well made for a later AIP effort, but it mostly comes recommended for fans of campy '70s horror or blaxploitation films (afros and jive talk abound). There are some effectively scary scenes, including the moment when Elisha Cook, Jr. (House on Haunted Hill) is attacked in the morgue by a newly risen vampire. The finest element of the film is certainly the performance of William Marshall, who also appeared on Star Trek and in William Girdler's horror-blaxploitation film Abby, though as the Van Helsing figure in that film.
Marshall's Mamuwalde is a somewhat heroic, surprisingly noble character, aware of his own evil but determined to spare the woman he loves. This is one of the early cinematic portrayals of a vampire as a tragic, romantic character. This would be used again in the 1979 adaptation of Dracula starring Frank Langella and in the ill-fated Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1992. Blacula's central premise is that Mamuwalde desires to be reunited with his love, a woman he believes to be his wife reincarnated. Though this was not an element of the original Dracula (1931) or its source novel, it was present in The Mummy (1932), though Imhotep is less interested in letting the allegedly reincarnated woman choose a life of damned un-death for herself and plans to press it upon her regardless of her wishes.
Thamlus Rasulala (Friday Foster) also gives a good performance as Dr. Thomas, part detective and part scientist, is more rational than the average Van Helsing character and is able to convince the police of the threat Mamuwalde presents. The beautiful Vonetta McGee (The Norliss Tapes, Shaft in Africa) and Denise Nicholas (Room 222) are not the most talented additions to the cast, but present some nice eye candy. It's also refreshing to see a blaxploitation film without an abundance of criminals, drug dealers, strippers, or prostitutes.
Blacula also largely eschews the typical political underpinnings of other blaxploitation films, though it does address some race issues. Mamuwalde is transformed by a white slaver incarnation of Dracula and Tina is gunned down by a white cop, who shoots the unarmed woman in the back while she is running away. Though Mamuwalde turns her into a vampire to keep her alive, her subsequent staking by another white cop is his ultimate undoing and he would rather face the sun than eternity without the love of his life (and death).
Director William Crain mixes scares, suspense, and a mostly serious plot, though there are some undeniably dated elements. In addition to very early '70s costumes, music, and dialogue, there is a level of homophobia that's difficult to ignore in the characters of the two gay designers who buy the contents of Dracula's castle. Despite these elements, Blacula is worth watching, particularly for fans of '70s vampire films or more offbeat blaxploitation. It is out on DVD as a double feature with its sequel, Scream Blacula Scream, which is worth watching simply because it co-stars Pam Grier.