Archive | March, 2012

Blacula is a groovy cult classic, but pretty conventional too

24 Mar

 

Blacula, 1972

Directed by William Crain

Starring William Marshall, Gordon Pinsent, Thalmus Rasulala, Vonetta McGee, and Denise Nicholas

Blacula was released in 1972 to mixed reviews but ended up as one of the top grossing films that year with over a million dollars in ticket sales. It also launched a subgenre within the blaxploitation genre — the blaxploitation horror film.

The film’s trailer gives a somewhat distorted impression of the film. It opens with a good looking but hairy Blacula (he sprouts extra facial hair when he turns into a vampire) laughing as cops fire bullets into him at point-blank range or attack him in other ways. He then dispatches them with glee. One would initially have the impression that the film was about an invincible, bulletproof African-American dude who goes around in a cape knocking off agro cops.

The trailer no doubt helped draw an African-American audience, as did some posters with references to slavery. The fact that the film had rhythm and blues music on the soundtrack and even had an extended pop/soul musical number in a nightclub featuring a group called The Hues Corporation helped too. (This film gave the fledgling band, which contributed three songs to the soundtrack, its first big break. They were soon signed with a major label, RCA Records, and eventually had a 2-million selling single in 1974 called “Rock the Boat.”) Overall, it’s a pretty cool film — kind of an early 70s offbeat romp (at times) that starred a handsome Shakespearean actor with a baritone voice and a winning manner — plus the film featured some very beautiful women in leading roles.

The story begins when the man who soon becomes Blacula runs into Dracula while in Europe protesting slavery. He’s a very good and noble African prince, and wants to end slavery. This was in 1780. For some reason he complained about slavery to Dracula, who bit him and made him into a vampire.

A few centuries later Blacula is shipped in his coffin to America following an estate sale. The new owners of the coffin where Blacula is sleeping are two gay dudes (one white and one African-American). They’re bitten by Blackula in the warehouse where they are storing their goodies from the estate sale. The two gay guys become active as vampires over a matter of days. (Later in the film it only takes a few minutes after being bitten to grow fangs and become thirsty for blood.)

An African-American cop investigates. The police investigation into the rising number of strange deaths and the fact that there are vampires popping up in Los Angeles is handled well. It seems like a respectful TV cop series. However, unlike high-budget TV cop shows, the police station and props here are pretty tacky and low-budget. This film was financed by Sam Arkoff and American International Pictures —  an outfit known for keeping costs low and offering thrilling exploitation fare to a teen and young-adult audience. (It’s interesting to note that in the same year that Blacula came out, Arkoff was also helped produce Scorcese’s low-budget film Boxcar Bertha.)

The director of Blacula, an African-American guy named William Crain, was born in 1949 and was a graduate of UCLA’s film school. He had some directed episodes of Mod Squad so he was already comfortable doing cop dramas. He cast the film himself and some of the lead actors had also worked in the medium Crain had done his directing apprenticeship in — television.

The cool thing is that virtually every key player in the film is an African-American. The down side of this is that, being a genre film, all the characters are more or less mirroring conventional roles played by white and black people in everyday society. No one is really trying to break out of the norms of the society of the time. In this way it’s a very conservative film.

One could almost make the case that the film is about the need to conform and be “normal.” Anyone who seeks an alternative to conventional social behavior and does something too freaky — like turning into a crazy vampire — will be destroyed. At the end of the film, during a climactic battle in the warehouse where Blacula has been living in what seems to be some sort of vampire commune, lots of hippy-like vampires (mostly African-American) emerge from the shadows and a great battle ensues with the three cops who have gone there. Other than fangs and pale skin, the group appears more like a bunch of counterculture types than vampires.

Thus Blackula is, in some sense, a crime film about threats to social order and its restoration — those who break the social codes are destroyed and society is able to return to “normal” by the end of the film.

Is that good? In 1972 many people were hoping to find an alternative to the “normal” set of values that had led America into a war in Vietnam and into ecological disasters of various kinds. Could there be a “hip” Blackula who somehow rages against the problems of society and sees himself as a persecuted outcast? Crain did break through with a classic horror film featuring African Americans — and that is, in itself, a challenge to the norms of society. Yet the narrative structure and basic elements of the film echoed mainstream films.

Is fact that this film both offered some new thrills as well as challenges to social conventions — but was at the same time very conventional in many ways — part of why it did so well at the box office? While it definitely had an appeal for an African-American audience, it was, to an extent, tapping into collective concerns and fears that many were feeling in mainstream American society. The rise of horror films at this time can be seen as a reaction to the upheaval and social unrest of the sixties and early seventies. At some level people who viewed themselves as normal felt threatened and had the sense that some almost demonic “other” was invading the society or taking over. (The reaction might be against the strange hippies and ideas about their cults or alternative religious practices, or the suddenly more visible and politically active African Americans, or feminst challenges by women, or some other group seen as threatening to the status quo.) Films like The Exorcist reflected this fear. What’s interesting about Blacula is that in some sense it played on this fear — after all, a sexy African-American vampire is running around causing a degree of social mayhem. In posters for the film, we see him biting the neck of a woman who looks white, even though in the film this never happens — his victims are mostly African-American. Did the film tap into some fear of an emerging African-America energy and power? Probably so — but it also functioned to quell those fears by having the story end with order restored.

Crain went on to direct another blaxploitation horror film called Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde, released in 1976. He directed more TV shows and a few films. Then, about twenty years ago, he dropped out of the film and television business because, as he said in an interview for mondo-video.com, he wanted to write fiction and give living like Hemingway a try (traveling and writing). He also said that he got tired of the Hollywood hustle — that is, “beating the bushes” for jobs. It sort of “wore me out” as he said in an interview for mondo-video.com. He had family concerns that he was engaged with as well. The last time he directed a film was in 1992. It’s called Midnight Fear and starred David Carradine as an alcoholic sheriff who’s investigating the horrible murder of a woman who was skinned. (Tarantino has said this is one of his favorite Carradine films and one of the reasons he wanted Carradine for Kill Bill.) For a great interview with Crain, see:
http://www.mondo-video.com/william-crain-interview

The Blackula series continued with Scream, Blacula, Scream, also starring William Marshall, released in 1973.

Two notably cool blaxploitation horror films, both of which go a lot more over the top than this one, are J.D.’s Revenge (1976), and Petey Wheatstraw — The Devil’s Son-In-Law (1977). Both are very entertaining and fun to watch and no doubt owe a debt to Blackula for establishing a new subgenre, the African-American horror film.

Cherry 2000 shines as a comedy at times but isn’t quite a cult classic

16 Mar

Image

Cherry 2000, 1987

Director: Steve De Jarnatt

Starring Melanie Griffith and David Andrews

Cool, right — Melanie Griffith as a bounty hunter in a Mad-Max future world!!

Surely cheesy, sexy fun — perhaps in a campy, good-bad way. Well, it’s not quite as cool as that but the film has a comedic quality that I wish had been played up much, much more. I bet the people at Orion Pictures felt that way too when they saw the finished film upon completion in December, 1985. It oddly combined various genres and they had no idea how to promote it. It was part comedy, part post-apocalyptic action film, part sci-fi film.

Oddly enough for what sometimes seems like a Mad-Max actioner, the sequences that are the most vital and entertaining are the comedic sequences. The most disappointing aspect is the fact that Melanie Griffith, who delivers such a fun and excellent performance in Something Wild (1986), seems uninterested in the character she’s playing and turns in fairly bland and almost robotic performance.

That’s ironic because the film is, in part, about female robots. Someone forgot to tell Melanie that she was a human, not a robot. That’s not quite fair, but compared to her portrayal of frisky Lulu in Something Wild, she seems like a robot. As a female bounty hunter she’s supposed to be an expert at fighting off bad dudes out in the wasteland, yet even in what should be the most tense situations, she has a sort of vacant, robotic disinterest in the proceedings. I assume that she just couldn’t get into being a tough action hero type. In contrast, Sigorney Weaver is convincingly tough and sexy and redefined female action characters with her portrayal of Ripley in the Alien films of the same era. (Alien was released in 1979, and Aliens in 1986, and there were more to follow.)  Cherry 2000 touches on feminist issues about autonomy and freedom and gender roles, but doesn’t redraw any gender lines nor does it provide a distinct and interesting new icon — a female Mad Max or a female equivalent of the Man With No Name in the Leone films.

The event that sets the story in motion takes place at the opening of the film when Sam Treadwell, a businessman living in the year 2017, comes home to his loving Stepford-wife robot, Cherry. He’s crazy about her and they begin smooching on the kitchen floor as suds overflows from the dishwasher onto the floor and then, tragically for Treadwell, the wet soap seeps into Cherry and shorts out her circuitry. His goal from then on is to find a replacement Cherry, but her model is no longer available since she’s a limited edition. However, out in the ruined landscape that much of America has become, there is a warehouse/factory that holds many female robots. If he can survive the journey and find the place, he might be able to locate a new Cherry. Treadwell goes into the wasteland and hires legendary bounty hunter E. Johnson — a woman! (The “e” is for Edith.) Soon the film is a buddy film / romance / action film with Treadwell and Johnson facing many challenges and battles.

Will Treadwell realize that a real human like Griffith is far better as a lover/companion than a robot?

Will they survive in the dangerous Mad Max wasteland?

Will viewers stay with the film through generic-feeling and rather lifeless action sequences?

The film cost 10 million dollars to make and earned 14 thousand at the box office. Of course part of the problem with it making box office dinero is that the film came out as a direct-to-video film in 1988 instead of getting a real theatrical release. The film is listed as a 1987 film — perhaps it was shown in a few theaters in late 1987.

The part of the film that is most fun is when Treadwell begins his quest and goes to a small town in the desert and encounters the oddballs living there. His beloved Cherry is lifelessly lying in his bed back in LA, her inner circuits fried, as he heads out to the town of Glory Hole where old cowboy farts sit around whittling sticks on porches and everyone is strange. Someone was having fun with this — was the director behind all this? De Jarnatt went on to direct mostly mainstream TV shows — not the work of a man with quirky sensibilities. I suspect the charm of Glory Hole was more the result of the collaborative effort by all involved with the film than the director’s vision.

I love the sequence where he goes into the Sinker bar, a place full of offbeat weirdos in all kinds of funny/cool semi-cowboy clothing. They all stop talking and someone asks where Treadwell is from. When he replies with “Anaheim,” all laugh excitedly and stupidly. (Another joke, perhaps, since Disneyland is in Anaheim? Or are they amused that he’s from Orange County?) Everyone in the place is laughing and it just doesn’t make much sense and thus it’s wonderful. I wish the whole film had been more like that! I wish it had been pushed a little bit more over the edge. It does have an offbeat feeling throughout, but needs more to work purely as a satire and comedy. Perhaps when the movie begins, Cherry could’ve greeted him at the door after doing a series of amazing flips just like the ones that the replicant called Pris played by Darryl Hannah in Bladerunner (1982) did.

Speaking of Bladerunner, one of the colorful and weird characters in the Sinker bar, a conman/thief, is played by Brion James, a replicant in Bladerunner called Leon. He’s the one who says “Wake up! Time to die!” to Deckard as they fight it out on the rainy streets of a decaying LA in the future. What a great quotation — a sort of Zen admonition.

If only Cherry 2000 had lines like that!

Instead we get Griffith saying in a sort of little-girl voice with no affect as they prepare for another dangerous action sequence, “We’re going down the tube in two minutes. Be careful up there.”

Then suddenly there’s a shootout and Treadwell appears in a new location in new clothes and it’s day, not night. He’s in a new sporty outfit and talking with an old girlfriend. She eventually tells him that he was the only one left alive after the shoot-out.

Thus we veer, unexpectedly and for no clear reason, into new territory. Is this encounter with an old girlfriend a small digression that is supposed to be commentary on the challenges Treadwell faces in establishing a meaningful relationship with a woman instead of relying on robots?

These sudden shifts of various kinds throughout the film are why the movie isn’t fully satisfying. The director didn’t steer it strongly enough in one direction. It could’ve been a campy comedy. Or, if it was going to be an action film, it needed a darker tone and more gripping and convincing action sequences. And Griffith would’ve had to have been much more engaged in them rather than being super bland and almost robotic.

What’s interesting is that the film was shown on March 15th, 2012, at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles, a showcase for classics, art films, foreign films, and underappreciated American oddball films and cult films. The director appeared in person to talk about this film and another he made called Miracle Mile (1988). So it’s clear that some people really like this film and feel that it’s worthy of our attention.

For me it had its moments but wasn’t nearly as fun or cool or engaging as other cult films of its era such as Repo Man, Earth Girls Are Easy, Buckaroo Bonzai, Bladerunner, and Robocop.