Funky Dracula Riffs

Excited by the Halloween-month release of a new Alex de Campi graphic novel set in 1974 LA with the wonderfully garish title of Dracula, Motherf**ker! I decided it was the perfect time to finally watch the surprisingly successful (if unfortunately titled) films Blacula (1972) and Scream Blacula Scream (1973).

But first, a quick word about the “blaxploitation” genre for context. This strand of American cinema is largely a blind spot for me, but from what I understand, the surprise financial success of crime comedy Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) across multiple demographics opened Hollywood up to the idea of making more films targeted at the African American community. This resulted in a spate of films in the first half of the 1970s featuring mostly African American actors and made by African American creators. On the one hand, this opened up a range of opportunities for creators and performers that had not previously existed; on the other hand, other members of the African American community felt that these films perpetuated racist stereotypes and campaigned against them under the banner “blaxploitation”. Although I’m not well-placed to assess the legacy of the genre, Blacula and its sequel are both more interesting than their titles might suggest.

In 1780, Nigerian Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) and his wife Luva (Vonetta McGee) made the unfortunate decision to visit the castle of Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay) during their tour of Europe in search of support for ending the slave trade. Where Mamuwalde is a charming and sophisticated intellectual, Dracula is a racist prig who states his wholehearted support for slavery and his willingness to pay a significant amount to purchase Luva due to her beauty – arguing that there is nothing offensive about this offer because it’s a great honour for someone of her colour to receive such a compliment. Their decision to leave is prevented through overwhelming force and Dracula, determined to reduce Mamuwalde to the animal state he believes to be his heritage, turns him into a vampire and locks him in a coffin to starve, locking Luva into an underground cell with the coffin. He also imposes a variant of his own name on Mamuwalde to emphasise his dominance – the mocking “Blacula”.

Fast forward to the 1970s and Dracula is long dead. A camp couple (Ted Harris & Rick Metzler) purchase the entirety of Dracula’s estate to ship back to America and sell as antiques, marking them up significantly for kitsch collectability due to their origin. Cracking open the coffin in their LA warehouse, they become Mamuwalde’s first victims and are shipped off to separate funeral homes (since one is black and the other white). Pathologist Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) is suspicious at the marks on the black victim’s neck, but has difficulty comparing the couple’s autopsy records as prejudice within the police department means that some victims are treated more casually than others, although his white colleague Lt. Peters (Gordon Pinsent) backs his investigation unhesitatingly. Meanwhile, Mamuwalde had observed the mourners from behind a curtain and noticed that Tina, sister to Thomas’ girlfriend Michelle (Denise Nicholas), bears an uncanny resemblance to his dead wife – and thus must obviously be her reincarnation.

Mamuwalde has an astonishing mixture of knowledge for somebody who’s just re-entered the world after almost 200 years – he’s sufficiently unaware of the technological changes to walk across a street without watching for traffic, but when somebody takes his photograph he somehow knows that he won’t show up in the image and so must eliminate the photographer. The script is also pretty cavalier about the process of turning into a vampire – although Mamuwalde’s initial victims spend at least a day as corpses before reviving, later on a policeman whose blood is drained during a warehouse raid revives within seconds of his demise and attacks his former colleagues. And the vampire makeup effects on everybody except Mamuwalde and Dracula are, quite frankly, awful.

But what makes the film work is the presence of William Marshall, whose performance and commitment to all aspects of the role elevate the material above what it could have been. A distinguished Shakespearean actor and opera singer with a deep resonant voice in a similar register to Christopher Lee, Marshall played a significant part in redefining his character, who was originally named Andrew Brown and conceived as a more comedic character. Marshall is responsible for renaming Brown as Mamuwalde and creating the backstory for the entire opening sequence. This also provides his core motivation as a man trying to reconnect with his dead wife – and while part of the film’s appeal is the catharsis of seeing a powerful black man throwing around white cops, it’s this central drive to hang on to the one remaining aspect of his humanity that drives his choices. Once this option is taken out of his hands, due to the poor aim of a policeman who seemingly doesn’t worry too much who he’s shooting at when both of the people fleeing from him are black, Mamuwalde chooses to end his existence with dignity.

African American director William Crain does a decent job with the material, having previously directed an episode of Mod Squad (1971) and interned on the Sidney Poitier movie Brother John (1971). Mostly working on TV cop shows after this, his only other feature film was Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976). Screen writers Joan Torres and Raymond Koenig have only one other credit to their name – the following year’s sequel, Scream Blacula Scream.

The sequel picks up with the death of voodoo priestess Mama Loa, whose talented apprentice Lisa Fortier (Pam Grier) is the clear favourite as her replacement, much to the chagrin of her petulant egotist son Willis (Richard Lawson). Furious, he seeks the assistance of disgraced voodoo priest Ragman (Bernie Hamilton), who has somehow obtained the bones of Prince Mamuwalde. Willis summons him back to life as the instrument of his revenge, which doesn’t work out so well, as Mamuwalde immediately turns the tables and takes control, leading to a hilarious scene in which the newly vampirised Willis is dismayed at his inability to admire himself in the mirror and keeps pestering an uninterested Mamuwalde for feedback on his appearance.

Lisa’s boyfriend is retired police officer turned wealthy publisher Justin Carter (Don Mitchell), who has decided to donate his extensive collection of African antiquities to a museum. In an exceptional coincidence he is hosting a party that evening to show them off one final time before they leave his care, and one of the items on display is a necklace made for Mamuwalde’s wife Luva. This time around, although he once again demonstrates a lack of concern for the sheer number of vampires he’s leaving in his wake, Mamuwalde’s sole motivation is to rid himself of his unwanted state, enlisting Lisa’s aid to separate his spirit from the vampire’s so that he can either live again as a human or perish entirely.

Unusually for a sequel, this is a much better film than the original on all levels. Bob Kelljan is a more experienced director, having made his name with Count Yorga, Vampire (1970) and The Return of Count Yorga (1971) – two films which set the template for the contemporary vampire films of the 1970s. Scream Blacula Scream has more visual flair than its predecessor and the script benefits from the additional input of Maurice Jules, who had contributed to feminist vampire film The Velvet Vampire (1971) – in the special features on the Eureka Entertainment Blu Ray/DVD, Kim Newman notes a similarity in the scene where Mamuwalde berates two pimps for perpetuating slavery by profiting from prostitution. The acting here is also at a generally higher level – the performance of Blacula‘s female lead fell a little flat compared to Marshall, but Grier is a far better match, and although she’s not playing the same sort of kickass heroine role which made her name in movies such as Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), it’s her choices and actions which ultimately save the day.

There’s an interesting difference between the two films in the portrayal of the main white representative of police authority. In Blacula, Lt. Peters required very little convincing to support black pathologist Dr. Thomas’ theories, although he was a little naïve about the police force’s even-handed treatment of people of colour. His equivalent in Scream Blacula Scream is Sheriff Harley Dunlop (Hill Street Blues‘ Michael Conrad), Justin’s previous colleague on the force. Dunlop is a more complicated figure, the white “ally” who sees himself as progressive but persists in taking a doggedly racist line of questioning while treating Lisa as a suspect for a death she could not possibly have been involved with because she was with Justin and surrounded by people the whole time. Justin keeps trying to let Dunlop know how offensive his line of questioning is, and is seen shaking his head and face-palming while Dunlop plows boldly forward continuing to insist that nothing he’s saying is racist. Although he ultimately falls in line with Justin’s suggestions, his first instinct is to mock his theories in front of the entire office, and he takes a great deal more convincing than did Lt. Peters.

One final note regarding the insulting name “Blacula” (which was in large part responsible for my resistance to looking into these films for so long). Having been imposed upon him as a statement of feudal ownership by Dracula, Mamuwalde notably refuses to use the name himself. It’s not until the closing moments of Scream Blacula Scream, when he realises that he has comprehensively alienated his one hope of salvation through his own ferocious acts, that he finally names himself as “Blacula”, implicitly recognising that just as he accused those pimps of recapitulating the tactics of slavers, he has perpetuated the legacy of the curse to which Dracula enslaved him.

Coming back to the graphic novel which inspired this exploration, while Dracula, Motherf**ker! (Image Comics, 2020) is not directly connected to these films, its setting in Los Angeles one year after the release of Scream Blacula Scream makes it an appropriate companion piece (although its author identifies Count Yorga, Vampire as a more direct influence). After Dracula’s brides nail him to the bottom of his coffin in 1889 Vienna, Hollywood starlet Bebe Beauland releases him in 1974 LA so that she can preserve her beauty for eternity. Crime scene photographer Quincy Harker runs into difficulty selling photos of her corpse after her public reappearance, barely surviving his subsequent encounter with Dracula thanks to the intervention of Marishka, one of Dracula’s exes from the prologue. The three ex-brides use Quincy as a stalking horse in their conflict with Dracula and his new brides in the course of their feminist quest to end his exploitation of women.

Writer Alex de Campi is a delightfully eclectic creator. Examples of her comics work range from younger/all ages material such as My Little Pony: Friends Forever (IDW 2014) through high school mysteries in Kat & Mouse (Tokyopop 2006) to political thrillers like Smoke/Ashes (Dark Horse 2013) and the ridiculously fun genre mashups Archie vs. Predator and Archie vs. Predator II (Dark Horse/Archie 2015-2019). Dracula, Motherf**ker! falls in between her two previous ventures into horror comics, incorporating a little of the paranormal investigator aspect of Semiautomagic (Dark Horse 2016) but sharing more in common with the pulpish glee of her tributes to trash cinema, Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight (Vols. 1 & 2) and Grindhouse: Drive In, Bleed Out (Vols. 3 & 4) (Dark Horse 2013-2015). Focal character Quincy Harker is a mishmash of influences – the original Quincy Harker appeared in Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula comic (1972-1979), the descendant of Jonathan and Mina Harker from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), named in tribute to minor American character Quincey Morris. De Campi has reinvented him as an African American photojournalist who owes a little to Kolchak from the contemporary Las Vegas-set vampire movie The Night Stalker (1972), with just a touch of Tomb of Dracula‘s original creation Blade (who would later receive his own movie trilogy and TV series). The names of Dracula’s three ex-brides – Marishka, Aleera and Verona – are taken from Van Helsing (2004), but they have been reconceived as more ethnically diverse and seize control of the story from Dracula.

I quickly grew to love Erica Henderson’s artwork on The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (Marvel, 2015-2020) and Jughead (Archie, 2015-2016). For Dracula, Motherf**ker! she has taken her work to a new level, switching her focus from the individual page to a focus on the overall impact of double-page layouts. Rather than adding the colour after finishing the pencils & inks, she has allowed the colour design to inform the layouts, leading to bold splashes of colour which give her work the carefully orchestrated quality of a top notch director of photography. She’s adapted her style well to the material and the way in which her work meshes with de Campi’s story contributes to a gorgeous final package.

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