Starring: William Marshall, Pam Grier, Vonetta McGee
Director: William Crain, Bob Kelljan
Created by veteran horror studio American International as a way of getting a piece of the Blaxpoitation pie, Blacula (1972) starts off in a place fans of vampire movies know all too well – ye olde Transylvania. It’s 1780, and African prince Mumuwalde (William Marshall) and his wife make the mistake of paying Count Dracula a visit in the hopes of getting him interested in the anti-slavery movement. Alas, the bloodsucker turns out to be a gibbering racist and he teaches Mamuwalde a lesson by turning him into one of the undead and imprisoning him for all eternity – or at least until the 1970s, when a pair of gay interior decorators buy up the contents of Dracula’s castle lock, stock and coffins and transport them back to LA, where Mamuwalde wakes up, pissed off and very hungry.
Soon, black bodies drained of blood are turning up all over downtown LA. The police are slow to take an interest (although you really would think they’d notice a 6’5” black man with dripping fangs and a cape roaming the streets), so pathologist Dr Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) starts to do some sniffing around on his own account. Meanwhile, Mamuwalde gets a shock when he meets Tina (Vonetta McGee), a girl who is the spitting image of his long-lost wife.
William Crain’s directorial style is rough and ready, but the film’s heart is in the right place and it turns on a neat irony – that the man who hoped to save his people is now preying on them, and that he is being pursued by the accomplished and determined Dr Thomas, who is in some sense his modern counterpart. Playing the good doctor, Thalmus Rasulala has some of the best moments in the movie, including a scene where he charms his understandably reluctant girlfriend, Michelle (Denise Nicholas), into helping him exhume a grave. As for William Marshall, his relationship with Tina doesn’t exactly light up the screen, but he’s an imposing figure, and his Mamuwalde has the virtue of being much more resourceful and hard to kill that Christopher Lee’s rather stake-to-the-heart-prone Dracula had become by the early ’70s. Yes, you have to make allowances, but Blacula has plenty of rugged charm, and in the moments when the story drags there are some amazing Blaxploitation threads and afros to gawp at in wonder.
The HD transfer is a little soft but is clean and without grain and has plenty of detail in the two-shots and close-ups. The nightclub scenes are richly colourful, and those loud outfits really pop – just check out Tina’s purple quilted jacket and matching mini, or Michelle’s tangerine sweater dress.
This Blu-ray also comes with Blacula‘s 1973 sequel, Scream, Blacula, Scream. Right from its extremely atmospheric pre-titles sequence, it has the edge on the earlier film. Mamuwalde is brought back from the dead by a reject from a voodoo cult, and he’s soon taking a keen interest in Lisa (Pam Grier), a powerful priestess who might finally hold the key to reuniting him with his lost love. Instead of the typical Blaxploitation vibe, director Bob Kelljan (an experienced hand at these things, having worked on Count Yorga, Vampire) opts for a sophisticated Euro-horror look. The cast of characters are chic upper middle class black people who take an interest in their African roots – hence the voodoo – but who dress like they’re in the pages of Vogue. It’s a milieu that seems to make all the difference to Marshall’s performance. A bit of a plank in the first film, he really comes into his own here, overflowing with old world manners and toothy good humour. At the same time, he’s much scarier than before, with some well-handled moments of gore drawing a sharp distinction between his outer suaveness and his cruel, animalistic side. Pam Grier does well in the scream queen role, and the stars are backed up by a number of engaging and photogenic supporting actors, most noticeably Richard Lawson as Willis, Mamuwalde’s lazy, unwilling henchman.
What makes the film’s appearance on this disc even more appealing is that the HD transfer is absolutely first class. There’s no grain or blemishes, and the gorgeous gowns and luxe cinematography come up in pin-sharp detail. It really is a beauty and a joy to watch.
As an extra, you get a 24-minute interview with film critic Kim Newman. He talks in a typically witty, informative way about, among other things, Blaxploitation movies in general, the influence of Dark Shadows on Blacula and its unlikely influence in turn on Coppola’s Dracula, and about other Blaxploitation horrors such as Abby (1974), a black Exorcist.