Things I Read Off the Screen in “Blacula”
BLACULA actually has quite a lot going for it. Er…
Well, it just flies past. And it seems to function without ever having decided whether it’s tongue-in-cheek or basically serious. And William Marshall is very good in the title role, also playing it simultaneously straight and camp. He has quite a sly way of doing this.
The first shot, in which a superimposed title identifies a rainswept model as Castle Dracula, has an amusing bare-faced cheek. Prosaic yet bizarre — that sums up quite a bit of this film.
There’s a good hammy turn from Charles Macauley as Dracula, a pervy racist who perishes offscreen during the centuries elided between prologue and seventies main feature, and then there’s an appalling animated title sequence by Sandy Dvore, which drew open heckling from Fiona (“Sandy Dvore your titles are terrible!”) who had never seen the film. (I had, but not for, umm, thirty years.) Basically the titles consist of various black silhouette cartoon bats, red silhouette ladies, and red blobs, randomly interacting amid what looks like an enlarged photocopy of a microscope slide of some plant stoma. Now, I do think you could make a very good movie out of that concept, but it doesn’t work as titles, somehow.
FRAME STAMPINGS. I have no idea what that means but it must be important.
The movie proper starts, and we learn that while during the 18th century everybody acted with rather a lot of camp relish, in the 70s, everybody’s just flat-out gay. Well, everybody in scene two.
The gay interior decorators import Blacula’s coffin to America and become B’s first victims. And they are persistently referred to as “faggots” by the cop characters, including the hero, ill-mannered pathologist Thalmus Rasulala (“That is the rudest nigger I ever saw!” remarks a black undertaker). When bodies start go missing, Gordon Pinsent actually pops the question, “What would anybody want with a dead faggot?” And Thalmus shoots him THIS LOOK —
You rascal, you.
But when all’s said and done, the film isn’t as homophobic (or racist) as, say, FREEBIE AND THE BEAN. The gay characters are figures of fun, and one-dimensional stereotypes, but they’re not bad guys and we don’t particularly want to see them get drained. The movie could have tried a little harder to transcend the easy laughs (while KEEPING the easy laughs, obviously, it being essentially a grindhouse/drive-in schlockfest), but visibility is a good thing for any minority, as long as it’s not in the form of being targeted for abuse. We can credit BLACULA for showing a mixed-race gay couple who care for each other (pathetic outsider loner freaks were more common in movies) and who have straight friends who apparently accept them readily.
Director William Crane does few things right, but he gets mostly piquant performances. There was clearly a vast talent pool waiting to get into movies, and blaxploitation offered a key (of all the blaxploitation horrors, only BLACKENSTEIN has the kind of lousy acting associated with z-movies).
On the other hand, Crain can’t find the right height for his camera in a scene where one character sits and another stands (ALWAYS go with the sitting man, Bill!), and some of the sound recording, particularly in Transylvania, is terribly boxy and reverberant in the wide shots.
The only really intriguing bit of filmmaking is the slomo plus rapidfire intercutting when the vampirized lady cab driver attacks hook-handed misogynist morgue attendant Elisha Cook Jnr (don’t ask). That reaches a kind of peak of delirium amplified by Ketty Lester as the cabbie doing a vocal version of the PSYCHO theme — “Yaah! Yaah! Yaah!”
Elisha Cook Jnr Gets the Shaft Again.
At the end of the movie, all of the vampirized characters are accounted for EXCEPT Elisha. Maybe American International had a spin-off planned for him. CROCKULA? HOOKULA? JERKULA?