DRACULA WEEK DAY 3: William Marshall in Blacula (1972)

BlaculaDirector: William Crain

Writer: Joan Torres & Raymond Koening

Cast: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Denise Nicholas, Thalmus Rasulal, Gordon Pinsent, Charles Macaulay, Emily Yancy, Ted Harris, Rick Metzler, Ketty Lester

Plot: In the 18th century African Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) seeks out the aid of the regal Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay) in helping him snuff out the slave trade. Dracula refuses, attacking Mamuwalde and cursing him to share in his vampirism before christening him “Blacula” and sealing him in a tomb.

Over 200 years later, long after Dracula’s death at the hands of Van Helsing, his property is purchased by a pair of interior decorators (Ted Harris and Rick Metzler) who find Mamuwalde’s coffin and bring it to Los Angeles. There, as they examine their purchases, the vampire awakens and slays them both. At the funeral for one of the victims, Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulal) examines the body to find it surprisingly empty of blood, despite his mother’s request he not be embalmed. Mamuwalde encounters Tina Williams (Vonetta McGee), whom he takes to be the reincarnation of his wife, Luva, and attempts to pursue her, but loses her when he’s struck by a taxi cab. The driver (Ketty Lester) makes for a good snack. Gordon is summoned to examine the driver’s body and finds her injuries, like the decorator’s, to be consistent with the legend of the vampire.

Mamuwalde continues to stalk and slaughter the friends of his victims, while Dr. Thomas begins a search for the serial killer. When he opens the grave of one of the victims, he finds the man has transformed into a vampire. After a brief struggle, Gordon stakes him through the heart. Mamuwalde, meanwhile, has found and romanced Tina, who becomes engrossed in his promise of eternal life if he makes her a vampire as well. Gordon shows Lt. Jack Peters (Gordon Pinsent) the transformed cab driver as she attacks, but is destroyed by sunlight. Together, Gordon and Peters begin to hunt the monster, not realizing Tina is now dating the beast until Gordon develops a picture he took only to find Mamuwalde doesn’t have an photographic image.

The cops swarm the city, seeking not only Mamuwalde, but his assorted victims, each of whom is rising and transforming. They track him to a warehouse, where an entire horde of vampires attacks and slays a police officer. They barely escape with their lives and the police issue a city-wide curfew in the hopes of depriving the vampires of potential victims. Tina, however, slips out and seeks Mamuwalde, who transforms her into a vampire. Peters kills her, devastating Mamuwalde. His reason for living gone, the vampire steps outside and allows the sunlight to reduce him to ash.

Thoughts: Perhaps I’m cheating a bit with this film. After all, Dracula himself is a supporting player at best – but in dealing with the pedigree of this character and the various interpretations he’s enjoyed over the decades, it’s hard to ignore William Marshall’s turn in the cape and fangs. This is the first time I’ve delved into the Blaxplotation subgenre here in Reel to Reel and with good reason – a lot of those movies are terribly goofy and many of the others are instantly forgettable. Something about Blacula, however, has withstood the test of time, even if it’s mainly as a curious footnote in the horror genre.

William Marshall’s “Blacula” isn’t exactly a legendary hellbeast. In fact, he works far better as a parody of the vampire than as a monster himself. The shots of him looming in the corners, ready to lunge, are laughter-inducing. This may be an example of cultural dissonance, I suppose. It’s possible that the audience of 1972 could have viewed this and enjoyed it as a legitimate creepy good time. But somehow, the various musical breaks and campy nature of the vampire’s performance make me doubt it was terribly frightening even then. (The cheesy 70s soundtrack doesn’t help the situation.)

Speaking of cultural dissonance, this is one of the few times since I’ve started these reviews that I’ve actually caught myself irritated at an older film that doesn’t accept the tropes of a more recent one. As Gordon and Peters are attacked by the vampires in the warehouse and their redshirt cop buddy starts pumping useless bullets at the bloodsuckers, I found myself asking why they didn’t just start staking them in the heart. It wasn’t until a minute or so later that I remembered the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, From Dusk ‘Till Dawn and the Blade trilogy were still two decades away from making a staking seem like a walk in the park. Back in the 70s, it still took effort to kill a vampire.

The rest of the movie works better than the title character. When each of Mamuwalde’s victims transforms into a vampire they provide a brief but legitimate scare. The cab driver in particular is rather effective, leaping at the camera even as she goes after Pinsent. Her makeup is far more convincing, her performance far more menacing in the few seconds before she’s destroyed by the sunlight. The vampire horde is actually really creepy, feeling slightly zombie-ish, but scarier in that these are creature that still possess intelligence. Unlike zombies, vampires retain their mortal selves in many ways, making the evil that lurks beneath even more pronounced.

Thalamus Rasulal makes for an effective Van Helsing substitute in this modern retelling, accepting the reality of his situation relatively quickly and teaching himself what to do to combat the threat of the vampire. He’s our de facto hero, and helps propel the story where you want it to go. His performance actually helps spur one of the few real innovations in this film – once provided with some solid evidence, the police join in the search rather than turning into stonewall skeptics the way the usually do in genre movies. Not only does Peters easily buy into the notion that there’s a vampire stalking his city, but he manages to get the entire force in on the action. I can’t think of a single horror movie before or since where such a thing happened unless the situation reached the level of a full-on apocalypse.

The final scene of the movie, as Mamuwalde melts in the sunlight, would make a remarkably effective visual stunt if not for the fact that the makeup and worms are applied to a dummy that doesn’t quite seem to fit the proportions of the actor. In a way, that’s not a bad metaphor for this movie as a whole – it has all of the traits you want in a good vampire movie, but doesn’t entirely succeed at convincing you you’re watching an honest effort to scare anybody. I’ve seen worse movies – I’ve even seen worse Dracula movies – but this movie somehow just feels more like a cultural oddity than anything that will leave a lasting impression on me.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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About blakemp

Blake M. Petit. Author. Podcaster. Teacher. Actor. Geek Pundit. I am a columnist, reviewer and podcast host at CXPulp.com, author of the novels "Other People's Heroes," "The Beginner," and "Opening Night of the Dead," actor and director for the Thibodaux Playhouse, and high school English teacher. Eventually, I want to experiment with this thing called "sleep."

Posted on October 23, 2013, in 4-Icons, Horror and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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