14 Essential Horror Movies From Black Directors
Jordan Peele's 2017 horror hit Get Out was more than just a commercially successful, critically revered, and Oscar-nominated movie. It was also the most successful horror film ever made by a black director, and Peele's skill at combining scary horror with powerful social and racial themes made it one of the most widely discussed films of that year.
But its well-deserved success also highlighted how few horror movies have been made by black filmmakers over the decades. Peele himself followed it with another successful horror movie, last year's Us, but the filmmaker clearly has no interest in being the only black director working in the genre. Peele spoke about this when he reached out to upcoming black directors with an interest in horror to get in touch with him with the hope that he can get their projects off the ground. He subsequently produced Nia DaCosta's upcoming Candyman reboot, and hopefully there's more to come.
However, there are some other notable horror films from black directors. Though they're often working far outside the studio system, they've delivered some fascinating, weird, and inventive chillers that stand apart from more mainstream horror over the years. So here are 14 examples well worth seeing--some brilliant, some less so, but they all have their place in the history of horror.
14. Blacula (1972)
William Crain was one of the first African American filmmakers to graduate from a major film school--in his case, UCLA--and score mainstream success within the industry. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Crain wasn't initially interested in exploring political and social themes; he just wanted to sell tickets. And he certainly did that with Blacula, a blaxploitation spin on the story of Dracula that was one of 1973's biggest grossing movies. Viewed today, it's a formulaic and dated film, but its impact was considerable, and kickstarted a whole wave of scary movies aimed at black audiences.
13. Ganja and Hess (1973)
Ganja and Hess now stands as one of the finest independent horror movies of the 1970s, but this is a reputation it's only acquired over the past few years, helped by a long-overdue blu-ray release and a recent Spike Lee remake. It's an eerie vampire yarn directed by playwright Bill Gunn and was the only other starring role for Duane Jones, the star of Night of the Living Dead. Ganja and Hess is a weird, atmospheric love story between a rich anthropologist-turned-bloodsucker and the widow of a man he has killed. Gunn was given full creative control by producers who just wanted a black vampire film to cash in on the blaxploitation craze. Instead they got a haunting, oblique, and wildly uncommercial masterpiece and that was as much a study of race, class and religious hypocrisy as it was a vampire movie.
12. Dr Black, Mr Hyde (1976)
While William Crain's Blacula was a straightforward horror comedy, his second blaxploitation horror did attempt to tackle some weightier themes. In this update of Robert Louise Stevenson's classic horror tale, a black scientist is transformed into a rampaging white maniac, killing drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes in the ghettos of Los Angeles. Subtle, it is not.
11. Black Devil Doll From Hell (1984)
Written in three days and shot on VHS by Chester Novell Turner, who took a correspondence course to learn how to make a movie, Black Devil Doll From Hell is sordid, sleazy, and unbelievably amateurish. But there's nothing else quite like it, and it's picked up something of a cult reputation in the years since its initial release. A religious young woman wants to remain a virgin until her wedding night, but unfortunately the purchase of a haunted doll (designed to look like '80s funkster Rick James) transforms her into a sex-crazed lunatic. In more recent years Turner has expressed an interest in making a sequel, but sadly--or perhaps, thankfully--this is yet to happen.
10. Def By Temptation (1990)
James Bond III was a bit-part actor whose credits included the '70s TV version of Wonder Woman, B.J. and the Bear, and Spike Lee's School Daze. In 1990 he gained his sole directing credit with Def By Temptation, which he also wrote, produced, and starred in. It's the story of a trainee minister whose faith is tested when he becomes the target of an evil seductress in contemporary New York. Def By Temptation is very low budget, but it's marked by a smart, subversive script, stylish visuals, and stand-out performances, including an early role from Samuel L. Jackson. It's just a shame that Bond never made a second movie.
9. Tales From Da Hood (1995)
Rusty Cundieff is best known as a comedy director, and his credits include the hip-hop spoof Fear of a Black Hat and a lengthy stint on Chappelle's Show in the 2000s. But in 1995, he directed this horror anthology, which dealt with some pretty heavy themes. Each of the four stories tackled a different contemporary concern--like police brutality, domestic violence, and gang warfare--and placed it in a supernatural horror context. It's an effective, underrated mix of scares, dark humor, and social commentary that feels every bit as relevant now as it did 20 years ago.
8. Demon Knight (1995)
The most prolific black filmmaker to have worked in horror over the years is Ernest Dickerson. Dickerson became known for his work as a cinematographer on Spike Lee's early movies, but while his debut film Fresh (1992) was similar in subject matter to Lee's movies, his subsequent work in cinema and TV has frequently embraced horror. His 1995 film Demon Knight is a wildly entertaining horror comedy, spun off from HBO's Tales from the Crypt series. A drifter holes up in a weird motel after stealing an ancient key, and is soon besieged by demonic forces eager to get it back. It's a fast-paced, exciting, and funny ride that proved Dickerson's love of the genre.
7. Bones (2001)
While most '90s rappers-turned-actors stuck to urban thrillers and comedies, Bones was the exception. Starring Snoop Dogg and directed by Ernest Dickerson once more, this was as much a blaxploitation homage as it was a contemporary horror flick. Snoop plays Jimmy Bones, a well-liked crook who is killed by cops in 1979. 22 years later, Bones returns to--you guess it--seek his revenge. Snoop isn't exactly the scariest of horror anti-heroes, but it's a fun collision of horror, social satire, and some top-notch hip-hop.
6. Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus (2015)
Spike Lee isn't a director known for horror, but in 2015 he applied his talents to a remake of Ganja and Hess. As a movie, the results were a little disappointing. Storywise it's a very faithful remake, but Gunn's unique dreamlike style is replaced by a flat TV-movie look, and Lee adds nothing thematically interesting to this potent blend of horror and drama. But Lee's high profile meant that the original movie received some mainstream attention, and hopefully curious viewers will have checked out Gunn's original masterpiece.
5. Get Out (2017)
It wasn't surprising that Jordan Peele would make his directing debut with a horror movie, given the comedian's fondness of genre pastiches on Key & Peele. But no one could have predicted the huge impact of Get Out. The overwhelmingly positive critical reaction was matched by an amazing box office haul, and Peele prove himself adept at combining highly relevant social themes with a movie that was funny, tense, and scary.
4. Kuso (2017)
Director Steven Ellison is better known as musician Flying Lotus, but even fans who expected his directing debut to be as ambitious and inventive as his albums might have been taken aback by Kuso. A post-apocalyptic psychedelic horror comedy, the movie bombards the viewer with a non-stop cavalcade of gruesome body horror, slapstick laughs, animation, puppetry, musical sequences, bodily fluids, disturbing VFX, and all manner of sexual perversity. It caused numerous walkouts when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, but if you ever wanted to see funk master George Clinton produce a giant cockroach from his anus, this is the movie for you.
3. The First Purge (2018)
The first three Purge movies were directed by franchise creator James DeMonaco, but Gerard McMurray took over for the fourth film. As the title suggests, it's a prequel that shows the origins of the annual night of lawlessness, with the residents of Staten Island given a financial incentive to stay at home while the purge takes place. The First Purge is not a subtle film, but it does deliver some angry urban satire, as the impoverished black citizens fight back against the rich white politicians who treat them as social guinea pigs.
2. Us (2019)
If Get Out was an incredibly effective debut, then Jordan Peele's follow-up confirmed his status as one of the best horror filmmakers around. The movie also tackled themes of class and race, and managed to be both scarier, funnier, and weirder than its predecessor. Lupita Nyong'o delivered two incredible performances as a mom trying to keep her family safe and as her malevolent doppelganger, and if Us isn't quite as focused as Get Out, it remains one of the most ambitious and inventive horror movies of recent years.
1. Atlantics (2019)
Mati Diop is the first black female director to have had a film in competition at the Cannes film festival. While Atlantics didn't win, this eerie supernatural drama secured rave reviews and was subsequently bought by Netflix. It's set in the Senegalaise city of Dakor, and focuses on a young woman whose partner has tragically died while making a dangerous sea journey to find work in Spain. He and his colleagues return as ghosts to say goodbye to their loved ones and also take revenge on their greedy former employer who is refusing to pay the widows what they are owed. Atlantics is a haunting and moving film that lingers in the mind long after it finishes.
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