Saturday 22 June 2013

Blacula [1972]

BLACULA is an American horror film that was directed by William Crain and originally released in August 1972.  It stars William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Thalmus Rasulala, Denise Nicholas and Gordon Pinsent. It is notable for being the first horror film made expressly with black audiences in mind, that is to say the first horror / blaxploitation film.  As such it dispenses with almost all of the customary tropes of a vampire movie - period setting, European location, aristocratic characters and high gothic design - and instead updates the action to 1970s Los Angeles.

William Marshall - a handsome and imposing classically-trained actor with a voice so deep he makes James Earl Jones sound like Joe Pasquale - plays Mamuwalde, an African prince cursed by Count Dracula himself to the eternal hunger of vampirism.  When the contents of Castle Dracula are sold to a pair of American antique dealers, Mamuwalde's coffin is transported to LA where he awakes and almost immediately bumps into Tina (the luminous Vonetta McGee), the likeness of his now long dead wife.  Not surprisingly, bodies soon start turning up all over the city and, before the police can act, then disappearing.

William Marshall as Blacula / Mamuwalde
In a refreshing display of professionalism, this strange turn of events attracts the attention of Dr Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) a funky pathologist who looks like he came second in the Compton All-Comers John Shaft Lookalike Contest.  Thomas happens to be married to Tina's sister Michelle (Denise Nicholas) and before you know it he and Mamuwalde are sipping French champagne with their beeyatches down at the local nightclub.  However, as the bodies pile up, the adversaries are soon facing off in much less cordial circumstances.

Thalmus Rasulala as Dr Gordon Thomas
Once Hollywood producers cottoned on to the hitherto untapped black audience and started making films with them in mind - a process which started in 1970 - it was only a matter of time before the first horror-themed blaxploitation movie hit the screens.  So I suppose BLACULA deserves a footnote in film genre history for being that ground-breaking movie.  Unfortunately it's not very good.  Well, actually that's a bit harsh; given the total lack of expertise in this field, plus the fact that those inexperienced film-makers were also trying to shoehorn an intrinsically European narrative form into contemporary black culture, it's probably about as good as can be expected.

Blacula about to strike (William Marshall's dignity not pictured)
It benefits from a commanding central performance by William Marshall who brings a considerable amount of dignity to a part that is essentially ridiculous; I mean, his character is called Blacula for goodness' sake. Marshall is given good support by Thalmus Rasulala as the Van Helsing equivalent; at times, and in particular whenever Blacula is offscreen, Rasulala's performance is just about the only thing holding the film together. The reason I say that is because William Crain's direction is dreadfully pedestrian and unimaginative: the entire film has the dreary look of a TV cop show.  You would have hoped too that a film made by and for people who had been oppressed so terribly and for so long would have been less conservative: there are two dreadful homosexual stereotype characters who are then routinely referred to as "faggots" for the rest of the film.

Two gay antique dealers who make David Dickinson look like Lee Marvin
There are two other things worth mentioning about BLACULA.  First is the presence in the cast of Elisha Cook Jr, one of the most beloved and prolific character actors of them all.  This is a man who started his career in 1930 and ended it with a recurring role in MAGNUM, P.I.  Check out his entry on imdb - he racked up a mind-blowing 215 screen appearances in various media.  He's in so many films that he's almost certainly in one of your favourites; he's in at least three of mine.

The wonderful Elisha Cook Jr
The second thing worth mentioning is Gene Page's terrific soundtrack.  It's not as well known as the scores to other blaxploitation films - usually SHAFT [1971] and SUPER FLY [1972] get all the attention - but it's almost as good.

The beautiful Vonetta McGee
One final note about Vonetta McGee, the fondly-remembered and always interesting cult actress.  She blazed a trail in being one of the very few black actresses to have a major role in a spaghetti western (or any kind of western come to think of it) in Sergio Corbucci's IL GRANDE SILENZIO [1968], with Euro acting legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Klaus Kinski.  Back in Hollywood she appeared in several blaxploitation (apparently she disliked the term) movies as well as bigger budget affairs such as the Clint Eastwood mountaineering flick THE EIGER SANCTION [1975].  Sadly, after that she seemed limited to sporadic TV appearances although she was cast by uber-fan Alex Cox in his classic weirdie REPO MAN [1984].  It's a great shame that she never really hit the heights but I guess at least she found work; countless African-American actors in previous generations didn't even get that.  She died of a heart attack three years ago, aged 65.