(William Crain, 25 August 1972)
“Make it…a Bloody Mary.”
August of 1972 unfurled an impressively self-reflexive cape, filling the night air with an intelligent intersection of genre where the popular blaxploitation sub-genre met the horror film on it’s own fertile ground, reversing traditional tropes and re-examining the concepts of monstrosity and race as depicted in the cinema of post-antebellum concern.
The vampire — as a construct both literary and otherwise — is a creature that, despite its romantic leanings, is an unmitigated other, forced to live on the fringes in what is, essentially, a forced mockery of existence. This familiarly folklorish subtext, then, may be what makes the vampire such a fitting metaphor (in a genre exercise, at the very least) for the struggle of the African-American community. William Crain’s BLACULA tackles not only his own insightful interpretation of the vampire mythos (including Count Dracula himself), but also earnestly addresses racism, identity, and the inherent horrors of the slave trade as well. There are those that have always viewed the film’s title as a mere punchline or a clever, racially-charged witticism, and then there are those who are familiar with the actual film itself: a potent, socially-aware genre film that, rather than re-tread an overly recycled version of Stoker’s novel or its well-worn implications, opts to instead explore post-Civil Rights reflections and the institution of slavery —right down to the symbolic removal of Prince Mamuwalde’s name. Though his African nation of origin is a fictitious construct, its expository narrative premise is centered around an all too real horror: Initially sent as emissary by his Albani elders in order to enlist Count Dracula as an influential agent in ending the slave trade of 1780, Prince Mamuwalde (played by a suavely magnetic William Marshall) unwittingly becomes victim to the cold-hearted, bloodsucking Lord of the Undead and thereby sets off a chain of events that eventually unfold in the modern-day LA of 1972. Like the archetypal aristocratic exsanguinator feeding off the peasantry, Charles Macaulay’s Dracula exists as a powerful arbiter of the international slave trade, thereby drawing humanity’s life-force in a completely different manner…and one with the obligatorily cruel, economic ties to its overt brutality and barbarity.
Much like its blaxploitation peers, BLACULA examines power structures (not the least of which is built upon the aforementioned power dichotomies represented by Dracula and the slave trade, of course), and as cultural dynamics shift in the 1970’s, where a proliferation of race, gender, and sexual politics make like glorious thunderheads across the societal skyline, Crain’s film loses no time at all using the blaxploitation sub-genre as a potent platform. With its zenith arguably falling between the years of 1971 and 1973, the blaxploitation film is itself an interesting (and, in many ways, integral) cultural phenomena, as the Hollywood machine capitalized on the emerging black identity in such a way as to harness an entirely new audience with low budget fare (thereby maximizing theatrical profits) while simultaneously capturing an explosive moment in the burgeoning cultural zeitgeist. More often than not, it was the job of the film’s protagonist to wage warfare —often in the form of understandable vengeance, where the righting of wrongs through violence was as commonplace as the stylishly suave aesthetics of the heroes themselves — against whatever figures threatened the neighborhood and community at large. Thus, the films of the blaxploitation era possessed both moral purpose and political agenda. The films, then, became bombastic vehicles in which the audience could, by proxy, powerfully participate: It was here that one could, among peers in a darkened theater, raise a delightfully conspiratorial fist and “stick it to the man” with reckless abandon.
Crain’s film may be anchored in the blaxploitation aesthetic and may begin with a sequence in which the legendary Count attempts to hold his audience (on screen and in the theater alike) within his sway, but it very soon becomes a very different creature. Dracula’s boast that “slavery has merit, I believe” before declaring his interest as “a man of his station” —not unlike the founding fathers of our own American reality, sadly — in making Mamuwalde’s wife a slave of his own subtlety suggests how base and dehumanizing a horror his interests truly are. In short, there are so many powerful elements afoot, that BLACULA demands additional viewing. The opening titles, for instance, are as stunning as anything Saul Bass ever wrought, rendered in bold swaths of black and white, where a single drop of blood fittingly takes on the seductive female form: William Marshall’s “Blacula” is as a romantic a lead as any of those who’ve been brave enough to don the cape; it is his suffusion with a classy sexuality that makes Crain’s film as magnetic a text as it is. Furthermore, there is an undercurrent of tragedy here that, perhaps, many of the other vampire films (Dracula films, at least) lack. As Prince Mamuwalde lays waste to the underbelly of New York City, we cannot so lightly forget exactly what tragic turn of events brought him here…forcing him to turn from his own humanity and status as a man and become…something else. Arguably, one of the darker ironies of the film’s underpinnings is that because Dracula enlists the Prince in his transatlantic plague of vampirism, Mamuwalde is seemingly forced to drain destroy — and thereby utterly destroy — his own community and people rather than protect them from the burgeoning wave of urban injustices…many of which have already taken hold. Amidst declarations that he “shall place a curse of suffering upon you that will doom you to a living hell,” the wild, gnawing animal hunger that Dracula purports will grow within Mamuwalde can, metaphorically, be seen as not only as a desire for blood, but for equality — to be overtly heralded as an equal within the world of men — and a desire for freedom from a different curse all together; his eternal starvation is one that not lost upon us, especially with an eye trained to critical perspectives and the turpitude of racial injustice. Craine’s film was profitable enough to warrant a sequel, 1973’s SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM. Filmed under the working title of BLACULA IS BEAUTIFUL, this follow-up to the 1972 original was not, unfortunately, directed by William Crain, but features a powerful turn from Pam Grier as a powerful voodoo practitioner. The film is also notable as the debut of Richard Lawson (POLTERGEIST, SUGAR HILL), whose character’s transformation subtly engages the audience in a contemplative and reflective dialogue regarding the loss of humanity and self that institutional racism creates.
For the uninitiated especially, it is high-time that BLACULA receive additional reappraisal through the critical lens of academia, if only to give a rightful place in the pantheon of horror — horrors both metaphorical and historical. After all, horror education through diverse and equal representation is an essential principle…more integral and of deeper import than ever. For Crain, and countless others, Black History is horror…and Black History must be an everyday occurrence and a perpetual part of our sociological — and national — dialogue. Immediately.