6.08.2011

On the anachronistic pleasures of exploitation film


An image from the wonderfully stylish credits sequence for Blacula (dir. William Crain, 1972), the blaxploitation cult hit in which an 18th-century African ambassador to Transylvania is enslaved by Count Dracula, who promptly turns him into a vampire.  Flash-forward two hundred years, when two gay interior decorators who have bought his castle (don’t ask) accidentally open Blacula’s coffin.  Blacula goes on a rampage and discovers what he believes is the reincarnation of his long-lost wife.  It’s pure cheese, but it was successful enough to spawn a sequel (Scream Blacula Scream, 1973, starring Pam Grier). 
To a large extent freed from the restraints of taste, broad appeal, or even believability, exploitation films like Blacula are endlessly fascinating.  Like underground film, they were created on the cultural fringe; the production values may be lower, but the overall effect is often more unique and idiosyncratic than their mainstream competitors.  Mainstream Hollywood had reached a kind of nadir in the early 1970s while exploitation film flourished.  You can see a bit of the energy and high-spiritedness of exploitation film in Blacula, which for all its cheapness and cliché effects is strangely charming.  The sheer good-natured attitude of the whole thing—its fresh-faced actors, the funky wocka-chicka score, a couple of soul music numbers thrown in for good measure—is somehow infectious.  The anachronistic details become intricate and puzzling errors rather than flaws; for example, the film is set in a movie-world that calls itself Transylvania but which resembles the U.S. in every way aside from its once having been Dracula’s stomping ground (one wonders why the film even bothers with the pretense of “Transylvania” in the first place).  In its mapping of black history onto the Dracula myth (Count Dracula turns into a slaveowner figure; we also get references to the Black Panthers, etc.), Blacula almost calls to mind the novels of African-American writer Pauline Hopkins, whose work (written in the early 1900s) blurred the boundaries between political fiction, historical fiction, and science fiction.  Even though gimmicks like these don’t always work, they provide resonances that can’t always be found in mainstream culture.  Exploitation film’s “mistakes” are often more interesting than Hollywood’s successes.  

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