Ketty Lester in Blacula (1972) - The Film Experience's Vampire Blog-a-Thon

For years, StinkyLulu's been longing to screen Blacula, the legendary blaxploitation horror classic. Horror is a genre best screened en ensemble, and blaxploitation's something of a specialized taste, and most of Lulu's movie buds don't much go for either, and well -- it's been 20 years and Lulu's still never gotten 'round to Blacula. But now -- thanks to The Vampire Blog-a-Thon at The Film Experience -- the opportunity finally arrived & StinkyLu was a brave lil Lulu & went for the adventure of Blacula all alone just last night. Skeery. And funny. Lulu's favorite....

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The narrative scenario of Blacula is pretty simple: in the late 18th century, the regal African Prince Mamuwalde (played here by classically-trained actor William Marshall, known best by many as "The King of Cartoons") travels to Transylvania with his African queen Luva (Vonetta McGee) to enlist Count Dracula's help in stopping the slave trade. The meeting doesn't go well (that pasty faced Dracula's all into slavery and he wants to keep Luva for hisself) and Prince Mamuwalde -- being a badass as well as an African prince -- fights back. But Count Dracula is a tricksy one and wreaks his own eternal vengeance upon Prince Mamuwalde by turning him into a vampire & locking him in a fancy coffin. Then...well, truth be told, lovely reader, Blacula's theatrical trailer tells you pretty much everything you need to know. (Watch it now!)

click image for video

And, yes, lovely reader: Blacula's as beautifully bad as it seems...straight black sexist camp. And golly. S'good, so so good. (Take a quick gander at the hilarious yet gorgeous opening animation for another whiff of this crazy concoction.) But even better, Blacula's just ripe with Supporting Actress talent -- "fine" women like Denise Nicholas, Vonetta McGee, and Emily Yancy on their way to being fine actresses -- among the many black women of their generation whose careers got jump-started by their actressing at the edges of blaxploitation era cinema. But among them all, nobody thrills StinkyLulu more than...

...Ketty Lester in Blacula (1972).

Yes, lovely reader, that Ketty Lester: the "Love Letters" singing actress and featured player on 70s tv who has long been among StinkyLulu's most favorites. In Blacula, Ketty Lester plays Juanita, The Lady Cab Driver. Lester's Juanita becomes one of Prince Mamuwalde's more energetic victims. In the first of her two main scenes, Prince Mamuwalde is chasing the beautiful Tina (McGee) who he believes to be the reincarnation of his beloved African queen Luva. (One of the tastiest treats of Blacula is the most excellent, though uncredited, costume design for the female characters. Possibly it was "Wardrobe Woman" Sandy Stewart who developed the the quilted leather cab driver bustier worn by Lester's Juanita, or the glittery purple a-line mini, with matching purple patent wedge-heeled pumps, worn by McGee's Tina as she fled from Mamuwalde through the darkened streets of Los Angeles. Ahhh, blaxploitation fashion. Good times...) Anyway, Lester's Juanita hits Prince Mamuwalde with her cab and then proceeds to tell him off. Somewhere in her tirade, Lester's Juanita grows a touch fearful and then all of a sudden Prince Mamuwalde becomes Blacula & feeds on Juanita.

After this brief, hilarious and energizing scene, it would seem that Blacula's through with Lester's Juanita. But noooooooooo. That's the treat of a vampire movie -- the dead come back -- and Lester's Juanita does so with verve. See, the Lady Cab Driver is among Blacula's first few victims in Los Angeles and the suave medical examiner is particularly interested in this wave of black victims seeming to go unnoticed by the LAPD. Bringing Juanita's body from the morgue proves to be a mistake, however, because Lester's Juanita awakens with a thirst for blood. In the film's only genuinely thrilling sequence, Lester's Ketty chases down and chomps on the morgue attendant. The close-ups and the long shots of Lester's Juanita running to attack create some of Blacula's few true frights. And then! In the movie's most exhilarating sequence, the suave investigator totally undoes the vampire Juanita with a killer cocktail -- a bit of sunlight, stirred by a crucifix -- and Lester just goes for her "death of a vampire" scene with a skeery vengeance. She shrieks, she howls, she convulses, she wails, she flails, she just does it...an honestly fearless & fearsome performance that echoes through the rest of the film. Itsa scary. Itsa wowza.

Itsa Lady Cab Driver Vampire!

And thanks to Ketty Lester, it's also frickin' fabulous.

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But what would a blaxploitation vampire movie from the 70s movie be without a mad dash of homo horror? In Blacula, the requisite manic homo panic arrives in the form of an interracial pair of swishing interior decorators who buy the contents of the Dracula mansion and ship it to LA (thus bringing Blacula to America as cargo). These two -- referred to repeatedly as "those faggot interior decorators" -- are Blacula's first kills and reappear in fascinating ways throughout the narrative. Indeed, like Lester's Juanita The Lady Cab Driver/Vampire, "those faggot interior decorator" vampires have a few fabulous moments. Hardly enlightening queer representation but something's sorta cool transcends the film's homo horror...

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Kamikaze Camel said...

Hah! That end bit about "those faggot interior decorators" was GOLD!

I've only ever watched two blaxpoitation films and... well, they weren't exactly good.

Cinebeats said...

I had to search your blog for this post, but it was worth it! Great write-up for a great film. I really enjoyed reading this and damn! Ketty Lester's unibrow is still damn scary!!!