Transylvania, 1780: African prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) and his wife, Luva (Vonetta McGee), pay a visit to Count Dracula in a bid to entice him to help put an end to the slave trade, but the pair are apparently unaware that their host is the infamous lord of vampires and things predictably turn out quite badly for them. As the Count proclaims his lust for Luva's fine chocolate beauty while also refusing to his aid against slavery, Mamuwalde is cursed by Dracula to become a ravening vampire who will forevermore be known as "Blacula," thus arrogantly robbing the prince of his name along with his humanity.
"...And not only do I curse you for eternity with vampirism, I also rename you after myself, so you are now 'Blacula!' Fuck you, nigger!!! Haw-Haw!!!" (NOTE: This is basically what actually happens.)
While his wife is taken prisoner to presumably become one of the Count's undead brides, Mamuwalde is sealed inside a coffin for nearly 200 years — during which time his wife dies and Count Dracula meets his end in a much more well-known story — only to find the coffin (and thus himself) sold as part of an estate sale that lands his prison in Los Angeles of 1972. Once the coffin is opened, Blacula wastes zero time and launches upon a spree of murder that results in a wave of ancillary undead suckfaces that comes to the attention of the local authorities, who slowly, unbelievingly come to realize that vampires are not merely a legend. As the vampire population explodes, Mamuwalde encounters Tina Williams (Vonetta McGee again), a ringer for his dead wife, so he figures it's a case of reincarnation and sets about trying to win her affections. As the 20th century collides head-on with European nosferatu tropes as flavored with blaxploitation badassery, will it all end well for any of those involved?
It all sure as hell ended well for American International Pictures, which wound up with one of the highest grossing films of 1972. Unlikely as it may have seemed, BLACULA was pretty much destined to be a hit thanks to being the right kind of movie at the right time, plus it was a much better than average example of the early blaxploitation wave. It had a good script, solid direction from William Crain (who was only 24 when the film was released), and, the true key to its success, the indelible performance of William Marshall in the title role. Marshall was simultaneously regal, sinister and terrifying, and downright sympathetic in Mamuwalde's non-sanguinary moments. His classy bearing lent Mamuwalde the perfect Shakespearean gravitas that served as an intriguing counterpoint to the era's funky tropes and SOUL TRAIN aesthetic. Though his widow's peak Afro and stylish cape may have suggested "the Mack meets Barnabas Collins," Blacula was an aristocratic stone-cold monster to the bone and, finally, a lord of the undead that black kids could portray on Halloween without having to resort to pancake foundation.
William Marshall as Mamuwalde, giving new meaning to the term "Lord of Darkness."
I was only seven when BLACULA opened and I remember myself and my family being highly amused by the idea and name. "Blacula" sounded like a character that Flip Wilson or Richard Pryor would have come up with, a comedic template upon which to hang gags like the vampire being warded off by brandishing a Pat Boone LP at him or having him sucking life-sustaining fluids from watermelons with his fangs, but the filmmakers instead wisely chose to eschew such obvious silliness (though Pryor could have worked magic with it, and kind of did with his later standup bit about Dracula) and instead brought the audience a new take on the vampire. It's not easy to pull off the gothic appeal of the vampire in a modern setting but BLACULA (and its exceptional made-for-TV contemporary, THE NIGHT STALKER) did it to quality effect that holds up quite well and was followed a year later by SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM, but that's a subject for another day...
Poster from the original theatrical release.