As Jordan Peele gets ready to return with Us, we look back on the finest moments of a genre ripe for political commentary (and gore)
Every time another major black production smashes the box office records, it’s yet further proof that this purple patch for black film might not be a fad. This year, films have covered ambitious ground remixing sci-fi fantasy as with Black Panther, riffing on the blaxploitation era in BlacKkKlansman, or reinvigorating the heist tale with Widows. However, this revival also means that studios are making space for black horror, which, having been undervalued for decades, is about to experience a revival.
Following on from the success of Get Out in 2017, this year there were a handful of few projects that followed in its slipstream. The fusion of horror, social commentary and/or humour has now become a definitive feature of the majority of black horrors. In July, The First Purge came from Blumhouse, the low-budget film production company behind Get Out that was probably eager to build on that success. It’s billed as a prequel to The Purge taking place in the ground zero testing area, Staten Island. In a chilling parallel to our own reality, it explores how a racist government and society would mean the day of cathartic killing would unleash hell on black communities. Then there was Slice, which called on the likes of Chance the Rapper to carry the humour mantle for blorror. Centring on Kingfisher, a town where ghosts are a present but derided minority who get blamed for a spike in violent crime, this film had all the ingredients to be good allegorical horror but unfortunately missed the mark.
While 2018 couldn’t carry the torch for black horror as high as the previous year did, there’s a whole syllabus that you can immerse yourself in before we get a fresh crop of scary black-centric films in 2019. Jordan Peele will be back with Us, which follows a black family on a reclusive trip away in an attempt to unplug at a secluded beach house. Body Cam calls on recently Oscar-nominated Mary J Blige and Dreamgirls’ Anika Noni Rose to zone in on police brutality, and, somehow, Meet the Blacks will release a sequel. But to know where we’re going, we have to look at where we’ve already been – so here’s where to start if you want to get into blorror.
BLACK ROLES IN MAINSTREAM HORROR
To know what makes black horror distinct you have to take a look at how black people are presented in the mainstream ones. One of the most frequent complaints is that black people always die first in scary movies. This isn't entirely true – they are less likely to make it through the entire film without dying, though. What is interesting is how other tropes from mainstream cinema impact black representation in horrors. Many have noted that black characters are often sassy sidekicks, like Jada Pinkett Smith’s cameo in Scream 2 where she’s so loud and obnoxious her death is light comic relief – this was later satirised by Brenda in Scary Movie. Others have barely any character development, either because of their early demise in the franchise, or because they have only been written into the script as an aid to the white protagonists.
Spike Lee coined the term Magical Negro to highlight the trope of the black spiritualist as a subservient plot device. Dick Hallorann in The Shining is an example of this. In the famous thriller, he calls on his mysterious supernatural powers to get Danny, the protagonist Jack’s young son, out of trouble. The thanks he gets for leaving the safety of his home to help is that he is later dismissed as “a nigger cook” who is interfering with Jack’s murderous plans and is one of the first in the film to die.
While he isn’t spiritual, in Scream 2, Duane Martin plays Joel a cameraman to the town’s attention-seeking journalist Gale Weathers’ (Courtney Cox). He explains that white people are renowned for running towards danger in these films. “I want to report the news, I don’t want to be the news. Besides, brothas don’t last long in situations like this,” he says. In many ways, the black guide and obnoxiously loud black cynic in scary films are probably supposed mirror the off-screen black voice as audiences frequently comment on white people’s naive or unwise behaviour in the genre.
BLACK AND WHITE HORRORS
There are black horror films with majority black casts that have fallen out of our collective consciousness. As far back as 1942 the horror-comedy entitled The Lucky Ghost had black people at the centre of a spooky narrative – but it relied on lazy stereotypes of black men. It shows Mantan Moreland and F.E. Miller stealing chickens, gambling, and generally being a bit thick. They eventually win a house in a game of craps that they use as a casino. They’re eventually haunted by the ghosts of its past owners, who exhibit many microaggressions from beyond the grave – they don’t like “jitterbugging, jiving, and hullaballooing”.
In the 70s, there was a similar explosion in black-centric narratives soundtracked with a funk score that became dubbed “blaxploitation” films. Heavily influenced by the black power movement, these films were as FUBU as they come. Confronting, but at times haplessly reinforcing, stereotypes of blackness, the films are remembered for featuring afros, pimps, pushers – but above all, black heroes.
The first of this kind to play on horror tropes was Blacula, a plucky remake of Dracula in which the trailer voiceover introduced the protagonist as “Dracula’s soul brother”. To begin with, it skirts some rather interesting themes: his human name was Mamuwalde, and he had originally come to Dracula from the Abani African nation in 1780 to ask for help in suppressing the slave trade. References to slavery even featured in some of the posters for the film to draw in black audiences. But instead of helping him, naturally, Dracula bites him and turns him into a vampire. When he’s resurrected in 1972, he goes on a killing spree in Los Angeles and falls in love. The film spawned a host of black horror films, including a sequel, Blackenstein (or Black Frankenstein), and Abby, a riff on The Exorcist in which a girl gets possessed by a sex spirit based on Eshu, an orisha from the Yoruba religion. Blaxploitation horror laid a lot of groundwork for the work that we are currently seeing. As film academic, Harry M. Benshoff wrote: “By embracing the racialised monster and turning him into an agent of black pride and power, blaxploitation horror films created sympathetic monsters”. In later years, these narratives included inner-city settings, hip hop, and rap star leads. Snoop Dogg plays the ghost of a gangster in Bones, who wreaks revenge on his killers and tries to clean up his old neighbourhood.
With the revival of the slasher genre in the 90s, this decade also saw some of the most interesting black horror films that, until now, didn’t receive much shine. One of these is, of course, Candyman, which is soon to be remade by Jordan Peele. The original skips between Liverpool, England and the north side of Chicago as an intellectual denies the existence of an urban legend. To summon this boogeyman, who was the son of a slave, you have to say his name three times in the mirror – so it’s kind of like if Beetlejuice was actually scary. Contrasting the gory deaths with the horror of ancient lynch mobs stinging a black man to death, this film really showed the potential for original scary movies with black casts.
Then there’s Beloved, which starred Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, and a young Thandie Newton. Based on the novel by Toni Morrison, this film manages to cover the horror of the civil war, the mistreatment of women, and the devastation that slavery had on the family unit. It does this via the medium of a poltergeist that terrorises the family, which turns out to be Oprah’s dead daughter that she had killed because she didn’t want her to ever have to be enslaved.
HIT AND MISS HORROR COMEDIES
Mixing horror and comedy hasn’t always been something that would catch the attention of the Academy Awards judges. Wes Craven teamed up with Eddie Murphy for Vampire in Brooklyn as he played a smooth-talking undead menace alongside Angela Bassett. It was canned by critics at the time. That being said Murphy plays Maximillian with a smugness that is actually humorous, and though it is yet another vampire tale, it at least incorporates West Indian zombie mythology. It also has Murphy doing what he does best – making several cameos in prosthetics as ridiculous characters.
For more ridiculousness, you can venture into the horror satire cesspit. The genre is undeniably smutty but also gifted us with the outrageous Scary Movie franchise, where the Wayans Brothers remix popular horrors like Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer and The Grudge. Though it was such a simple idea, filmmakers spent and made a ridiculous amount of money – the third installment had a budget of $45 million and grossed $141.2 million, although this was the last film that where the Wayans brothers had any involvement. Meet the Blacks tried to revitalise silly satire via an interpretation of The Purge to a less successful degree in 2016, but is actually set to release a sequel next year. The genre is littered with slapstick humour, scantily clad women, celebrity cameos, eerily similar dialogue to horrors of the time, and jokes that would never rank highly on the woke barometer of 2018. However, if you’re looking for a guilty belly laugh then most of these films are currently available on Netflix.