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Blacula: The Complete Collection

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
1972/1973
Studio: 
Eureka
Genre: 
Blaxploitation
Format: 
Blu-ray
Region: 
B
Aspect Ratio: 
1.85:1
Directed by: 
William Crain
Bob Kelljan
Cast: 
William Marshall
Vonetta McGee
Thalmus Rasulala
Pam Grier
Don Mitchell
Movie: 
4
Extras: 
3
Bottom Line: 
4
Video: 
Click to Play

In the early 1970s, low budget independent exploitation genre movies that were made by black directors and featured predominantly black casts, such as Ossie Davis’ black action thriller “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (1970) and Melvin Van Peebles’ controversial -- and borderline pornographic -- “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (1971) suddenly began to do big box-office, appealing at first mainly to urban black theatre audiences whose life experiences would have led them to identify with these films’ gritty , background street level portrayals of ghetto life. But, much to the film industry’s surprise, many non-black filmgoers began to appreciate them, too, as the genre’s appeal gradually broadened across ethnic lines. It wasn’t long before the big studios tried to get in on the act during what were difficult economic circumstances for the industry, augmenting infrequent attempts by ‘legitimate’ cinema (in movies that usually starred Sidney Poitier) to address the U.S.’s racial issue through dramatic fiction, with their own black-orientated genre fare, which resulted in the industry more often seeking out black directors and creating black genre stars such as Pam Grier and Fred Williamson in an efforts to replicate the edgy vibe of the independents and with it, their box office returns. In the process, a subgenre known as ‘Blaxploitation’ was born that , with the release of Gordon Parks’ stylish urban crime thriller  “Shaft” in 1971, became a mainstream cinematic phenomenon thanks to that film’s iconic, Academy Award-winning Isaac Hayes theme song, and Richard Roundtree’s  charismatic performance in the lead role. “Shaft” grossed $13 million for MGM in its first year of release, on a budget of only half-a-million, becoming one of only three features to make a profit for the company that year. It was inevitable after this that theatres would quickly find themselves flooded with ‘Blaxploitation’ product.

Yet, because of these film’ often exaggerated and flamboyant depictions of the social milieu of the period -- its music, style, fashions and social concerns – the subgenre of ‘Blaxploitation’ has always been a problematic one. An ambiguity is captured by the very term itself -- a concertinaed version of the phrase Black Exploitation … for many wondered at the time if it wasn’t the black performers, crew members and audiences who weren’t the one’s being exploited by a preponderance of stereotypical representations of African-Americans as jive-talking pimps and drug pushers. The Bond movie “Live and Let Die” (1973) is perhaps the primary piece of evidence in support of such a claim: a film clearly made in response to the popularity of black urban genre cinema at the time, but which blatantly panders to the idea that the entire black population of Harlem is in league with the black Voodoo-using drugs lord Mr Big who, as the villain of the piece, provides Bond with his main opponent.

But given that the horror genre and the Blaxploitation subgenre have both been at various time held in equally low regard by some quarters, whilst regularly being called upon to keep the film industry afloat during its regular periods of financial difficulty, it was perhaps natural and inevitable that the two would eventually come together -- especially after it was noted that horror movies seemed also to have a large black following. A number of Blaxploitation horror movies were made in the early- to mid-1970s as a result, but the first and most fondly remembered of them is still William Crain’s “Blacula”, which did such excellent business in 1972 that American International Pictures brought out a sequel only ten months later: the much more assured “Scream Blacula Scream” … , although for this they also turned to white director Bob Kelljan: a logical decision given the fact that it had been he who’d previously helmed both of AIP’s Count Yorga movies, which were the first big screen attempt to combine -- as does “Blacula” -- Victorian vampire mythology and Gothic imagery with a contemporary 1970s setting (in that case a Californian one), which, in large part, was a response to the then popularity of the TV vampire Barnabas Collins in Dan Curtis’ 1960s Gothic soap opera “Dark Shadows”. Crain, meanwhile, also went on to direct another Blaxploitation horror update of a classic text in 1976, “Dr Black, Mr Hyde”, but he mostly continued on after this with a career in American mainstream TV, directing episodes of popular shows such as “Starsky & Hutch” (1975) and “The Dukes of Hazzard” (1979).

His work on “Blacula” is mostly solid but often hampered by a clearly derisory budget, resulting in poor sound quality and staging that sometimes lacks the required flair; but Crain and screenwriters Joan Torres & Raymond Koenig had their initial concept considerably enhanced by the film’s lead actor, for whom the role of Blacula became a signature calling card. Originally, Torres & Koenig’s screenplay had been intended as a more comedy-orientated Blaxploitation ghetto piss-take of the Bram Stoker source material, until actor William Marshall came up with a prologue that gives his portrayal of Blacula much more dignity, and actually works into the backstory of the character the fact that he owes his existence (and his ridiculous screen name) to centuries of colonial white oppression. The Dracula vampire mythology is itself requisitioned to become an effective metaphor for the cultural imposition that the film itself is attaching to a character of African origins; one that results in a civilised 18th-century prince called Manuwalde (William Marshall), of the (fictional) Ebani tribe, from North-east of the Niger Delta, ending up, two-hundred years later, with fangs and exaggerated facial hair, stalking the backstreets of Los Angeles’ impoverished Watts district in an opera cape. 

A pre-titles sequence has Manuwalde as an African cultural envoy, sent on a mission to Europe by his people with the aim of integrating his country into the wider international community. While visiting castle Dracula in Transylvania with his graceful princess bride, Luva (Vonetta McGee), Manuwalde attempts during a banquet to garner Dracula’s support for an anti-slave trade treaty, only to find his host is appalled by such an idea. Pointing to Luva Dracula makes clear his superior attitude by informing Manuwalde that he would, for instance, ‘willingly pay for so beautiful an addition to my household as your beautiful wife!’ The idea of Dracula (Charles Macaulay – whose Dracula looks more like what Bram Stoker originally described in his 1897 novel than most screen versions of the character) as a racist supremacist, using vampirism as a means of cultural as well is metaphysical slavery, is too obvious and fertile an idea to pass up on, so Manuwalde finds himself repeating Barnabas Collins’ fate in “Dark Shadows” (although the idea probably stems from the 1932 Karl Freund version of “The Mummy” with Boris Karloff): after being cursed with the vampire taint by Count Dracula, who even christens him Blacula to compound the act with an insult, he is entombed for two-hundred years in a secret vault until awoken in 1972 by two interior designers who’ve bought the castle’s contents in a job lot and use the estate agent’s insistence that Dracula was a real person who lived and murdered here, as a means of talking the price down -- though in reality they believe that the legend of Dracula is ‘the crème de la crème of camp!’

This, of course, is also a pretty accurate description of “Blacula” itself: graphic artist and prolific TV titles designer Sandy Dvore sets the tone for what follows with his sprightly and fun animated titles sequence, which is accompanied by a funkalicious theme by composer and record producer Gene Page, whose list of credits as string and musical arranger for the likes of The Supremes, The Four Tops, Barry White and Martha and the Vandellas provides a template for this style of lush soul soundtrack which would become de rigueur in the Blaxploitation genre, and is showcased here in what is one of its most highly regarded examples. In fact, if it were not for the added contrast provided by such an unusual context for Gothic chills as the ghetto setting, the florid fashions, and the syncopated rhythm & blues cues that mark out both “Blacula” and its sequel, especially during the former’s club scenes where  chart toppers The Hues Corporation get to perform several numbers written by Wally Holmes (who also wrote their most famous hit, ‘Rock the Boat’) and one by the group’s lead singer Karl Russell, then this would be a pretty unimaginative trot through a pretty prosaic horror movie plot-line, later resurrected again by Francis Ford Coppola in his 1992 take on the Dracula myth with Gary Oldman in the titular role, which also made use of the reincarnation theme in order to furnish the prince of vampires with some degree of viewer sympathy thanks to the inherently romantic nature of Vlad’s quest to be reunited across centuries with the love of his life. But both of the Blacula films achieve what Hammer singularly failed to when they attempted to bring Christopher Lee’s Dracula to swinging 1970s London that same year; unlike Lee, William Marshall is able to integrate his two-hundred year-old vampire into the world in which his reincarnated bride, who now goes under the name Tina (played by the striking Vonetta McGee) operates: for one thing his garb looks no more eccentric in the world of 1970s black street-culture than that of the other patrons who frequent the baroquely funky club she and her friends regularly attend. At the same time Marshall’s imposing frame, and his background in Shakespearian theatre, give him the gravitas he needs to neutralise the potential for unintended comedy that the scenario lends itself to (although the film includes plenty of intentional jokes, too); Marshall is suave and magnetic when moving amongst his ‘70s peers; animalistic and ravenous (the make-up design furnishes him with bushy eyebrows and wild facial hair growth, as well as the traditional extended fangs, during his attacks) when in gliding, bat-changing vampire attack mode, such as in the sequence in which he tracks down a photographer whose snaps at the funk club might have exposed his true nature by revealing that he casts no image in photographs as well as across the surfaces of the mirrored shades of some of the cooler hipsters in the joint.

While Hammer’s “Dracula A.D. 1972” sidelines Lee’s Dracula for most of the film’s run-time, Marshall is always fully a participant in the action, here. The screenplay keeps the plot tightly focused on character by making Blacula’s first victims -- the interracial pair of gay interior designers, Bobby and Billy, who import his coffin to LA  -- friends of Tina and her sister Michelle (Denise Nicholas), while the latter works as a nurse at the very hospital in which victims such as taxi driver Juanita Jones (Ketty Lester) wind having their blood-drained corpses attended to by Elisha Cook Jr.’s hook-handed morgue attendant, Sam -- as well as being the girlfriend of the police department’s head of Scientific Investigation, Dr Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala), who takes on the Van Helsing role in the film while sporting an afro of considerable dimensions and amplitude. In large part thanks to Marshall, one thing the film gets right throughout is the balance it strikes between high camp and serious horror: even minor characters, like the two gay designers, get fleshed out enough to make us care about their fate before they wind up themselves becoming part of Blacula’s crew of the undead; and Ketty Lester’s back-chatting taxi driver combines the film’s ability to move between wry comedy and genuine scares, being hilarious when upbraiding Blacula for jaywalking at night while he’s in pursuit of his reincarnated bride, but utterly terrifying when rising from the mortuary slab to attack Hollywood veteran Cook Jr. in a deliriously shot, slow-motion vampire attack.  The film’s only flaw is the unimaginativeness of the general plot outline and the rather flat delivery of it. There could have been far more made of Tina’s divided loyalties, for example, since her eventual enchantment with Blacula (you’d never catch Christopher Lee’s Count enjoying a black-vested love scene with his muse!), who, as well as being on one level a call-back to her ancestral roots, is also the cursed entity preying on her friends and immediate family members, puts her in direct conflict with her own sister, as well as Dr Thomas -- both of whom are determined to hunt Blacula down after witnessing the results of the Count’s handiwork.

The film ends, though, with some crowd-pleasing scenes of the Count battling white cops in an engineering works, before voluntarily freeing himself of his white man’s curse by stepping out of a subway tunnel into broad daylight. But you can’t keep a good vampire down for long, especially when the box-office is good: “Scream Blacula Scream”, the sequel, is much the better film of the two, both technically and story-wise -- although, as is so often the way with sequels, it did not generate the same level of box-office success as its lesser predecessor. Director Bob Kelljan stages interesting and more dynamic and suspenseful action scenes though, and Morris Jules (writer of Stephanie Rothman’s ‘70s-set lesbian vampire drive-in classic “The Velvet Vampire”) makes over Torres & Koenig’s screenplay by providing it with an added infusion of just enough cultural subtext to make this an interesting piece of work from a social perspective as well as from the standpoint of its place in the pantheon of ‘70s horror movies.  This time the Count is raised by a flash, jive-talking son of the leader of an order of Voodoo worshippers, who believes he should be taking over leadership of the cult after his mother’s death but whose claim has been overruled by its members, who prefer to put the divine Pam Grier’s Lisa Fortier in charge of their dealings and ceremonies instead (frankly, who wouldn’t). Richard Lawson’s Willis Daniels buys up Blacula’s bones from a ragman (Bernie Hamilton) and resurrects the vampire in a voodoo ritual, hoping to use Blacula’s muscle to help him wrest power from Fortier’s grasp. Instead, the suitably grandiose mansion-house he’s been conveniently housesitting for vacationing friends becomes Blacula’s pseudo-Gothic base of operations as he sets about filling it up with pale-faced undead acolytes in multi-coloured robes, starting with Willis himself, who is crestfallen to learn that being a vampire means he can no longer admire his garish, afro-topped threads in a full-length mirror!

Willis and his girlfriend Denny (Lynne Moody) -- who gets ‘converted’ when, like several hapless victims, she turns up at the mansion looking for her beau -- become the film’s main outlet for intentional comedy once Willis’ original motivation for resurrecting Blacula is made irrelevant to the rest of the plot. If the film had been allowed to go on longer than the traditional eighty minutes, his attempts to assert some small measure of authority over the situation whenever he thinks Blacula isn’t listening (referring to his vampire lord as ‘a jive mutha’, for instance) might have played more of a role in proceedings; but instead, Lisa, much to Willis’ chagrin, becomes the focus of Blacula’s interest, because he wants to persuade her to use her natural voodoo powers to help free him of his vampire curse and enable him to return ‘home’ to Africa. In this film, Marshall’s character no longer refers to himself by his African name of Manuwalde, as he did throughout the last one: instead, tellingly, he now accepts the name given to him by his oppressor, Dracula. Marshall gives an even richer and nuanced performance here, that manages to hint at the character’s implicit self-loathing (he seems, for instance, disgusted by the vampire minion converts his bloodlust forces him to make) while retaining the regal dignity and cod-Shakespearian bass delivery that makes the character work cinematically. There’s a lightly worn political dimension to the representation of the milieu Blacula finds himself inhabiting here: while walking along the streets of the black neighbourhood at night, he notes the proliferation of clip joints and prostitutes lurking on street corners, and upbraids a pair of pimps who attempt to rob and intimidate him (‘I'm sorry, I don't have any “bread” on me, and as for “kicking my ass” I'd strongly suggest you give it careful consideration before trying!’) by accusing them of enslaving themselves the same way as their ancestors had been enslaved by the white man. His entry point into Lisa Fortier’s social group highlights an aspect of ‘70s black awareness that was coming into vogue in academia at the time, during a ‘groovy’, soul-music drenched house party where Lisa’s group of friends turn out to be fascinated with all aspects of their African ancestry (which explains the voodoo connection), and includes among its guests characters that either collect artefacts or study the African history of their peoples as part of a programme of political and social awareness.

Blacula, once again, is easily able to insinuate himself into this culture, since he already appears both knowledgeable, urbane and sophisticated, politely correcting the Professor of African Studies (Van Kirksey), for instance, on the dating and provenance of certain artefacts of jewellery in the collection of Lisa’s boyfriend Justin Carter (Don Mitchell), because he recognises them as having once belonged to his Princess Luva! The script here is much better at evoking the emotional drama that arises from the conflict of interest between Grier’s identification with Blacula’s plight and her devotion to her community, which is being utterly decimated by the plague of vampirism his resurrection has unleashed. This is never more acutely demonstrated than in the stand-out sequence of the entire short-lived “Blacula” series, which occurs after one of her best friends, a guests at Carter’s soirée called Gloria (Janee Michelle), is attacked by Blacula during the party and Lisa instigates a midnight vigil over the open coffin, only to have her former friend awaken as a vampire and attempt to bite her. This is just one of many superbly staged sequences in the movie, culminating in a climax involving a foolhardy police raid on Blacula’s vampire-infested mansion, in which the cops carry sharp-pointed wooden stakes as well as their useless guns! Kelljan’s direction is always much more effective and the higher budget enables a slicker tone with the pace being kept up throughout. But the film’s makers are also careful not to depart from the staple elements that made the original “Blacula” successful with its audience, namely the distinctive Sandy Dvore animated title sequence and some cool animated bat transformations, which add even more of a measure of cartoon exuberance to the funky fashions, jive talking dialogue, and jazz composer Bill Marx’s sweet and sophisticated soul soundtrack. 

Both films have been given respectable HD makeovers for this single-disc Blu-ray release from Eureka Entertainment, which comes with trailers for both films and a twenty-five minute video discussion by genre expert Kim Newman as a disc extra. A full colour accompanying booklet features essays on the film series by Blaxploitation expert and author of ‘Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide’ Josiah Howard, and a selection of reprints of posters and other publicity materials. These entertaining and unusually robust ‘70s horror outings are well worth adding to anyone’s collection.

 

Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night! 

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