We all know that when things get all stalking-creepy-music-stabby in a horror film, the nearest Black person is about to meet the pointy end of a kitchen knife or an unfortunately convenient pitchfork, but not before regretfully exclaiming something of the “Aw hell nah!” variety.
Aside from the occasional Brandy or Ice Cube or LL Cool J (hm… sensing a “musical negro” trend here) who manages to survive the homicidal white guy or freakishly murderous animal, there aren’t too many horror films where the (single) Black character has made it out alive, or past the first 10 minutes for that matter. But even more striking is the dearth of horror films featuring a Black lead or just more than the one (disposal) Black character.
Or at least not so many contemporary ones. Turns out there have been some pretty dope subversive horror movies (lots in the Blaxploitation era) featuring Black casts, Black villains, and even some Black survivors!
1. Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde (William Crain, 1976)
So you ever notice that most of the scary homicidal murderers in horror films are white guys or creepy little white girls? Yea. So did director William Crain back in the 70’s. In this race-centric rewrite of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Crain serves up a world of racial reversal, commentary, and subversion, casting the film’s hero as a respected Black doctor who is transformed into a horrifying homicidal white man after he takes an experimental serum.
2. The People Under the Stairs (Wes Craven, 1991)
“Your father’s one sick mutha, you know that? Actually your mother is one sick mutha too.” –Fool
The People Under the Stairs is a real rarity in the horror genre — a horror film featuring a strong Black cast and created by a major director, the famed Wes Craven. On top of that the film deconstructs the veneer of the “happy suburban family” and highlights the issues of wealth disparity and the class wars of the 80’s. Our hero is “Fool,” a young black boy who joins up with two men from his bleak housing project to rob the house of the wealthy, money-hoarding, crazy pants slumlord that is trying to evict Fool’s family. Fool and the others lives aren’t exactly full of sunshine, but when they make it into the house, they find themselves living a whole different kind of nightmare. Rumor has it Craven wants to rescue the film from obscurity with a (appropriately timed, given the latest in wealth disparities) remake. Check a better breakdown of the film over at Quirks & Splatters.
3. Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992)
This was the nightmare that haunted 80’s babies and kept them away from the bathroom mirror at night for years. Riffing on the legend of “Bloody Mary,” the movie tells a much more harrowing and realistic story of a Black man in the 1800s killed for sleeping with a white woman. An artist and the son of a slave, the man was maimed and killed by a lynch mob after the white woman he fell in love with was found out to be pregnant with his child. The mob chopped off his painting hand and replaced it with a hook, which becomes his weapon of choice once he goes all legendary and starts killing folk who chant into a mirror the same taunt that his murderers did, “Candyman…”. It’s a whole lot of scary, all the more so for its drawing on historical truths.
4. Sugar Hill (Paul Maslansky, 1974)
George Romero created a whole new type of zombie with the phenomenon he started back in the 60’s with Night of the Living Dead, and this new kind of zombie stuck. Since then zombie movie after zombie movie has featured a bunch of undead white folk chasing around and nom-ing on other white folk. (Romero’s own Night of the Living Dead actually had a Black hero in Ben Hanser and could be analyzed as one horrifying commentary on Black persecution (in fact it has been! Peep a clip of The American Nightmare documentary about it)).
But Sugar Hill took the zombie back to its Haitian and Voodoo roots when the movie’s heroine Sugar Hill takes revenge on the white gangsters who murdered her boyfriend by conjuring up the dead to do her bidding. It’s strangely, considering it’s Blaxploitation era, a PG movie. It’s also just strange, mildly problematic for a number of reasons, and kind of hilarious. A perfect throwback for the folks who like Halloween but hate actually scary movies, for anyone tired of the modern (endlessly starving) zombie, or for anyone who likes a good revenge film but couldn’t quite stomach Django…
5. Shadow: Dead Riot (Derek Wan, 2006)
Okay, so this one is so so so so sooo campy and ridiculous and, yes, quite bad. But it’s a horror movie led by not just a Black hero, but…gasp! a Black female hero! Solitaire is our hero, who gets thrown into a women’s penitentiary that isn’t all on the up and up, but it’s not just crooked prison guards, beefed up inmates, and creeper doctors that she whips her kung fu skills out on… oh no, it’s way better than that. Turns out the prison hosts the super-powerful ghost of a ex-inmate put to death for murdering pregnant women, and he’s back with an army of zombies (that’s right) to torture the women prisoners. But Solitaire’s got a few roundhouse kicks and some super strength that he’ll have to deal with first. Yup. Recommend watching with copious amounts of hard liquor.