Blacula (William Crain, 1972, 92 minutes)
Blacula is a blaxploitation film directed by William Crain, one of the first black directors to graduate from UCLA’s film school and achieve commercial success. I recommend Blacula. It’s political and remains relevant. It’s stylish, sweet, and suspenseful. And you’ll see that it’s completely campy and hilarious. I laughed so much so loud, slapping my leg and screaming “Whaaaa…?” I was smiling as I typed this paragraph because it’s such a fun movie to experience. 🙂
William Crain’s 1972 film has been considered the first depiction of a black vampire on the silver screen. Blacula begins one stormy evening in 1780 when the African Prince Mamuwalde and Princess Luva ‒ a royal couple of the Ibani tribe in southern Nigeria ‒ have traveled to Transylvania in order to secure political assistance from Count Dracula in fighting the African slave trade. Unfortunately, Dracula supports subjugation, successfully enslaves Mamuwalde with a bite to his neck, and then puts a spell on the prince so he will forever thirst for blood as the vampire Blacula. After a very long sleep for two centuries inside a coffin at the Transylvanian castle, Prince Mamuwalde awakens as Blacula in 1970s Los Angeles, where he seduces a young woman named Tina who looks exactly like his long-dead wife Luva.
Two messages of Blacula are pride and power. The actors and actresses in the movie have afros or other unprocessed hairstyles, which remains a political symbol that is celebrating black culture, and rejecting integration and assimilation. To Afro-Americans of the 70s, natural hair represented a reconstitutive link back to Central and West Africa, and we see this link in the film. During production, William Marshall who played Blacula had the producers Samuel Arkoff and Joseph Naar changed his character’s name from Andrew Brown of America to the Prince Mamuwalde of West Africa.
William Marshall as Blacula was surrounded by other high-profile actors. Both Blacula’s wife Luva and love interest Tina were played by Vonetta McGee (January 1945 – July 2010) who also starred in Hammer, Shaft in Africa, and several other blaxploitation films. The Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent played Lieutenant Jack Peters, who assists LAPD pathologist Dr. Gordon Thomas played by the actor Thalmus Rasulala. In the 1970s, Rasulala was a big deal. He was the son on the classic show Sanford and Son and – close your eyes to imagine and savor this next piece of showbiz history – Rasulala was the guest for an SNL episode in which Gil Scott-Heron performed and that was hosted by Richard Pryor. Whoooa! So know that when you’re watching Blacula, you are watching some of the most popular black celebrities of the 1970s.
Black pride and black artists are two aspects that make this film so immensely enjoyable to me as a black viewer. Until pioneered for the first time, like Crain did by creating the first black vampire, some folks laugh at the idea of portraying people of color in stories and movies that usually have all-white casts. It’s a cultural situation that viscerally pains me as a lifelong black cinephile. Because I love film so deeply, I sizzle inside with frustration at artists of color being frequently excluded from parts of the storytelling realm. So the scene toward the end of Blacula, when a group of black vampires emerge from dark corners of a factory, made me laugh out loud; not just from amusement at the bad acting (so bad that it was great) but also from relief and gratitude. Then when a white cop cannot shoot Blacula to his death, when instead Blacula kills the cop by pushing him over a ledge, we see and feel the black lives and power that we’re still fighting for now. Forget the other acronym, with Blacula it’s ACAD ‒ all cops are dinner. Long story short, when we are watching Blacula, black audiences from 1972 to now in 2020 will see ourselves included in the genre of horror that belongs to all of us. (Next up, can someone please produce an ethnically accurate American remake of Nakagawa’s Lady Vampire?)
Blacula is a B-horror movie with the low-budget schlock of blaxploitation, plus the social significance of a subgenre that attempts to reshape American race relations. (And we need that right now, especially after Tuesday night’s presidential debacle.) During the most memorable scenes, I found myself silently wishing I could watch this movie with Spike Lee, cracking up with that director and swapping commentary like “afro-american vampires in flare pants!” Blacula is a cult fave for infinite reasons. After watching it for the first time, this movie has become one of my Halloween favorites too.
My respect for the leadership at Music Box and ChiTown Movies Drive-In has doubled after their decision to kick off the MUSIC BOX OF HORRORS with Blacula over their inaugural weekend. Tonight Blacula is the first of a double feature, scheduled to start screening at 9:30. You should go to the drive in – because who doesn’t enjoy a drive in?! However, if you cannot make it tonight, or if you want to rewatch Blacula closer to Halloween, it also is available on Prime Video.
Blade 2 (Guillermo del Toro, 2002, 116 minutes)
Blade 2 is an action horror movie, and it’s amazing. It’s like The Matrix of vampire movies. Being a Marvel blockbuster, it presents a supernatural universe. The Blade Universe is about an international and political society of vampires, and in Blade 2 the audience’s focus is on the sophisticated Vampire Nation. The aesthetics of this world are hypnotic, and from the first second, Blade 2 is one of those films you can’t look away from – especially if it is your first time watching.
The lead actor is Wesley Snipes. In real life, Snipes has been a practitioner of martial arts since the age of 12, and he has a 5th degree black belt in Shotokan karate. In Blade 2, Snipes did his own stunts, and he was totally fantastic in all his fight scenes. His footwork is so fast and graceful that at some points it looks like Snipes is dancing with his combat partner. Snipes also co-produced Blade 2, with his production company Amen-Ra Films helping to make this movie.
Blade 2 was directed by Guillermo del Toro, who had been a special effects makeup artist, and this is one reason that Blade 2 is mesmerizing to watch: From Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) to The Shape of Water (2017), del Toro has transformed horror into visual poetry. He’s a filmmaker who practically creates special effect, without the use of CGI, by playing with light. One of del Toro’s signatures is warm amber lighting. He casts warm golden lights onto scenes where otherwise we would be too horrified to watch. Del Toro’s amber lighting relaxes viewers enough that we start sinking into a rather scary story, and del Toro does this throughout his filmography, also executing it expertly in Blade 2. While I have not always enjoyed the plots of del Toro’s movie ‒ e.g., the protagonist in Shape of Water would’ve never fallen in love with that sea creature; no woman in her right mind should ‒ I compartmentalize to appreciate the beauty he visually crafts.
In this sleek film, Blade’s mood is aloof, yet courageous when called to take action. Blade is a black man who is a half human, half vampire superhero and who is usually protecting humans, but in Blade 2 he is hired by the Vampire Nation to protect vampires. After agreeing to lead the Vampire Nation against a new enemy, Blade fearlessly moves amongst vampires but with distance and caution ‒ until he becomes physically intimate with one of the nosferatu, and then things become complicated… But I will stop here, so there aren’t spoilers. Basically, most of the time Blade remains a neutral superhero. Always keeping a straight face. Always cleanly winning fights. Always able to enter into alarming and fatal situations without a bead of sweat. It’s the highest possible level of cool, and it keeps audiences completely captivated.
BLACULA & BLADE 2
$40 per car / $35 Music Box Members
starting at 9:30pm on Friday, October 2nd
Chi-Town Movies Drive-In located at 2343 S Throop St, Chicago, IL 60608
Drive-in admittance begins 30 minutes prior to the films’ listed start time.