The majority of blaxploitation movies dealt with pimps, prostitutes, cops, revenge and action; but every once in awhile the umbrella extended to scares as well – or they attempted to anyway. Blacula was the first of the horror hybrids and it set the standard for the camp, funky updates of universally beloved horror tales that followed; this basically consisted of rewording ”black” into the title, thus giving us titles such as Blackenstein (1973) and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde. But who loves blaxploitation for its subtly. Now where as the other 2 were nothing more than trashy fun, the Blacula movies were lifted by a terrific central performance from William Marshall; an actor who made his name on the stage. Blacula was never going to win any Academy Awards: it’s campier than being molested by a cub scout leader. But Williams performance is strong enough to add depth, providing an emotional tragic love story to go along with the story of an cape wearing African American vampire visibly walking the streets of 20th Century New York.
The film begins in the 18th century: William Marshall plays Prince Mamuwalde, an African prince who travels to Transylvania on a political mission to end slavery. Count Dracula, however, is a cracker who doesn’t want to sign a treaty to end slavery, so he curses the Prince with the immortal life of a bloodsucking fiend of the night and locks him in a coffin, after bestowing him with the name Blacula, of course. That wasn’t just a nickname he picked up along the way. Skip to 200 years later and he wakes up in modern day Los Angeles; it’s a time of the funk and lots of punks with tasty blood to drink. But he meets a woman who looks like his 18th century wife from Africa, so he makes it his mission to get her to fall in love with him. However, with a police detective vampire hunter on his trail, he has a problem on his hands.
I’ve never been a fan a fan of the Dracula story, so once I got past the social commentary undertones and the African American vampire in modern times, my appreciation for Blacula ended. It’s essentially a retelling of the classic tale; an undeniably smart, witty and fun adaptation in many ways, but overall it’s ultimately flat. However, when you take it out of the context of its content, it can be viewed as a game changer. As the first African American horror film, this was a case of breaking boundaries; but I don’t think that’s enough to warrant it a classic, because, at the end of the day, it lacked the scares to make it a horror film, and the laughs to make it a camp classic. By no means is it a bad movie; it just doesn’t have enough of anything going on to make it effective or memorable, despite having a title and age old narrative you’ll never forget. The rest is, quite frankly, rather bland.
The heart of Blacula is a love story; in horror love stories have often meant trying to survive in a world where you’re an outsider who has been shunned, maligned or hunted by those living by societies norms, and Blacula is no different. Lt. Jack Peters (Gordon Pinsent) is the Van Helsing of the story who wants to put a stake through his heart and stop him from being with his reincarnated princess. We can sympathise with Blacula because Marshall brings humanity to the monster.
To summarise: Blacula is a ground breaking film in many regards, and a smart idea. There’s an underlying social message of prejudice, with Dracula representing the white man who condoned slavery and the inequality of African Americans; for which I applaud this movie and give it credit it where it’s due. The performances from the entire cast are exceptional, especially Marshall; but the material they have to work with isn’t befitting to their efforts. All in all, Blacula is an enduring experience with a few moments of camp fun; if you want to see a better movie with a similar vibe watch Eddie Murphy’s Vampire In Brooklyn (1995), but don’t take my word for it since everyone seems to love Blacula and hates Vampire In Brooklyn. Hopefully the sequel will be more fun than this when I check it out, but Blacula didn’t tickle my boner like I thought it would. 5/10
Joan Torres & Raymond Koenig
William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Denise Nicholas