Jordan Peele’s Get Out shattered both minds and expectations when it hit cinemas in 2017: scoring both a best original screenplay Oscar and bringing a welcome critical eye to a genre that has historically sidelined people of color in favor of white narratives. The young director brought “Black Horror” to new prominence, but as Shudder’s recent documentary Horror Noire proves, Black films and filmmakers have always been a crucial (though not always visible) part of the fright flick landscape. This deep well of genre cinema has championed, explored, or exploited the lot of people of color since the medium’s earliest days, and with Peele’s sophomore effort, Us primed to tear up the box office, now is a perfect time to re-discover the highs and lows of African American Horror cinema that came before.
10 Night Of The Living Dead
Directed by the late, great George A. Romero, Night of the Living Dead (1968) was a landmark film for both the development of independent cinema and the positive portrayal of POC on film. Romero did what was then unthinkable, casting Duane Jones as his heroic lead - elevating what might have been a run-of-the-mill shocker into a blistering cultural commentary on the tumultuous 1960s. Though Jones resented his association with the film up until his death in 1988, his iconic turn as a take-charge everyman calling the shots for a primarily Caucasian group of survivors was a watershed moment for cinematic representation in the Civil Rights era.
William Crain’s 1972 update of the Dracula myth has shed its problematic “blaxploitation” label over the years and emerged as something of an essential classic. Though these types of films were primarily aimed at the pocketbooks of urban black audiences, their over-reliance on stereotype has since marked them as necessary though troublesome steps forward in representation. Crain, however, as one of the first black filmmakers from a major film school (UCLA) to achieve commercial success, created in the undead 18th-century African prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) a figure of suaveness and grace that challenged the dominant Hollywood narrative that a black man must be brutal or criminal to wield power.
8 Ganja And Hess
Named one of the ten best American films of the decade by the Cannes film festival, Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess (1973) is an experimental horror film that follows an anthropologist, Dr. Hess (Duane Jones of Night of The Living Dead) as he learns to cope with his transformation into a vampire and navigate the choppy waters of a blooming romance with Ganja (Marlene Clark), the woman whose deceased husband is responsible for his affliction. Gunn, a playwright and stage director, was initially reticent to make the film. But when he landed upon the idea to use vampirism as a metaphor for addiction, he produced a mesmeric, thought-provoking arthouse stunner unlike anything else at the time. Ganja and Hess has since been adopted into the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection due to its significance.
Not all of the films on this list, are good ones, and William Girdler’s Abby (1974) is an archetypal example of how myopic white directors can be when co-opting black narratives.
An Exorcist rip-off starring Carol Speed as a pastor’s wife who becomes possessed by a West African Yoruba spirit, Abby’s unfortunate portrayal of a woman taken over by an insatiable sexual mania plays on the well-worn stereotype of the black woman as a sexually ravenous temptress. Whether Girdler’s intentions were good or not, the film fails even as campy entertainment and is a discomfiting reminder of just how important it is for black filmmakers to tell their own stories.
Drawn from the imagination of Clive Barker, 1992's Candyman features a storyline about a lily-hued grad student, Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) doing research on a folkloric boogeyman said to haunt Chicago’s now-demolished Cabrini Green projects that reeks of a white savior complex. Even worse, when the titular baleful spirit (Tony Todd) turns his romantic attentions toward Helen, it further fuels the problematic fire as the black man fixated on the conquest of white women is another old and offensive trope. Yet, Candyman is essential in the context of its time, due to Tony Todd’s elegant phantasm being the first black horror icon of his kind, joining the likes of Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Leatherface as an indelible maker of bewitching cinematic nightmares.
5 Tales From The Hood
Rusty Cundieff’s Tales from the Hood (1995) uses the anthology format first popularized by Dead of Night (1945) to comment on social awareness and black identity in the 90s through a horror lens. The film is made up of four tales featuring dirty cops, racist politicians and abusive husbands, all told by a grinning funeral home proprietor (Clarence Williams III) in the film’s ingenious wraparound narrative more witty and menacing than the Crypt Keeper, himself. Spiritually similar to Get Out, Cundieff’s masterwork takes The United States to task for the sins it continues to perpetrate against black bodies and still proves potent watching almost twenty-five years on.
4 Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight
Frequent Spike Lee collaborator Ernest Dickerson’s Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight (1995) is an entertaining though derivative horror comedy that proved somewhat revolutionary when it gave viewers what may yet be the first and only African American “final girl,”- Jeryline (Jada Pinkett years before meeting Will Smith), a convict on work release who comes into her own as a demon-slayer.
At the time of release, Dickerson and his screenwriters shattered the expectations of an audience who could, like clockwork, anticipate the early onscreen deaths of any black female lead in a horror film. That Jeryline doesn’t just survive to the final reel but is actually the Demon Knight of the title gives the film both an intersectional feminist appeal and deflates the ingrained pop-cultural narrative that people of color must sacrifice themselves so their white costars can live.
3 Eve’s Bayou
Selected for preservation in the National Film Registry last year, Eve’s Bayou (1997) was written, directed and shot by two women: Kasi Lemmons and Amy Vincent. The female talent behind the camera mirrored that in front of it, with actresses Lynn Whitfield, Debbi Morgan, and Meagan Good all bringing deeply-felt performances to this southern gothic tale of sisterly bonds, voodoo, and dark family secrets. The women in Lemmons' film exhibit a depth and agency that are so often lacking in mainstream cinema, and though it toes the line between melodrama and outright horror, Eve’s Bayou is a spooky, underseen jewel of African America female filmmaking.
2 Get Out
It’s impossible to overstate just what a shock to the system Jordan Peele’s directorial debut turned out to be. Riding the current “smart horror” wave to box office success and exposing the racist roots of white liberalism, Peele not only ushered in a new dawn of possibility for POC filmmakers but also paid homage to and shed a spotlight on those who had come before him with his studied, razor-sharp satire. The fact that it's actually scary didn't hurt either!
1 The First Purge
The Purge series has never been particularly subtle in its skewering of American values, and the fourth entry in the franchise is no exception. The First Purge (2018) is a prequel (obviously) that shows how the New Founding Fathers party managed to seize the government and carry out the first purge of the title: a 12 hour period during which all crime, including murder, is made legal. The big shocker? The event is an experiment designed to cull minority populations. The First Purge may be far from a modern classic, but it places minority characters at the forefront of the typically white series and shows how one man's bloody bacchanal is another man's government-mandated ethnic scrubbing.