Blacula Is Beautiful, pt 2
Dream, Blacula, Dream
This is a continuation of the previous blog, where the 1972 film Blacula and it’s sequel were reappraised as forward-leapers in horror and vampire genre; along with the many ways that the character Blacula can be viewed.
You can read that previous blog here. Or just ignore it. I get it, you’re busy. But you’ll miss out on some stuff, just so you know.
Dealing with Blacula isn’t easy. Most critics/reviewers/analyzers/explainers fall into one of two camps: either laugh it off as a kitsch knockoff, ignoring the important and powerful messages in the movie; or examine it waaaaaay too seriously, losing sight of the fact that in spite of everything, it was a quick, cheap film that didn’t have the resources to embed coded messages in every line of dialogue or instill symbolism into every mise-en-scène.
Nevertheless, it’s a movie worth studying closely and that deserves more due, even while keeping a salt shaker nearby just in case we need a grain.
Is Blacula Gothic Horror?
Dracula adaptations are gothic almost by definition; you’ve really gotta balls it up to do Dracula and miss the gothic completely. Other vampire films usually get lumped into the gothic genre even when they aren’t exactly following the “rules” of gothic, whatever that means.
Only Lovers Left Alive? Gothic. Interview With The Vampire? Gothic. Salem’s Lot? Doesn’t feel it, but it checks the boxes. Lost Boys? Mmmm we’ll give it to them. 30 Days Of Night? I see where you’re coming from, but probably not gothic. Fright Night? Okay now you’re testing my patience.
But what about a vampire film set in 1970s LA that has this lady singing?
On it’s surface, Blacula might seem like a parody of gothic. But despite the scarcity of ruined castles, it’s in there.
Let’s start in the way back.
Consider the origins of gothic literature. Smarter people than me can fill volumes with definitions of the gothic, but if you are short on time, I can do it half as well in a lot less space: Gothic is marked by both a suspicion of and a romanticizing of a Past — and that Past’s keywords are superstition, aristocracy, sexual terror, and a foreign other often from the general “East”. Modern anxieties could be dealt with by projecting into some far-off spot — the past, a distant land, or a social class that seemed inaccessible.
But what would gothic be without its audience? Gothic was originally written by and for a privileged class of people in the 1800s. And how did that class get their privilege? If you said “by coasting their way on the surf of colonialism and slavery”, then you are right and also aren’t my Dad.
What does that have to do with Blacula?
Leerom Medovoi put it this way:
“Blacula takes the historical field of meanings associated with the gothic iconography of light and darkness — present and past — and brings it to bear upon African-American history. In so doing, the codes of the vampire gothic come to regender and resexualize the legacy of slavery. The vampire Blacula, a master of the ‘black arts’, becomes a dangerous masculine Other from the gothic past who threatens the modern African-American male self… Blacula is a prince who embodies the imagined virility of ancient Africa for the African-American present.”
If we accept that Blacula is, at its core, a film that represents both slavery and its aftermath, with a Byronic vampire who is an aristocrat from the East (in this case, somewhere in *waves hand unspecifically* Africa), who threatens the dominion of present-day men over their women, then Blacula might be the goffest goff that ever goffed.
Blacula sees you, Christopher Lee, and he’s coming for your cape.
Not to be overlooked is the gothic trope of the Double. Doubles are present in so many gothic stories that I hesitate to make a list, but Jekkyl and Hyde, Dorian Gray, Jane Eyre, possibly even Frankenstein make the grade. In Blacula, there’s several clear doubles. The easiest to identify is Luva/Tina; a love interest twice over, separated by years and oceans but still a double of the same person — she’s played by the same actress, in case anyone was on the fence (do you feel bad for not reading the previous blog where we discuss how Blacula pioneered this archetype? You should. Hang your head in shame!)
And of course Blacula is also Mamuwalde, the prince who started off the film. Ealier vampires didn’t have alter egos — they just hid their monstrous nature. But in Blacula, there’s a true Jekkyl/Hyde thing happening as Mamuwalde looks handsome and attractive when not vamped-out, and ferocious and frightening when in full bloodlust mode. This whole face-changing vamped-out thing was novel to the vampire genre — it challenged one of the core talking points of vampires; that they could too easily blend in with humans.
Side toothpick: just as the name Blacula is a conscious spin on the name Dracula, so we should recognize that love interest Tina is a stand in for Mina and that, in the sequel, Lisa could be a spin on Lucy. I don’t have an equivalent for Detective Gordon Thomas’ name… Lord Gordon George Byron maybe? I’ll keep workshopping that one.
Reclaiming The Other
Horror fiction, especially English-speaking horror fiction, has always found a goldmine in fear of an Other. That’s not new, you can find traces of it back to Castle of Otranto and, if you want to be That Guy, all the way back to the Bible. But the blaxpoitation horror films, beginning with Blacula, tried something new — making the Other the one audiences identify with.
As Harry Benshoff writes in Cinema Journal:
“Many blaxpoitation horror films reappropriated the mainstream cinema’s monstrous figures for black goals, turning vampires in to agents of black pride and black power… but unlike most Hollywood horror films of previous eras, audience sympathy is often redirected away from those figures and toward the figure of the monster, a specifically black avenger who justifiably fights against the dominant order — which is often explicitly coded as racist.”
That’s well and good for a seminar on film studies and race, but what does it mean to the world of vampires?
This is what it means: by making the gothic monster the central anti-hero of the film, the monster is softened, romanticized and made likable. Where else have we seen this happen?
Oh, I dunno. How about every fangin’ vampire story since 1972???
I am indeed arguing that Blacula was central to making the traditional gothic monster the one audiences like. It made the vampire the protagonist. And it gets no credit.
Here’s some of the other things Blacula gets to call “Firsties” on:
-The first time a vampire attacks a black body occurs in the prologue
-The first Black vampire on screen
-First openly gay characters in a vampire film
-First interracial gay couple in any film
-First Black vampire hunter
-The first time a male vampire bites another male on screen (previously, male vampires had either bitten men off camera or only bit women)
-The first vampire suicide on screen
-The “lost love” storyline that has since been used in numerous Dracula adaptations
-First Hollywood premiere hosted by a Black organization
-First blaxpoitation horror film
-First Black director of a horror film
-First vampire face-changing from “normal” to “monstrous”
Blacula inspired not only a sequel but an entire slate of horror films with Black casts. Additionally, the Acadamy of Horror and Sci Fi Films Films named Blacula the “best horror film of 1972” and The Count Dracula Society named it the “most horrifying film of the decade,” which is no small feat in a decade that saw at least five Dracula films produced.
Look, Blacula isn’t perfect. The production value is pretty rough, the special effects are antiquated, and the sound design is poor. It’s not the kindest to women or homosexuals. It still demonizes differences that are outside the mainstream, it’s just that here, the goalposts for what is “mainstream” have shifted. If you’re looking for a movie that upholds the patriarchy, this is it! Director William Crain has said he regrets many of the portrayals, and would write out the use of the N word if he could.
Further, the commentary on the conditions in urban America, when said out loud, are uneven at best and have zero nuance at worst. Take the sequel Scream Blacula Scream, where we get to watch a bloodsucking murderer lecture two pimps about being exploitative. Nevermind that Mamuwalde/Blacula began the movies by parlaying for an end to the transatlantic slave trade, but by the end of the series he’s creating undead slaves of his own. Hypocrite much, Blacula?
Then there’s the bizarre moment when Marshall’s vampire announces “I… Am… Blacula!” with a pathos that would make Iron Man pack his shit and go home. It’s powerful… until the credits roll and you wrinkle your forehead and ask “wait: did he just proudly adopt the slave name that was forced on him, instead of sticking to his princely title?” And then you wonder how much the creative team was thinking about these decisions or whether they just needed to finish the movie under budget. And then you wonder if Scream Blacula Scream suffered from more of these inconsistencies because William Crain, director of the original Blacula, had been replaced by a white director? And then you wonder if you have the right skin tone to even be talking about Blacula like this.
On that note, I know what you’re thinking and I see it too: I look like I’m one pair of wraparounds away from joining a militia and recording aggrieved TikTok’s from the driver seat of my F150. I’m not the ideal acolyte for this character. But the fact is: I adore the Blacula films and the fact that Blacula, as a character, isn’t more prominent in in the panoply of horror, gothic, or vampires is a shame. Someone’s got to say it.
There’s no doubt that Blacula, as it exists, would be appalling if it were released today. There’s no argument that “it holds up” — there’s far too much dick-swinging and stereotypes for today.
B̶u̶t̶ ̶w̶h̶y̶ ̶n̶o̶t̶ ̶a̶d̶a̶p̶t̶a̶t̶i̶o̶n̶s̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶r̶e̶b̶o̶o̶t̶s̶ ̶s̶t̶a̶r̶r̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶R̶e̶g̶é̶-̶J̶e̶a̶n̶ ̶P̶a̶g̶e̶?̶ ̶G̶o̶d̶ ̶k̶n̶o̶w̶s̶ ̶w̶e̶’̶v̶e̶ ̶p̶o̶l̶i̶s̶h̶e̶d̶ ̶u̶p̶ ̶p̶r̶o̶b̶l̶e̶m̶a̶t̶i̶c̶ ̶h̶o̶r̶r̶o̶r̶ ̶f̶i̶l̶m̶s̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶p̶a̶s̶t̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶t̶o̶d̶a̶y̶,̶ ̶w̶h̶y̶ ̶n̶o̶t̶ ̶B̶l̶a̶c̶u̶l̶a̶?̶ ̶I̶s̶ ̶i̶t̶ ̶b̶e̶c̶a̶u̶s̶e̶,̶ ̶i̶n̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶p̶u̶b̶l̶i̶c̶’̶s̶ ̶m̶i̶n̶d̶,̶ ̶B̶l̶a̶c̶u̶l̶a̶ ̶w̶a̶s̶ ̶a̶ ̶g̶i̶m̶m̶i̶c̶k̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶r̶e̶l̶i̶c̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶1̶9̶7̶0̶s̶?̶ ̶I̶s̶ ̶i̶t̶ ̶b̶e̶c̶a̶u̶s̶e̶ ̶b̶l̶a̶x̶p̶l̶o̶i̶t̶a̶t̶i̶o̶n̶ ̶f̶i̶l̶m̶s̶ ̶a̶r̶e̶ ̶p̶r̶o̶b̶l̶e̶m̶a̶t̶i̶c̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶H̶o̶l̶l̶y̶w̶o̶o̶d̶,̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶a̶ ̶r̶e̶b̶o̶o̶t̶ ̶w̶o̶u̶l̶d̶ ̶e̶x̶a̶c̶e̶r̶b̶a̶t̶e̶ ̶t̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶p̶r̶o̶b̶l̶e̶m̶?̶ ̶I̶s̶ ̶i̶t̶ ̶s̶i̶m̶p̶l̶y̶ ̶d̶o̶w̶n̶ ̶h̶o̶m̶e̶ ̶r̶a̶c̶i̶s̶m̶ ̶t̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶s̶a̶y̶s̶ ̶B̶l̶a̶c̶k̶ ̶p̶e̶o̶p̶l̶e̶ ̶c̶a̶n̶’̶t̶ ̶b̶e̶ ̶g̶o̶t̶h̶i̶c̶ ̶m̶o̶n̶s̶t̶e̶r̶s̶?̶
Y̶e̶a̶h̶ ̶y̶e̶a̶h̶ ̶y̶e̶a̶h̶ ̶i̶t̶’̶s̶ ̶e̶a̶s̶y̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶a̶s̶k̶ ̶l̶e̶a̶d̶i̶n̶g̶,̶ ̶j̶u̶d̶g̶e̶y̶ ̶q̶u̶e̶s̶t̶i̶o̶n̶s̶,̶ ̶b̶u̶t̶ ̶c̶o̶u̶n̶t̶e̶r̶ ̶e̶x̶a̶m̶p̶l̶e̶s̶ ̶a̶b̶o̶u̶n̶d̶ ̶t̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶s̶h̶o̶w̶ ̶t̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶n̶o̶ ̶-̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶p̶u̶b̶l̶i̶c̶ ̶l̶o̶v̶e̶s̶ ̶1̶9̶7̶0̶s̶ ̶k̶i̶t̶s̶c̶h̶,̶ ̶t̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶b̶l̶a̶x̶p̶o̶i̶t̶a̶t̶i̶o̶n̶ ̶d̶o̶e̶s̶n̶’̶t̶ ̶p̶r̶e̶v̶e̶n̶t̶ ̶S̶h̶a̶f̶t̶ ̶r̶e̶b̶o̶o̶t̶s̶ ̶(̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶w̶h̶e̶n̶ ̶h̶a̶s̶ ̶H̶o̶l̶l̶y̶w̶o̶o̶d̶ ̶h̶a̶d̶ ̶a̶ ̶p̶r̶o̶b̶l̶e̶m̶ ̶w̶i̶t̶h̶ ̶d̶i̶g̶g̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶u̶p̶ ̶i̶t̶s̶ ̶o̶w̶n̶ ̶p̶r̶o̶b̶l̶e̶m̶a̶t̶i̶c̶ ̶p̶a̶s̶t̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶t̶o̶d̶a̶y̶’̶s̶ ̶m̶o̶n̶e̶y̶?̶)̶,̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶r̶e̶ ̶a̶r̶e̶,̶ ̶t̶o̶d̶a̶y̶,̶ ̶s̶e̶v̶e̶r̶a̶l̶ ̶e̶x̶a̶m̶p̶l̶e̶s̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶h̶i̶g̶h̶l̶y̶ ̶s̶u̶c̶c̶e̶s̶s̶f̶u̶l̶ ̶B̶l̶a̶c̶k̶ ̶v̶a̶m̶p̶i̶r̶e̶s̶,̶ ̶a̶s̶ ̶w̶e̶l̶l̶ ̶a̶s̶ ̶o̶t̶h̶e̶r̶ ̶e̶n̶t̶r̶i̶e̶s̶ ̶i̶n̶t̶o̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶h̶o̶r̶r̶o̶r̶ ̶g̶e̶n̶r̶e̶.̶
Holy shit there’s a Blacula reboot in the works!!!
If anyone at Hidden Empire Film Group needs a gothic script puncher or someone to play a corrupt white cop — I’ve got the right look for both!
Blacula will be 50 in 2022. A really sweet golden anniversary present would be to recognize it as the milestone that it is.
A̶n̶d̶ ̶a̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶v̶e̶r̶y̶ ̶l̶e̶a̶s̶t̶,̶ ̶m̶a̶y̶b̶e̶ ̶a̶ ̶c̶o̶m̶i̶c̶ ̶b̶o̶o̶k̶ ̶s̶p̶i̶n̶o̶f̶f̶?̶
What’s that? One of those is coming in 2022 as well? Well damn, I should go play the lottery or attend a Kid Rock concert unvaccinated.
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Image credits: American International Pictures, Hammer Films, PBS