In its own way, this is quite an important film. It's the first, the most commercially successful and according to some the best of the 1970s blaxploitation horror films, with successors that include Abby, Sugar Hill, J.D.'s Revenge, Ganja and Hess, Blackenstein, The House on Skull Mountain, Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde and of course its own sequel, Scream Blacula Scream. From what I hear, the first three on that list are quite good, the fourth stars Duane Jones from Night of the Living Dead and the fifth is legendarily awful but has a poster of a nearly topless black girl with big breasts. Sounds like a must-watch.
As a blaxploitation movie, it's restrained and dignified. There's no real racial antagonism between blacks and whites and the black characters are positive role models, rather than drug-dealers, pimps and gangsters. The enemy here is the undead, not white racists or modern society. Meanwhile Blacula himself, played by William Marshall, is a noble figure with the kind of self-awareness and tragedy that you normally only get with female vampires like Le Fanu's Carmilla. (Self-pitying loser Anne Rice wannabes don't count.) When the film begins, we're in Transylvania in 1780 and he's still a mortal man called Mamuwalde. He's visiting Count Dracula in an official capacity, oddly enough, as the diplomatic representative of an African country that's trying to negotiate an end to the slave trade. You'd be proud to have him as your ambassador. Unfortunately Dracula's a racist dick as well as being king of the vampires, so he bites Mamuwalde, gives him the name Blacula, seals him into a stone coffin so he'll never be able to get out to feed and leaves Mamuwalde's wife alive as a human in order that she'll starve to death.
Two centuries later, a pair of gay interior decorators buy Castle Dracula from someone with a British accent (eh?) and ship all the furnishings back to LA. This includes a stone coffin. Blacula wakes up and two bitings later, the film has become more politically correct.
William Marshall is what makes this film memorable. He's not quite giving one of the great movie performances, but he's making serious attempts to get there. You can see how seriously he's taking the role, giving Mamuwalde so much dignity, passion and intelligence that he becomes practically the movie's hero. Look at the little performance he gives on being let out of his coffin for the first time in nearly 200 years, for instance. He's certainly a much richer character than the doctor and policeman who are trying to stop him, although I liked them too. If anything they take this a little too far, making Blacula surprisingly quick to understand 20th century technology like cameras even if at one point he does get himself knocked down by a taxi. In fact this is one of the great cinematic bloodsuckers and the reason why this film rises above the level of its otherwise bog-standard Hammer ingredients.
An interesting casting note is that they've chosen an actor whose face is naturally thoughtful and trustworthy rather than scary, which is enough a problem for the horror scenes that he grows a gigantic moustache and sideburns whenever killing people. He's a sort of werewolf-vampire, I suppose.
The film even looks like Hammer, oddly enough. It's not as funky or cool as you might expect, despite the soundtrack. David Crain was a TV director who'd never done any cinema before and his work has that slightly pedestrian look I associate more with British horror of the period. They even dress up Marshall in a Pertwee-like cloak, velvet jacket, frilly shirt and so on, although impressively he gets away with it. Shockingly though it has no nudity.
I see I've started discussing it as a horror movie. The film adheres to all the traditional vampire rules, if you don't mind Blacula's taste for champagne. He always has to go back to his coffin before morning, his victims rise as other vampires and so on. I liked all that. Some of them have blue or green faces and apparently a vampire will take deep breaths on waking up for the first time, but that's okay too. I have two objections and those aren't among them. The big one is the way the sun will magically appear as required for the plot, which means that on two occasions our heroes meet vampires in the middle of the night, but then suddenly - pow - blazing sunshine! The minor one is the disappointing make-up for the vampire bites, which look almost comically modest after you've seen the energy William Marshall puts into selling them and heard the descriptions of them in dialogue.
Is it scary? Yes, actually, a bit. There's a certain amount of tension to be had from the scenes at morgues, funeral parlours and so on when you've got one of Blacula's victims quietly lying there in the background as our heroes discuss stuff. I also liked the vampire attacks, which are almost frenzied when we're talking about second or third generation vamps rather than Blacula himself.
I also liked our doctor protagonist's practical attitude towards convincing people of what's going on. He doesn't bother telling them stuff he knows they won't believe. He just takes them along with him and shows them.
The acting is mostly solid. The only one I wasn't sure about was Vonetta McGee, who's natural in her way but perhaps not doing enough in one particular scene with Marshall. Mind you, there's an argument to be made for calm simplicity being the best way to tackle the problem of playing a character who accepts a vampire. She's not really a problem, though, and everyone else is good. The most surprising cast member for me was Elisha Cook Jr as a hook-handed morgue attendant, whom I'd last seen as Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon (1941).
Amusingly the film also has nightclub scenes with "stop the plot" musical numbers, as if this were The Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy. The music's not what you'd get in the 1930s, though. It's great, needless to say. Another odd but charming touch is the cartoon in the opening sequence, which is a little mini-movie in itself about a vampire bat and some red blobs that turn into women for it to feed off. I love animation.
At the end of the day, this is a solid but slightly pedestrian movie that's elevated mainly by its impressive central character. It's got some nice effects like the burning men in the warehouse and the final rotting disintegration, while I also liked the understated way they had a white cop shoot the wrong black person during the finale and then carefully avoided making political points out of it. We're not stupid. We don't need preaching to. However at the end of the day, there's one big reason to watch this film: its tragic monster hero. He's up there with Karloff's Monster and Lon Chaney Jr's Larry Talbot. Marshall is the man.