Friday, 18 December 2009

Classic Blaxploitation 1 - Blacula

This is the first in an occasional series of write-ups about classic Blaxploitation movies. I used to write for a 70s and 80s website a couple of years back, and these are reviews that got posted up there. They're great websites, by the way, you can find them here and here.

Anyway, here's classic Blaxploitation movie number 1: BLACULA.

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Transylvania, 1780.
African Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) and his wife Luva (pronounced 'Loo-Vah', played by Vonetta McGee) are visiting Count Dracula (Charles McCauley) in his castle. After a pleasant evening, they propose that Dracula adds his support to their campaign to stop the slave trade. Dracula refuses - the slave trade has "merit", apparently - and this disagreement turns into a heated exchange that ends with Mamuwalde pinned down by Dracula's servants.

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Dracula bites Mamuwalde, then takes him down to one of his basements. Here, he puts him in a coffin, and announces that he is now a vampire: "I will curse you with my name... You shall be - Blacula!" Then he locks Mamuwalde in the coffin, and outlines his fiendish plan to lock Luva in the basement to starve to death, while her husband can only listen while she dies. He goes back upstairs with his servants, and - sure enough - they lock Luva in with Mamuwalde (in his coffin) to die.

Transylvania, Present Day (well, 1972)
Bobby McCoy (Ted Harris) and Billy Schaffer (Rick Metzler), two of the campest men to ever grace the earth with their presence, are antique dealers. They are negotiating with an agent to buy all of the furniture from Dracula's castle (he's long dead by this time). They sign the contract to take EVERYTHING, and then discover the 'secret' basement where Mamuwalde and Luva were locked in, almost two centuries ago. They take the coffin, not worrying about opening it... they just want to use it as a guest bed ("It's SO camp, darling..." - a camp bed, possibly?)

Los Angeles, still 1972
Bobby and Billy check their new acquisitions in their warehouse, and while they do so Bobby decides to open the coffin to see what's in it. Although he breaks the lock, before he opens the coffin properly Billy manages to cut himself quite badly while doing something else a few feet away. Bobby goes over to try and stop the bleeding, and they're both so caught up in the drama of it all that they don't notice the coffin creak open... and Mamuwalde make his way out... and over to them.

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He attacks Billy first, sucking the blood from his arm, and then kills Bobby before draining him too. Then he puts on a cape (which seems to come from somewhere below the screen) and lowers himself back into the coffin, chuckling menacingly to himself.

At Bobby's funeral, Mamuwalde is lurking behind a curtain (he later explains his presence there by saying that he was taking care of "a little business" of his own). He sees Bobby's hand move, even though Bobby is supposed to be "dead". Bobby's friend Tina and her sister Michelle (Denise Nicholas) are there - Tina (also played by Vonetta McGee) pulls back her hood and she is identical to Luva! (This resemblence is not lost on Mamuwalde.) Also present is Michelle's friend and work colleague (and possibly her lover) Dr Gordon Thomas (played by Thalmus Rasulala), who is examining Bobby's body. The Funeral Director / Mortician tells Dr Thomas that Bobby seemed to die from a 'rat bite' to the neck. The director hasn't emabalmed him yet. Dr Thomas notes that Bobby has no blood in his body.

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Tina is walking home, when she suddenly gets the sensation of being followed. She starts to run from the person / thing behind her, only to round a corner and run into Mamuwalde, who thinks she's Luva. Now quite seriously scared, Tina runs away again and while running drops her purse. Mamuwalde stops and picks it up, only to be hit by a cab as he walks across the road. The driver (Ketty Lester) gets out and helps Mamuwalde up, only to be attacked when Mamuwalde realises that because she hit him, he's lost Tina.

Tina gets home, uses her spare key to get in, and double locks the door - suddenly someone starts banging on it. It's only Michelle though. Tina tells her what happened. Meanwhile, Mamuwalde makes his way back to the warehouse, and his coffin. He still has Tina's purse.

Dr Thomas is investigating is investigating the mysterious 'blood loss' cases that he has seen. He examines the body of Juanita Jones (the taxi driver) and notices that she has two small puncture wounds in her neck... and has lost all of the blood in her body... Hmmmm. Could this be the work of a vampire?

The good Doctor refers to the fact that there may be a connection between the deaths of Bobby, Billy and Juanita to his friend Lieutenant Peters (Gordon Pinsent). There is a delay in the investigation, though - Bobby and Billy's files have gone missing, and Dr Thomas can't examine Bobby's body again because the family are viewing it until 8pm. Dr Thomas decides to go out again as he had planned to - after all, it's Michelle's birthday.

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When Tina and Michelle and Dr Thomas are out at a club, Mamuwalde walks in. He finds Tina and gives her the purse back, explaining that he meant her no harm. She invites him to sit with them, feeling strangely drawn to him. Could she have met him before, somehow? Meanwhile, Dr Thomas gets a phone call - Bobby's body has gone missing...

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This appears to be simply a black version of Dracula, to begin with, but don't be fooled - that is not the case. Although it features the standard vampire iconography (bats, capes, fangs, blood, coffins...), it transforms into something more than a mere carbon copy of Bram Stoker's novel. The sociological idea of slavery is introduced, something mentioned explicitly in the fine opening sequence, and explored later on a more implicit level. (Mamuwalde 'enslaves' his victims, and as Mikel J Koven points out in his patronising, simple and childish book 'The Pocket Essential Blaxploitation Films', Mamuwalde also acts as a link from the present to the past, literally acting as "living history for contemporary blacks".)

On a visual level, the film has some intriguing ideas. It echoes the Universal horrors of the 30s and 40s, but with slightly more graphic ideas (similar to the UK-made Hammer films of the 50s and 60s). The opening title sequence is excellent, almost like a cartoon vampire version of Pac-Man. The sequences where Mamuwalde attacks are initially almost comical, but quickly change to effective when he bites down on his victims. At times, Mamuwalde looks almost like a werewolf, with his excessive facial hair, but William Marshall's performance sugars this particular pill so that it isn't as distracting as it might have been.

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The soundstrack is excellent, an unjustly forgotten gem that deserves to be reissued on a wide scale - a very effective opening theme, and Gene Page's incidental music fits the film perfectly... and has been sampled on several occasions by hip hop producers.

The casting of Vonetta McGee in both the role of Luva and the role of Tina is clever, again predating the casting of Winona Ryder in a dual role in Coppola's Dracula film by a good 18 years. Thalmus Rasulala as Dr Thomas is not too bad, but unlike other Van Helsing characters on Dracula films he isn't given a great deal to do other than act churlishly towards other characters.

The film was awarded the 'Best Horror Film Of 1972' by the Academy of Horror Films and Science Fiction Films. Apparently the trailer for the film was so popular amongst black audiences (seeing a black horror film for the first time) that according to William Marshall, people would go to the cinemas specifically just to see the trailer (much like audiences have done in recent years for the new Star Wars films).

The image used to market Blacula was not one that William Marshall remembered posing for (although it does exist) - he claimed it was doctored by the studio for promotional purposes. Marshall did not want the "sensationalised image of black on white lust" that the studio eventually plumped for, and Mamuwalde never bites a white victim in the film at all.

Mamuwalde's original name in the script was 'Andrew Brown', which is the same name as Andy in 'Amos And Andy'. The name was changed at William Marshall's insistence, and the idea that Mamuwalde was an African Prince was also suggested by Marshall. "I suggested an African hero who had never been subjected to slavery," he said in an interview for the book 'What It Is, What It Was', "an African Prince travelling to Europe with his beloved wife, to persuade his 'brother' Eurpoean aristocrats to oppose the African slave trade."

Although William Marshall was primarily well-known as a distinguished stage actor (and as the King Of Cartoons on Pee-Wee's Playhouse in the 80s), he said in a late 1990s interview "I daresay the vast majority of people don't go to the theatre, so I don't mind that I'm still so strongly identified with Blacula. I did enjoy Blacula to a great extent. Early on, young black people who didn't know my name would yell at me on the street 'Mamuwalde... hey, Mamuwalde!" It was especially pleasing that I was being called by the African name I gave the character. I asked one young fan 'Who do you think I am?' He said, quoting from the nightclub scene, 'you know, you're the Strange Dude!'"

Overall, this is a good film, although you might find it amateurish the first time you see it (especially the green masks for the vampires at the beginning), but on second watching and beyond it gets better. Despite lapses into cheese, highly recommended.

4 POWS out of 5

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