Saturday, October 10, 2015

31 Days of Halloween: Seen That? Try This – Blacula (1972)

Is your Halloween film rotation shaping up to be just more of the same films you watched the rest of the year? Can’t seem to make a play list that’s not just the latest hot films mixed in with the well worn classics? Maybe you need try a few of these for a spin in your home entertainment setup’s player of choice.

Seen your favorite vampire films 100 times or more already? Maybe it’s time to try Blacula.

One of the crying damned shames of the horror fandom world is how easily something amazingly good can be overlooked by many over incredibly silly reasons. In the case of one of the great vampire films of its decade, those reasons are a name that seems gimmicky and one of the genres the film is associated with.

Say the name “Blacula” to most horror fans, casual or even hardcore, and, assuming they don’t just give you a blank look, you might illicit snickering from them. The perception by those who have not seen it is the film is a cheap, “jived up” 1970’s blaxploitation version of the Dracula story. Disco jokes and goofy attempts at stereotypical 1970’s slang delivered with a bad Bela Lugosi accent might even follow. The truth is, these perceptions of the movie can’t be further from the reality of what the film has to offer. Blacula is an amazingly solid vampire film, and likewise an amazingly effective horror film.

The plot is simple enough. In 1780, Prince Mamuwalde (the late, great William Marshall) and his wife Luva (Vonetta McGee) travel to Europe to seek help with suppressing the slave trade. His quest leads him to seek help in the home of a local aristocrat. As the noble begins to make improper remarks towards Mamuwalde’s wife, the Prince grows irritated with his behavior and seeks to leave. Things get complicated, and violent, when the man they’ve sought help from turns out to be the legendary Dracula (Charles Macaulay.) After a violent clash with Dracula and his vampire servants, Mamuwalde is put down. Dracula curses him, making him a vampire and placing the name “Blacula” upon him. He then seals him in a coffin before turning his attentions to Luva.

Fast forward to the (at that time) present day. A couple of men buy the coffin (among other items) as a part of an estate sale; having been told only after the transaction has started that the belongings are purported to have once belonged to the legendary Dracula. They have their new belongings shipped home to L.A. where they start trying to break the seals on the coffin. A slip of a crowbar breaks the seal, but it also slices open the arm of one of the two men. As they tend to the wound, Prince Mamuwalde rises from his almost 300 year imprisonment and descends upon the two men.

Prince Mamuwalde follows the body of one of the two men he’s killed to the local funeral home where he spies the mourning Tina; recognizing her as the reborn Luva who he lost almost 300 years earlier. As he follows her into the streets outside, Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) notices the unusual wounds on the neck of Mamuwalde’s victim.

It’s Dr. Thomas who eventually works out that there’s a vampire walking the streets of L.A. as body after body arrives at the morgue with the telltale puncture wounds on their necks. It becomes a race against time as he tries to convince others of the vampire’s existence before too many bodies pile up (and then walk away) and before Mamuwalde can claim his prize; the body and soul of Tina.

Blacula is an interesting film. It’s a damned good film as well. The stereotype in the minds of those who have never seen it of what the character and the film are like, largely built on its association with the blaxploitation genre and even more largely on thousands of bad parodies by people who knew no better, can’t be more wrong on every level.

William Marshall imbues his performance of Prince Mamuwalde with an incredible, powerful, and charismatic presence. He brings a dignity and pride to the character that radiates off of him in every scene. He also brings an amazing level of emotion to the character, displaying the Prince’s tenderness towards Tina and his own sorrow in the existence he is now forced into with far more skill than many actors who have played the role of the vampire over the years. It's not straying greatly into the territory of hyperbole when some say that his performance as a vampire should be seen as right up there with Christopher Lee's Dracula.

Outside of the opening of the film, it does away with most of the gothic atmosphere found in many of the older vampire films and embraces the dirty, gritty urban feel of early 1970’s L.A. and the work-a-day world of the characters that populate the film. This works in the movie’s favor by separating the mood of the film from the mood found in many of the other vampire horror films that came before it as, while it is a horror film, there’s more to the core of the story than just typical horror.

While very human looking when he wants to be, Marshall’s Prince Mamuwalde transforms into a darker, more fearsome appearing being with only minimal makeup effects. The very effective transformation is largely pulled off by Marshell’s own skills as an actor; the intensity in his gaze and the change in his body language as he now stalks his victims with the primal fury of a hungry apex predator walking amongst the sheep ends up selling the performance as much or more than the makeup.

It’s the type of performance and the type of film that makes you wonder why Marshall and the role weren’t turned into larger icons in the horror community. Certainly the film’s initial reception should have launched each in that direction. While it was met with mixed reviews, the film earned over a million dollars (a much bigger deal in 1972) at the box office, making it one of the highest grossing films of the year. Its success opened the door for a greatly inferior sequel (Scream, Blacula, Scream) as well as the start of an attempted franchise of “black themed” horror films based on classic properties such as 1973’s Blackenstein. Both films missed what made Blacula successful, and the franchise concept died a quick death.

Blacula is available on Blu-Ray from most major brick and mortar and online retailers. The Blu-Ray is a double feature bill with Scream, Bracula, Scream included on the same disc, and it can be found at most retailers for under $20 with video and audio transfers that are fantastic. However, behind the scenes geeks might be disappointed by the absence of any in depth special features about the film on the Blu-Ray.

You can check out other suggestions for films to look into with-

Jerry Chandler is a serious horror geek with a lifelong love of trying to find books and movies that can scare the spit out of him. When not watching and reading horror, he can sometimes be found helping to make horror with his filmmaking family in NC, Adrenalin Productions. He loves Halloween slightly more than Christmas, and almost as much as Dragon Con. When not writing here, he can be found at his other homes on the web by looking at his own blog, his Twitter, and his Facebook.

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