Approaching this, I expected an uncomfortable relic, a tastless punchline to a joke that’s long since worn out its welcome, so it came as a pleasant surprise that, despite its Blaxploitation anachronisms, it’s actually a pretty solid vampire flick in its own right.
In 1780, a massively racist Dracula welcomes an African prince and his wife Tuva to the castle, advocates for slavery and then sires the African prince, cursing him to eternal life and sealing him in a tomb with his companion. Nearly two hundred years later, the coffin is discovered during a house clearance sale of Dracula’s castle and shipped back to the United States by the antique dealers who have purchased the estate. Once there, Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) begins his reign of terror as ‘Blacula’.
Looking back with the benefit of historical context, there’s lots in “Blacula” that may have been intended as subtext at the time but is plain as day now and even an uncomfortable degree of prescience. The ‘antique enthusiasts’ are as euphemistic as Mr Wint & Mr Kidd from “Diamonds Are Forever” but entire the fact that Blacula’s first actual victim is a gay white man seems oddly prophetic a decade ahead of the AIDS crisis but even beyond that the fear of the spread of drugs (unfairly maligning the black population as the source rather than the victims) is signposted by the fact the first bite is to the basilic vein on the forearm.
There are shades of “Black Panther” in Mamuwalde’s overtures to Dracula in the 18th century scenes and while the film never explores what has happened to his (unnamed) nation in the two hundred years since his disappearance, it helps ground the character with a sense of dignity and nobility beyond just being a fanged monster.
Once he’s made his way out of the warehouse, Blacula starts to build his army of the vampires while Dr Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) – the film’s Van Helsing proxy – starts to develop suspicions about the mysterious disappearances. The plot thickens when Blacula senses that a young woman called Tina (Vonetta McGee) is the reincarnation of his long-dead wife Tuva. It’s one of the earliest appearances of the reincarnated former lover tropes in vampire lore, although it had been present in Mummy movies since 1932’s “The Mummy”.
The film may look cheap but it’s not clear whether it’s due to the budget limitations of the production or the general tackiness of the 1970s overall. Certainly while the make-up effects leave a lot to be desired but the effects during a fiery showdown in Blacula’s warehouse are undoubtedly impressive.
It’s weirdly both very progressive and way behind the times for when it was made. For every acknowledgement of the insistence and validity of black culture or even gay culture (the inclusion of a mixed-race gay couple feels doubly progressive), it drops a derogatory slur or cliched stereotype just to remind you just when this was made. That being said, aside from the supporting stereotypes, the principle, predominantly black cast, are given characters that feel authentic, well developed and less exploitative than you might be expecting, particularly Marshall’s Blacula and his pathologist nemesis.
It leans heavily into the tragic love story angle far more than any Dractober film yet watched, leading to a denouement that has the virtue of being almost unique as Blacula sacrifices himself for the sake of his love rather than being staked or defeated by an enemy.
Better than it has any right to be, it may have been originated as a cheap blaxploitation cash-in but thanks to the determination of William Marshall to make sure the character wasn’t a one-note joke it offers a genuinely funky, modern (for then) take on the Dracula legend and, if nothing else, it’s decidedly less racist than two other upcoming Dractober movies from the seventies: “Vampira” and “Love At First Bite”.