Starring: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Denise Nicholas and Thalmus Rasulala
Rated: PG Fantasy/Horror/Romance
Referenced as “Dracula’s soul brother” in the film trailer, Blacula is the story an African prince who is bitten by Dracula, the vampire count of Transylvania. Set in 1780, Mamuwalde (William Marshall), accompanied by his wife, Princess Luva (Vonetta McGee), was sent by the council of elders of the fictionalized dynasty, Eboni, to meet with Dracula. The prince sought aid in ending the trafficking of Africans into the European-dominated slave trade.
Dracula rudely rebuffs Mamuwalde and has his henchmen guards restrain the prince. Being vulnerable, Dracula curses him as “Blacula” and bites Mamuwalde, thus converting him into a vampire. He is then sealed in a coffin within a crypt, where Luva is also to be imprisoned for the remainder of her life.
The setting of Blacula is then projected to the present year, 1972. Two interior decorators, Billy (Rick Metzler) and Bobby (Ted Harris), are in a Los Angeles warehouse, inventorying items they purchased at an estate sale. Among those items is the coffin of Blacula. Upon opening it, they awaken a starving Blacula who bites them both, turning them into vampires. Wondering of his wife, he realizes that he is in another time and space. As he tries to adjust to the transition of being in a totally new environment, he also battles to retain his humanity although suffering vampirism.
When Blacula visits the funeral home where Bobby’s body is laid to rest in a coffin, he sees several of Bobby’s friends in mourning. They are Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala); his girlfriend, Michelle Williams (Denise Nicholas); and Michelle’s sister, Tina Williams (also played by Vonetta McGee). Blacula believes that Tina is Luva reincarnated.
In a brief time, Blacula soon endears himself to Tina by “saving” her and she quickly falls in love with Mamuwalde. Simultaneously, Gordon, a pathologist with the Los Angeles Police Department continues investigating the death of Bobby and other bodies whose manner of death matches that of his late friend.
Will Mamuwalde at least find love with Tina before his alter identity is discovered by Gordon and be summarily vanquished? Viewers definitely want to know!
When American International Picture issued a limited theater release of Blacula in the summer of 1972, the production company utilized various techniques to increase the interest of moviegoers. Black movie-goers were specifically targeted and free admission was even offered to attendees who wore a cape. Building upon the newly-formed genre of “Blaxploitation”, the poster art illustrated different images, one even stating, “Rising from the echoing corridors of Hell, an awesome being of the supernatural – with Satanic power of sheer dread. Chained forever to a slavery more vile than any before ever endured …” In The Black Film Explosion of the ‘70s in Words and Pictures: What It Is, What It Was, authored by Gerald Martinez, Diana Martinez and Andres Chavez, William Marshall discussed his experience with Blacula.
In his long and illustrious career, William Marshall was celebrated for his wisdom and dignity. He excelled as a classically trained actor, activist and professor of Black film and theater at California University, Northridge. In the aforementioned book, Marshall shared that regardless of his roles, many people always reference him to his role in Blacula. Marshall felt especially proud of being associated with Mamuwalde, a character he helped develop beyond the negative stereotypes all too often portrayed by the film industry.
In being first called to star in the film, he explained, “I laughed when I saw the movie poster showing Blacula biting the neck of a White woman, but I was not really amused. First of all, that never happened in the movie. I wasn’t ready for a sensationalized image of Black-on-White lust to advertise Blacula. My contribution to the first story of a Black movie vampire was in a very different direction.”
One of the things he first changed was the character’s name, Andrew Brown. That was the full name of the lead character, “Andy”, of the Amos and Andy show, which was originally played by a White duo in Blackface. Marshall called for “… an African hero who had never been subjected to slavery, an African prince traveling in Europe with his beloved wife, to persuade his “brother” European aristocrats to oppose the African slave trade. After all, how did African people get to the United States anyway? I don’t think any of them hitchhiked. While on this moral mission, he succumbs to European vampirism, which he didn’t even know existed.”
He also gave depth to the Black vampire character that only William Marshall could. Marshall enlightened readers when he offered, “Blacula isn’t a regular vampire, he has a sense of responsibility. Compared to other vampires – mine had a different personality, a couple of different ones. There was Prince Mamuwalde, on a mission of international morality. Then there is Mamuwalde, the husband, in a very tender love story that really matters and endures beyond death. When he says, ‘I have lived again to lose you twice’, you really feel their tragedy. You get a sense of his humanity. Yes, I think my performance as a vampire holds up easily to the performances of other actors.”
Although it received mixed reviews, the Count Dracula Society raved that “Blacula is the most horrifying film of the decade.” As one of the highest grossing films of 1972, Blacula became the first film to receive an award for “Best Horror Film” at the Saturn Awards.
This success inspired the production and release of a sequel, Scream, Blacula, Scream in 1973. It also led to the birth of Blaxploitation-themed horror films, including Ganja and Hess (1973), Sugar Hill (1974), J.D.’s Revenge (1976), Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde (1976), Tales from The Hood (1995), Killjoy (2000) and Bones (2001).
The rhythm-and-blues soundtrack to Blacula was a modest success. It contained tracks by artists such as 21st Century Ltd., Gene Page and The Hues Corporation, who also star in the film, singing, “There He Is Again”. In 2015, Blacula, along with Scream, Blacula, Scream, was released on Blu-ray by Scream Factory as part of a 2-disc set.