Spectacular soundtracks, grindhouse thrills, B-movie ingenuity, incredible style: there are plenty of good reasons blaxploitation took off like it did in the early 1970s. The simplest explanation, of course, is that these films served moviegoers who were starved for representation in crowd-pleasers of their own; while plenty of blaxploitation movies had a subversive political edge, others were basically straightforward genre movies that happened to star mostly Black actors and be set in predominately Black communities. Blacula tells a pretty average vampire story, sticking closely to the Dracula template on which it’s riffing. But relocating these old tropes to a new cultural backdrop does rejuvenate them somewhat, allowing Black artists behind and in front of the camera to, shall we say, restore some life to what would otherwise be a corpse.
Widely considered the first depiction of a Black vampire on screen (and one of the highest-grossing films of 1972), Blacula stars the bass-voiced William Marshall as Mamuwalde, an African prince sent to Transylvania in 1780 to secure the help of Count Dracula in fighting the slave trade. The count, unfortunately, isn’t particularly sympathetic to his guest’s cause — he’s got his own enslavement process, after all — and quickly turns the prince into a creature of the night, then seals him inside a coffin in the bowels of his castle. Two centuries later, that coffin winds up in Los Angeles, where its occupant awakens and begins feasting on the locals. Thankfully for the City Of Angels, a Van Helsing figure emerges in the form of pathologist Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala), who begins to suspect that this new rash of murders may have a supernatural cause. Blacula is fun, entertaining pulp, but Marshall is genuinely one of the best vampire-counts in film history, and the subtext of the vampire’s curse as metaphor for the repercussions of slavery elevate it beyond its B-movie contemporaries.
A Nightmare on Franklin Street 2019 is presented by Voodoo Ranger and J.J. Taylor Distributing Florida, Inc. Promotional consideration is provided by Spooky Empire and WEDU PBS.