As Blaxploitation proved itself a commercial field for box-office appeal, studios looked at expanding the urban crime stories by mixing in aspects of other trendy genres. BLACULA, made by AIP, was the first of the horror cycle and despite its name is surprisingly good.
Part of its success is the casting of the debonair, urbane Shakespearian actor William Marshall whose deep cultured tones lend a welcome gravitas to the central role of African Prince Mamuwalde. In a 1780 prologue at Castle Dracula in Transylvania, the Prince attempts to persuade the Count to release his people from slavery (a brief nod to history). His insolence is rewarded by Dracula biting him into fanged immortality, cursing his people for ever and murdering his wife Luva (Vonetta McGee). These scenes are shot with care and the rich colours that fit right into the Hammer style. Already we feel that this is not a silly cash-in but a commendably straight-faced horror film.
From here we shift to the present day where a pair of cringe-inducing gay stereotyped decorators buy the property and ship Mamuwalde’s coffin to Los Angeles. The stage is set for Mamulwalde (called ‘the black avenger’ in the trailer) to rise again, suck the blood from the modern urban world and seduce whom he believes is his lost love in the lookalike form of Tina (McGee again). These beats are well-played for their sincerity and also the romanticism of the noble reunited after centuries with his eternal love). Along the way, he attracts a hunting nemesis in police pathologist Dr Gordon Thomas, a solidly Shaft-esque hero, Thalmus Rasalala and his partner Peters (Gordon Pinsent). He is aided by a pleasing cameo from Elisha Cook as the morgue attendant.
After converting a bevy of victims to vampiric servitude, Mamuwalde is tracked down to a warehouse. Here the nest of vampires descend on the police in a satisfying Fulci-style zombie attack-wave. Tina is shot by the police in the melee and Mamuwalde has no choice but to tragically save her by turning her to a vampire. When she is staked by Peters, the Prince of Darkness is so consumed by loss that he commits suicide by fatally baring his body to the searing sunlight on the roof . I can’t think of another vampire film where the central ‘Dracula’ figure takes his own life in the climax, so this ranks for me as another gratifying surprise to add to the movie being the first depiction of a black vampire on screen.
BLACULA is played as a straight-forward horror movie avoiding almost all of the camp absurdity or spoofery you might expect from the premise and proved successful enough (grossing over $1m) for the sequel SCREAM, BLACULA SCREAM the next year. It’s lively, nicely paced and has the bonus of funky live club performances by The Hues Corporation amidst the refreshing soul score rather than traditional classical horror orchestration. Undead and uncommon fun.