With my only exposure being brief, incredulous mentions in monster books, I expected a vampire movie starring the King of Cartoons to be ridiculous, like Undercover Brother with vampires. Simple blaxploitation comedy was my prediction. That was overturned constantly... until I watched the trailer. We'll get to that.
The fact that this film kept surprising me not is owed directly to Shakespearian actor William Marshall, the aforementioned King. In a great essay in Draculas, Vampires,and Other Undead Forms, researchers Lehman and Browning reveal the initial concept was something closer to the cast of Good Times wandering into Transylvania and becoming soul food. Luckily for us, Marshall demanded a story that wouldn't make him pull his fangs out.
Marshall portrays the African Prince Mamuwalde of the Eboni tribe (see what they did there?). Go on, say it: Mamuwalde. It rolls off the tongue like warm syrup. Anyway, Mamuwalde travels to Transylvania to eloquently aruge that Dracula should take a stand as a European aristocrat against slavery.
Surprising only very small children and pets, Count Dracula kinda likes the concept of slavery. Who knew that a giant metaphorical rapist would also be a bit of a dick? Mamuwalde tries to leave, Dracula acts like Dracula, and the night ends with Mamuwalde vampirised and locked in a coffin in an airtight tomb, his wife trapped in with him.
Then, after a trippy animated title sequence that'd make a great phone game, we get... Well, the plot of Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula, surprisingly. Mamuwalde is released in the modern day, finds the reincarnation of his beloved wife, and acts absolutely charming to the audience at all times.
Blacula (who never calls himself that for obvious reasons) doesn't act like a stereotypical Lugosi knock-off. First of all, while he drains people, he never once gives the idea that he's using the other vampires as servant. It makes total sense that that a vampiric abolitionist isn't going to be into enslaving people as minions. Never do we see Mamuwalde order his fellows around.
Also breaking from cliche, he gets his beloved alone, reveals himself to here, and attempts to woo her inside of just going for the Mina Harker route. There's no thrist for mere possession of the woman; Marshall brings across real joy at the reunification and respect for his time-lost love.
I used the word charming earlier because I found myself generally rooting for Mamuwalde as cursed hero the entire time. There's a wonderful scene where our hero and Dr. Gordon (our modern Van Helsing) and talk in a nightclub. Mamuwalde plays with him the entire time they discuss the occult, reminding me of all the scenes in Tod Browning's Dracula where the count pretends to be alive.
There's other nifty things. I'm a sucker for songs in the background reflecting the plot, and all three nightclub songs are the performers pulling a Greek chorus and talking about Mamuwalde. The camera shots do get a bit uncomfortable, though.
The end becomes a cat-and-mouse game with the police, as the uncontrolled vampires spread infection geometrically. They're not bad at hiding, either. I think this is the earliest film I've seen that uses Joss Whedon's idea of a "game face," where vampires have a normal visage that "vamps out" when they're about to get their suck on.
So the police roll in, and Blacula rolls up his dukes. As soon as the cops are on alert, on of them spots Mamuwalde, draws his gun, and chases him into an alley. This got me thinking: How does he know Mamuwalde is the vampire? The movie goes out of its way to show that Mamuwalde doesn't show up on film, so he hadn't seen him before. Then I get a sneaking suspicion.
I remember that I'm watching a white cop chasing a running black man down an alley, guns drawn, in a movie intended for urban black audiences in the 70's.
Instantly, I wonder if I'm adding subtext that's not there. I'm not an African American, and I don't want to whitesplain things. The good guys do seem genuinely disturbed at the death of a policeman. That cop may have started the chase for good reasons, but it nagged at the back of my brain. Still, it might've coded very differently to the audience of the day. Then movie doesn't seem to revel in the cop's death, but I wonder how people reacted in the theaters.
I decided to check the DVD trailer. How did the movie present itself to the intended audience?
"...The Black Avenger..."
"...Dracula's soul brother..."
We get forty seconds of Mamuwalde beating on cops.
Yeah. Okay. The trailer does use "black vampire fighting cops" as the main selling point. Honestly, knowing the times, and the fact that this is only six years after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot? I can't blame the filmmakers. Considering the politics of the age, I totally understand how a disadvantaged and disenfranchised minority want a supernatural protector against the symbols they associate with their oppressors. I'm Jewish; I can recognize what's going on right away.
Blacula is the Golem of Harlem.
Philosophizing aside, it's a great movie. Marshall sells the end scene, and it's better written than most of Christopher Lee's. Whereas Sir Lee acted the hell out of often subpar Dracula scripts, Marshall is given an ending thats positively Shakespearean.
There's still some problematic stuff. There's an interracial gay couple, quite possibly a cinema first considering that All in the Family was just debuting gay characters on television for the first time. No one, not even our heroic Dr. Gordon, ever refers to them by any polite term. Aside from that and an n-word usage, this would otherwise be a great kid's monster movie.
In short, it's a great vampire movie and a fascinating look at 70's politics. This one needs more love.
Let the sequels begin!