Burnt the Fire of Thine Eyes

Blacula — William Crain
Blacula, book 1

blacula

Director William Crain’s 1972’s Blaxploitation horror film Blacula was the first (and most successful) of the two Blacula films. To quote Wikipedia, Blaxploitation

or blacksploitation is an ethnic subgenre of the exploitation film, emerging in the United States during the early 1970s. Blaxploitation films were originally made specifically for an urban black audience, but the genre’s audience appeal soon broadened across racial and ethnic lines.

Of course, films aimed at black audiences appeared almost immediately after the invention of film. What made Blaxploitation different is it was also marketed to white people. That meant Canadian television stations desperate for content bought the rights. Which in turn means I got to see an edited for TV in grainy black-and-white broadcast version of Blacula.

Determined to end the scourge of slavery, Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) appeals to a European aristocrat in the hopes the aristocrat will use his influence in the cause of anti-slavery. The African Prince is apparently quite poorly informed about European politics in the year 1780 because he has pinned his hopes on the benevolence of Count Dracula.

Dracula amuses himself by turning Mamuwalde into a vampire before sealing him in a coffin to starve undying for centuries. Mamuwalde’s unfortunate wife Luva is sealed in the same locked room with Mamuwalde’s locked coffin, starving to death as her helpless husband listens.

By 1972, Dracula is only a legend and nobody has any idea what’s in that sealed coffin.


The two American interior decorators—Bobby McCoy (Ted Harris) and Billy Schaffer (Rick Metzler)—see the contents of Dracula’s castle as amusing kitsch, props suitable for decorating homes back in California. They only discover their error after they open Mamuwalde’s coffin. He does not offer them the chance to learn from their mistake.

The police are happy to assume the two homosexuals were killed by rats. Not so pathologist Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala); rats might leave wounds like the ones on the two dead men but rats do not usually drain bodies of all of their blood. Dr. Thomas is a rational man willing to accept what the evidence tells him. What the evidence tells him is Los Angeles has a vampire problem.

In fact, the vampire in question is closer than Dr. Thomas knows. Dr. Thomas, his girlfriend Michelle Williams (Denise Nicholas), and her sister Tina (Vonetta McGee) were Bobby’s friends. Mamuwalde, spying on Bobby’s viewing [1], is struck by Tina’s resemblance to Luva. Convinced she is his wife’s reincarnation, the vampire insinuates himself into Tina’s life.

If Dr. Thomas does not act fast, Michelle’s sister is doomed.

 ~oOo~

Is this film the source of the undead who thinks a living woman is the reincarnation of his wife trope? It’s not the source of “create an immortal monster the passage of time will eventually see free” trope, although it is an example of it. One wonders what Dracula’s long-term plan for Mamuwalde was. And how many other vampires in sealed coffins are in the castle. And where Dracula went.

If you’re curious how gay people were portrayed in film back in the disco era, this film provides an answer: “not in a way that has aged well.” I have no idea what two American interior decorators were doing in Romania in the 1970s, nor for that matter what role exactly 15th-century Wallachian Prince Vlad III the Impaler would have been playing in 18th-century European politics (presumably he passed himself off as a succession of his own descendants). Clearly the unfortunate Mamuwalde got a very garbled account about Dracula if he thought the Prince would be a useful ally.

Having lived through the 1970s, not to mention having seen various period episodes of Doctor Who, Blake’s 7 and The Starlost, I am immune to the distractions of economical special effects, so the unconvincing ghoul make-up and the rubber bat on a string did not distract me too much. What did distract me somewhat was the impression I got that the production company was using the wrong makeup for the African-American actors, many of whom look oddly ashy. I’ve noticed this issue in other productions from the same time (the modern version of the issue seems to be not knowing how to light dark-skinned and light-skinned actors in the same scene).

There are some experienced actors doing their best with the material they have to work with, from William Marshall himself (who had some script input) to Gordon Pinsent, who plays Dr. Thomas’ colleague Lt. Peters. McGee seems to struggle. I have not knowingly seen her in other movies and the issue may be that her role as written is pretty unrewarding.

Some of you may be wondering where the title comes from. Mamuwalde is only referred to as “Blacula” once. Dracula contemptuously nicknames Mamuwalde Blacula after converting him into a vampire. This embrace of the custom of renaming black victims for the convenience of white oppressors is just one of the many ways in which Count Dracula is an enormous dick.

It is traditional when reviewing movies from the 1970s to mock the fashions. There is certainly one very bold collar seen on an extra dancing badly in the background in a nightclub scene but the Disco Era detail that stood out for me wasn’t the terrible clothes many people wore back then but the gigantic camera one unfortunate woman hauls around to photograph customers. It’s not just the thing is only barely human-portable. It’s that she manages to make a living snapping pictures of patrons despite the inconvenience of the slow photograph development time; people who want their photographs have to come back for them the next day, after she has had the time to develop the film. Not only is the photographer making a living, she seems to be able to afford her own single occupant free-standing bungalow. Modern technology would allow her to accomplish the same service instantly. More importantly, phone cameras mean nobody needs her services so if she tried this today, she would undoubtedly be homeless and starving. Progress!

This movie uses the ‘vampirism as an extremely contagious condition’ model. Since vampires have not wiped out the human population before starving to death millennia ago, there must be some factor that keeps the condition from spreading uncontrollably. It may be as simple as the tendency of new vampires to attract torch-waving mobs [2] or perhaps there are other limits that come into play once the vampire population is high enough.

Blacula’s Los Angeles is extremely segregated. Aside from the two interior decorators, white people and black people do not mix socially. Dr. Thomas and Lt. Peters seem cordial enough but their point of contact is work. Otherwise, the only time we see African-Americans and white people in contact in this film is in a law enforcement context [3]. Unsurprisingly, there’s some casual bigotry in the film. Equally unsurprisingly, bigots tend to encounter vampires after establishing they’re a victim nobody will miss. It would not surprise me if “White Bigot Dies, if not first, then eventually and quite possibly in an ironic manner” was a Blaxploitation trope.

It takes Dr. Thomas very little time to go from “blood-drained bodies” to “vampires!” It helps that LA’s libraries are apparently well-stocked on texts relating to vampire lore but more importantly, unlike investigators in other modern horror franchises, Dr. Thomas is willing to entertain the possibility of vampires in the first place. He also does not face the usual skepticism from co-workers and friends, in part because the pathologist considers how to make a convincing case and in part because it’s hard to deny vampires exist when presented with unliving examples of them. There is also a striking absence of “we cannot let the public know or they would panic!” Part of that may be because no senior politicians are involved by the time the crisis resolves itself. A larger part is because Dr. Thomas clearly believes the best defence is education, merely another way this movie reflects a long vanished era.

Blacula is available here.

Please direct corrections to jdnicoll at panix dot com

1: It’s reasonable to wonder why Mamuwalde was at the funeral home. Aside from sharing one meal, they’d never met. Perhaps “Mamuwalde spies on his dead victim for no good reason,” was the first idea the writer had to entangle the vampire with the pathologist. Perhaps Mamuwalde was planning on retrieving Bobby as soon as he rose from the dead but was not sure when exactly that would happen. The speed at which people turn is driven by how fast the plot needs them to turn, from minutes to days.

2: I would love to know how the cops phrased their official report about the big fight at the warehouse. I would also like to know why Bobby and Billy’s warehouse seemed so well stocked with empty cardboard boxes and cases of fully-fuelled oil lamps. I bet their insurance company wants to know, too.

3: In fact, at least one of the white cops we see is determined to help the black victim he encounters. Not every cop is looking for a chance to get in some state-sanctioned brutality. It’s just too bad for the diligent policeman that by the time he finds the woman in question, she has become a vampire. A very hungry vampire.


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