Though zombies have dominated early 21st century monster tales, I think it’s fair to say the undisputed king of the genre remains the vampire. There have been dozens of films made just about the most famous bloodsucker of them all, Dracula, and that number could climb into the hundreds if you counted up every one that’s employed the basic vampire lore. You can find them in the cinema from Sweden to Korean and in just about every kind of motion picture from horror to teen romance to mockumentary.
This edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown is taking a look at vamp flick and what makes it tick by comparing what I believe is the first film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s defining novel with one of its more esoteric descendants. It’s “Nosferatu” (1922) vs. “Blacula” (1972) in a battle of undead clichés between the movie that started them and one recycling them.
"I'm good friends with John Shaft. His cousin, Eddie Stake? We do not get along."
With those sideburns, is he supposed to be Blacula or Black-verine?
Made in Germany, “Nosferatu” might actually qualify as not just the first Dracula movie but as the first genuinely Hollywood-style production because it’s a blatant rip off. The film steals its ideas, theme, and plot directly from the novel “Dracula” and simply changes the names of the characters to try and avoid paying Bram Stoker’s widow for the rights to the book. If someone tries to tell you there was ever any honor in the motion picture industry, remind them of “Nosferatu.”
Hutter (Gustav vaon Wangenheim) is a young man who leaves his transgender-ish young bride, Ellen (Greta Schroder) behind when he travels to Transylvania to sell some property to the mysterious Count Orlok (Max Schreck). Looking more like some kind of were-weasel than a stereotypical movie vampire, Orlok snacks a little on Hutter and becomes entranced by a photo of Ellen. The Count sets sails for Germany while Hutter, after recovering from his bloodletting, follows by land. The trail of bodies that follows in Orlok’s wake is chalked up to the plague and is stopped only when Ellen sacrifices herself to keep Orlok from getting back to his coffin before dawn.
If you look up anything about “Nosferatu” online, you’re likely going to encounter nothing but rave reviews about the film and its influence and if you are a big fan of cinema history, there is some worth to watching it. The techniques utilized by director F.W. Murnau with the primitive equipment available to him did inspire generations of filmmakers. He did things that cinematic storytellers almost a hundred years later are mimicking. But as a piece of entertainment? “Nosferatu” is flatly unwatchable. It still has artistic merit in the same way crude cave drawings do, but it’s about as enjoyable as driving a Model T Ford on a modern highway with a 75 mile per hour speed limit. From the pantomime mugging of silent movie acting to the absolutely interminable travel montage in the middle of the film to supposedly major characters being rendered completely superfluous for the last 75% of the movie, it’s an authentic chore to get through.
This isn’t like the now-centuries old plays of William Shakespeare which are filled with language undecipherable to modern ears but remain structurally and thematically brilliant stories of human strength and weakness. “Nosferatu” simply stinks with paper-thin characters both under and over acted and one scene after another after another that turn out to be entirely pointless. The only fun to be had is making fun of the movie itself, like Count Orlok carrying his coffin around like the world’s largest man purse. Watching this film can be educational but only in the driest, dustiest, and dullest sense of the word.
None of those same adjectives can be applied to “Blacula,” a legitimately goofy product of the Blaxsploitation era in Hollywood. Made in and around the early 70s and aimed at an “urban” (aka black) audience, Blaxsploitation flicks were often poorly or cheaply made movies that gained electrifying power by featuring African-American casts telling stories relevant to the African-American experience, something that’s sadly only slightly more commonplace today. I’m not sure “relevant” is a term to be applied to “Blacula” but it was definitely an effort to expand black participation into previously lily white genres.
In 1790, an African prince named Mamuwalde (William Marshall) and his wife (Vonetta McGee) are sent by their tribe to Europe to rally support for ending the slave trade. Unfortunately, their first stop is in Transylvania where Count Dracula turns out to not only be an unholy monster who feasts on the blood of the living but really, really, really racist. He transforms Mamuwalde into a vampire and locks him away in a coffin to be tormented by bloodthirst for all enternity, which turns out to last until 1972 when a couple of homosexual art dealers buy the contents of Dracula’s castle and ship them back to Los Angeles.
Mamuwalde is freed from his coffin, slakes his thirst on the art dealers and then encounters Tina (Vonetta McGee), a woman who appears to be his lost love reborn. As a somewhat nebulously defined scientific researcher named Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) first detects and then investigates the spread of vampirism in LA, Mamuwalde tries to persuade Tina to reunite with him and take on his dark existence. After some savage vampire attacks and some nightclub scenes that demonstrate yet again that not all black people have rhythm, Dr. Thomas leads the police into an underground chemical plant to try and save Tina while ending the vampire threat once and for all.
To start with…yes, people in 1972 thought naming a movie about a black vampire “Blacula” was clever. No, I’m not old enough to understand it. Like a lot of stuff in the 60s and 70s, you just had to be there.
As a movie, “Blacula” was cheaply made with not only bad special effects but an opening scene in Dracula’s castle where the sound is atrocious. The dialog echoes like the actors are yelling from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It’s the only thing that links “Nosferatu” and “Blacula.” They were made at times when technological or financial limitations could hugely affect what you saw and heard on the silver screen. 21st century filmmakers so commonly produce works of technical perfection that it’s honestly shocking when a movie doesn’t look a sound effortless great, like “Justice League” (2017).
But like a lot of Blaxsploitation flicks, “Blacula” exceeds its low-budget origins to become surprisingly engaging. Whatever their weaknesses, these movies have a palpable energy and enthusiasm generated by African-Americans getting the chance to do things in motion pictures they not only hadn’t done before but weren’t sure they’d ever be able to do. Black men and women got opportunities both in front of the camera and behind it that they never dreamed possible when they were kids. Even when their scripts, sets, and casts were deficient, Blaxsploitation flicks communicated an undeniable sense of excitement to viewers.
That gets supplemented in “Blacula” by William Marshall truly acting the hell out of the role of Mamuwalde, a couple of legitimately arresting vamp attacks, a script that’s smart enough to get the police involved in fighting the vampires, and generally solid and engaging performances all around. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t some sort of masterpiece of American cinema. It’s a monster movie more suitable to drive-in theaters than academic analysis but “Blacula” can still be enjoyed decades later in a mostly non-ironic way.
Watching both of these films also illustrates the common cliché that has helped elevate the vampire above his creature feature competitors. Both “Nosferatu” and “Blacula” have their bloodsuckers consumed with love/predatory lust for a woman. The concept of the centuries-old vampire meeting/pursuing a woman who looks like a long lost love has been something that creates a narrative depth difficult to replicate with other monsters. It’s hard to imbue a sexual/romantic dimension to a story about a werewolf or Frankenstein without getting very disturbing, very quickly. And it is that “lost love” aspect to the vampire that makes the concept intriguing/accessible to audiences who wouldn’t otherwise be that interested in undead freaks.
“Blacula” takes this Throwdown, despite the mountain of praise cinephiles have heaped on “Nosferatu.” I’m not saying that praise is undeserved but unless you’re looking for a homework assignment, “Blacula” is the way go.
Written by Henrik Galeen doing the Cliff’s Notes version of Bram Stoker.
Directed by F. W. Murnau.
Starring Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schroder, Ruth Landshoff, Gustav Botz, Alexander Granach, and John Gottowt.
Written by Joan Torres and Raymond Koenig.
Directed by William Crain.
Starring William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Thalmus Rasulala, Denise Nicholas, Gordon Pinsent, Charles Macaulay, Emily Yancy, Lance Taylor Sr., Ted Harris, Rick Metzler, Ji-Tu Cumbuka, Logan Field, Ketty Lester and Elisha Cook Jr.