Thursday, October 29, 2009

Vamps, Camp, And A Bit Of A Scamp

The most famous mixture of horror and blaxploitation benefits heavily from a catchy title and William Marshall’s marvelous, dignified performance as 18th-century African prince Mamuwalde. American International released BLACULA to enthusiastic crowds in 1972.

150 years after he was cursed by Count Dracula (Charles Macauley) and imprisoned in the Count’s catacombs, two stereotypically swishy interior decorators inadvertently bring Mamuwalde to Los Angeles and free him from his coffin. Between neck-bitings and frantic chase scenes, Mamuwalde meets the reincarnation of his long-dead wife (Vonetta McGee in a dual role), transforms into an (animated) bat, and is successfully stalked by suave scientist Thalmus Rasulala and skeptical cop Gordon Pinsent.

William Crain was extremely young when he directed BLACULA and certainly one of the few black directors working in the horror genre. His inexperience shows in the pacing and some clunky camera placements, but he really got a huge break from Marshall, who dominates the picture with his regal bearing and sympathetic performance. Likewise, the handsome Rasulala is a formidable foe, and I think it’s an interesting touch that his character catches on to the reality of a real live vampire stalking L.A. long before most movie heroes would in the same situation.

AIP made good coin with this low-budget meller that spawned a sequel, SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM, a year later and inspired imitators like BLACKENSTEIN and DR. BLACK AND MR. HYDE. Ketty Lester, Elisha Cook Jr. (as a coroner with a hook hand), and Ji-Tu Cumbuka (as a character named Big Skillet!) also star. Gene Page composed the funky score, and the Hues Corporation (which later went to #1 with “Rock the Boat”) perform.

Leave it to Hammer, which became internationally famous for its Christopher Lee Dracula pictures, and Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers to produce the world’s first kung-fu vampire flick, THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES, in 1973.

When it finally came to the U.S. six years later, Dynamite Entertainment cut it to shreds, keeping all the sex and violence, but leaving the story nigh incomprehensible, and saddling it with the campy title THE SEVEN BROTHERS MEET DRACULA. While some of the early dialogue scenes are real slogs to sit through, this enjoyably sleazy horror film deserved a better fate.

In 1908, Professor Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) teams up with his fey son (Robin Stewart), a Scandinavian beauty (Julie Ege), a cute Chinese girl (Shih Szu), and seven badass kung fu fighters to save a Chinese village from being ravaged by skull-faced vamps being led by Count Dracula (a dubbed John Forbes-Robertson landed the part when Christopher Lee said no).

The makeup on the Chinese-descended hopping vampires is impressively creepy, and scenes of these moldy beasts draining the blood from nude women into a boiling cauldron are impressive. So are the various fight scenes staged not by veteran director Baker, but stuntmen Chia Tang and Chia-Liang Liu. Don Houghton’s plot is difficult to follow, due to some turgid exposition, but if you’re patient, the movie really pays off (though the final battle between Van Helsing and Dracula is unconscionably anti-climactic).

By the time 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES was released, Hammer’s style of Gothic horror was passé, and even the addition of then-trendy martial arts action wasn’t enough to lure audiences. The movie died on both sides of the Atlantic, and we had to wait until 1992’s BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER for another kung fu vampire flick.


Robert said...

BLACULA is blessed with interesting actors throughout its cast, and it really does help elevate the production. William Marshall obviously dominates, but Vonetta McGee, Thalmus Rasulala, Denise Nicholas and Gordon Pinsent are all terrific. Charles Macaulay makes a fine Dracula, so much so that I wish he was given his own film to run with.

It may be PG rated but there were at least two good scares that still work magic on me: the grave digging sequence with Rasulala & Nicholas, and Ketty Lester's frenzied assault on Elisha Cook Jr. You know it's coming but it still manages to be creepy.

When Bob Kelljan directed the sequel he brought his own particular style of filming vampire attacks to the table; there is a YORGA influence visible in SCREAM,BLACULA, SCREAM.

Booksteve said...

THE SEVEN BROTHERS MEET DRACULA always makes me think of Russ Tamblyn and all those athletic chorus boys in that other movie looking for seven brides.