Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema kicked off the month-long Halloween theme with a look at horror movies featuring minority actors in lead roles or pictures created by filmmakers of color. Here’s a summary of the movies covered on the show. Please note that this was not intended to be a comprehensive list, just a sample of interesting titles.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Night of the Living Dead is one of the seminal horror films of American cinema. It was released in 1968 while American culture was going through multiple shocks to its system and Night of the Living Dead reflects the time in which it was made. One of the notable aspects of this film was the casting of black actor Duane Jones in one of the lead roles. Throughout the studio era, actors of color were all but absent from Hollywood films. Night of the Living Dead was an independent feature and Jones’ presence is itself significant. But Jones’ character was also complicated and assertive and the main point of empathy for the audience. His performance and the film are now regarded as an important moment in the history of American cinema.
Ganja and Hess (1973)
Duane Jones starred in another notable horror picture from this era: 1973’s Ganja and Hess. Written and directed by African American filmmaker Bill Gunn and starring a largely black cast, Ganja and Hess is a vampire flick but it’s also an art film that uses the vampire genre to examine black identity and culture. Ganja and Hess was a commercial failure in 1973 and the distributor recut and retitled the movie for subsequent rereleases. But an intact print of Ganja and Hess is held by the Museum of Modern Art and screenings of the film earned it a significant cult following. Spike Lee remade Ganja and Hess as 2014’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.
In the 1970s the box office success of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft led to a whole subgenre of films starring African American characters generally referred to as blaxploitation. Most of these films were crime stories but the blaxploitation period also generated a few horror pictures such as Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde and Sugar Hill. One of the most popular of these films was 1972’s Blacula. William Marshall starred as an eighteenth century African prince who was turned into a vampire and haunts 1970’s Los Angeles. A sequel, Scream Blacula Scream, followed in 1973.
The Blade Series
Another African American vampire franchise was the Blade series, adapted from Marvel comics. Released between 1998 and 2004, the three theatrical Blade features starred Wesley Snipes as a half human-half vampire who hunts the undead. Blade was also adapted into a television series and a new theatrical version of Blade starring Mahershala Ali is planned to be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Tales from the Hood (1995)
The 1990s were a fertile period for black horror films and among the notable titles from that period was 1995’s Tales from the Hood. The sophomore directorial feature of Rusty Cundieff, Tales from the Hood was an anthology film with each story focused on social ills such as police brutality, political corruption, and child abuse. The film received mixed reviews at the time but the popularity of Tales from the Hood grew over time with critics and audiences praising the film’s social consciousness. Similarly-minded sequels were released in 2018 and 2020.
Among the most successful horror films of the 1990s was Candyman. The movie was loosely based on Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” and the urban myth of the hook man. Candyman is about a white sociologist who investigates rumors of a hook-handed specter haunting Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing project. The movie was somewhat controversial because of the way it utilizes provocative racial imagery (a black man threatening a white woman) but Candyman uses that imagery to literalize the legacy of racism. Two sequels followed and a new film, announced as a direct follow up to the original Candyman, is anticipated for release in 2021.
The People Under the Stairs (1991)
Wes Craven’s films were very aware of the cultural zeitgeist and several of his movies were, to varying degrees, politically themed. His two most famous works, Last House on the Left and A Nightmare on Elm Street, were about the violence and madness underlying society. Several of Wes Craven’s films featured diverse casts including Vampire in Brooklyn and The Serpent and the Rainbow. One of Craven’s most plainly political features was 1991’s The People Under the Stairs. In this film a black boy becomes trapped inside the home of a psychotic white suburban couple. The movie is a violent fairy tale that’s also a lightly disguised allegory about racial and economic inequality.
Get Out and New Black Horror Cinema
As I’ve covered at other times on this show, the horror genre is presently in the midst of a renaissance. The American horror film has had two previous renaissance phases. The first revolution was characterized by the Universal monsters of the 1930s and 40s and the second was in the slasher and gore films of the 1970s and 80s. This present phase isn’t so easily described, at least not yet, because it’s more diverse and less formulaic than earlier periods of American horror films. Movies as disparate as Midsommar and It Follows and Velvet Buzzsaw and A Quiet Place as well as a slew of adaptations of Stephen King’s work offer a wide range of options.
An important aspect of this new horror renaissance is its diversity. We’re seeing new filmmaking voices come forward. The most visible of these filmmakers is Jordan Peele who wrote and directed Get Out and Us. The success of Peele’s films prompted studios and producers to seek out more diverse voices, especially from the black community, and lean into provocative racial and political themes in titles such as The First Purge and Antebellum as well as upcoming sequels to Candyman and Tales from the Hood. It’s too early to say how significant this wave of new black horror films is going to be but for now we’re being treated to some very interesting movies.
Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019)
Adapted from the book by Robin R. Means Coleman, Horror Noire is a documentary about the representation of African Americans in American horror cinema. The movie has impressive scope, quite literally spanning from the origin of feature filmmaking to movies that opened in the last few years. Along the way, Horror Noire sketches out the depiction—and the absence—of people of color in American movies and highlights various films from familiar titles such as Night of the Living Dead and Blacula as well as more obscure pictures like Son of Ingagi and Ganja and Hess. Even seasoned horror fans will probably discover some new titles to add to their viewing list. Read the full review of Horror Noire here.
The Grudge Series
In the early 2000s American studios churned out remakes of Japanese horror films, many of them about the spirits of evil children. These movies would often literally recreate the original films with western (and usually white) actors. The Grudge series was a little different. Grudge creator Takashi Shimizu oversaw the series and created distinctly different lines of continuity between the American and Japanese versions and he directed the first few installments of both franchises.
Under the Shadow & A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Some very interesting horror films came out of Iran in recent years. 2016’s Under the Shadow is set in Tehran during the war between Iran and Iraq and it centers on a woman and her daughter who are haunted by evil spirts. Directed by Babak Anvari, Under the Shadow uses supernatural horror to reflect on life under Iran’s religious government. Released in the 2014, Ana Lily Amirpour’s film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is about a female vampire. It’s a feminist piece that subverts some of the tropes and expectations of the vampire genre.
South Korean Zombie Movies
A number of well-regarded zombie films have come out of South Korea in recent years. One of the most popular of these is 2016’s Train to Busan, which follows passengers on a railcar that is infected with the undead. Train to Busan inspired an animated spinoff Seoul Station as well as the sequel Peninsula.
2020’s #Alive is about a young man who is confined to his apartment during a zombie apocalypse. He befriends a woman living in the apartment complex across the street and they assist each other at a distance. #Alive is about the importance of social interaction and the limitations of digital connections to satisfy that need. The focus on isolation and connection gives #Alive a vivid emotional core and the movie has arrived at an ideal time; this is the perfect film for a pandemic. Read the full review here.
La Llorona Stories
There have been several films about La Llorona, a Latin American folk tale of a woman who committed infanticide and whose spirit is cursed to roam the land, weeping and preying on children. For American audiences, the most visible of these films was 2019’s The Curse of La Llorona which was part of the Conjuring film franchise. The folk tale was also the basis for the 1960 Mexican film La Llorona and 1963’s The Curse of the Crying Woman.
Filmmaker Jayro Bustamante has adapted the concept and given it a fresh twist. 2020’s La Llorona takes place in Guatemala as the country reckons with the genocide committed against the Maya people in the 1980s. A general is tried and convicted of crimes against humanity but he is ultimately released on a technicality. He and his family barricade themselves inside their home and supernatural phenomena begin occurring around the house. This is a smart film that works the La Llorona mythos into the story in a way that gives it a whole different meaning while remaining salient to the roots of the folktale. Read the full review here.