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Blacula (1972) October 1st, 2020

It’s October, that means indulging in the month’s excuse to consume an unhealthy amount of sugar and horror films. Each October my wife and I try to watch a new horror movie every day. Last year we made it through the whole month without watching a single vampire film. It was October 31st 2019 and I was driving around town from Wal-Mart to Barnes & Noble trying to find a copy of a vampire flick I’d never seen. Physical media is becoming scarcer and besides the Criterion Collection keeping classic film alive the only Blu-Rays in the stores are the most commercially viable. That meant everywhere I looked, no matter where I looked, the only unseen vampire movies available were the Twilight saga. Like I said, I didn’t watch a vampire movie in 2019.

I spent the next year cultivating a small cache of vampire movies in preparation for this month. I’ve prepared blockbusters, video nasties, and hard-to-find vampire classics but none of them had me more interested than 1972s Blacula. I’ve wanted to see Blacula since I first became aware of blaxsploitation films in high school after a friend introduced me to Rudy Ray Moore in Dolemite. It wasn’t until the good people at EUREKA! released their complete Blacula collection that I could get an affordable copy in high definition (the Scream Factory print is OOP). So that’s where we start October 2020, comforted in knowing that no matter what other schlock or trash we watch for the rest of the month, we’ve seen a vampire movie.

Blacula begins in 1870 with Prince Mamuwalde and his wife taking dinner with Count Dracula himself. The Prince proposes ending the slave trade and the insulted Count counters with “I shall place a curse of suffering on you that will doom you to a living hell. I curse you with my name. You shall be… Blacula!” and there you have it. Blacula’s origin. The white aristocracy turns a noble African Prince into a criminal and a monster for having the audacity to peacefully seek an end to systemic injustice. The metaphor couldn’t be more obvious or relevant. Hey America, I’ve got a tip for you. If the social criticism of a piece of contemporary art (Lovecraft Country, Get Out) is nearly the same as art from 50 years ago then it’s time to improve.

Cut to the 1970s and a pair of gay antique dealers purchase all the items of the old decrepit estate that once belonged to the long dead Dracula, including Blacula’s coffin. They load the coffin and the rest of the antiques onto a boat bound for Los Angeles, a subtle but not unnoticed nod to Dracula’s voyage on the Vesta/Demeter. Once on the mainland Blacula must adjust to his new life as a Dracula in the future.

Despite being the titular character, Blacula isn’t really the protagonist of his own movie, that distinction belongs to Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) who’s investigating a recent surge of bodies turning up with the same unusual neck wound. I’ll avoid spoilers the best I can but the rest of the film basically follows Prince Mamuwalde as he socializes with Dr. Thomas and his friends while preying on more and more Angelenos.

The aspect of the film I found most fascinating was watching Dr. Thomas work in a corrupt police force that doesn’t seem to prioritize solving cases where the victims are black or gay. The bodies of the antique dealers from the beginning of the film go missing and the police don’t seem to care about finding them until Dr. Thomas insists. The same goes for the newly discovered African American corpses. This is further accentuated by the police’s excessive use of that awful slur for homosexuals that starts with an F. It could just be indicative of acceptable vernacular in the 70s, but it sure looks to me like they’re suggesting that the plight of the minority is the same regardless of which minority’s in question. Again, if contemporary social commentary is the same as it was 50 years ago, you’re overdue to improve society.

I’m not an expert in the blaxploitation genre, but I expected Blacula to be more like a Rudy Ray Moore film than it was. There’s no pimps, no prostitutes, no drugs, and no nudity. I loved it. Blacula is also a triumph of representation in film. The main characters in Blacula are doctors, police officers, or successful antique dealers and none of them had to call attention to the fact that these are jobs usually reserved for white male characters in movies written by white men in the 1970s. Brilliant.

I found myself entertained by Blacula. It isn’t particularly haunting, or scary, or gross, or weird. It’s just a fun movie with a silly premise taken with the perfect amount of camp with a dash of sincere social commentary.

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