horror

Blacula is Beautiful

His two films, 1972’s Blacula and 1973’s Scream Blacula Scream, may be rushed and low budget, but you will never find a better vampire, nay, a better Dracula than William Marshall’s  tragic Prince Mamuwalde, or, if you like, Blacula. And when I say better, I mean it comprehensively. Mamuwalde is the entire undead package: charming, passionate, lovelorn, conflicted, frightening. But he’s also moral, noble, and resolute, rarely ceding his sense of self to the bloodlust than defines vampirism, and never seeking a vampire’s typical aims as his own. Vampires are a truly international monster, but the vast majority still turn out to be white guys who can’t take no for an answer. The ways we rationalize these handsome predators keys into sexual and social inequities society also chooses to rationalize. But you don’t have to rationalize much with Mamuwalde. For all the romanticized predation of his forebears, from Dracula to Lord Ruthven to Carmilla, Mamuwalde was possibly the first dracula to deserve our sympathy, the first, and still one of the rare few, who doesn’t compulsively abuse love.

 

We can thank William Marshall for Mamuwalde’s success. With Shakesperean gravitas, imposing handsomeness, and a spellbinding baritone, he was the perfect choice for a conflicted creature of the night, but he did more than just bring the character to life. In the first drafts, Prince Mamuwalde was Andrew Brown, a seeming reference to the old Amos n’ Andy show, a popular radio and early television sitcom which featured white performers as the titular black duo and rooted its humor in broad racial stereotypes. Marshall proposed a different backstory entirely, where Mamuwalde and his cherished wife Luva entreat Count Dracula for his help in shutting down the transatlantic slave trade. This goes terribly, predictably awry, with Mamuwalde overpowered by the vampire’s minions and Dracula, apparently a lover of puns as well as a slavery enthusiast, sealing his newly-sired Blacula in a coffin, helpless Luva trapped with it in a secret vault. She’ll starve to death as Mamuwalde starves for her blood from inside the locked coffin. Now that’s a tragic backstory. Moreover, Marshall’s idea emphasizes the virtuous qualities of Mamuwalde that can’t be effaced by his emergence as a fully-realized vampire in 1970s Los Angeles. Producers were resistant; in this interview, Marshall implies they weren’t very interested in making Blacula, you know, good, in any sense. But thankfully, he won the day, and if he hadn’t, Mamuwalde might be as forgettable as, well, Andrew Brown.

Neither Blacula nor its sequel Scream, Blacula, Scream are exactly good in the sense of rich or consistent storytelling, and it’s a testament to the performances of Marshall and his costars – particularly Thalmus Rasulala and Don Mitchell as his human nemeses and Pam Grier as his Scream Blacula Scream love interest – that everything works as well as it does. They bring depth to the screen that clearly isn’t in either the script or the budget. That brevity and pace can be refreshing though. We’re spared hackneyed, humanizing sequences like watching Mamuwalde learn the ropes of his new vampiric nature or cope with being vaulted ahead in time a couple hundred years. Ain’t nobody got time for that.  Vampires tend to be the most self-pitying and languid of monsters, but the pace of the films refuses any such introspective indulgence. The subtext of scenes, like Mamuwalde’s powerfully homoerotic first chomps in both movies and Scream Blacula Scream’s penultimate voodoo ritual that is basically a sex scene, I’m sorry, stand without comment or reflection. And you know what? They don’t need any.

Marshall doesn’t play his character as a vampire that was once an African prince. He plays an African prince who is, at the moment, cursed to be a vampire, and it’s frankly impossible to imagine it working any other way. In the first film, after starving in that coffin tomb for hundreds of years, Mamuwalde is finally released when two interior decorators buy Castle Dracula and prepare to sell its contents on the antiques market. He feasts on the pair in the desperate frenzy of a vampire whose entire existence has been hunger. But before he can commit to that hunger, he spies Vonetta McGee’s gorgeously contemporary Gothic heroine Tina among the mourners for one of his victims. Tina is a dead ringer for Luva, and from that point on, Mamuwalde’s only objective is to reunite with his lost love, a favorite preoccupation of immortal monsters that also anticipated Francis Ford Coppola’s romanticized Dracula. It’s not a stretch to say Coppola’s Dracula is actually more Blacula than Stoker, though I like Mamuwalde much better than Gary Oldman in shaded lenses. He woos Tina while breakfasting only on those who would get between them; maybe I’m rationalizing now but Mamuwalde is a fairly reactive vampire, only chomping when either provoked or needing to eliminate a threat. He doesn’t want to turn Tina, of course, and when he is forced to do to avoid losing her to a stray bullet, he grieves. When he ultimately loses even vamped out Tina, the devastated widower prince destroys himself with sunlight, his will to die on his own terms stronger than a monster’s will to survive.

 

In Scream, Blacula, Scream, Mamuwalde is brought back to life through a ritual by the son of a voodoo priestess (Richard Lawson) who is furious his mother didn’t name him as her successor. He imagines the vampire will be his instrument of revenge. Instead, Mamuwalde vamps him into his own thrall, making Blacula’s commentary on slavery more complicated, and insinuates himself into the son’s coterie of African artifact-collecting, voodoo-slinging friends. Soon, Mamuwalde finds a special affinity for Lisa (Pam Grier), the inheritor of the voodoo priestess’ mantle. While they share romantic fascination with each other, Mamuwalde particularly treasures Lisa for her power to make him human again, and in revealing his nature, this is all he asks of her, despite the fact he’s pretty good at being a head vampire and doesn’t seem to have a post-dracula retirement plan. It’s only when Mamuwalde goes too far to secure his hold on Lisa that the voodoo priestess turns on him – a decision that makes little sense given that he wants the dracula powers that present such a threat removed from him. In another film, Mamuwalde’s request of Lisa might be the heroes’ Plan A instead. Chalk it up to tragedy.

Really, neither film would need to end badly or with much of a body count except humans keep getting up in Mamuwalde’s business because of what they think he is, or what he could be, not what he actually is. His human opponents are too well-drawn to despise, but I find it impossible to root against Mamuwalde. His self-possession makes the rare eclipses of Mamuwalde by Blacula more urgent, as the prince steadfastly overshadows the vampire within. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that Mamuwalde would be distinctly noble among vampires though. It’s true to the point of being a punchline that black men are expected to be supernaturally restrained not to get shot in situations where a white dude would be safe to make an open-carrying ass out of himself. Why not the same rules for monsters of color? Mamuwalde’s not good exactly, particularly in Scream Blacula Scream, but he is always trying to be. That the world keeps making him be a monster by expecting him to be a monster is his true curse. It’s reminiscent of 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, where Ben (Duane Jones), a black hero in an era and a genre where black heroes didn’t happen, survives a night of crazy white people and zombies just to be mistaken for a zombie and shot in the head by the cavalry in the film’s final moments. It also makes Mamuwalde’s ultimate embracement of being Blacula after Lisa’s rejection at the end of Scream Blacula Scream  the most heart-sinking beat in a life and unlife punctuated with injustice.

As a southern white ladyperson, old enough to have cherished a Dukes of Hazzard TV tray as a kid and napped on a confederate flag beach towel in elementary school, in a country where white supremacy is the background radiation that turns people’s souls into characters from The Hills Have Eyes and still thrives as viciously as the kudzu*, there is something in Prince Mamuwalde, and his significance as a principal, Romantic, romantic vampire protagonist I know I can only appreciate on paper. I might glimpse it a little in the vindication I feel when someone is smart in a southern drawl, but any stamp of calumny a southern white person feels owing to associations of dimwittedness, poverty, and truculence has nothing on the persistence of prejudice against melanin and the extremity to which same is executed, sometimes literally.  (And besides, with no self-hatred implied, I have to admit the southern white stereotypes can be strenuously earned.) What I do fully appreciate is Mamuwalde is uniquely tragic among screen vampires, a group that never lacks for tragedy. It makes me angry then that he’s partitioned off, segregated if you like, almost as an afterthought in the canon of screen draculas: Oh, and there’s the black Dracula. Of course it’s important that he’s a dracula of color. That’s an important part of why he is so wonderful. He also happens to be the most worthy dracula, and an average movie watcher, without a yen to visit the Blaxpolitation subgenre, might never see him. That’s another grade of tragedy because right now, Mamuwalde is the dracula we need. I’m not sure he will ever be the dracula we deserve.

 

 

*The process of killing kudzu by finding the root crown is actually a lot like hunting the head vampire.

~~~

Angela would much prefer to spend several hundred pages with Mamuwalde and Willis than Lestat and Louis.

1 reply »

  1. Yes, yes, yes! I’ll always love Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee (and even Frank Langella), but Mamuwalde brings the vampire into a whole different dimension. I wish he were better known and appreciated. Thanks for this piece.

    Like

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