Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Show and Tell: The Wicker Man and Blacula

The wife and I got to take our first trip to the beach this weekend.  Somehow I found a motel two days before Memorial Day weekend that A) cost less than $100 and B) wasn't the scene of a recent murder/suicide.  So score for us!  It was good to get away for a couple of days.

That's not to say, however, that I didn't get my horror fix in over the last week.  The three day weekend gave me a chance to get caught up on The Faculty of Horror podcast, which is a must-listen for anyone who likes smart discussion about horror.  Two horror journalists from Toronto get together once a month and discuss a particular theme in the genre by examining two or three movies that create the best discussion about the subject.

To prep for an episode on matriarchy, I watched the 1973 cult movie The Wicker Man.  I'm not even going to bother mentioning the Nicolas Cage remake, because you can get everything you need to know about that movie here.  The original version is a funky little film in which a very conservative, God-fearing policeman goes in search of a missing girl, only to have his investigation take him on a bizarre journey through the inner-workings of a group of pagans.  The journey, it turns out (and spoiler alert for those who still haven't seen it) is all an elaborate ruse to bait the policeman into acting as the town's sacrifice to appease their gods for next year's harvest.

I think what makes the twist so effective is that 80% of this movie doesn't play like a horror movie.  There are surreal elements, but nothing foreshadows the pending doom in store for the policeman.  Actually, for most of the movie I found myself siding with the townspeople, who, as the Faculty point out is actually egalitarian as opposed to matriarchal.  They treat everyone as equals, and they have some very progressive ideas that fly in the face of the very uptight, veeeery Christian policeman.  So when the movie takes its turn and the people's intentions become clear, it makes the dark twist that much darker given the light mood of the movie previous to that point.  For more in-depth conversation about the movie as well as the theme of matriarchy, check out the podcast.  They'll do the topic more justice than I could hope to do.

After getting back from vacation, I was able to fend off back-to-work depression by hosting my very first live tweet for the 1972 blaxplotation movie Blacula.  I'd won the movie from Graveyard Shift Sisters for a post I wrote about my favorite black woman in horror (it's Rocky from Phantasm III in case you're wondering).  Since I'd never seen Blacula before, I thought it would be best viewed with some like-minded horror fans over Twitter.

For those unfamiliar with the movie, Blacula is the alter ego of Mamulwalde, an African prince who runs afoul of Dracula, who it turns out is a racist asshole.  Turned into a vampire, Mamulwalde is awakened in the 1970s, where he meets Tina, the descendant of his wife Luva.  One of the things I really enjoyed about the movie was the way in which it took character arcs from Dracula and molded them into its own narrative. Instead of Van Helsing, for example, we have Dr. Gordon Thomas on the hunt for vampires.

Of particular interest, though, is Tina, Blacula's take on Mina from the Dracula novel.  The depiction of Tina as an the reincarnation of Luva mirrors the story in which Mina is the incarnation of Dracula's lost love, right?  Wrong!  In the original novel, Mina has no previous connection to Dracula.  The concept of Mina as Dracula's reincarnated love wasn't introduced until the 1992 Francis Ford Coppola film.  This makes me think that Blacula, as a movie directly influenced by Dracula, has itself influenced the Dracula mythos as we know it today.  Take a minute to pick the pieces of your mind up off the floor.

One of the more engaging discussions that came out of the live tweet was the controversial nature of Blacula and other blaxploitation films.  The misogyny, explicit sex/drug use, and stereotype-promoting nature of these films caused quite a bit of backlash, especially from African-American groups who feared that these movies would perpetuate negative views on the culture.  On the other hand, these movies were very empowering, both in terms of depicting strong black characters who are essential to the plot, as well as allowing for scenes in which black characters fight back against white oppression.

We see both sides of this coin in Blacula.  Dr. Thomas, for example, is a respected member of the police force.  He's also the only one who seems to have a handle on the situation and is equipped to battle Blacula and his horde of vampires.  On the other hand, he refers to two homosexual characters as "fags" as casually as if he were remarking on their hair color.  So do the problematic elements of movies like Blacula negate the positive aspects?  I would argue that they don't, or at least they don't any more than their more mainstream counterparts that have equal parts negative and positive elements while not being subjected to the same level of scrutiny.  As I did with the topic of Matriarchy, I defer to someone with a better grasp of the topic than I have for more detailed analysis of this topic, as Graveyard Shift Sisters has an insightful post about blaxploitation horror that you can find here.

I had such a good time with the Blacula live tweet, I'll be returning to do another live tweet on Tuesday, June 2nd for Scream Blacula Scream.  If you're bored come join over twitter at 8pm EST.  You can find it for free on YouTube if you don't feel like renting it.  If nothing else, it's an excuse to see Pam Grier do her thing.  In the meantime, I'm going to listen to the Blacula soundtrack on Spotify, because it's pretty damn good, and it will now always make me think of this image.

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