Blacula is Beautiful, pt 1

Is this the most underrated vampire film of all time?

17 min readSep 8, 2021

How do you analyze a film like Blacula? It’s a movie that continually undermines every examination undertaken of it : Call it a horror and it comes back with bargain-bin laughs. Call it cheap and it comes back with a leading man whose gravitas would make Ian McKellan pee shy. Dismiss it as blaxpoitation and it comes back with a behind-the-scenes that proves it was doing something bigger than anything else in the subgenre.

Call it derivative and… well you clearly haven’t seen the film or noticed how it utterly changed vampire fiction.

Strip the elements that make Blacula unique, and you could easily have a simple, fish-out-of-water, “Ancient evil in modern times” story that any coked-up sketch writer could fart out twenty minutes before deadline. But it’s the extra bits, the added elements, the side nods, the winks — it’s the sum of these parts that makes Blacula a better movie than seems at first glance.

Because it’s certainly not the production value. I mean would it cost that much more to shoot it all in focus??

Yeah it’s basically Studio 54 with harsher lighting

What follows is not a movie review or a film analysis — no stars will be awarded and no scene breakdown given. Instead, this is an re-examination of Blacula in the constellation of vampires; a bid to cede the character a spot closer to the front-of-mind of vampire fans. Nothing would make me happier than, when Screenrant writes its next listicle of the most important vampires, Blacula is right up there with Lestat, Carmilla, and Count Chocula.

Spoilers ahead. If you wish to watch to the film for free before proceeding, have at it. I’ll wait. I’ve literally got nowhere to be.

There’s a lot of misleading visuals here and one really bad head swap. But there is a vampire, that much is true.

Why, Even?

I know where you are right now: a Black Dracula-type character seems quaint, even kitsch, by today’s standards. But this was the early 1970s: there were no black horror films. We were a loooong way from Jordan Peele movies. This was not nothing.

(And as long as we are here, as an aside, that in the 1970s there was actually a film in development called “Black Dracula”; it never got made. For all intents and purposes, Blacula is the Black Dracula.)

Everyone knows about the historical lack of diversity in horror films — a lack that was even more lacking in decades past — this is not your red pill to swallow. But then along comes Blacula which not only cast a Black man in the title role, but placed him into a Black community with Black heroines, heroes, and victims. It had been over three decades since anyone had tried something like that; long enough that it was essentially unheard of.

Did I mention it was also the first time a horror film was helmed by a Black director? Yeah, that too.

That said, it’s difficult to see why a film like Blacula seemed like a good idea unless we take into account the subgenre it was a part of: blaxpoitation films.

What was Blaxpoitation? Let a white person explain!

“Blaxpoitation” was a term applied to a grouping of films that came out when Hollywood was facing tough economic times, and aimed at appealing to African-Americans with films set in a gritty urban environment, with tough, sexually charged anti-heroes and anti-heroines. Generally made fast and cheap, a few have managed to stand the test of time.

Blaxpoitation, as Ed Guerrero discusses in Framing Blackness, encompasses only about 60 movies released in the late 60s and early 70s. Films like Shaft, Superfly, and Foxy Brown were a part of this subgenre. Blacula came at a moment when blaxpoitation films were having their, ahem, day in the sun. It was the first horror film of the subgenre and it’s success led to a sub-subgenre with lots of other horror films like Blackenstein, Dr. Black and Mr. White, but amazingly, no film titled The Black Witch Project.

Since defining blaxpoitation would require several volumes, let’s highlight the elements of the subgenre that are relevant to the moment Blacula was released and call it good:

  • Made quickly and cheaply
  • Primarily black casts, primarily white creative teams
  • Marketed to a young Black audience
  • Featured strong, take-no-shit heroes/antiheroes
  • Often reaffirmed a black-male-led patriarchy

This last point is sure to make some capes flap amongst the most awoken of the vampire set. But consider where this essential component of blaxpoitation was coming from and why it figured into Blacula

Early cinema, when it portrayed Black characters at all, usually did so in the worst way possible. We don’t even have to go all the way back to Birth Of A Nation to demonstrate that. But as the 60s came around, there was an attempt to improve that image. Sometimes, it was well crafted like in George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead (notably not a big studio production). But mostly, the “improvement” was a soft image of a non-threatening, nonsexual, saintly sort. Ed Guerrero gives that sort a name: Sidney Poitier. While no doubt an important actor, Poitier’s films added up to a message delivered to white audiences: “Look at nice black man. Nice black man not hurt you. Maybe let just one nice black man in neighborhood?”

But as black audiences saw their ticket-buying power grow, and as Hollywood desperately needed their patronage to save it’s own financial ass, the industry started posting films with assertive, empowered black stars, set in black communities. In shorthand: the film industry gave a black audience its own heroes. And those heroes didn’t have to be cuddly Poitier types.

As long as we are in the platform shoes of a 1970s audience, let’s also consider the marketing for Blacula. While earlier vampires were marketed as a monstrosity that must be defeated in order to defend distressed virgins and Christendom, the original theatrical trailer described Blacula as the “black avenger” for modern Los Angeles. Not a menace, but a force for retribution! An avenger against who, you ask? As Blacula fights off white cops moments later, that question should be easily answered to anyone living this far into the 21st century. For anyone watching in 1972: the Watts Riots and Rodney King both entered the world seven years previous.

Blacula might well be the first vampire anti-hero. Descended from him are Eric Northman and Damon Salvatore and even Lestat. More on that below.

You just have to suspend your disbelief that Blacula speaks like a boss-level Shakespearean.

A Straaaaaaange Dude

Blacula began as the cheap exploitation film it looks like if you do nothing more than watch the trailer. In fact, according to Donald Glut, the producers originally wanted a sports star to play the lead rather than a professional actor. Because, y’know, a transporting performance wasn’t what they were interested in. And their sports star vampire wasn’t even supposed to be all that sharp. Not Forrest Gump dumb, just… savage and unclever. According to Paul R. Lehman and John Edgar Browning, the character’s human name was suppose to be a riff on Amos & Andy, if you can believe that shit.

(And hey, it’s cool if you don’t know what Amos & Andy is, it was from way back in the radio days and we can’t go into all the ramifications here; just take my word for it that it’s super shitty to name a Black character after that show.)

Somehow the producers floundered their way into casting one of the finest actors of his generation: William Marshall.

Marshall’s contribution to the film wasn’t just his voice and acting chops — which alone are lethal to buttoned blouses everywhere— he also insisted on changes to the script. Changes that forced an explicit statement to be made.

Marshall, along with director William Crain, helped develop a prologue scene where his character, Prince Mamuwalde, and his wife Luva visit Count Dracula in Transylvania to ask his assistance in ending the African slave trade. Dracula, refusing, bites Mamuwalde, turning him into a vampire, taking away his African name, and encasing him in a coffin. But unlike Dracula, who revels in his evil, Mamuwalde despises his new condition. None of this was in the original script, this was something that Marshall and Crain campaigned for and got.

As Marshall himself said in an interview with “Inside Black Hollywood”:

“After having read (the script) I really thought it was such garbage; that I needed to do something, if I could, raise the level of quality.

“He (Blacula) was miserable, because he did not want to be a vampire. I guess that was one of the unusual aspects of it, because most vampires enjoy being vampires.”

William Crain remembers pouring over the script, trying to find a way to make it more palatable. In an interview with Toothpickings he recalls:

“We had meetings on top of meetings — we were trying redesign (this script) so it would make sense. I think it was me that came up with the idea, so I ran around doing location scouting, and found this wonderful house up in the mountains... I said why don’t we have a beginning here with Vonetta McGee and Marshall and have them sit down with the real Dracula, so he doesn’t just come bounding down the street with this rhythm and blues music? There had to be a beginning.”

Marshall continued to reflect on how Prince Mamuwalde felt about his condition in the forward to Donald Glut’s The Dracula Book:

“How Prince Mamuwalde felt about his fate is what I tried to contribute to the movie, first by… the revision of the screenplay and finally, of course, through the performance itself.”

Although today we are used to seeing conflicted vampires who yearn to see the sunrise and avoid blood drinking, this was unusual in the classic vampires, especially the Byronic vampires of the Dracula type. Almost every early vampire was cool with their lawful evilness and made no apologies about draining humans (though Barnabas Collins and Marya Zaleska have their moments).

But in hindsight IT’S SO DAMN LOGICAL that Blacula pioneered the conflicted vampire. Because if you can find a real world allegory that is more vampiric than the slave trade, I’ll bite my own neck. It makes sense — perfect sucking sense — that a black man unwillingly transformed by a white vampire would be the first to hate his condition, reject his maker, and want to be free of both at any cost.

This opening scene was more than a plot device to include Dracula and justify a clever name. As Leerom Medovoi says:

“(The film is) finding a past that allows it to place the urban violence it depicts into a broader historical field. The vampire’s aggression in present-day African-America is tied to the destructive legacy of the slave trade.”

Or: slavery of yesterday leads to problems of today, and an immortal gets to see how one begat the other.

The significance of this first scene aside, can we also pause and reflect on this: William Marshall and William Crain — two untested Black men in 1972, no leading roles for Marshall and no film credits for Crain — were able to force producers to make changes to a script they felt was too demeaning to persons with their skin hue? Blacula Power!

From there, the social commentary continues to flow from opened veins: the scene immediately following the prologue features an interacial gay couple — the first ever on the big screen— buying up all the antiques from Dracula’s castle and, inadvertently, the coffin containing Mamuwalde/Blacula. The representation of the gay characters is a bit vomit-emoji, there’s no way around that. But put it in the context of the film — right after a scene of a white man dominating and enslaving a black man via the sexual biting (something we can take “as read” in Dracula films), we have a scene where a black man and a white man are in love, in business together, and operating as equals. The portrayal is cringey, but the situation is damn optimistic!

So THAT’s where the 2000s hipsters got their wardrobes!

Not to put too fine a point on these fangs, but these first two scenes represent the first times a male vampire bit a man on screen. Prior to that, male vampires only bit women on screen, and if they bit a man at all it was off screen or obscured by a cloak or such. John Edgar Browning even tells of script notes sent back for the first Dracula film from 1931. In the notes, producer Carl Laemmle Jr. gay-panics all over the page with “Dracula doesn’t bite men, only women!”

Junior’s quote works best if you imagine it in a Paul Lynde voice.

Maybe the scene with the gay antique dealers wasn’t supposed to read as woke in the 1970s. “Maybe?” C’mon it was played for cheap laughs and we all know it. But fuck the 1970s, what did they ever give us except Viet Nam, Watergate, and the Sid Vicious? This is our film now and we will decide how progressive it is.


It would be easy to look at these two scenes together and say “that’s well and good for a vampire movie about an African vampire in America, but it doesn’t really scale to the rest of vampire fiction.” To which I say, pull your Ford Model Dismissive over to the side of the crossroads and let’s have a little chat about some of the other innovations Blacula introduced to the genre. Innovations that have become cliche, but were novel in 1972.

“First black vampire on screen” is the default flex for Blacula — and it’s important — but it’s far from the biggest brag. Blacula brought more to the coffin-shaped table than just melanin.

As stated above during that part you skipped past, Blacula was a regretful, or conflicted, vampire. This self-loathing over his vampiric nature reaches its crest at the very end of the first film, when Blacula does something no vampire had ever done on screen before — in a bout of grief, he walks out the door into the broad daylight, to end his own hated existence. This method of cashing out has been used over and over in vampire movies since, especially with the advent of the “vampire with a conscience” that Blacula pioneered. In fact, there’s a page on TVTropes dedicated to vampires who kill themselves in the sunlight. But it had never been done before Blacula.

Damn, sun

Oh sorry, is that not interesting enough? How about the long-lost love doppelganger? You didn’t think Coppola invented that, did you?

Luva, played by Vonetta McGee, is a graceful, smart, strong complement to Prince Mamuwalde. When Mamuwalde is awakened centuries later as Blacula, guess who he runs into in modern Los Angeles? You guessed it, he meets Tina, also played by Vonetta McGee. You know where this is going: he immediately falls for Tina-who-looks-like-Luva.

You know that story because you’ve seen it copied over and over by now.

These selfie filters are getting wild

Coppola’s Dracula is on record as having borrowed the you-look-like-my-long-lost-wife romance plot from Dan Curtis’ Dracula starring Jack Palance. But that film came out a full two years after Blacula.

Gary Oldman’s Dracula may have crossed oceans of time to find his lost love, but William Marshall’s Blacula crossed oceans of time and an actual motherfucking ocean and he did it while Gary Oldman was still in middle school. Why doesn’t this get more recognition?

This contrivance has been copied so often it’s almost become part of the Dracula canon. That’s right, Dracula stole that shit from Blacula. I’m not saying it’s just like white rock n roll singers stealing songs from black bluesmen, you’re saying that.

Long-lost-doppelgänger-spouses weren’t the invention of vampire movies. 1932’s The Mummy tried the trick. But Blacula brought it into the vampire genre and it hasn’t left since.

The Results

In a pre-Star Wars world, Blacula was a stunning success. It did well at the box office, earned a sequel, inspired more Black-dominated horror films, and won Marshall several awards besides giving him a signature character. But it wasn’t beloved by everyone. Many reviewers saw it as a joke — a gag to put a Black man in place of the Byronic European vampire. The film made enemies in the Black community as well, with critiques coming from the Hollywood chapter of the NAACP and the Committee Against Blaxpoitation.

But as Paul R. Lehman and John Edgar Browning have pointed out, such critiques completely overlook how important Blacula was to the community it was set in. “On few occasions were Africans of stature, education, and grace present in film… The educational opportunity provided by Blacula through its socially liberating qualities was missed by many of the viewers. Nonetheless, a number of cultural elements were present in both Blacula films that not only challenged the stereotypical images of Africans, African Americans, and homosexuals in America but provided exposure for them as well.”

Further, Francis Gateward, a professor of African American studies at UI-UC, noted “Blacula… is particularly unique for having a Black director, William Crain, and for linking the plight of its protagonist… to the destructive legacies of the slave trade.” Other films simply weren’t doing that.

Director William Crain, for his part, rejects the label of “blaxpoitation” for Blacula: “I was a little embarrassed about it. They stuck the term to Blacula because of these other films that were exploitive.” Crain would prefer the film not be regarded as blaxpoitation, but he’s pushing that boulder up a steep hill, given how the film is situated in the public and critic’s minds.

If I start an Amazon wishlist, will you buy this for me?

Blaxpoitation films often get a bad rep not only for being cheap, but for being, well, exploitative. Even the term “blaxpoitation” originated as a complaint against that strain of film. But blaxpoitation films, unlike vampire bloggers, serve a worthy purpose:

Even though Blacula was a monster movie, decoding it for the target audience wasn’t difficult. Blacula — exactly because he was coded as a monster — could do the things “heroes” couldn’t do. And that’s what a Watts-weary audience needed. The fact that William Marshall could do it with such elegance and gravitas made it all the better.

This is what Robin Means Coleman meant when, in the book Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present, she wrote that the vampire was transformed in Blacula from a monster into an agent of Black power.

Watts Are You Talking About?

Blacula allows viewers to see the film a few different ways. Check the box that conforms to your worldview:

___ Law enforcement vs a supernatural killer.
___ African-Americanism vs Afrocentrism.
___ Black masculinity vs the rest of the world.
___ Supernatural allegory to urban strife.
___ Vampire as a stand in for a drug pusher who must be brought down.
___ The macabre origin story of PeeWee’s Playhouse’s King Of Cartoons.

Come in a prince, go out a king

Are all these possible readings because the film was seeking a wide appeal? Or is it because the film occasionally gets tripped up on itself and muddles it’s own message? Both of those views are also valid.

Is the noble vampire — an Other — from Africa being held up in praise? Or in ridicule? How one answers might have a lot to do with what one carries into the film.


The setting for most of the movie is in Watts, Los Angeles. If you’re on the younger side, you can be forgiven for not knowing why that’s relevant — but lets just say that location was probably not lost on viewers in the early 1970s for whom the memory of the Watts Riots was fresh.

To put too fine a point on it: it would be like setting a film about a Black hero/antihero today at 38th and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis — the site of George Floyd’s murder — and trusting that the audience gets the relevance of the location.

A young Black audience of the 1970s would also not need to have the dynamics between white police and Black citizens explained. So when white police come to a Black neighborhood — Watts no less— to hunt Blacula, the subtext is already understood. Blacula is free — even encouraged — to take a few vengeful swipes at the white police force on behalf of wronged citizens, and doing it while in the character of a idealized prince of an African past.

The Watts Riots of the 1960s are not directly named. They don’t need to be. Just like no one says “the legacy of slavery is how we ended up here”. It doesn’t need to be. Having Dracula launch Blacula, and having the action set in Watts, is all the explanation that’s needed.

Always bet on Blacula

Praise for Blacula is justified, but it should be nuanced praise. It’s still a B movie. It still makes mistakes. We shouldn’t pretend that it’s Do The Right Thing or Boyz n The Hood or Big Mama’s House 2. It changed vampire fiction, but there are reasons it’s not held up as a paragon of cinema.

To celebrate Blacula properly, we have to deal honestly with it’s shortcomings. Mamuwalde doesn’t seem to soberly grasp the connection between the slavery he tried to end, and modern day problems he’s exacerbating as he goes about turning more humans into vampire slaves. If anyone is capable of breaking the cycle, it should by Mamuwalde/Blacula, but instead, he actively participates in it. Consider the sequel Scream Blacula Scream: a fair argument could be made that — even though he was created by slave traders — what he does is worse: he makes people undead slaves forever, a chain that not even a first death can break.

Do we even need to talk about the male toxicity here? The film seriously needs to spend some quiet time reflecting on how it treats it’s women and LGBT characters and asking “is this who I want to be?”

Never mind that the sound quality at times is like standing 100 feet from a broken transistor in an empty gymnasium.

There are those who will give no mercy for “it was a different time” or “circumstances were different”. I’m not quite so harsh. I think there’s room to grant that, on a low-budget film that was trying to break through, the writers and director were doing their best to promote representation in their moment and didn’t have the luxury to refine their script so that it would satisfy the sensibilities of the twenty-first century blogosphere. They damn sure weren’t getting paid enough to make a movie that Twitter would love five decades later and I hope anyone coming for me in the future keeps that in mind.

The fact is, Blacula inspired a slate of horror-themed films with a Black cast, something unheard of before. Did I mention that it redefined the vampire for two generations? Oh, and in a just world it would have given us William Marshall as the voice of Darth Vader but God hates us.

It’s not clear what the world would look like if Blacula had never taken form. Blade appeared in comics a year later. Dan Curtis’s Dracula, replete with its long-lost-love doppelgänger, would release two years later. The experimental black vampire film Ganja & Hess was another year away. Anne Rice’s sympathetic and self-loathing vampires wouldn’t appear for another four years. It would be many, many years before another on-screen vampire willingly walked out into the sun to end their own existence. If not for Blacula, would still be waiting for all these?

In Part 2/2 of this blog series, I will discuss whether Blacula is a gothic horror, how it flipped the script on the monster movie, and bullet point even more “firsties” in Blacula’s brag book.

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Image credits: Thomas Hodge of The Dude Designs, American International Pictures, Universal Pictures, Falcon Toys, Walt Disney Company




Investigating the Western fascination with vampires, one dad joke at a time.