Celebrating 50 Years Of BLACULA

What we owe to William Crain, William Marshall, and the silver screen's first Black vampire.

By Lea Anderson · @leaeanderson · July 26, 2022, 6:18 PM PDT
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BLACULA (1972)

Taking a bird's eye view to the timeline of horror history, it's easy to see William Crain's landmark 1972 feature, Blacula as fruit born of George Romero's revolution with 1968's Night of the Living Dead. Not only did Romero popularize the "exploitation" model of filmmaking- using microbudgets to yield a guaranteed (potentially enormous) profit- Night also (not unironically) showcased Black folks' power as a consumer demographic; a bottomline unignorable to production companies. Preceded by box office sweethearts like 1971's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (which grossed $11 million on a $150,000 budget) and Shaft ($17 million for $500,000), Crain has since mentioned in interviews that when American International Pictures approached him, "the rumor was that they were in the red, and so they were going to do a Black vampire."

The end result- Blacula- gave us the first Black vampire on film in William Marshall's Prince Mamuwalde, an African dignitary cursed with vampirism by the white Count Dracula. But the film as we know it was not the project Crain was initially approached with. The original pitch featured the working title, Count Brown's In Town. It was full of- as Crain puts it- "shuckin' and jivin'," which he understood to be entirely at odds with his own sensibilities as a director as well as Marshall's presence as both a human and actor. His pushback bestowed us with the single most influential Black horror film of the twentieth century.

Blacula not only does the work of, as Dr. Robin Means-Coleman describes, "reimagining the classics" to "[reinvent] the [horror] genre from the vantage point of Blackness," but accomplishes this so effectively as to transform the narrative into a wholly original piece of Black art, tricky as that may be to articulate. The brilliance of Crain's adaptation is that it's actually an anti-adaptation. It doesn't seek out narrative minstrelsy (when Blackness is casually splashed on a white story as the film's title suggests) but rather uses that familiarity as a red herring to tell a different story altogether.

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In the film, the name "Blacula" is a curse bestowed upon Prince Mamuwalde by the Count (Charles MacAulay); "a slave name," as Coleman notes. Dracula transforms him into a monster in the same gesture as this attempt to "[rob him] of his (African) identity"—and make no mistake, Mamuwalde does become a monster, sympathetic as he may be. After centuries incarcerated in a coffin, he "makes a much-belated trip through the Middle Passage" and "finally makes his appearance in the new world—enslaved by vampirism and auctioned off" as part of an estate sale to the interracial queer couple who become his first victims. Shortly thereafter, he encounters Tina (Vonetta McGee), who he believes to be the reincarnation of his beloved wife, Luva, murdered by Dracula centuries prior and on whom Mamuwalde becomes singularly focused as he lays waste to the residents of South Central. The simultaneous romance and horror of this focus- which is really to say, the horror of romance- is among the film's central tensions and likely its most influential thematic concern.

That said, it also elucidates many of the tensions that have always been present in the cultural production and particularly in the horror stories of the African diaspora: tensions between past, present, and future; of life and undeadness as conditions of being; tensions of gender and sexuality; between citizens of the continent and the diaspora and, ultimately, of what constitutes an aspirational, moral, "whole" Blackness.

Further, as a byproduct of centering Black perspective, Crain actually deepens Stoker's characterization of Dracula by placing him in an eighteenth-century context that characterizes the slave trade and chattel slavery as parasitic institutions. The Count of Stoker's imagination would be a slaveowner (complicated as that legacy is for its xenophobic, antisemitic coding). As such, Mamuwalde's disgust for both him and the slave trade offers a counternarrative to common misconceptions about pre-colonial African culture, demonstrates Black resistance to enslavement without completely revising that history, and complicates the binary of hero/monster that is so often taken for granted. These themes, coupled with the blaxploitation aesthetic, ensured the film would speak to and genuinely connect with Black audiences—and it did.

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Blacula's financial success spurned not only a sequel in Scream Blacula Scream, but a slew of other blaxploitation horror films like Blackenstein and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde; films that, despite their low production value, nevertheless complicate, subvert, and expand the limits of the white horror canon, as well as how we conceive of the monstrous itself. We also have Blacula to thank for Bill Gunn's Ganja & Hess, a project as deliciously exquisite as it is experimental, if only because Blacula's success made the prospect of another Black vampire feature attractive to competing production companies. The film indisputably opened the door and paved the way for every Black horror and several Black-led horror projects that have followed in the fifty years since its release; influence seen in projects like Def By Temptation, Candyman, Vampire in Brooklyn, Blade, and Bones, just to name a few.

To celebrate, FANGORIA caught up with writer/producer, Rodney Barnes (Killadelphia, author of the forthcoming Blacula graphic novel), professor, graphic novelist, and editor John Jennings (Abrams Megascope), and horror scholar and editor Dani Bethea (We Are Horror, Studies in the Fantastic) to reminisce about the film's personal impact as well as its legacy with regard to the Black horror tradition at large.

Do you remember the first time you saw Blacula?

Rodney Barnes: I first saw Blacula with my mother and her date at the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore in 1977. She couldn't find a babysitter, so I had to come. But it ended up being a great night; my mom got a husband, and I saw the greatest movie ever (in my kid mind, lol). It was sold out and folks were throwing popcorn at the screen. It was a great night. I'd hide my eyes in the popcorn every time Mamuwalde took a bite out of a victim. My face was pretty buttery that night.

Dani Bethea: Sorting through my memories, the first time I saw Blacula was at a very young age on a channel that plays retro films. Truly, I can't recall if it was Turner Classic Movies, a Svengoolie block of programming, or something else. I'll just never forget the experience of seeing a Black *male* vampire for the first time with such a robust story and character arc.

John Jennings: I think the first time I remember seeing Blacula, I was a kid, obviously, and I think it was on television. The first movie I saw [in the theater] as a kid was Dragonslayer- we lived in a rural town in Mississippi and so Jackson was the only theater- so I know I didn't see it in the theater. It had to be syndicated or something. My mom was a big horror fan, and I was really into vampires, and I really liked it. The scene that keeps popping into my head is the slow-motion scene with the cab driver, and then [Mamuwalde's] transformation because I was into the werewolf and I felt like there was a kind of animalistic transformation. It was a more feral appearance. I remember enjoying it and thinking it was a cool movie.

How has the film impacted/influenced you and your work personally?

RB: Up until then, I'd never seen a person of color as a vampire. I was a lover of the Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing Hammer films as well as Bela Lugosi's Dracula, which I saw in late-night creature features, but none of those movies had folks of color prominently featured. Hell, Blacula was in South Central, which is a long way from Transylvania. I think Blacula introduced the world to the idea of a world where folks of color could join in on the fun. Although a blaxploitation film, the late, great William Marshall played the lead role with dignity and passion.

JJ: I never really dug the name that much as far as like, it was kind of corny a little bit. But the way it's framed is like Dracula was making fun of him anyway. Like bestowing a curse and renaming him. And that's part of slavery. You're not who you are anymore. I'm changing your identity and forcing you to live like this. And Dracula as a white supremacist, now looking back, yeah, makes sense. Evil, sexist, racist. Okay, cool. Spot on.

DB: The story of Mamuwalde is such a poignant and heartbreaking one that truly has an incontestable tether to the Candyman mythos—Black men in the prime of their lives, caught betwixt and between insidious white supremacist structures that wield some sort of damnation (vampirism in this case) as an everlasting punishment. It's chilling and brings to mind the zonbi narratives and folklore I learned about as a child that spoke of' the walking dead', its connection to slavery (which the film delved into that Mamuwalde was trying to stop), and the horror of a non-afterlife where one is cursed to walk the earth forever. The specificity of the horror story told in Blacula where monstrosity is thrust upon an individual, rather than by choice always stuck with me as abominable and nightmarish.

How has the film impacted and influenced the Black horror tradition in general?

RB: A slew of Black horror films followed Blacula: Blackenstein, JD's Revenge, Ruby. Most dealt with stereotypes and had incredibly low budgets but the actors did the best with what they had. That said, I think this period was a first step in the evolution to films like Get Out, Candyman, and others. Blacula and those films hold a special place in my heart. Seeing them made me feel like there was hope that one day I could become a part of the horror community. For that I'm eternally grateful.

DB: Blacula's interconnected subtext with one of the first known 'American' vampire stories, The Black Vampyre: A Legend of St. Domingo [published around] the time of the Haitian Revolution, resonates due to its historical framing of resistance to colonization and enslavement, the zonbi stories from the region that would later influence a plethora of horror narratives in the centuries to come, the white sensationalizing of voodoo and other types of Black life and religious practice(s), and a perpetual story of Black resilience through life and death. Blacula is the pseudo-father of the comic book/movie series Blade, the grandfather of story beats in Vampire in Brooklyn, and every Black vampire that has shown up in pop culture since. He's a legacy character from which so much inspiration, lore, and 'rules' originate…at minimum, each Black vampire story (and some white ones too) post-Blacula should acknowledge it as a creative foundation.

JJ: [Blacula's influence is] immeasurable. I think it's immeasurable. Because it was one of the first really serious, very slick, very nicely done [Black horror films]. Even though it's in the blaxploitation era, it's a real film; [it] had a better budget, was positioned really well, was well done. I think Blacula, Sugar Hill, JD's Revenge, there were some very serious thought processes going on, and they're very uncomfortable in certain ways because of the things [they depict]. The language around gay people—that's of its time, so to speak, but it definitely doesn't tread well now. But it was a groundbreaking film and I would argue that it's definitely inspired a lot of filmmakers and artists. So I'm really excited about being a part of this Blacula graphic novel. It's a Black horror renaissance!