The blaxploitation craze of the ’70s might not have lasted long but it covered a lot of ground in its short time. For instance, it extended itself into the horror genre and achieved some fan-beloved results with films like Sugar Hill and J.D.’s Revenge. That said, the king of the blaxploitation horror roost is undoubtedly Blacula. It was the pioneer of this type of genre crossbreed, fusing the modern with the traditional in an attention-grabbing way, and boasts one of the finest lead performances in any blaxploitation film.

Blacula-posBlacula fits nicely into the “tormented villain-as-protagonist” school of horror, an identity that it establishes in its prologue where an African prince named Mamuwalde (William Marshall) is bitten and entombed by the cruel Count Dracula. A few hundred years later, Mamuwalde’s coffin is bought by curio collectors and shipped to Los Angeles.

In short order, Mamuwalde is taking down victims and building up a vampire army as he falls in love with Tina (Vonetta McGee), the descendant of his long-lost wife. Tough-minded doctor Gordon (Thalmus Rasulala) quickly realizes what Mamuwalde is up to and tries to stop him but it’s anyone’s guess if he’ll get the cops to believe him before vampires overrun Los Angeles.

Blacula is knocked in some quarters for hasty filmmaking and disjointed plotting – but it still works because it embraces the inherent surprise factor of blending gothic horror elements with gritty, humorous blaxploitation settings and characters. The script by Joan Torres and Raymond Koenig will often veer from humor to shocks or romanticism to urban reality in the same scene. As a result, it keeps the viewer on their toes because they’re never quite sure how Blacula-01a scene will play out.

Director William Crain guides the film in a confident manner: he’s obviously up against a typical A.I.P. budget and schedule, meaning some rough edges show, but he wisely plays the storyline straight and makes sure the horror elements are suitably grim (the vampires in this tale are memorably feral and vicious in their attacks). His work really clicks during the last half-hour as he stages a series of intense setpieces, including a fiery nest-of-vampires sequence and a battle where Mamuwalde takes on several cops in a deserted factory. His work is aided nicely by an effective score from soul music arranger Gene Page, who blends grooves and horror atmosphere to memorable effect.Blacula-02

Finally, Blacula boasts a strong supporting cast full of fine black actors who rose to prominence during the blaxploitation era: McGee is alluring as the vampire’s love interest, bringing a dreaminess to the part, and Rasulala makes an admirably tough and resourceful opponent for the title character. Ji-Tu Cumbuka also has a scene stealing bit as a lounge-lizard friend of the heroes.

That said, Blacula belongs to William Marshall: he is able to hit all the right notes in high style, creating a horror villain that is menacing, romantic and tragic by turns. With his regal bearing and Shakespearean delivery, he gives the characterization a charisma and a sense of class that makes his performance unforgettable and raises the film to a plateau it might not have acheived otherwise.

In short, Blacula is a historically important example of blaxploitation horror and a distinctly ’70s take on the vampire mythos. If either genre interests you, this should be a stop on your survey of either trend.