The distinguished actor William Marshall starred on Broadway, played Shakespeare’s Othello on the London stage, sang operas, and later became beloved by 80s kids as “The King of Cartoons” on PEE WEE’S PLAYHOUSE. But he’s best remembered today as Prince Mamuwalde in the first Blaxploitation/horror film, 1973’s BLACULA. It’s the late 1700s, and the Prince and his wife have traveled to Transylvania on a diplomatic mission protesting the European slave trade. When their host, Count Dracula (Charles Macauley) insults them, they get up to leave. But Dracula has other ideas, putting the bite on Mamuwalde and damning him to a fate “torn by an unquenchable thirst. I curse you and give you my name. You shall be called….BLACULA!!” With that, Dracula locks the Prince in his coffin, and leaves his wife Luva to rot to death in their cell.
After a cool animated title sequence (by designer Sandy Dvore), we’re in 1973. Two (flamboyantly stereotyped) gay antique dealers purchase Count Dracula’s estate. Bringing their treasures back to Los Angeles, they open up a coffin, and…out pops Blacula! He dispatches the two dudes and returns to his bed, his hunger satisfied. Dr. Gordon Thomas, his girlfriend Michelle, and her sister Tina were friends with the guys, and when they visit the funeral parlor, Thomas, who happens to be a police pathologist, notices two puncture marks on his neck. Blacula is there behind a curtain, waiting for his new servant to arise. He lays eyes on Tina, and she’s a dead ringer for his long-dead wife! Blacula follows her, but she runs, dropping her purse along the way.
The three go out to a nightclub, where The Hues Corporation are performing. Unfortunately, they don’t sing their #1 hit “Rock the Boat”. Blacula, going by his Mamuwalde moniker, has arranged to meet Tina and return her purse. He explains how much she reminds him of his departed wife. A photographer takes a picture, causing the Prince to beat a hasty retreat. When she goes home to develop the pic, guess what….Blacula doesn’t appear in it. But the undead Mamuwalde has followed her and sinks his fangs in her neck, taking the evidence with him (how someone who’s been dead for almost three hundred years knows about photography is baffling to me!) After a female cab driver is found murdered, Thomas pays a visit to the morgue. He’s greeted by attendant Sam, who looks suspiciously like Elisha Cook Jr. Wait, it IS Elisha Cook Jr! Thomas checks the cabbie’s neck, and there’s those puncture wounds again. The gay guy’s body is reported missing from its coffin, and Thomas requests permission to dig up the other one’s grave from his pal, Lt. Peters, who rejects the idea. Thomas talks Michelle into going with him to do it anyway. They exhume the body, and it leaps from his coffin to attack Thomas, who just happens to have brought a rather large cross and pointy stake to drive through the thing’s heart! Mamuwalde goes to Tina’s apartment and reveals all to her. Literally, as they end up spending the night together (can vampires have sex?) He wants her to spend eternity with him, but Tina’s reluctant to bite. He says he won’t force her, she’ll have to choose. Meanwhile, Thomas and Peters go to the morgue to examine the cab lady’s body. They arrive too late for Sam, who’s been attacked by the she-vampire, but with his big cross and a tug at the curtains, she’s killed by the early morning sun.
Next night at the club, Thomas and Mamuwalde have a discussion about the occult in general, and vampires in particular. Thomas heads to the photographer’s home, and discovers the negative of the incriminating picture. He and Michelle bust into Tina’s where they find Blacula, who manages to escape. The police track him to a warehouse, finding a gaggle of vampires. Thomas and Peters throw oil lamps at the vamps, which makes them burst into flames! Blacula’s coffin isn’t there, so the cops surround Tina’s place. He telepathically contacts her, and she leaves via fire escape. Thomas and the other cops track them to an “underground chemical plant”, and in a chase they shoot Tina. Blacula bites her before she dies of the gunshot wound. Soon they find his coffin. Thomas opens the lid and Peters jabs a stake….through Tina’s heart, because it’s her in the coffin. Blacula, his vampiric heart broken after losing his love yet again, decides to end his misery by walking out into the sunlight, where he dies a grisly death.
Campy? Hell, yeah. Plotholes? Big enough to drive a Lincoln Continental through. But we’re talking AIP here, not Shakespeare of Grand Opera. Executive Producer Samuel Z. Arkoff knew how to grind out the grindhouse product, and BLACULA is entertaining if you don’t think too much. The movie is filled with good performances from pros like Marshall, Cook, and Vonetta McGee (who was in the underrated THOMASINA &BUSHROD), Denise Nicholas (from TV’s ROOM 222 & IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT), Thalmus Rasulala (FRIDAY FOSTER, NEW JACK CITY), and token white lead Gordon Pinset (the president in COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT, also beloved by 80s kids as the voice of BABAR). BLACULA was a huge success and spawned a sequel (SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM), and a whole host of Blaxploitation/horror mash-ups: BLACKENSTEIN, DR BLACK & MR HYDE (by BLACULA director William Crain), ABBY (an EXORCIST rip-off), SUGAR HILL (voodoo and zombies) and many more. But BLACULA was the first, and in many ways the best. Forget about logic, break out the popcorn, and indulge in a 70s classic!
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