A pair of American interior decorators unbox their recent haul of European antiquities and unwittingly awaken a vampire from two centuries of slumber. Aroused and hungry for blood, the undead African Prince Mamuwalde makes short work of his two liberators before heading out to prowl the streets of nineteen-seventies Los Angeles. The movie is “Blacula” (1972), with William Marshall in the lead role as the titular prince of the night, featured January (2022) & February (2022) on MGM HD.
Make no mistake about it, despite the campy name, “Blacula” is a straight-up horror movie; the first to win “Best Horror Film” at the Saturn Awards. “Blacula” gleefully, and unironically employs hallmarks of the classic Dracula movie story, such as coffins, capes, and vampire bats. Also on display are the timeless tools of vampire-killing, including the crucifix, wooden stakes, and sunlight. However, by resetting the story from 19th Century England to contemporary L.A. and casting African American actors in the key lead roles, the movie takes something old and makes it new again.
Made in the middle of the “Soul Cinema” era of the early 1970’s, “Blacula” avoids many of the more exploitative aspects of that genre. Directed by William Crain, one of the few African American directors to achieve mainstream success at the time, “Blacula” contains characters who are more than mere stereotypes. There are no pimps, prostitutes, or hustlers. Instead, “Blacula” is populated with middle-class African American professionals with fully formed lives of their own.
Actor Thalmus Rasulala stars as Dr. Gordon Thomas, a pathologist for the LAPD, who along with his girlfriend and lab tech, Michelle Williams (played by the underrated Denise Taylor), is hot on the trail of the bloodless corpses that can only lead towards Blacula himself. Rasualala and Taylor bring a sense of playful and flirtatious realism to their performances that add flesh to characters that might otherwise have been lifeless.
But it is William Marshall’s portrayal of Mamuwalde that elevates the film. Marshall, a veteran of the Actor’s Studio, the Broadway stage, and the Shakespearian theater, lends his character and surprising gravitas and dignity. Marshall’s performance helps the movie retain the sense of tragedy that underlies any good vampire yarn.
Which not to say that “Blacula” isn’t old-fashioned goofy fun. It has its share of the low budget and lurid pleasures that fans of producer Samuel Z. Arkoff and American International Productions know and love – keep your eyes peeled for a police map of Staten Island inexplicably hanging in the office of an LAPD lieutenant. There’s a groovy animated main title, a funky series of songs from the band The Hues Corporation, and some of the usual outdated and questionable morals and language of the times. But most of all, “Blacula” is a scary good time.
So, sink your teeth into “Blacula,” featured January (2022) and February (2022) on MGM HD.