by Matt Dukes Jordan
Directed by William Crain Starring William Marshall, Gordon Pinsent, Thalmus Rasulala, Vonetta McGee, and Denise Nicholas Blacula was released in 1972 to mixed reviews but ended up as one of the top grossing films that year with over a million dollars in ticket sales. It also launched a subgenre within the blaxploitation genre — the blaxploitation horror film.
The film’s trailer gives a somewhat distorted impression of the film. It opens with a good looking but hairy Blacula (he sprouts extra facial hair when he turns into a vampire) laughing as cops fire bullets into him at point-blank range or attack him in other ways. He then dispatches them with glee.
One would initially have the impression that the film was about an invincible, bulletproof African-American dude who goes around in a cape knocking off agro cops. The trailer no doubt helped draw an African-American audience, as did some posters with references to slavery. The fact that the film had rhythm and blues music on the soundtrack and even had an extended pop/soul musical number in a nightclub featuring a group called The Hues Corporation helped too. (This film gave the fledgling band, which contributed three songs to the soundtrack, its first big break. They were soon signed with a major label, RCA Records, and eventually had a 2-million selling single in 1974 called “Rock the Boat.”)
Overall, it’s a pretty cool film — kind of an early 70s offbeat romp (at times) that starred a handsome Shakespearean actor with a baritone voice and a winning manner — plus the film featured some very beautiful women in leading roles.
The story begins when the man who soon becomes Blacula runs into Dracula while in Europe protesting slavery. He’s a very good and noble African prince, and wants to end slavery. This was in 1780. For some reason he complained about slavery to Dracula, who bit him and made him into a vampire. A few centuries later Blacula is shipped in his coffin to America following an estate sale. The new owners of the coffin where Blacula is sleeping are two gay dudes (one white and one African-American). They’re bitten by Blackula in the warehouse where they are storing their goodies from the estate sale. The two gay guys become active as vampires over a matter of days. (Later in the film it only takes a few minutes after being bitten to grow fangs and become thirsty for blood.) An African-American cop investigates. The police investigation into the rising number of strange deaths and the fact that there are vampires popping up in Los Angeles is handled well. It seems like a respectful TV cop series.
However, unlike high-budget TV cop shows, the police station and props here are pretty tacky and low-budget. This film was financed by Sam Arkoff and American International Pictures — an outfit known for keeping costs low and offering thrilling exploitation fare to a teen and young-adult audience. (It’s interesting to note that in the same year that Blacula came out, Arkoff was also helped produce Scorcese’s low-budget film Boxcar Bertha.)
The director of Blacula, an African-American guy named William Crain, was born in 1949 and was a graduate of UCLA’s film school. He had some directed episodes of Mod Squad so he was already comfortable doing cop dramas. He cast the film himself and some of the lead actors had also worked in the medium Crain had done his directing apprenticeship in — television. The cool thing is that virtually every key player in the film is an African-American. The down side of this is that, being a genre film, all the characters are more or less mirroring conventional roles played by white and black people in everyday society. No one is really trying to break out of the norms of the society of the time. In this way it’s a very conservative film. One could almost make the case that the film is about the need to conform and be “normal.”
Anyone who seeks an alternative to conventional social behavior and does something too freaky — like turning into a crazy vampire — will be destroyed.
At the end of the film, during a climactic battle in the warehouse where Blacula has been living in what seems to be some sort of vampire commune, lots of hippy-like vampires (mostly African-American) emerge from the shadows and a great battle ensues with the three cops who have gone there. Other than fangs and pale skin, the group appears more like a bunch of counterculture types than vampires. Thus Blackula is, in some sense, a crime film about threats to social order and its restoration — those who break the social codes are destroyed and society is able to return to “normal” by the end of the film. Is that good?
In 1972 many people were hoping to find an alternative to the “normal” set of values that had led America into a war in Vietnam and into ecological disasters of various kinds. Could there be a “hip” Blackula who somehow rages against the problems of society and sees himself as a persecuted outcast? Crain did break through with a classic horror film featuring African Americans — and that is, in itself, a challenge to the norms of society. Yet the narrative structure and basic elements of the film echoed mainstream films. In fact that this film both offered some new thrills as well as challenges to social conventions — but was at the same time very conventional in many ways — part of why it did so well at the box office?
While it definitely had an appeal for an African-American audience, it was, to an extent, tapping into collective concerns and fears that many were feeling in mainstream American society.
The rise of horror films at this time can be seen as a reaction to the upheaval and social unrest of the sixties and early seventies. At some level people who viewed themselves as normal felt threatened and had the sense that some almost demonic “other” was invading the society or taking over. (The reaction might be against the strange hippies and ideas about their cults or alternative religious practices, or the suddenly more visible and politically active African Americans, or feminst challenges by women, or some other group seen as threatening to the status quo.)
Films like The Exorcist reflected this fear. What’s interesting about Blacula is that in some sense it played on this fear — after all, a sexy African-American vampire is running around causing a degree of social mayhem.
In posters for the film, we see him biting the neck of a woman who looks white, even though in the film this never happens — his victims are mostly African-American. Did the film tap into some fear of an emerging African-America energy and power? Probably so — but it also functioned to quell those fears by having the story end with order restored.
Crain went on to direct another blaxploitation horror film called Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde, released in 1976. He directed more TV shows and a few films. Then, about twenty years ago, he dropped out of the film and television business because, as he said in an interview for mondo-video.com, he wanted to write fiction and give living like Hemingway a try (traveling and writing). He also said that he got tired of the Hollywood hustle — that is, “beating the bushes” for jobs. It sort of “wore me out” as he said in an interview for mondo-video.com. He had family concerns that he was engaged with as well. The last time he directed a film was in 1992. It’s called Midnight Fear and starred David Carradine as an alcoholic sheriff who’s investigating the horrible murder of a woman who was skinned. (Tarantino has said this is one of his favorite Carradine films and one of the reasons he wanted Carradine for Kill Bill.)
For a great interview with Crain, see: http://www.mondo-video.com/william-crain-interview
The Blackula series continued with Scream, Blacula, Scream, also starring William Marshall, released in 1973. Two notably cool blaxploitation horror films, both of which go a lot more over the top than this one, are J.D.’s Revenge (1976), and Petey Wheatstraw — The Devil’s Son-In-Law (1977). Both are very entertaining and fun to watch and no doubt owe a debt to Blackula for establishing a new subgenre, the African-American horror film.
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