1972's Blacula gave birth to the horror subgenre of the blaxploitation genre. Its title probably turns more people away than draws them in, as it's hard to believe a film with such a campy, race-infused title could be any good (and might well be offensive). Blacula, however, is not only a surprisingly good, somewhat serious film - it also works quite well as a horror movie. It essentially follows the traditional mode of the Dracula story, and William Marshall succeeds in evoking the dual persona of the vampire as a creature to be both pitied and feared. Blacula features some wonderful lines of dialogue that we will never hear again in the politically correct modern world, but for all its focus on African-American players in the drama, the racial element of the film is unimportant to the story itself - which, I suppose, was the whole point of the blaxploitation movement.
I have no idea why Prince Mumawalde thought Count Dracula an important diplomat who could use his influence to stop the slave trade, but he did - and he was quite wrong. Dracula got so riled up that he cursed the African prince with both his name and affliction, dubbing him Blacula and locking him away inside a coffin so that he would endlessly hunger for the human blood he could never possibly attain. There he lay for two centuries until a pair of exceedingly gay antique dealers bought Dracula's castle and threw a veritable hissy fit over the wonderfully ornate coffin they found in a secret room. It's not hard to guess what happens when they return to America with their newly-acquired antique wares - there are soon two less outrageously gay men in the world. Blacula then gets his first look at the new world around him - and almost immediately encounters a woman who is the spitting image of his beloved bride. With Tina (Vonetta McGee) as our Mina, all we need is a Van Helsing character, and he soon emerges in the form of Tina's sister's main squeeze Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala, who is perhaps most familiar as Raj's father on What's Happening!!!). With a number of corpses turning up with holes in their necks and then disappearing altogether, Gordon comes to believe that a vampire is on the loose. These characters aren't too hard to convince; when Mumawalde tells Tina his true story, she reacts to the words slave trade but doesn't bat an eyelash over Mumawalde's claim that he was turned into a vampire by Dracula two hundreds year earlier. The final confrontation, which you know is coming, plays out rather well, with Marshall bringing his Shakespearean training to bear in order to give the scene a serious quality that it would probably have lacked otherwise.
Blacula is far from perfect in conception and execution, providing a number of really funny scenes and lines of dialogue. My favorite moment comes early on, when one of Dracula's henchmen conks Mumawalde over the head with a pot or something - he obviously throws it across the room, coming closer to hitting a member of the production crew than Mumawalde himself. Then there are the oil lamps that spontaneously combust, of course. The whole film is just a little too outrageous to take completely seriously, but the depth and probity of Marshall's performance maintains an aura of respectability, some of the vampire scenes are somewhat eerie (although there's a woeful lack of blood each time some vampire puts the bite on another victim), and the ending achieves a poignancy that rises far above the blaxploitation origins of the film. As a pretty decent horror movie as well as a blaxploitation classic, Blacula really is a must-see.