Sunday, October 05, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #2: Blacula

Blending the horror and blaxploitation genres, and saddled with a title that seems to promise dumbass spoofery plus VAT, William Crain’s ‘Blacula’ actually emerges as a thoughtful and surprisingly faithful transportation of Stoker’s original from 1780s Transylavania to 1970s Los Angeles. Indeed, Crain opens his film at Castle Dracula in the last years of the eighteenth century as the aristocratic Mamuwalde (William Marshall) and his wife Luva (Vonetta McGee) petition Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay) to support their campaign against slavery. Dracula quickly shows his true colours (dude’s all for enslavement and subjugation) and punishes his guests for their liberal agenda by turning Mamuwalde into a vampire only to lock him in a coffin to deny him his bloodlust, and locking Luva in a crypt with said sealed sarcophagus until she expires of natural causes.

So far so cynical. Not a hint of comedy or satire. The animated opening credits sequence suggests otherwise, however, and some low-brow humour threads its way through the next sequence as the narrative jumps forward two centuries and a pair of camp antiques dealers visit Castle Dracula, on the market following a downturn in the estate’s fortunes, and cart off everything they can get their hands on, including the still-padlocked coffin containing the undead Mamuwalde. As soon as the action shifts to American soil, though, a more sombre tone predominates. Mamuwalde, seemingly nonplussed by the passage of two hundred years and entirely at home in streets bathed in neon and bustling with automotive transport to a soundtrack of R&B, swiftly notches up his first few victims.

The LAPD demonstrate a lack of concern at the pile-up of bodies, largely on account of their ethnicity. So it’s left to socially motivated coroner Dr Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) to make the connections – exsanguination; bite marks; corpses mysteriously disappearing from morgues – and try to cajole jaded homicide dick Lt Peters (Gordon Pinsent) into taking the case more seriously. But things are about to get closer to home than Thomas imagined when his wife Michelle (Denise Nicholas)’s younger sister Tina (McGee again), the spitting image of the long-dead Nuva, attracts Mamuwalde’s attention.

‘Blacula’ boasts a brisk narrative that unfolds as both a gothic romance (the undead nobleman’s grand quest for his lost love) and a police procedural (Thomas – the film’s Helsing stand-in – and Peters working together to track down the vampire). Crain flips between the two strands with ease, maintaining both tension and a shadowy sense of inevitability. Although the script hardly gifts anyone with memorable dialogue, and the performances are generally adequate to the material and no more than that, ‘Blacula’ benefits immeasurably from its two leads. Marshall brings a dignity and gravitas to Mamuwalde that I really wasn’t expecting in a film with such a bad pun as a title (it says something that, apart from Dracula’s pre-credits curse on him, the character is steadfastly referred to as Mamuwalde throughout; the name “Blacula” is spoken maybe twice). Rasulala, too, has immense screen presence and grittily stripped down acting style reminiscent of Clint Eastwood. The ladies of the cast fare less well, but that’s more to do with underdeveloped roles. McGee is a sympathetic presence and Nicholas, in her debut film appearance, makes an impression.

The balance between Mamuwalde as tragic figure and Mamuwalde as dangerous villain is the fulcrum on which the success of the film depends – and Crain as director and Marshall as performer achieve the balancing act with aplomb. The subterranean finale creates an extraordinary dynamic between these aspects of the character, leading to a final scene that’s iconic and poignant and maybe even a tad Nietzschean.

‘Blacula’ had been on my radar for a while without my actually knowing much about the film. I approached it expecting B-movie tomfoolery and came away impressed by a thoughtful and entertaining piece of craftsmanship.


Tim said...

You must, MUST see Scream Blacula Scream. It's not maybe quite as good as the first one, but it's still pretty great, while having to overcome an even more idiotic title. Plus, Pam Grier!

Neil Fulwood said...

Ummmmm. I've just finished drafting my review of 'Scream, Blacula, Scream' and we may find ourselves in disagreement on its merits ...

But, yeah, Pam Grier!