Blacula (1972) Summary
In 1780, Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) is sent by the elders of the Abani African nation to seek the help of Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay) in suppressing the slave trade. Dracula, instead, laughs at this request and insults Mamuwalde by making thinly veiled overtures about enslaving his wife, Luva (Vonetta McGee). After a scuffle with Dracula’s minions, Mamuwalde is transformed into a vampire. Dracula curses him with the name “Blacula” and imprisons him in a sealed coffin in a crypt hidden beneath the castle. Luva is also imprisoned in the crypt and left to die.
In 1972, the coffin is purchased as part of an estate by two homosexual interior decorators, Bobby McCoy (Ted Harris) and Billy Schaffer (Rick Metzler) and shipped to Los Angeles. Bobby and Billy open the coffin and become Prince Mamuwalde’s first victims. At the funeral home where Bobby McCoy’s body is laid, Mamuwalde spies on mourning friends Tina Williams (Vonetta McGee), her sister Michelle (Denise Nicholas), and Michelle’s boyfriend, Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala), a pathologist for the Los Angeles Police Department. Mamuwalde believes Tina is the reincarnation of his deceased wife, Luva. On close investigation of the corpse at the funeral home, Dr. Thomas notices oddities with Bobby McCoy’s death that he later concludes to be consistent with vampire folklore.
Prince Mamuwalde continues to kill and transform various people he encounters, as Tina begins to fall in love with him. Thomas, his colleague Lt. Peters (Gordon Pinsent), and Michelle follow the trail of murder victims and begin to suspect a vampire is responsible. After Thomas digs up Billy’s coffin, Billy’s corpse rises as a vampire and attacks Thomas, who fends him off and drives a stake through his heart. Thomas also finds a photo negative taken of Mamuwalde and Tina in which Mamuwalde is not visible. After killing one of the undead victims in the city morgue, Thomas and Peters track Mamuwalde to his hideout, the warehouse where Bobby McCoy and Billy Schaffer were first slain. They locate and defeat several vampires, but Mamuwalde manages to escape.
Mamuwalde lures Tina to his new hideout at a nearby chemical plant, while Thomas and a group of police officers pursue him. Mamuwalde dispatches several officers, but one of them accidentally shoots Tina fatally. To save her life, Mamuwalde transforms her into a vampire. One of the remaining policemen locates the coffin and alerts Peters. However, Peters inadvertently kills Tina with a stake, believing that Mamuwalde would be in the coffin instead. Devastated at losing her again, Mamuwalde tells Thomas and Peters there is no need to pursue him further, and willingly climbs the stairs to the roof where the morning sun destroys him.
The movie was put together by Joseph T. Naar, an agent who was looking to set himself up as a producer. Once he read the Blacula script, written by Joan Torres and Raymond Koenig, he gave it to Sam Arkoff, founder of the legendary B-movie company AIP, and it wasn’t a hard sell.
When William Crain was approached to direct Blacula, he had already done some episodic television, including The Mod Squad, and had previously studied filmmaking in Canada. Like a lot of African-American talent, Crain resisted blaxploitation assignments, and for him to take one on, it had to stand a chance of being a good movie. When he was offered Blacula, he leaped at the chance. “I was a youngster at the time,” he recalls. “I’m not sure how they found me, but they said they had this movie, this black vampire, and it turned out it was a legitimate project, so I really jumped on it. At the time, I was really happy to get that film; it just fell into place.”
When it came time to cast the title role, Crain says that he and Naar “went through every actor we thought could carry that role. Joe and I both had the idea that this guy should be regal, and because William Marshall had experience with Shakespeare—he had done Othello-we wanted that kind of presence. We called him, and he sat through the interview with a lot of style and poise. I was impressed. And he said OK, he’d go for it.”
Marshall recalled to the L.A. Times that he couldn’t believe he was being asked to play the part, but thought the project had possibilities. He also recalled having “damn near as many pages of criticism” for the script as there were pages. “Marshall didn’t like the whole blaxploitation movement that was going on; he made that very clear,” says David Sheldon, a former AIP executive. “He felt his contribution would uplift rather than demean.”
Marshall insisted that if he was to play Blacula, he had to be a dignified man, and he had to have approval over his dialogue; no way would Blacula speak jive. “I agreed with that, I didn’t want that either,” says Crain. “The guy should be a class act, not a buffoon, and that was the only way we could make this thing work. People would be sympathetic toward him because he has been cursed and taken away from his family.”
Blacula was shot in 28 days, and Naar remembers it costing about $500,000. Although the film was made on a tight, low budget schedule, Crain was determined to do the best job he could on his first movie. He recalls that AIP wanted him to get the movie done as quickly as possible, and one day, when they felt he wasn’t moving fast enough, the word came down from the company brass: “Listen, Crain, you’re not makin’ Gone With the Wind, just get the damn thing done!” Crain called his parents for advice, and remembers that his mother told him, “Go do the best you can.” So he stuck to his guns. “They wanted it fast, down and dirty,” he says. “They wanted me to just get through it, and I wouldn’t compromise.”
SOUNDTRACK/SCORE Blacula (1972) Gene Page
The movie also includes several musical performances from The Hues Corporation, who several years later had a huge hit with the disco classic “Rock the Boat.” Crain saw them perform in New York, and thought they’d be great for several scenes in a nightclub. “The Hughes Corporation actually stayed on longer than the script called for, because they were so good,” Crain says.
Blacula is also very professional-looking for a low-budget project, and Crain recalls that AIP put more support behind the movie as the production progressed. At first, they said no to the extra crewmembers and a dolly he wanted, but once they saw the dailies, more equipment was provided. “First thing, another camera crew showed up,” the director recalls. “Instead of using old Mitchell cameras, Panavisions started arriving!”
In Blacula, Marshall puts in a great performance without compromising his integrity as an actor. Not only was Marshall a huge talent, but at 6-feet-5 he was also a giant of a man. Crain and co. had to make sure some of his co-stars didn’t get too close to Marshall, lest they look like midgets in comparison. When people recall the actor, they often imitate his big, booming voice that could shake a room like a subwoofer. In Esquire’s review of Blacula, novelist Thomas Berger called Marshall “a magnificent figure of a man with a voice like a bass violin.” The
decision to play Blacula straight really paid off; he’s an intelligent, dignified vampire, not some fanged jive turkey in a cape. In its review of Blacula, The Hollywood Reporter stated, “With his stentorian tones and Shakespearean demeanor, Marshall carves a pillar of impeccable dignity and grace, thereby creating a fulcrum of sorts for the film’s relentless mayhem.”
“He was very convincing,” says Blacula cinematographer John M. Stephens. “Extremely convincing! I do remember certain times during the shoot getting a chill down my back.’
Besides his clear acting talents and professionalism, Marshall was a gentleman offstage as well. Most also recall him as being a very private man who didn’t let many into his personal life. “He was all business, all the way,” Crain says. “In terms of personal interaction, I never had a drink with him, I never did any fishing with him, we just never got together.” Despite his private nature, however, Marshall did keep his ranch home in Southern California open to young actors to come over for script readings.
Once it was released in summer 1972, reviews for Blacula were mixed. The New York Times wrote, “Anybody who goes to a vampire movie expecting sense is in for serious trouble, and Blacula offers less sense than most.” L.A. Times critic Kevin Thomas called it “a corny horror picture that’s lots longer on laughter than credibility.” But like many critics who reviewed the film, he gave Marshall’s performance high marks. “Marshall, the noted Othello interpreter, holds on to his dignity and holds the picture together pretty well besides.”
But critics be damned; the public responded strongly to Blacula. Both Crain and Marshall went to see the movie in theaters with regular paying audiences to witness their reactions. Crain went with a highschool friend (whom he had put in the film as an extra) to the Orpheum Theater in downtown LA. “We paid our admission and sat in the back,” Crain says. “People were rolling in the aisles. They were afraid in the places they should have been afraid, and they just had a really good time.”
The director says the success of Blacula “surprised everyone. It surprised me, too. I was a kid, so it was great just to be working. The only reservation I had was that I wasn’t sure if the African-American community was gonna accept it. Some people laughed when they heard I was going to shoot it, but I think it was pretty well-received.” In the book What It Is, What It Was, a history of the blaxploitation film, Marshall said, “I think the producers were quite surprised at how strong the positive response to the film was… Not for a moment did they think this was something that would become as meaningful to audiences as it did.”
Recollections aren’t totally clear on how much Blacula made at the box office, but Naar says it pulled in about $3 million, a great gross for the time—especially considering the film’s half million-dollar budget and that the average ticket price back then was less than two bucks. AIP took out trade ads celebrating the film’s success: “He’s Black. He’s Beautiful. He’s Boxoffice!”
Looking back on Blacula years later, Marshall told Jankiewicz, “Performing that role was rewarding in a number of ways, and I felt very good about it at the time. I still have to make up my mind whether to compliment it or run away from it! I guess it depends on how it strikes me,” he laughed.
“I believe Blacula was one of the best things that could have happened to William Marshall,” Crain offers. “The Shakespeare stuff comes and goes, there’s new people that come and do those plays, and once you do Othello, you’ve done it and that’s it. He knew he did a good job with Blacula, and it stayed with him for the rest of his life.”
Crain is also amazed that Blacula, currently available on DVD from MGM, is still remembered after all these years. “People ask me about it, and I say, ‘He just won’t die, will he?’ ” Crain is one of the founders of the Ethnic Minority Committee at the Directors Guild of America, and one day a coworker came up to him, shook his hand and told him he saw Blacula when he was a kid. “When we’d go to a screening, he’d always tell his friends, ‘This guy did Blacula, man, and it scared me!’”
Crain is certainly glad he made the film, but looking back, he also wishes he was more diplomatic when he was starting out.
Samuel Z. Arkoff
Joseph T. Naar
William Marshall as Prince Mamuwalde / Blacula
Denise Nicholas as Michelle Williams
Vonetta McGee as Tina Williams / Luva
Gordon Pinsent as Lt. Jack Peters
Thalmus Rasulala as Dr. Gordon Thomas
Emily Yancy as Nancy
Lance Taylor Sr. as Swenson
Logan Field as Sergeant Barnes
Ted Harris as Bobby McCoy
Rick Metzler as Billy Schaffer
Ketty Lester as Juanita Jones / Taxi Girl
Charles Macaulay as Count Dracula
Ji-Tu Cumbuka as Skillet
Elisha Cook, Jr. as Sam
Eric Brotherson as Real Estate Agent
The Hues Corporation as themselves
Rick Hochman as The Young Hoch
Scream Blacula Scream (1973) Summary
After a dying Voodoo queen, Mama Loa, chooses an adopted apprentice, Lisa Fortier as her successor, her arrogant son and true heir, Willis, is outraged.
Seeking revenge, he buys the bones of Mamuwalde the vampire from the former shaman of the voodoo cult and uses voodoo to resurrect the vampire to do his bidding. However, while it brings Mamuwalde back to life, he bites Willis upon awakening. Willis now finds himself in a curse of his own doing: made into a vampire hungering for blood and a slave to the very creature he sought to control.
Meanwhile, Justin Carter, an ex-police officer with a large collection of acquired African antiquities and an interest in the occult, begins to investigate the murders caused by Mamuwalde and his growing vampire horde. Justin meets Mamuwalde at a party Justin hosts to display the African collection pieces before being moved to the University’s museum. They discuss the artifacts, unbeknown to anyone else, that were from the region of Africa Mamuwalde hails from, including pieces of jewelry once worn by his late wife Luva.
Mamuwalde also meets Justin’s girlfriend, Lisa Fortier, at the party and he discovers that Lisa is naturally adept at voodoo. Lisa discovers Mamuwalde’s true nature after a friend of hers, Gloria, falls victim to his bite and is resurrected as a vampire who nearly feeds on her, if not for Mamuwalde’s intervention. He later asks her for help to cure him of his vampire curse.
Justin, with the help of L.A.P.D. Lieutenant Harley Dunlop, pulls together several other cops to go to the Mamuwalde residence to investigate the recent deaths. While Lisa is performing the ritual to cure Mamuwalde, using a voodoo doll fashioned to look like him, Justin, Harley and their men raid the house, fighting against Blacula’s vampire minions which include several friends of theirs. Willis is killed during this scuffle. Justin manages to find Lisa and Mamuwalde and interrupts the ritual. Lisa refuses to help Mamuwalde after she witnesses him kill the other police officers in the house in a fit of rage.
After realizing that Lisa is no longer willing to help Mamuwalde, he rejects his human nature and decides to convert Justin into a vampire. Shouting he is only “Blacula”, Lisa stabs the prince’s voodoo doll with Justin’s arrows repeatedly. Blacula screams out in pain from Lisa’s voodoo doll attacks, but his final state is left ambiguous.
Arkoff was happy with how the movie performed, and of course it did well enough for AIP to make a sequel, Scream, Blacula, Scream!, released a year later. Marshall graciously returned, and the film also featured blaxploitation superstar Pam Grier. Torres and Koenig again wrote the screenplay, but Scream, Blacula, Scream! was helmed by a different director, Bob Kelljan, who had cut his teeth on AIP’s vampiric Count Yorga films.
“I didn’t do the sequel because I believe I pissed them off,” Crain admits. “We didn’t get along during the shoot. I was headstrong, young and brash. There were a lot of things they wanted that I thought were ridiculous, and things I wanted that I forced the issue on. We just didn’t get along, and when I heard they were going to do the sequel and they didn’t call me, I wasn’t upset.”
Most agreed that Scream, Blacula, Scream! didn’t capture the spark of the original. “It was in no sense of the word as interesting as the first one,” Marshall recalled to Fango writer Pat Jankiewicz. “I felt very good about Blacula, but I wasn’t quite as comfortable in the sequel.” He did feel, however, that Grier was “a marvelous addition…I liked her.”
Joseph T. Naar
William H. Marshall as Prince Mamuwalde / Blacula
Don Mitchell as Justin Carter
Pam Grier as Lisa Fortier
Michael Conrad as Lieutenant Harley Dunlop
Janee Michelle as Gloria
Lynn Moody as Denny
Barbara Rhoades as Elaine
Bernie Hamilton as Ragman
Richard Lawson as Willis Daniels
Monsters of the Movies#30