In director William Crain’s original Blacula from 1972, an 18th-century Nigerian prince named Mamuwalde (William Marshall) meets his untimely first death at the hands of the Dracula (Charles Macaulay), who scoffs at the mortal man’s earnest pleas for assistance dismantling the transatlantic slave trade.
Though this incarnation of the Transylvanian count makes clear that he himself would love to own African enslaved people, and sees beings like himself as inherently superior, he takes sadistic joy in transforming Mamuwalde into a vampire in a twisted final act of retribution. The horror Mamuwalde and his wife Luva (Vonetta McGee) experience is all too real as Dracula and his minions seal them both away in a tomb—where she’s fated to starve to death while he, bound and unable to feed, is driven mad by hunger. But as Blacula’s core plot kicks in, the darkness and violence that turn Mamuwalde into the eponymous protagonist become some of the most fascinating elements of the movie’s ideas about power.
As Blacula awakes in the present day after his entombed coffin is unearthed and subsequently purchased by a pair of American antique buyers, his disorientation quickly gives way to a powerful hunger that opens his eyes up to the multiple worlds he now exists in. Whatever apprehension Mamuwalde might have had about vampirism evaporates when he rises from his coffin as Blacula and sets himself upon the antiquers, Bobby (Ted Harris) and Billy (Rick Metzler), in their LA warehouse. While Bobby and Billy, whose professions and characterizations both heavily code them as queer, both die by Blacula’s fangs, their presence in the film is one of the first ways that Blacula telegraphs its open ideas about sexuality. Their queerness is of little concern to Blacula because to him, they’re merely a means to the first leg of his recovery as he sets out to get the lay of the strange land he finds himself in.
It’s while Blacula’s lying in wait for Bobby during his funeral—presumably anticipating his reanimation—that he encounters Bobby’s friend Tina (McGee) whose resemblance to Luva convinces the ancient vampire that she must be the reincarnation of his wife. As Blacula becomes fixated on Tina and begins plotting how to be with her, his swag and debonair ways become lethal weapons that he uses to disarm the unsuspecting humans he comes across and murders. Of course, the murders prompt LAPD pathologist Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) and Lt. Jack Peters (Gordon Pinsent) to launch an investigation.
Much of the film’s mythos borrows heavily from the larger vampiric lore, but the movie is very careful to frame Blacula’s status and name as a curse inflicted upon him by a white man seeking to conflate Blackness with savagery and animalism. Rather than making grand proclamations about Dracula being a racist ghoul, Blacula takes ownership of his name and presents an alternate idea of what a foreboding, mysterious, otherworldly being with undeniable sex appeal can look like and be. And what makes Blacula such an iconic part of the Blaxploitation and vampire canons is how the movie uses his displacement in time to illustrate how the legacy of anti-Black racism reaches into the present to inflict harm on people in different ways.
Blacula’s yearning for Tina, and his willingness to kill anyone who dares get in his way as he pursues her, is part of the still-strong love he feels for Luva even centuries after being made to watch as she withered away to nothing. The conflicted, but decidedly romantic feelings Tina begins to develop for Blacula as he inserts himself into her life under false pretenses suggests that the love Luva felt for him was every bit as everlasting and that she genuinely might be the woman reincarnated. But Tina is also her own woman with a life and deep connections to her present-day family; they embody a distinct, era-specific kind of Blackness that, subtextually, clashes with Blacula’s.
Though Blacula very knowingly works to disprove and subvert the denigrating ideas Dracula cursed him with, he does so with a kind of respectability that reads as both vampire-accurate and true to the ideas about Black respectability that have often been the sources of pain and trauma for Black people. He’s a vintage throwback to a bygone era in a very literal sense, but Blacula heightens the concept of respectability being weaponized against Black people by turning it into a core part of how Blacula operates.
The vampire’s innate allure and his desire to remake the world as he sees fit makes him a dangerous villain, but Blacula makes it hard—even up until its final moments—for you not to see him as a sympathetic figure worth cheering for. What’s fantastic about watching Blacula now is knowing how the sequel expands on these ideas, and seeing how much of its story holds up in an age where genre fiction focused on delving into Black experiences is once again in the spotlight.
It’s going to be fascinating to see how MGM’s upcoming reboot draws from the original as it brings the famous Blacula back to the big screen once again. But before the new movie, the original is a classic you definitely need to make some time to check out. Blacula is now streaming on PlutoTV.
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