Dark Gable and Stale Popcorn Present… Blacula (1972)

This month, Deadshirt’s two movie columns, Dark Gable Presents… and Stale Popcorn have joined forces as Dom Griffin and Max Robinson discuss the 1972 blaxpoitation classic, Blacula. Spoilers ahead for this forty-three-year-old film.

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Max: Blacula has long held a warm place in my heart. On some level because it’s just really fun to say “Blacula.” Blacula!

Dom: My entire relationship with Blacula up until this past week has mostly been me chuckling at how goofy the name and concept have always seemed to me. That, and of course the phrase “blacula hunter” from Venture Bros. It’s one step away from Chocula, you know?

Max: What’s so fascinating about Blacula is that’s…his name. They call him Blacula in movie with complete seriousness. And it’s not like the “SOME BAD SUIT, JACK!” guy from Superman: The Movie names him, it’s Count Fucking Dracula. On that note, let’s talk about the opening ten minutes of Blacula because I’m not actually sure the rest of the movie ever tops it.

Dom: Here’s the thing. Blacula really fucked me up by pulling a triple swerve on me. First, I thought it’d be a goofy bit of fun with a dope soundtrack and a lot of shitty one liners. I was perfectly happy to accept that. Then, the opening happened, and I was blown away by how ridiculous and kind of special it felt, but the rest of the film failed to give me 1) the movie I initially expected or 2) the movie this opening implied I might get to watch.

From what I’ve read, it seems like the producers of the film had one movie in mind, and then William Marshall, the lead actor, wanted his character to have more substance, so they sort of threw him this opening scene as a bone. Marshall plays Prince Mamuwalde, who meets with Count Dracula to ask for his assistance in fighting slavery. Like, that’s the real way a movie called Blacula opens up. Dracula, being a racist piece of shit, is like, “LOL, NAH” and turns him into a vampire while his wife watches. Well, not just any vampire, but a purposefully lesser version of himself. He literally tells him “now you’re Blacula.”

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Max: Blacula is, I think, an important take on Dracula as a concept despite the fact that Dracula himself only shows up for the totally bonkers opening. First off, racist Dracula takes are my favorite thing in the world. He’s Dracula, of course he’s going to be just like…an awful awful dude with gross opinions. It strips the romanticism away from the character in a kinda crucial way. I love that here he’s such a narcissist that he gives his enemy a variation on his own name just because he can.

But the thing that gets me about this opening is how much PRESENCE Marshall has as Mamuwalde. His turn as “Blacula” is actually a really great Dracula performance in its own right.

Dom: Marshall is fantastic, imbuing the part with a lot of that stage actor gravitas that guys like Ron O’Neal brought to Superfly. My only beef is how his performance seems so much better than the arc that’s given to him here. This movie got a sequel (Scream, Blacula, Scream) and he’s great in that too, but he STILL doesn’t really get an arc he deserves.

Max: Yeah, Marshall is the only part of this movie that like fully comes together aside from some aesthetic stuff I wanna talk about in a minute. Interestingly, the things I like about Marshall’s take on Dracula are angles I usually hate seeing in other Dracula movies: the reincarnated wife, Mamuwalde being genuinely in love with her, the doomed love angle. All that stuff pisses me off in, say, Coppola’s version, but here it works even if it’s pretty rote. Like, Blacula killing himself once Tina dies because he can’t live without her again is a great note.

Dom: Part of what interests me is that his character is largely sympathetic, by virtue of both his circumstances and the wounded charisma of his performance, but as the film progresses, it’s not structured in any way to sustain or promote that sympathy. There’s no period of him trying to avoid killing for blood or anything. He just starts killing and turning people with what feels like reckless abandon. I can’t tell if that’s intentional or just lazy.

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Max: Yeah, Mamuwalde never seems to show any remorse or anything, he just gets to it because he’s hungry? I assume that beat got lost in between lines of cocaine required to put this together. Jumping back a bit, how hilarious is the cut from that great Dracula opening/origin to Blacula waking up and murdering these two HYPER-OFFENSIVE gay stereotypes??

Dom: Oh, my God. At first, I thought they just happened to cast two flamboyant actors as these antique hunter types, but then it just got so fucking terrible. It was just so uncalled for.

Max: There’s this thing that happens when you like…go back and watch an Eddie Murphy movie or whatever and you’re really enjoying it and then someone just nonchalantly calls someone a f*ggot and you’re astonished and taken out of it. That was this but for like an entire scene.

Dom: Yeah, it’s incredibly distracting, the casual homophobia, and mixed with the laziness of Mamuwalde’s arc (since he doesn’t refer to himself as Blacula until like, the last ten minutes of the sequel) it’s very disappointing. I mean, on paper, this is “what if T’Challa from Black Panther was a vampire?” but it ends up being this super fascinating and interesting protagonist just going through the motions of a lesser film.

Max: Yeah,it’s a bummer that the movie has virtually no other interesting characters beyond Thalmus Rasulala’s Dr. Thomas (Blan Blelsing?) and even he doesn’t do much beyond keep the movie rolling.

Dom: Luckily, the movie has a surprisingly great aesthetic.

Max: Yes! Something I didn’t really remember about this movie was how grungy and remote so many of the LA shots are. Everyone’s always leaving these dingy clubs and walking through empty parking lots. Admittedly, a lot of that probably has to do with this being a shot-on-the-quick AIP cheapie but it’s pretty cool.

Dom: I actually would have loved Dr. Thomas as the hero if Mamuwalde was more of a real villain, because he’s smart and cool and pretty much IMMEDIATELY good at killing vampires. It’s shocking how quickly he picks it up and with no sort of learning curve whatsoever.

That seventies aesthetic works for me regardless of the subject, and the juxtaposition of that setting with this regal, curiously muttonchopped motherfucker in a cape is both hilarious and captivating.

Max: I like that Mamuwalde sticks out like a sore thumb with his LITERAL DRACULA CAPE and yet, because it is the seventies, no one really bats an eye? Despite the fact that actual Dracula is apparently a known historical figure, no one thinks its weird that there’s a guy running around dressed like him while people are dying from vampire bites. I think we’ve officially thought about this longer than anyone who had a hand in writing Blacula.

Dom: Yeah, they do kinda skip the entire step of a lot of vampire flicks, which is the unnecessary handwringing at the concept of “vampirism.” It’s there, but for the most part, they just roll with it, and that ends up being more endearing than damaging.

Max: What’s interesting to me is how all the vampires Mamuwalde creates are collateral damage. He never talks about it and they don’t really specifically help him or anything, they just wake up and kill people. The bit where the vampire woman runs down the hallway is the thing I IMMEDIATELY think of when I think about this movie. It’s so unnerving; the cheapness of the slow-mo effect makes it surreal.

Dom: That and the tight zoom in on Mamuwalde’s neck right before he gets bitten in the intro. Corny camera work, but effective in its own weird way.

Looking over my notes, I wrote a bunch of gibberish about vampirism being a metaphor for drug peddling in black communities, specifically in the way Dracula infects Mamuwalde and how that infection spreads out carelessly throughout the film, but I was also listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar and I stopped myself once I wrote “blood sucking crack epidemic.” It just gives the filmmakers entirely too much credit for a movie they knowingly and willingly titled Blacula.

These observations came from my recently having seen Ganja & Hess, a film that wouldn’t have gotten made if it hadn’t been for Blacula, where there’s a palpable throughline from being a vampire to seeking some form of redemption. In that film, Ganja slowly becomes aware of how despicable his wanton destruction has become and seeks the solace of death in the form of the Christian God, but here, Mamuwalde just does whatever the fuck for eighty minutes until he realizes he’s not going to get to keep boning his reincarnated wife. It’s such a narrow take on something that could have gone the distance.

Max: Yeah, I mean there’s maybe something to be said for Blacula’s curse literally being inflicted on him by a literal white supremacist being like perfect dramatic irony for a blaxploitation vampire flick but even that’s pretty thin.

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Dom: Ultimately, Blacula, for its enduring pop cultural appeal, feels the product of a very brief conversation between two film producers. “Let’s make a black Dracula!” “Yeah, let’s give him some real pathos and a satisfying character arc.” “Nah.”

Between this and Scream, Blacula, Scream (a sequel that has Pam Grier but is somehow not magically a better film?), Mamuwalde seems to inch closer and closer to a real dramatic breakthrough, but there’s no third part of the trilogy to cement his place in the canon of great screen vampires, unless Blumhouse or someone makes Blacula Kills any time soon. As it stands, the film is a great vehicle for William Marshall and a pretty fun punchline, but one can’t help wondering what could have been if they had just spent a little more effort in getting their shit together.

Max: Blacula is, at the end of the day, a great movie monster trapped in a pretty poor monster movie.

If you have any films you would like to see covered in Stale Popcorn or Dark Gable Presents…, hit us up on Twitter @DeadshirtDotNet.

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