WARNING: The following review contains some language that may offend some readers as well as Spoilers.
After years of being locked in a coffin, Prince Mamuwalde is released in modern day Los Angeles to feast on the blood of the living, until he meets a woman who could be his lost love.
As a horror fan, and cinema fan in general, there are a lot of titles that have crossed my path over the years that I’ve only ever read about or seen mentioned in various places. Blacula is one of those titles, and if you believe most of what you’ve heard about this film, you would assume, like I did, that this is nothing more than a reprehensible 70’s Blaxsplotiation schlocker with no redeeming value at all and that its very existence is a blight upon the film world.
I respectfully disagree. Blacula is far from a perfect film, but it deserves more respect than I feel it gets.
The film starts out in Castle Dracula circa 1780. We are introduced to Prince Mamuwalde (William H Marshall) and his wife Luva (Vonetta McGee) as they sit down to talk business with Count Dracula. Mamuwalde has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate trade with Europe through the Count, but he insists that the Count bring an end to the slave trade. The Count scoffs at the request and then proceeds to “Compliment” Mamuwalde by saying that “I would pay a high price to have one such as your beautiful wife in my service” Mamuwalde is rightfully disgusted by the Count’s comment and attempts to leave, but Dracula is a crafty devil and a fight breaks out.
Needless to say Mamuwalde loses and is bitten by the Count. He is then placed into a coffin and is cursed by the Count to an eternity of vampirism.
After a simple animated black and white title sequence (with a funky 70’s beat) we return to Castle Dracula in “Present Day” (aka-1972) where we are introduced to two of the most stereotypical gay men in the history of cinema, Bobby (Ted Harris, sporting a killer afro) and Billy (Rick Meltzer). The couple is purchasing furniture from the castle and after the agent explains that workers have found a secret chamber, they make their way into the tomb where Mamuwalde is locked in his coffin. They purchase the coffin and we arrive in Los Angeles where the through mishap and shenanigans, the coffin is opened and Mamuwalde is released.
From here the story follows a fairly predictable path, as Mamuwalde sees Tina (also played by Vonetta McGee) at Bobby’s funeral and is convinced that she is the reincarnation of his lost Luva. Will the undead prince succeed in seducing Tina to become his new bride, or will Dr. Gordon (Thalmus Rasulala) solve the mysterious deaths and save Tina before it’s too late?
I honestly had no idea what to expect when I sat down to watch this film. At best I was hoping for 92 minutes of 70’s camp fun, and at worst I expected to get bored and turn it off half way through. The story itself isn’t amazing, as the “Vampire meeting the re-incarnation of their lost love” has been done to death, but it never feels tedious in this film, and I believe most of the credit for that has to fall on the shoulders of our two leads, William Marshall and Vonetta McGee. Marshall is a power house performer in this film, giving a genuine sense of dignity and pathos to the role of Prince Mamuwalde. Vonetta McGee’s Tina is a bit of a flat character until she interacts with Marshall’s Mamuwalde, as the pair has genuine chemistry and Tina never seems to fall into the typical trap of the swooning victim, instead her affection for Mamuwalde rings true, as if deep down she might really be reincarnation of Luva.
Having said that, this movie veers into camp territory more than once, with some of the background characters being so over the top that they seem like they were written by a clueless white writer given the task of creating “Real” African American characters. Skillet (Ji-tu Cumbuka) is the worst offender in this case, a jive talking, gold toothed “Brotha” whose dialogue mostly revolves around how great he thinks Mamuwalde’s cape is. I swear to god that’s literally all he talks about in the couple of scenes he’s in.
There are two words in this film that stand out to a modern viewer, those being “Nigger” (also “Nigga”) and “Fag” (and “Faggot”). I’m not going to get on a soap box about how horrible this film is for having characters saying these words, because it’s a movie from 1972 for Christ sake, times were different, and the only characters that use “Nigger” are the African American characters, and this actually leads to one of the funniest scenes in the entire movie, when Dr. Gordon leaves the funeral home after looking at Bobby’s body, the funeral director looks at the camera and says “That is one of the strangest Niggas I’ve ever met”, at which point I fell off the couch because I was laughing so hard.
The use of “Faggot” and “Fag” are a little jarring, but hardly offensive compared to the overly effeminate portrayals of Bobby and Billy. These two characters are only in the movie for about 10 minute’s tops and in that time they manage to jam just about every stereotype of a gay man into their performance. These two characters are so over the top campy that I couldn’t help but laugh at them. Yes it was in poor taste and a bit offensive (and certainly something you could never get away with today) but as I said before, this movie was made in 1972, times were different and the movie seems to be in a constant flux of indecision as to whether or not it’s a serious horror film or a campy comedy.
On the side of “Serious Horror Film” we have the opening scene where we are instantly on Mamuwalde’s side as he is introduced as an intelligent and good hearted prince who knows that trade with Europe could bring much to his nation, but his refusal to negotiate until the slave trade is ended is admirable, while Count Dracula comes across as a raging asshole, especially when he makes his comment about Luva.
However, we go from this scene into a bad fight scene and Dracula’s hilarious monologue where he delivers the first of many hilarious lines in the film saying “I curse you with my name, I curse you…..BLACULA”.
As I said above, William Marshall’s portrayal of Mamuwalde is the shining star of this film and quite honestly saves this film from being a completely campy mess. Marshall’s presence on screen is undeniable, every gesture and word feels right, and by the end of the film you genuinely feel sorry for him when Tina is accidentally killed and he decides to simply walk out into the sunlight rather than spend the rest of eternity without her.
Blacula is far from a perfect film, but it’s not an utter disaster either. It has moments of genuine emotion and strong acting, mostly from Marshall, wrapped in a coat of campy 70’s cheese that makes the film endearing, despite its flaws and often terrible special effects. And it’s got a groovin R&B soundtrack that much like the fashion and hair styles firmly stamp this movie as a product of the 1970’s.
If you’ve never seen Blacula and you have an interest in the Blaxsplotiation films of the 70’s, or you’re a fan of offbeat genre cinema, you owe it to yourself to sit down and watch this film. As of this writing, both Blacula and its sequel Scream, Blacula, Scream (staring William Marshall as Blacula and Pam Grier) are available to watch on Netflix Instant Watch.