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William Marshall, a Shakespearean actor with a rich baritone voice, enriches this otherwise bland blaxploitation vampire film with his strong, seductive performance. He's Manuwalde, a European-educated 18th-century African prince who appeals to the Count Dracula for help in ending the slave trade. Dracula, never known as a great emancipator, puts the bite on Manuwalde's troubles, dubs him "Blacula" (the only time the name is uttered in the film), and imprisons him in a casket. Stirred to life, so to speak, centuries later in Los Angeles by gay antique hunters, he steps into the soulful '70s and splits his energies between feeding his bloodlust and wooing a young beauty (Vonetta McGee), a dead ringer for his long-dead wife. Thalmus Rasulala (Friday Foster) is a modern medical professor turned urban Van Helsing, and Elisha Cook Jr. has a bit part as a coroner with a hook for a hand. The potential for a clever urban black twist on the European vampire myth is lost in this dull, thoroughly conventional tale. Marshall is under enough sloppily applied facial hair to make him a wolfman, and his victims walk around with a plastic blue pallor. But despite the limitations, Marshall creates a magnetic, aristocratic character and infuses his monster with a sense of loss and sadness in the climax. It was followed by a sequel, Scream, Blacula, Scream, and inspired Blackenstein. For a more interesting and thoughtful African American take on the vampire legend, look to Ganja and Hess. --Sean Axmaker
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