Friday, October 7, 2016

HubrisWeen 2016, Day 2: Blacula (1972)

Few films get straight to the point with their titles quite like exploitation movies. I suppose it makes a significant amount of business sense to not waste time with poetry for your crass cash-in, but in a way the simplicity of the titles can be almost beautiful.

Obviously I'm saying that today's film is a beautiful example: Blacula. That is a title that tells you basically everything you need to know straight away, in one word. Sure, they could have gone with "Black Dracula"--and in some markets they did--but that lacks the swift punch of Blacula and isn't any more specific when you really think about it.

Of course, with a title like Blacula, you're also programmed to expect the movie won't be any damn good. I mean, the title is delightfully to the point but it's also kind of lazy. Again, "Black Dracula," is what it says right away and that's a concept that seems like it took all two minutes to dream up. It's not unreasonable to expect that the film within shows just as little care as the title. Doubly so if the person watching this film had the misfortune of somehow seeing its imitator Blackenstein first.

However, you can't always judge a book by its cover or a movie by its silly title--and certainly not by the quality of the films that tried to copy it. I'm far from the first person to say this, but Blacula is actually a really good movie.

One could be forgiven for thinking I'm full of shit when the film opens, however, for we are treated to an exterior shot of the worst Castle Dracula I have ever seen. The place looks like a Dutch bed and breakfast rather than anything approaching an ancient and creepy castle. Seriously, this was an AIP production--they couldn't just use stock footage from a Poe film yet again? Nothing important even happens around the exterior of  the castle so there's no reason it couldn't be stock footage!

*sigh* Anyway, the year is 1790 and Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall, a truly amazing actor who deserved far more notice than he ultimately got) of the African Abani tribe has come to Transylvania with his wife Luva (Vonetta McGee) to speak with Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay). Mamuwalde's aim is to convince European nobles to decry the slave trade so his people will no longer be exploited and can trade with the rest of the Western world as equals.

Unfortunately, it turns out that, in addition to being a vampire Dracula is a disgusting racist. He not only thinks the slave trade is grand, but he offers to buy Luva from Mamuwalde. Well, that's quite enough of that, thinks Mamuwalde. Unfortunately, Dracula doesn't take no for an answer and has his human servants try to take Luva by force. It takes three of them to restrain and finally knock Mamuwalde out, whereupon Dracula reveals his true nature by sprouting fangs and summoning his vampire brides, who apparently just came from a high school production of a vampire play based on their horrid make-up and fangs that look like they're pulling the old "french fry walrus" trick.

"Children of the night, what--STOP LAUGHING!"

Dracula then bites Mamuwalde to turn him into a vampire, but he isn't done. While oddly crying blood (!), Dracula explains his plan to his captives. After cursing Mamuwalde with his name, "Blacula," he seals Mamuwalde in a coffin where he will suffer his unquenchable blood thirst for centuries. And just to be an extra dick about it, Dracula also bricks Luva up in the tomb next to the coffin so that she will starve to death with only her undead husband's tortured cries to keep her company.

After a really fun animated credits sequence where a cartoon bat chases a drop of blood that sometimes turns into a woman, we return to Dracula's B&B in the "present" of 1972. It seems that two American antiques dealers--Bobby McCoy (Ted Harris) and his white boyfriend, Billy Schaffer (Rick Metzler)--have bought the castle intending to sell off its contents. And yes, they are exaggerated stereotypes of gay men, how did you guess?

At any rate, the local realtor warns them that the castle belonged to Dracula before Van Helsing slew the fiend. Being a superstitious man, the realtor is easily conned into selling them the estate at a discount. Once the paperwork is signed, Bobby mockingly tells the man that they're going to get a fortune off the place because Dracula's name is big business in America. They even make reference to his movies, so I guess this is one of those film universes where there are just as many Dracula movies as in our own, but Dracula was also a real vampire.

When they ask if the castle has any secret rooms, the realtor leads them to the sealed tomb where Mamuwalde's coffin still rests--though there is oddly no sign of Luva, so maybe her skeleton was removed by someone else years earlier. Bobby and Billy are delighted by the coffin and take it back with them, as well.

After they have their loot back in a Los Angeles warehouse, they begin unloading it. Billy suggests a kooky idea: how about they use the coffin for a bed? Bobby is a bit skeptical of this idea, but he breaks off the lock on the coffin anyway--but is distracted from opening it when Billy manages to slash open his forearm when prying open another crate. The smell of blood awakens Mamuwalde, who then attacks the couple. He eats Billy first, naturally, and then turns on Bobby, who was trapped by boxes. Satiated, Mamuwalde returns to his coffin, laughing with delight.

It must be said that the "Blacula" makeup is ridiculous, largely lots of hair glued to Marshall's face and a pair of fright fangs, but it sure looks better by comparison to the makeup in the opening.

Vampires are repulsed by crosses, garlic, and Nair.
Mamuwalde shows up at the viewing for Bobby's body the next evening, but before he can summon his new vampire to him the dead man's friends appear to pay respects: Michelle Williams (Denise Nicholas), her boyfriend Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala), and her sister Tina. Tina is wearing what my girlfriend described as an Elven minidress, complete with a hood that covers her face. So no points for guessing that when she pulls her hood back, she's also played by Vonetta McGee and the spying Mamuwalde is astounded to see the spitting image of his lost wife.

"Look, I had a LARP event going when she heard about Bobby's passing, okay?"
Gordon is there to pay his respects, of course, but he also works as a pathologist for the police so he's also interested in how Bobby died and does a little investigating of the body after the women excuse themselves. The mortician confirms that, per the family's request, he did not embalm and mentions he had to work hard to cover up the nasty wound on Bobby's neck. Gordon takes a look at the bite and doesn't quite buy the mortician's assumption that it's a rat bite--and he also notices that the body has been drained of all blood. Gordon resolves to investigate further if the family allows, then takes his leave of the mortician, who oddly observes, "That is the rudest n***** I have ever seen."

Tina insists she is fine to walk home by herself and takes her leave of the others, but soon becomes aware that she is being followed. When Mamuwalde appears and excited grabs her, calling her Luva and trying to remind her of who he is, she is understandably freaked out. She runs off, dropping her purse on the way, which he retrieves--before he gets himself hit by a cab.

Unfortunately for the cab driver, Juanita Jones (Ketty Lester), Mamuwalde blames her for causing him to lose track of Tina. And he shows his displeasure by making her into a snack.

"Are you sure you wouldn't rather file a formal complaint?"
Tina is a paranoid mess when Michelle gets home, understandably. However, she is still up to going out to their favorite nightclub the following evening for Michelle's birthday. Meanwhile, Gordon is examines Juanita's corpse under the watchful eye of the hook-handed morgue attendant, Sam (Elisha Cook, Jr!). He is perplexed by her body being in the same condition as Bobby's, and he can;t help noticing the bite on her neck--two circular punctures.

Something strange is definitely going on, but he's hesitant to let on what it is to Michelle, who actually works with him in his lab. However, his choice of reading material--all related to vampires and the undead--lets her know he's got some odd hypothesis bouncing around his brain. Gordon also goes to see Lt.Peters (Gordon Pinset) to get more information on the cases, which Peters reluctantly advises he'll have brought to the club later that evening.

At the nightclub, Gordon joins Tina, Michelle, and their mutual friend Skillet (Ji-Tu Cumbuka). The night club act that evening is The Hues Corportion, as themselves, though this was before they released their most famous single, "Rock The Boat." Skillet, for his part, is busy trying to flirt with the waitress, Nancy (Emily Yancy), who also is in charge of taking photos of patrons,

And then Mamuwalde shows up. Somehow he figured out that the club is where Tina likes to hang out, and he's brought her purse back to her. Now, Tina greets him a lot more calmly than you would expect given how much he previously terrified her. However, when we see how smoothly Mamuwalde apologizes for his strange behavior the previous evening by advising that she looks just like his wife, whom he lost recently, it isn't hard to see why she accepts his apology with ease.

He's also happy to make the acquaintance of her family and friends, delighting Skillet who really admires Mamuwalde's cape. However, Mamuwalde has to excuse himself when Nancy takes a flash photo of him. And when Tina tries to convince him to stay, he promises he will see her again--only for Nancy to take a photo of both of them. After Mamuwalde exits for good this time, Skillet sums him up with, "That is one strange dude."

Nancy goes to her house nearby to develop the photos, only to discover that the photo she was sure had Tina standing next to Mamuwalde only shows Tina. Unfortunately for Nancy, Mamuwalde has somehow figured out the significance of a camera and he doesn't need an invitation to let himself into her house and sink his fangs into her neck while crumpling up the evidence. And when the officer that Peters sent to deliver case files to Gordon pulls up near the club, he sees Nancy stagger out of her house. When he goes to help her, however, it turns out that she's already become a vampire and she kills him.

"You didn't get my good side!"
So Gordon doesn't get the information he needs, but he gets something even stranger: news that Bobby's body has disappeared from the funeral home. Peters is mystified as to why anyone would steal the body because, as he so delicately puts it, "Who would want a dead f*****?"

Gordon has begun to see that a pattern is emerging, but he's still reluctant to come clean to Peters or anyone else about what he thinks is responsible for the rash of strange killings since even to him it sounds crazy. He asks for permission to exhume Billy, but without a good reason Peters isn't even willing to look into it. So, instead, Gordon convinces Michelle to come with him to dig up a body. Hilariously, he tells her to dress in old clothes, but she comes dressed in a pretty stylish outfit for graverobbing.

Naturally, Billy proves awfully sprightly for a corpse, and attacks Gordon. However, Michelle is so confused by this turn of events that she yells at Gordon not to kill Billy as he drives a stake through the vampire's chest. Gordon gets her to accept the truth of what she saw, but he knows it won't be enough for Peters. So he arranges for Sam to take Juanita's corpse out of the cooler so that he can show Peters what happens when she warms up.

Unfortunately, Sam got distracted and didn't follow Gordon's advice about locking up the morgue and leaving, so when Juanita thaws out she immediately kills Sam. I'm still curious where she got the robe from, since she goes from "naked under a sheet" to "dressed in a nice white robe" in a matter of seconds. So Gordon and Peters arrive too late for Sam, but when Juanita attacks them Gordon drives her back with a cross and then opens the blinds so that the rising sun kills her. Well, Peters quickly accepts that Gordon may be onto something.

However, they still don't know who the vampire is who started all this. Gordon has a thought about that, however. Isn't it awfully convenient that Mamuwalde showed up and started getting cozy with Tina right about the time these murders started happening? Gordon better move quickly, though, because Mamuwalde and Tina have gotten very close, indeed, and he's even told her the truth about who he is and who she used to be. After that, it's only going to be a matter of time before he's inviting her to join him in immortality...

In God's Not Dead 3, I hear they just straight up say atheists are vampires.
There's definitely a lot more I could say about the plot of Blacula, but aside from one slightly unexpected plot turn, there isn't much to spoil. Obviously the plot is building to a confrontation with Gordon and the police facing down Mamuwalde in order to save Tina from his clutches. And even though this film is firmly in the "bummer" endings period of the early 1970s, we can be reasonably sure that Mamuwalde isn't going to win in the end.

Or perhaps it's because of the prevalence of downer endings at this time period that we know he won't succeed. After all, William Marshall effortlessly makes Mamuwalde one of the most delightful sympathetic villains I've ever seen. Not only does Marshall bring a natural charisma to the role, so that it's not at all surprising that Tina could be honestly tempted by his charms, but his rich voice means he could read the phone book and I'd still be enthralled.

It also doesn't hurt that he gets one of the most badass "you're all going to die here" taunting monologues I've ever heard in the film's climax.

Everyone delivers in this film, however. There isn't a single performance I would say is outright bad, even among the minor parts. However, it must be said that Vonetta McGee gets rather the short end of the stick as Tina. Sure, in this version of the story her character is fully aware of the choices she is making and isn't simply under Mamuwalde's thrall, as in most versions of this tale--however, Tina is written as a complete blank slate. We get more of a feel for who Luva is than Tina, and we spend less than five minutes with Luva! It's possible this was intentional, to allow Mamuwalde to more reasonably project his belief in her being a reincarnation of Luva onto her, but it does limit our connection to her as a character. Even with the agency she's given that most "Mina Harker" characters are not, she still feels like little more than an object for the heroes and villain to fight over.

And, of course, it has to be said that the makeup and effects in this vampire film are pretty abysmal, right down to the expected awful fake bat. However, in some scenes the cheap makeup still manages to almost work. I particularly find that there's something about the awkward appearance of vampire Juanita that makes her more unnerving than a more polished makeup job would be.

It's easy to take a look at this film's title and poster and write it off as nothing but a joke, but I highly recommend actually giving it a chance. Even if the movie doesn't grab you, it's impossible to come away from it without a serious admiration for William Marshall.

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