Say what you want, but some concepts are just bound to fail.
And no matter how much you may individually love the short lived genres of early 1970s Blaxploitation and contemporary Vampire movies (most notably Bob Kelljan’s two Count Yorga movies starring Robert Quarry), the idea of mixing those two together just screamed box office poison and major artistic embarrassment. It was a recipe for disaster and as such it was even more surprising when the final result, Blacula (1972), actually did work rather well courtesy, primarily due to the imposing presence of classically trained Shakespearean actor William Marshall whose deep no-nonsense bass voice and straight faced delivery of what could otherwise easily come across as über-camp demands more than just a little bit of R.E.S.P.E.C.T., and ensures that his characterisation is one of the most sincere Dracula inspired portrayals ever put on screen.
Speaking of Bram Stoker’s original character: played by the uncharismatic Charles Macaulay he makes an unusually bland appearance at the start of the film when his racist Count transforms Marshall’s African Prince Wamuwalde into a Vampire and buries him alive (or should I say Undead?) together with his mortal wife – played by Vonetta McGee – who dies at his side.
A few centuries later, Blacula’s coffin is rediscovered in Transsylvania by “two faggot interior decorators” (there’s a total disregard for anything resembling Political Correctness) who transfer it back to their native Los Angeles for a bit of shock value, and involuntarily revive him. One of these two is indeed a white guy and this is symptomatic of this film that, despite the initial overt slavery comments, it does not end up making as much of the black/white struggle as most other similar Blaxploitation productions. For the most part both races seem to actually co-exist rather well together here.
Once revived, Blacula appears to adapt rather well to his modern surroundings and unknown technology, and even enjoys a drink of French champagne. (No such thing as “I don’t drink…. Wine” for this Count). He does sprout some very unsightly extra facial hair when in attack and fight mode, and of course manages to find a re-incarnation of his former love (also played by McGee) who is the catalyst for a highly unusual ending when her involuntary demise results in him turning oddly suicidal for a Vampire Prince.
Though not directed by Kelljan but by William Crain (otherwise known for not much else), the film nevertheless draws heavily on the imagery established in the previous Yorga movies. From the grubby looking Vampire clan at his side to a very demented and creepy slow motion attack by one of his victims, this clearly follows the very popular blue print of AIP’s other contemporary horror productions. Blacula also has a distinct comic strip feel to it, very much reminiscent of Marvel’s similar horror sagas such as Tomb of Dracula that also brought the Vampire Lord to Modern Times and introduced the world to a certain hip black Vampire fighter called Blade.
Also look out for Elisha Cook as a mortuary attendant with a metal hook and enjoy the groovy tunes by The Hues Corporation (best known for their 1974 song “Rock the Boat”).
Faster than you can scream “Blacula!” a follow up to this highly successful genre crossover followed a year later called, ahem, Scream, Blacula, Scream, this time directed by Bob Kelljan himself. This serial offered more of the same even down to having a mixed raced couple as one of the first victims, though this time a straight one.
Resurrected by Voodoo, Blacula is for his second outing surrounded by more African settings and even the soundtrack is often more influenced by African drum beats than modern soul music.
Though he does not have to deal with a lost love subplot, Marshall is again acting opposite a black female cult star, this time played by none other than Pam Grier as a modern Voodoo Priestess, whose powers appear crucial in transferring our distinctly suicidal Vampire Lord back to the death that he longs for. Indeed if there is one thing that may mar the enjoyment of those two films it is not so much the occasional dodgy looking bat transformation, but the fact that behind it all Blacula as a character is often not at all that dangerous to society and indeed some of the attempts to kill him off just delay his ultimate death wish.
Overall, however, these are two genre defying productions that over the years have attained a well deserved cult following and are now available in a new Region 2 DVD release that, apart from the trailers, is unfortunately barren of any extras.
Dig it? Very much so!