Sunday, September 6, 2015

Blacula (1972)

Director: William Crain                                     Writers: Joan Torres & Raymond Koenig
Film Score: Gene Page                                   Cinematography: John M. Stephens
Starring: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Denise Nicholas and Gordon Pinsent

From the first moment of Blacula there is a sense of black pride that pervades the screen in the same way that gave all films in the blaxploitation genre their purpose. In fact, William Marshall, who would play the lead character, insisted on changes to the screenplay to reflect that pride. The name of his character in the original screenplay was Andrew Brown, but Marshall wanted him to be African and the prologue was written to show his origins, giving him the name Mamuwaldi as well as the slavery-like way in which he was captured and turned into a vampire. Director William Crain was primarily a television director and was able to call upon a host of talented black television actors to fill his cast. The overall problem with the film, of course, is the low budget sets and production values. The sound, in particular, is distant and difficult to hear in places, which is a major distraction. The other aspect of the film that is dated is the nightclub singing. Unlike the music composed for Shaft by Isaac Hayes, Gordon Parks was primarily an arranger and therefore the Blacula soundtrack suffers in comparison though still adhering to the same soul music formula rather than traditional classical music conventions of traditional horror films.

The story opens in 1780--though the title card was supposed to read 1815--with William Marshall and Vonetta McGee visiting the castle of Dracula, Charles Macauley, in an attempt to make inroads into Europe for African tribal-states to be recognized by the Old World as independent nations, thereby ending the slave trade. But when Marshall insults Dracula after the vampire says he would like to own his wife, he turns Marshall into a vampire and locks him in a coffin to suffer while McGee perishes, helpless on the other side of the box. From there, Gene Page’s soulful opening theme and the title graphics bring the setting up to the present, with an inter-racial gay couple purchasing antiques at Dracula’s castle to send back to Los Angeles, including Blacula’s coffin. For the first time in two centuries, Marshall is released from his coffin and feasts on their blood before killing them. Then, like something out of The Mummy, Marshall sees McGee at the funeral home. She is the very image of his late wife and he knows he must get her back. At the same time police detective Thalmus Rasulala is investigating the strange deaths, and believes there is a vampire loose in the city. His girlfriend, Denise Nicholas, is McGee’s sister and the three of them are at a club when Marshall comes in looking for her. It doesn’t take long before he has her in his spell with plans to make her his reincarnated bride.

Initially Rasulala thinks he’s after one villain, but in this vampire world the mere fact that someone is bitten and dies turns them into a vampire themselves, and allows their numbers to increase geometrically. As corny as William Marshall might look on the posters, he makes for an imposing vampire, with a tall stature that dominates the screen and a deep, commanding voice like James Earl Jones. But all of the principals are good. Denise Nicholas and Thalmus Rasulala make a great couple, and they are very convincing in their roles. Gordon Pinsent is also solid as the police captain in charge of the case. The only other actor of note is Elisha Cook Jr. who makes an appearance in a small cameo as a hook-handed undertaker. The low mark in the acting is Vonetta McGee in the double role of Tina and Blacula’s wife. She doesn’t appear very comfortable in front of the camera and delivers her lines rather stiffly. To be fair, the pedestrian screenplay does nothing to provide any kind of genuine suspense, or use the horror tropes to any great effect. So, while the performers live up to their part, they are fighting a losing battle to make the film rise above its low-budget pedigree. What the film does instead is focus on the romantic angle of the vampire, and supports the idea of blacks as virile and sexual people.

There are some nice scares in the film, though, especially in the later half when the vampires are on the loose. Director William Crane uses everything from slow motion to special lighting and makeup to give those moments as much impact as he can. He even makes use of special effects animation to transform Marshall into a bat in a couple of place. The use of special effects throughout the film would have added a lot, but the money just wasn’t there. And to make matters worse, the ending is a real anticlimax, failing to deliver on the early promise in the film. It has to be acknowledged, though, that these films were never meant to be great cinema. They were small, independent films that relied on the uniqueness of a mostly black cast to bring in an audience, and in this sense it fulfilled its function admirably. Though the reviews of the film were decidedly mixed, it earned over a million dollars on its first run and was one of the top-grossing films of the year. This also served to reaffirm the market for such films, which led to the production of the sequel Scream, Blacula, Scream the following year. Ultimately, this is the lens that the film needs to be viewed through to avoid disappointment, and when viewed historically Blacula can be a rewarding cinematic experience.

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