Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. With the remake of the blaxploitation classic Super Fly opening in theaters this week, we’re looking back on the genre’s 1970s heyday.
The spectacular soundtracks, the grindhouse thrills, the style and the B-movie ingenuity: There are plenty of good reasons blaxploitation took off like it did in the early 1970s. The simplest explanation, of course, is that these films served moviegoers who were starved for representation crowd-pleasers of their own; while plenty of blaxploitation movies had a subversive political edge, others were basically straightforward, cheaply made genre movies that happened to star mostly black actors and be set in predominately black communities. Released in 1972 to enormous box office success, Blacula is, narratively speaking, a fairly run-of-the-mill vampire movie, basically adhering to the template of the Bram Stoker novel on which it’s riffing. But relocating these old tropes to a new cultural backdrop does rejuvenate them some, allowing black artists behind and in front of the camera to blow some fresh air into the genre’s musty crypt.
Widely considered the first depiction of a black vampire on screen, Blacula stars the basso-voiced William Marshall—then known best, perhaps, for an appearance on the original Star Trek—as Mamuwalde, an African prince sent to Transylvania in 1780 to secure the help of one Count Dracula in fighting the slave trade. The count, unfortunately, isn’t particularly sympathetic to his guest’s cause—he’s got his own enslavement process, after all, and quickly subjects Mamuwalde to it, turning the prince into a creature of the night, then sealing him inside a coffin in the bowels of his castle. Two centuries later, said coffin winds up in Los Angeles, where our undead anti-hero awakes, begins feasting on the locals, and seduces Tina (Vonetta McGee), the spitting image and possibly the reincarnation of his long-dead wife. Thankfully for the City Of Angels, a Van Helsing figure emerges in the form of Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala), a LAPD pathologist who begins to suspect that there may be a supernatural culprit behind the rash of murders plaguing his city.
Blacula can be a little creaky at times; director William Crain, fresh out of film school at UCLA, can’t always disguise his shoe-string budget. But it has its effective moments and memorable shots, like a scene where one of Mamuwalde’s newly undead victims pounces in slow motion on an unsuspecting morgue attendant. And there’s a fair amount of comedy, too, mostly in the 1970s L.A. personalities with whom this bloodsucker-out-of-water crosses paths. (One of the bigger laughs: Dr. Thomas, discovering fang marks on one of the bodies, chuckles to himself, “That’s ridiculous.”) Blacula, in other words, mostly works the way it was intended to work: as cheap, entertaining pulp, just targeted at a different demographic than the one that kept Hammer churning out Dracula stories around the same time. There is, however, a hint of subtext to the film’s genre fun, at least for anyone capable of seeing vampirism as a metaphor for slavery’s long-term repercussions: a social and psychological curse inflicted upon a whole people. And in Marshall’s regal, imposing, and vaguely melancholy performance—he really is one of the better counts, by any name—there’s a tragic dimension to Blacula’s pastiche. How many versions of this oft-told story, after all, put the proverbial stake in the vampire’s hands?
Availability: Blacula is available to rent or purchase from the major digital services. It can also be obtained on DVD from Amazon, Netflix, or possibly your local video store/library.