The recent release of the documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror has folks buzzing about black representation in horror films. The documentary, inspired by the book Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present by Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman, is both entertaining and educational. Viewers are offered a glimpse into the minds of some of the most influential black filmmakers on the scene. If you’re interested in learning more about the film, check it out on Shudder and read our review here. Upon seeing it, I felt inspired to revisit some of my favorite black horror films, some of which are touched on in the doc and some which are not. If you’re new to the scene, hoping to learn more or just bored and looking for something to watch, check out some of my recommendations below.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) Hopefully, you’ve seen George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead by now. When Romero made this film, he cast the talented Duane Johnson in the lead role of Ben. By doing so, the film became a lot smarter than initially intended. Originally, it was a creepy piece about dead people reanimating and coming back as flesh eating monsters, but in the shadow of the civil rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the strong black lead and imagery of white men hunting zombies resulted in a powerful social message that, so long as racial inequality exists, will continue to be relevant. Criterion recently put out a beautiful restoration of NOTLD on blu and DVD, which you can find here. Among the special features is Night of Anubis, a previously unseen work print of the film, which is a must see.
NIGHT OF THE COBRA WOMAN (1972) I originally checked this film out because I idolize Roger Corman and have set out on a personal mission to view all films he had a hand in, regardless of how small his role. Night of the Cobra Woman is full of voodoo symbolism. Lena (Marlene Clark) is bitten by a cobra while visiting the Philippines, and she finds herself blessed with young age and the ability to turn into a snake. However, she soon realizes this is both a blessing and a curse, when she begins to hunger for the flesh of men and cobra venom to maintain her beauty. An exploitation film at heart, this story doesn’t get too deep but makes for a fun watch.
BLACULA (1972) Blacula straddles the line between horror and blaxploitation. Directed by William Crain, this film is more than just a popcorn flick. It opens in 1780, when Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) is negotiating with Dracula to help end the transatlantic slave trade. He is turned into a vampire and locked away until 1972 when two antique collectors unwittingly release him on the city of Los Angeles. Smart and entertaining, this is a must see for anyone interested in black horror and the blaxploitation movement. If you can, I recommend picking up the ScreamFactory double feature of Blacula/Scream Blacula Scream and checking out the sequel which features Pam Grier in the leading role of Lisa.
GANJA & HESS (1973) Also known as Blood Couple, Duane Johnson and Marlene Clark play the title roles in this somewhat depressingl love story about a couple that lusts for blood. Hess is an archaeologist who is overseeing an excavation when his assistant, George Meda, stabs him with an ancient knife and then kills himself. The result is a fun mix of voodoo and vampirism. Hess awakens to find that his wound has healed, but he also longs for the taste of blood. Ganja Meda is concerned with the well-being of her husband, whose body she finds at Hess’ house. She is understandably upset but ends up marrying Hess, who turns her into a vampire. If you are looking for a blaxploitation flick, look elsewhere. This movie came out during the era but is anything but; check out our essay in which Liam examines the religious imagery throughout Ganja & Hess and other films.
SUGAR HILL (1974) They say there is no wrath like that of a woman scorned. Well, Diane “Sugar” Hill (Marki Bey) is proof of that in this blaxploitation era horror flick by American International Pictures, about a woman who is so upset over the murder of her fiance by the mob that she visits a voodoo queen and promises her soul to the Lord of the Dead to raise up an army of zombies to help her get revenge. The result is a unique spin on the macabre, filled with colorful characters and outrageous situations. As zombies take out gangsters one by one, Sugar goes after Morgan, the mob boss, with a vengeance, all while her ex, Detective Valentine, is hot on her tail. Sugar Hill is a fun, action packed, must-see film which you can find it streaming free on Amazon Prime Video and is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.
HOUSE ON SKULL MOUNTAIN (1974) Another fun voodoo adventure can be found in House on Skull Mountain. Upon her deathbed, Pauline, a rich heiress and believer in black magic, asks that her four remaining relatives be summoned to hear her last will and testament. At her burial, the maid, Louette, expresses concern when she notices signs of black magic, but Thomas the butler dismisses her concerns. Upon arriving, estranged cousins Lorena, Phillippe, Harriett, and Andrew find themselves haunted by a spirit in the shape of a skeleton in a robe. Phillippe acts as comic relief to help the film from becoming too stiff. After realizing he is adopted, Lorena and Andrew fall in love, and we get to take a break from the macabre as we follow these two love birds on an adventure out of the house. Oblivious to the strange situations happening around them, they return and find themselves at the center of a voodoo ritual where they must save themselves from becoming human sacrifices to the House on Skull Mountain.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) Romero did it again, with what is one of my all-time favorite films, Dawn of the Dead. Ken Foree plays Peter, a strong, cool under pressure black man who leads a group of white people to safety amidst a zombie outbreak. Immediately, the incredible score by Goblin sets the mood. Terrified of what’s to come, Stephen and Francine, who work for the local news station, plan to highjack a helicopter with their S.W.A.T. team buddy, Roger, to escape the city and bunker down during a zombie outbreak. When they run a raid on an infected apartment building together, Roger invites Peter to come with them. The group find the perfect safe house, a shopping mall. Chock full of supplies and security gates, they feel they can make this their permanent home. The characters are perfectly developed and have some of the best one-liners in cinematic history. Their reactions to the situation, how they attempt to keep sane and inject humor into their lives, is exactly how one might imagine they’d handle the same scenario. The group soon finds themselves under attack by a motorcycle gang and realize that when it seems too good to be true, it must be.
CANDYMAN (1992) Tony Todd as Candyman haunted me as a child. We would watch the movie at sleepovers, lock one another in the dark bathroom and force each person to say his name into the mirror five times. Candyman is terrifying; he has a hook for a hand, bees come out of his mouth and he kills people that dare taunt him. However, he’s also someone we can root for. In 1890, he was a young artist whose only crime was that he loved a white woman and they had a child together. A lynch mob set out after him, they cut off his hand, replaced it with a hook and smeared him with honey. He was stung to death by bees. After skeptical grad student Helen accidentally summons Candyman while doing a research project on the local legend, he begins to terrorize and murder locals, and Helen soon becomes a believer. The best thing about this movie is that you can make a night of it and pair it with sequels. But I warn you, regardless of how sympathetic you are for Candyman, do not say his name five times in the bathroom mirror or Tony Todd will appear and kick your ass. Find this release at ShoutFactory.
Some of the best horror films over the past several decades were made by black filmmakers and star strong, black leads. You’ll often see similarities to slavery, with white people playing the enemy in blackcentric horror flicks, where the lead is able to seek retribution against the wrongs done to them. African Voodoo, a religion which has been around for thousands of years, also pops up continuously in black themed horror films. It is usually associated with dark and evil magic, as well as possession. It’s no wonder filmmakers flock to it as a central theme in many of their stories.
Horror Noire invites the audience to view black horror not only for entertainment purposes, but through an academic lens. When considering the impact that black history and black cinema has had on fun horror films through the decades, one sees things with a new perspective. I urge you to check out some of the films from my list, many of which are discussed in Horror Noire, and see if you notice more of the underlying subtext and how they may be considered important film in black cinema history.