Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Blacula: A Review


I don't think there has been a good a tagline for a film as there was for Blacula. "His Bite Was Outta Sight". Blacula was one in the series of blaxploitation films that brought horror into the genre. Blacula itself is both a time capsule of early 1970's society good and bad and a surprisingly camp-free take on the vampire mythos.

Transylvania 1780. African prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) and his wife Luva (Vonetta McGee) travel here to ask for help in ending the slave trade from Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay).

At this point one can question why anyone would go to Count Dracula for such a mission but let's roll with things.

Things go horribly wrong for our African royalty. Dracula turns Mamuwalde into a vampire, cursing him with the name 'Blacula' and locks him and Luva in a secret room for eternity.

Nearly two centuries later, a gay couple buy the furniture of Castle Dracula and bring it to Los Angeles. Little do they know they have unleashed Blacula to strike in their fair city. A series of grisly killings make police forensic doctor Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) suspect their is a serial killer loose. His superior officer, Lt. Jack Peters (Gordon Pinsent) thinks this is all crazy talk, more crazy when Dr. Thomas suspects it's the work of a vampire.

Image result for blaculaMamuwalde, however, has more than sucking blood on his mind. He spots Tina (McGee in a dual role), the sister of Dr. Thomas' fiancee Michelle (Denise Nicholas) who bears a striking similarity to his Luva. Convinced she is Luva reincarnated, he soon falls in love as does Tina with this mysterious black man in the cape.

Thomas and Peters, however, eventually realize that Thomas' hypothesis is right and an intense search for Blacula commences. They manage to evade his minions but cannot stop Tina from joining him. Eventually though, the climatic battle between them ends in Tina's death. In a mix of rage and despair, Blacula emerges into the light of the sun to end his curse.

Blacula now suffers from some thoroughly un-PC moments, in particular from the portrayal of the two gay characters who unwittingly unleash Blacula. Ted Harris and Rick Metzler as Bobby (the black gay decorator) and Billy (the white gay decorator) are stereotypes to the Nth degree, complete with the mincing. Using the terms 'fa****s' to describe them also might raise eyebrows. However, the times were different and the film should be judged by the standards of the times.

The film, however, is extremely inventive and entertaining in other aspects. Certain sequences from director William Crain show a remarkable style that builds up suspense and which are excellently filmed. Of particular note is when one of Blacula's victims, the sassy 'lady cabdriver' Juanita (Ketty Lester) attacks morgue attendant Sam (Elisha Cook, Jr.). The slow-motion and music makes Sam's killing very effective visually.

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Blacula also has some very cutting and funny lines about the state of race relations and police interactions in the African-American community. The undertaker for Bobby comments that the other victim was taken somewhere else. "We don't get a lot of whites," he remarks matter-of-factly. Thomas suggests that the disappearances and killings are not drawing police attention due to the victim's race and/or sexuality. At one point, two police officers tracking down vampire Bobby ask "How can you tell (it's Bobby)? They all look alike," though it's unclear if they meant that because Bobby is black or because he's gay.

Blacula also benefits from having very good actors in the film. Marshall's deep commanding voice and screen presence makes Mamuwalde less a villain than a tragic antihero, someone compelled to do evil but who can also be suave and charming. He should rank among the better Dracula actors in that he is both menacing and sympathetic, his end less a blow for justice and more a moving tragedy. Marshall's elegance and charisma can overcome the somewhat eccentric situation, down to hearing Dracula declare him "Blacula". Seeing 'the wrath of Blacula' after his beloved Tina/Luva dies is something to behold.

Rasulala is in top form as Dr. Thomas, the Van Helsing of this version, who has both the intelligence and courage to face this nefarious foe. He can keep even the most unintentionally hilarious situations from being over-the-top, such as when he digs up Billy and is attacked. That scene is both funny and slightly creepy. Pinsent, whom I remember best from Due South, also makes things believable.

The only weak performance is that of McGee as Luva/Tina. In both roles she is blank, though to be fair in both of them her character consisted of nothing but staring at Mamuwalde and declaring love.

Image result for blaculaBlacula is not just an entertaining horror film. It's also a film that is squarely of its time, from the dialogue and costumes to the nightclub scenes where the house band (The Hues Corporation) sings a set of good songs that are pure 70's nostalgia. Songs like What the World Knows and There He is Again (the latter serving a dual meaning of suggesting Blacula's arrival and an upbeat club number) fit into this world perfectly. Its score, similarly, is of its time: all R&B and funk.

The film is not perfect and has some odd gaps. After he is attacked, what exactly happened to Sam is never answered or explained. Did he turn into a vampire? Was he just flat-out killed? Was that hook for work or did it replace his hand?

Leaving some gaps in the story and its dated style, Blacula is a highly entertaining film that I think goes beyond its targeted audience and will be enjoyed by all who appreciate slightly offbeat films that take their premise seriously.


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