Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; because you couldn’t find anything better to do. Junkfood Cinema is the only bad movie column to have been letter-bombed by a radical faction of supermodels. Every week I shamelessly plaster my love for bad films all over the internet; examining each entry for its problems and affirm my warped sense of its worth. As if that weren’t unhealthy enough, I also pair each film with a sinfully delicious snack food item guaranteed to embiggen your belly. Throughout February, as it is Black History Month, I will be diving into one of my favorite film genres of all time: blaxploiation. Last week we dodged bullets with Truck Turner, but this week we venture into the dark abyss of Blacula.
Blacula is the story of an African prince named Mamuwalde who, along with his wife, travel to Transylvania to campaign for their country’s inclusion into the Community of Nations; no idea what that is or why it is centered in Transylvania as it is never again mentioned. While there, he accepts the hospitality of one Count Dracula and visits him in his castle. Over drinks, they get into a heated argument about slavery and race. This escalates into Dracula, a card-carrying vampire, putting a wicked curse on Prince Mamuwalde that turns him into a similarly afflicted living fiend. Dracula seals him in a coffin to suffer eternally in the bowels of the castle, but not before bestowing the name Blacula upon him; a variation on his own name to remind him of the origin of his suffering. A century and a half later, Dracula’s castle is sold to a pair of antique merchants who foolishly ship the coffins in the basement back to America. Has Blacula returned from his undead slumber? What will become of the city with him on the loose? Did that vampire really just order a bloody Mary?
What Makes It Bad?
This film has the glorious distinction of being offensive to multiple groups of people. You need only look at the title to comprehend the exception African-Americans could take. The freaking film is called Blacula for crying out loud! That’s a special breed of racism if you ask me. I honestly feel there should be a hicksploitation horror film called Crackula to balance that out, don’t you? The most exploitative element of blaxploitation tends to rear its head in the interactions between black characters, and Blaculais no exception. In the funeral home, Dr. Thomas is asking the funeral home director several questions about the young man in the coffin. These aren’t terribly inappropriate questions, nor is Dr. Thomas being too insistent about them, but it prompts the funeral director to call Dr. Thomas the rudest ni**** he’s ever seen. What?! The fact that it is positively unwarranted is almost as unsettling as the racism of the statement. Oh, and don’t forget the cab driver who calls Blacula “boy.” She hits the word with emphatic punctuation of a sledgehammer and is immediately murdered (thankfully). Sufficed to say, it’s a far cry from the philosophical argument Mamuwalde has with Count Dracula about the moral/geopolitical implications of slavery at the beginning of the film.
But the film goes so far as to offend gays as well. The two characters purchasing Dracula’s castle in Transylvania are about as stereotypical as you can get. If they were any more flaming, they would make Rip Taylor blush. Not to mention the logical fallacy inherent in the fact that they never explain why these two American homosexuals are buying real estate in Transylvania in the first place. There are also at least two different moments in the film that feature straight characters using two separate derogatory terms to describe the gay couple. 70’s! But if that’s not enough for you, the film is also incendiary to lovers of vampire lore. It’s Dracula himself that gives Prince Mamuwalde that prejudicial and, let’s face it, lazy moniker. And can you think of a better method of paying reverence to Dracula than to show two gays buying his possessions for kitsch value and aiming to turn his coffins into fashionable love seats? I’m actually asking because half-way through that question I realized I have no idea how to answer it.
Beyond that, the problems with Blacula don’t have a common theme. Instead, there are a collection of moments that perplex and defying logic. For example, the funeral for one of Blacula’s first victims; the gay gentleman with the afro so large it could have its own gravitational pull. The guy is slowly returning to life as a vampire and reaches out from inside the coffin. The mortician explains it away as a reflex reaction that can sometimes occur. Really? I don’t remember my grandmother reaching out for a final high five at her funeral. Or how about the lounge singers in the scene in the bar. None of them are particularly talented, but at least they compensate for that by giving them a three song set. It makes the scene feel roughly three weeks longer than it needs to be.
Why I Love It!
The best thing about Blacula, by far, is the performance of William Marshall. He has so much fun playing the titular villain that it’s impossible not to get wrapped up in his grandiose exaggerations. He’s an incredibly decent actor who brings a lot more class and style to the role than it really deserves. He seems to be accessing a bit of old-school Hammer with his portrayal of this vampire lord. He’s a bit more eloquent than Christopher Lee’s Dracula but brings that same unnerving presence. With the cape and the hideously bad mutton chops it may be hard to fathom where you have seen this actor previously. But if you were a kid who loved Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, as I most certainly did, then you might recognize him as the King of Cartoons. At one point he hollers out to his pursuers that the factory in which they’ve cornered him will become their tomb. As the word “tomb” echoes through the halls, I swear it sounded like he kept saying “cartoon” over an over again which prompted a giggle of irony.
This film actually serves as an interesting signpost for the genre as it is only the second blaxploitation film to be made by the Roger Corman/Samuel Arkoff movie factory American International Pictures. AIP created some of the best blaxploitaiton movies around including; Slaughter, Coffy, Foxy Brown, and last week’s Truck Turner. It is also the first blaxploitaiton horror film and a pioneer in the subtle art of appropriating popular film titles for the genre with the addition of the word “black.” Blackenstein, Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde, and Black Shampoo would all follow in time and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that this genre was spinning wildly away from the direction Melvin Van Peebles had intended. In the realm of blaxploitaion horror films, I would say JD’s Revenge is the absolute best but I would award Blacula a sterling silver medal. I think Blacula works so well because it works beyond the genre as a solid, urban vampire movie. And when I say urban, I am not calling upon an ugly cliche regarding its cast but rather the fact that an ancient vampire is loose in a big city.
The coolest scenes in the film aren’t Blacula feeding on people; those are in fact kind of lame. But the scene wherein the body of one of Blacula’s early victims is exhumed is awesome! The guy was apparently just chilling all undead-like in the coffin waiting for Dr. Thomas to order an additional autopsy and dig him up. He then leaps out of the coffin and there’s a nice tight-quarters struggle between the two wherein Dr. Thomas ends up staking the now vampified young man and driving it in with the blunt side of a shovel. Awesome! It is a creepy little scene that begs the question: why didn’t Dr. Thomas have a team of police and a maintenance crew helping him with the exhumation instead of conducting it in the middle of his date with that girl?
Another reanimated corpse moment of note involves the unfortunate cab driver that runs afoul of Blacula early on. While in the morgue, she makes the brash decision to return to life. This spells doom for a hapless, hook-handed morgue employee. The great part about the scene is watching her start breathing again, as if working herself into a frenzy while still on the slab. When she finally gets to her feet, she comes barrelling down a long hallway in slow motion toward her prey. The effect is surprisingly powerful as her wild hair and wide eyes create an unsettling creature with very little enhancement from the makeup department.
The opening title sequence is, for its low-budget nature, pretty fantastic. It consists of a series of animated images constructed of unsystematic paper clippings and two recognizable images: a bat and a girl. The paper in the shape of a bat chases the red-paper girl all over the screen while an expectantly funky theme blasts forth. As I suggested, it’s not the most accomplished of animations but it is a bizarre/cool choice for an opening. It was like some whacked-out segment from The Electric Company. I half expected Easy Reader to pop up and happily report to me who was in the film.
Junkfood Pairing: Count Chocula
My absolute favorite cereal of all time. As you watch our titular baddie sink his teeth into victim after nubile young victim, feel free to happily shovel spoonful after spoonful of this chocolatey bliss into your breakfast hole. As your eyes drift over the the ghoulish image on the box, take note of the fact that you are staring at the second most racist vampire ever created. How does one become Count of a cereal anyway?