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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 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!

Movies to Watch: 1776 (1972)

1776-MoviePosterDirector: Peter H. Hunt

Writers: Peter Stone & Sherman Edwards

Cast: William Daniels, Howard Da Silva, Ken Howard, Donald Madden, John Cullum, Ron Holgate, Blythe Danner, Viginia Vestoff, James Noble

Why You Should Watch It: I started to write this as one of my “Gut Reactions” pieces, but that really wouldn’t be right. “Gut Reactions” are typically reserved for my immediate thoughts about films I’ve just watched for the first time, and that in no way applies to 1776, a movie I’ve seen so many times I have large sections memorized. This is my favorite musical of all time. Getting the chance to perform in it remains one of my two great unfulfilled ambitions as an amateur actor (the other being to play Max Bialystock in The Producers, if you’re curious), and I’m fairly certain I was the only nerd in New Orleans to go up to Brent Spiner at last winter’s Wizard World convention and talk to him about his work in the Broadway revival of this show instead of Star Trek. With the Fourth of July coming up next week, it’s just about time for my annual re-watch of the movie, and this year, I thought I’d mention to you guys why you should watch it too.

1776 is, in its simplest terms, a musical about the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Much of the plot focuses on the efforts of John Adams (William Daniels) and Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva) to spur Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard) to craft the document, then the struggles of bringing it before the First Continental Congress and actually getting the thing signed. Now I know what you’re thinking here — it’s a movie about writing and signing a document? That quite literally may be the dullest synopsis in the history of cinema. But I promise you, my friends, that description in no way does this film justice. This is a movie loaded with energy, tension, just the right amount of comedy, and sincere and powerful character-driven drama.

Jefferson, for instance, needs to be convinced, almost drafted into writing the Declaration, wanting nothing more than to get home to his wife Martha (Blythe Danner at her most radiant). The comedy comes in when Adams and Franklin have to harangue him into picking up the quill, then resort to some rather extreme measures to conquer his writer’s block. Adams, meanwhile, spends much of the film in a musical correspondence with his own wife, Abigail (Virginia Vestoff) that humanizes the man. Throughout the scenes in Congress we see a powerful, driven figure trying to do the best thing for his country — frustrated, yes, but driven. It’s only when he writes to Abigail that he lets his guard down. Franklin, meanwhile, spends much of the film as a bit of light relief, tossing out pithy quotes (including many attributed to the historical Ben Franklin) and witty observations that cut through everybody else’s crap.

Things take a sharply dramatic turn in the second act over two seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Jefferson clashes with South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge (a powerful performance by John Cullum), who refuses to sign the Declaration unless Jefferson remove a portion of the text that condemns the slave trade. (Yes, Jefferson the slave owner. And yes, he did try to include such a clause in the original Declaration.) Considering that we’re only lightly playing with history here, that this isn’t a Tarantino-style rewriting that will allow for the end of the piece to be changed from what we know to be true, it could be hard to draw real suspense. We know the Declaration is signed, we know the United States wins its independence, so how could we feel any tension over a delegate threatening to refuse his signature? Daniels really sells it, turning this from a rote exercise in acting out history to a powerful examination of how much of a man’s soul he’s willing to sacrifice for the greater good.

The second obstacle comes from Pennsylvania delegate John Dickinson (Donald Madden), a British loyalist who threatens to derail the whole enterprise by refusing to approve the Declaration — a vote which must be unanimous. Again, there isn’t tension over the outcome. The tension comes in with how that obstacle is overcome. Madden’s performance is vital to this picture as well — it would be easy to paint those who didn’t want to cede from Britain as fools or zealots, but he’s neither. His Dickinson comes across as a bit arrogant, but at his core he’s a good man trying to do what he believes is right, the same as Adams, Jefferson and Franklin.

And of course, driving all of this is the music. If you can walk away from this picture without “The Lees of Old Virginia” or “But, Mr. Adams” ringing through your head, you’ve got a thicker skull than I do. Dickinson and Rutledge each also get a powerful number dramatizing their largely antagonistic roles, and there’s a heartbreaking piece (“Mama Look Sharp”) that briefly lets us feel the plight of the Revolutionary soldier, who is of course largely absent from the plot of the film itself.

I’m not a historian. I know some of the things in this movie are based on real life (Jefferson having to withdraw his objection to slavery to placate the southern states) and some are severely dramatized (such as Dickinson’s role), but most of it is in that nebulous realm of stuff that “could have happened.” Ultimately, as long as you understand you’re watching a play and not reading a historical document, this film really gives you exactly what you need. It’s a fantastic presentation of one of the most dramatic moments in history, it gives life to men who risked everything, and it reminds us of a few lessons that some people sorely need even today.