Studio system Hollywood horror films featured Black monsters only when the films were based in “deepest, darkest Africa.” There were savages running around, worshipping big gorillas like King Kong or making do as cannibals eager to dine on white meat. The classic Universal horror creatures were far out of reach of the few Black actors big enough to play them.
Hollywood would never turn Sidney Poitier into a teenage werewolf like Michael Landon, nor would Paul Robeson be cast as Dr. Frankenstein (though he got close enough to that level of madness in The Emperor Jones). Negroes couldn’t even play the Invisible Man, not Ralph Ellison’s version and certainly not H.G. Wells’s. And viewers couldn’t even see him! Mummies were also off the table, even if they did come from Africa.
In January 1972, at the same time Warners was making Super Fly in New York City, director William Crain was in Los Angeles to begin production on the first monster film to feature a Black vampire. Of course, American International Pictures (AIP) made the title a play on “Black Dracula,” calling the film Blacula.
Inspired by the previously successful idea of casting a stage veteran like Vincent Price to class up their low-budget literary adaptations, AIP hired Shakespearian actor William Marshall to portray Prince Mamuwalde, the man who would be Blacula. Marshall was six feet, five inches tall, the same height as the white guy who held the monopoly on vampires in 1972, Christopher Lee. Like Lee, he was also a classically trained opera singer who rarely got to employ that talent onscreen.
Despite all that biting and sucking, Blacula is a love story.
Born in Gary, Indiana, in 1924, Marshall had already been working for almost thirty years before he was cast in his signature role. He made his Broadway debut in Carmen Jones in 1944 before being directed by Marty Ritt in Dorothy Heyward’s play Set My People Free in 1948. In 1950, he understudied the role of Captain Hook for fellow monster movie legend Boris Karloff in Peter Pan (in addition to playing Cookson) and, a year later, played De Lawd in a revival of The Green Pastures.
It was seeing that Pulitzer-winning racist musical onstage that made Marshall, then eight years old, want to be an actor. He studied at the Actors Studio before journeying to Europe to play in numerous Shakespeare plays, most notably the lead in Othello (no blackface necessary). The London Sunday Times called him “the best Othello of our time,” which really must have burned Sir Laurence Olivier’s ass with a vengeance! Marshall used his deep, bass voice with preternatural precision, whether as the US attorney general in Robert Aldrich’s excellent 1977 thriller, Twilight’s Last Gleaming, or as the King of Cartoons on the ’80s children show Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
Such an awesome voice also made Marshall a formidable bad guy, though in the case of Blacula, his villainy is far from certain. The screenplay by Joan Torres and Raymond Koenig has an unusual amount of sympathy for Mamuwalde. His tale is tragic, and his lust for blood is more out of need than desire. Even so, their script doesn’t scrimp on the genre goods; Blacula has a large body count, even if the bodies don’t stay dead for long. It also has an ending that destroys its monster in an unconventional fashion.
“‘You’re joking,’ I said, when I was asked to do it,” Marshall told Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times. “But I thought it had possibilities. I had damn near many pages of criticism as there were in the script itself.” AIP declined most of those changes, but some of Marshall’s demands for historical context wound up on the screen: Mamuwalde is African royalty, and he gets to speak a bit of Swahili and educate the viewer on African art and rituals. He never looks less than regal in his human form, carrying himself with a distinguished carriage that matched that incredible voice.
In a pre-credits sequence set in 1780, the powerful Mamuwalde and his beautiful wife, Luva (Vonetta McGee) visit the Transylvanian palace of Dracula (Charles Macaulay). Mamuwalde hopes to get his host’s assistance in stopping the African slave trade, but Dracula does not take too kindly to uppity Negroes who don’t know their place. To quote Gene Siskel’s positive review in the Chicago Tribune, “Dracula, it seems, was a redneck.”
As punishment, Dracula bites Mamuwalde, but not before lecturing him. “You shall pay, Black prince. I shall place a curse of suffering on you that will doom you to a living hell. I curse you with my name. You shall be Blacula!” An even worse fate befalls Luva; she’s left in mortal form to starve and die while listening to Mamuwalde’s anguished screams for blood.
A pause here to pay tribute to Charles Macaulay, whose characters were responsible for the creation of two of the first major movie monsters played by Black actors. Before his Count Dracula turned William Marshall into a vampire, his Dr. Gordon turned Marshall’s future co-star, Pam Grier, into the Panther Woman in The Twilight People. That film, a very-low-budget riff on H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, opened in cinemas in June 1972, a month before Blacula.
Grier told the audience at her 2022 TCM Film Festival tribute that she enjoyed playing a character who was strictly an animal. Her enjoyment is in every frame of her performance. Despite some hideous makeup, Grier is a convincing half-human, half-panther creature who, like Mamuwalde, racks up an impressive body count before her demise.
Blacula’s reign of jugular vein puncturing starts when the film jumps to the present day. Two homosexual interior decorators, an interracial couple named Bobby and Billy, buy Mamuwalde’s coffin and ship it back to Los Angeles. They both think it looks fierce! What’s inside it is equally fierce. Mamuwalde has been starving for blood for two hundred years, so the couple become his first victims and, by extension, his first minions.
At the funeral home, Tina (McGee again) and her sister Michelle (Denise Nicholas) mourn their friends. Tina gets Mamuwalde’s attention because she looks exactly like his former love, Luva. Bobby’s corpse gets the attention of Michelle’s man, pathologist Dr. Gordon, because it is completely drained of blood. Gordon is played by the Blaxploitation ubiquitous actor Thalmus Rasulala. Soon after, Bobby disappears from the funeral home, returning home to his master.
Mamuwalde is obsessed with Tina, and she falls for him despite his inability to appear in the daytime. A photographer friend of hers accidentally takes a picture of the two of them, signing her death certificate because vampires cast neither a reflection nor a photographic image. A taxicab driver, Juanita (Ketty Lester) also gets sucked dry after she runs Mamuwalde over with her cab. Now a vampire, she figures in the most terrifying scene in Blacula, a slow-motion run down a morgue hallway. Her prey is the hapless mortician Sam, played by film noir legend Elisha Cook Jr. in a cameo.
Despite all that biting and sucking, Blacula is a love story where the viewer hopes Tina is indeed Luva reincarnated. She’s surprisingly understanding when Mamuwalde explains why he’s pursued a relationship with her. It’s too bad Dr. Gordon figures out who the Blacula in the title is. Along with Peters (Gordon Pinsent), a cop who gets a sobering lesson in the existence of vampires at Sam’s morgue, the good doctor tracks down his foe. Meanwhile, Tina is hypnotized to follow the bat version of Mamuwalde (yes, he turns into a fake bat on a string) to his hideout.
Just when it looks like the two lovers will be reunited forever, Tina is accidentally shot dead by the cops. After bringing her back to “life” with a vampire bite, Mamuwalde puts her in his coffin. When Peters opens that coffin expecting to find its owner, he stakes Tina instead. Having lost his true love twice in one lifetime, Mamuwalde does something unprecedented in horror movie history. He gives up.
There’s a sense of relief in his demise, for at last the evil curse put upon him by white racism has been lifted.
Marshall plays his last scene with a haunting dignity and resignation. Here is a tired Black man, done so wretchedly by bad luck that his only recourse is to end it all. “That won’t be necessary,” he says somberly when Dr. Gordon attempts to stake him. Mamuwalde walks past him and into the daylight, frying himself to death. There’s a sense of relief in his demise, for at last the evil curse put upon him by white racism has been lifted. Blacula ends with a very lousy (but still gross) melted head special effect.
When it opened on July 26, 1972, Blacula didn’t do too poorly with the critics. In addition to Siskel, Variety gave the film a good review, as did the Chicago Reader and the Miami Herald. Audiences liked it as well, bringing in $3,000,000 in ticket sales against a $500,000 budget. Along with Shaft, it was one of the few Blaxploitation films to win an award, earning Best Horror Film at the inaugural sci-fi- and horror-based Saturn Awards.
Though it featured educated Black characters and a lead that was far from a stereotype, Blacula still drew the ire of Junius Griffin. A month before he created the Coalition Against Blaxploitation, he started a beef with Marshall over the actor’s dream project, a film version of Martinique poet Aimé Césaire’s play The Tragedy of King Christophe. King Christophe was a real-life Haitian revolutionary hero, a great opportunity for Marshall, but he was outranked by Anthony Quinn’s competing project, Black Majesty. The Mexican-American Quinn had intended to play the Black lead role himself, causing all manner of controversy. To everyone’s surprise, Griffin endorsed Quinn’s project.
“If Black actors can play demeaning roles in Blacula,” Griffin told Daily Variety, “I could hardly oppose Quinn’s portrayal.” The head of the Los Angeles NAACP did not look good approving a white Latino actor playing a Black character in blackface. As a result, Griffin was forced to resign his post, freeing him up to be a thorn in the side of Blaxploitation. Blacula’s director, William Crain, was on record saying Griffin tied him to a chair to prevent him from working on 1976’s Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde.
Vengefully, Blacula rose again in 1973’s Scream Blacula Scream. Bob Kelljan took over for Crain, but Torres and Koenig returned as scriptwriters. This time, voodoo is added to the mix courtesy of Pam Grier’s Lisa Fortier. It’s how Mamuwalde is reborn. He’s not happy to return, at least until he casts his eyes on Pam. Marshall is a more brutal vampire this time around, and he’s been given a Renfield in the guise of a soul brother named Willis Daniels, played by Richard Lawson in his film debut. Lawson is hilariously over-the-top, going full jive ass at some points before Mamuwalde chews him out for his stupidity.
Like most sequels, Scream Blacula Scream is bigger but not better. The plot is muddled, and the audience sympathy is no longer with Mamuwalde. On the plus side, Marshall and Grier were a dream team for fans, and Grier proves herself worthy of being in the same scream queen fraternity as Jamie Lee Curtis. She didn’t have to go that route, however, because when Scream Blacula Scream hit theaters, Coffy was already making Pam Grier a Blaxploitation star.
Excerpted from Black Caesars and Foxy Cleopatras: A History of Blaxpoitation Cinema by Odie Henderson. Copyright © 2024. Published by Abrams Books.