Nostalgia for the ‘90s is big right now, so it’s probably not a huge surprise Candyman is coming back. The love-lorn killer with the haunting bass voice and hook hand never had quite the box office cred of a Freddy, Jason, or Michael Myers, but Tony Todd’s performance — and his signature vocal rasp — made him an instant icon in an a trench coat.
The 1992 original did inspire two sequels (one pretty good, one… not so much), and remains a clever, smart, and thoughtful slasher movie with all the requisite guts and gore, but also a sympathetic killer with a pretty good motive for revenge. More importantly, the film helped to remind studios that there does indeed exist an audience for horror movies with Black leads.
All it lacked, perhaps, was perspective. The movie’s main protagonist (other than Mr. Robitaille himself) was still a white woman (Virginia Madsen), as were most of the faces working on the film behind the scenes. The new update/sequel/reboot is helmed by a brilliant Black director, Nia DaCosta, who co-wrote the film with Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld. There’s no longer a need to lure audiences into a Black story by focusing on a white lead as a guide. (Maybe there never was, or would’ve been, if Hollywood was paying attention.)
It feels like we’ve finally put to bed the belief that non-POC audiences won’t show up for Black-led scary movies, and while Jordan Peele has a lot to do with that, he was by no means a pioneer in the space. The history of major horror movies with Black folx in front of and behind the camera has its peaks and valleys, but they’ve always been there.
These are some of the best and most significant Black-led horror films. Roughly half of them showcase Black artists in front of and behind the camera, while the others have Black actors at the forefront. Also, this is just a sampling — there are plenty of Black film experts and horror lovers out there who can provide even better recommendations. Listen to them.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Actor: Duane Jones
George Romero always said the part of Ben wasn’t written specifically for a Black actor; that Duane Jones was simply the best actor to audition (Jones’ impressive education and résumé up to that time would have made him a standout on any film set). That seems to be true, but it’s also true that Romero didn’t blithely wander into the hottest moment of the civil rights movement. His work, before and after Night, was always politically boundary-pushing — just a few years earlier, his Latent Image production company produced a particularly provocative TV spot for then-presidential candidate George McGovern dramatizing the issue of infant mortality among Black Americans.
The significance of the film’s Black lead was certainly not lost on Romero, nor on Duane Jones. Released the year before, In the Heat of the Night‘s plot turned on Sidney Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs giving a white character a very well-deserved slap, causing controversy both within the narrative and among moviegoers. In Night of the Living Dead, Duane Jones doesn’t just slap living white folks, he kills white zombies with abandon. In the best tradition of subversive horror, audiences were as concerned with the film’s over-the-top (for the era) grisly violence as they were with its racial politics, and so it probably got away with a lot more than it might have otherwise. The shocking ending has been interpreted in different ways by different audiences, though there’s no question, the death of the hero at the hands of an indiscriminate and armed white mob is as haunting and disturbing now as it was then.
Director: William Crane
Actors: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee
Horror was very much a secondary consideration in the blaxploitation period, an era more defined by pimps, martial arts, and gun violence than by traditional monsters. It’s also an era in which Black stars and, sometimes, Black filmmakers were at the forefront of films that were making big money… for white producers — part of the reason that the whole genre gets very mixed marks.
In Blacula, at least, there’s a Black director behind the camera, as well as the thoroughly memorable William Marshall as Ibani Prince Mamuwalde, cursed to scour the streets of Los Angeles for the reincarnation of his lost love. Though the movie never completely settles on whether it is sincere or camp (with some particularly gross jokes at the expense of the Prince’s first victims, a couple of gay interior decorators), there’s a lot more dignity to the character (and the movie) than the title would suggest.
“What if vampire, but black?” is a premise that probably would have worked decently enough to support a movie during the era, but the title character is at least as well-developed as Dracula in most of his own movies. He’s given a backstory in the opening that sees him arrive at Castle Dracula as an African emissary, there to enlist the Count’s help in eliminating the slave trade. It doesn’t go well for Mamuwalde, but he gets to throw solid shade at Dracula’s racism before succumbing to the vampire’s curse. The movie kicked off a small wave of (generally inferior) blaxploitation horror flicks, including a sequel (Scream, Blacula, Scream) that adds Pam Grier to the bloody mix.
Ganja & Hess (1973)
Director/Writer: Bill Gunn
Actors: Marlene Clark, Duane Jones
No one had ever seen anything like Ganja & Hess, a dark, meditative, and highly experimental horror film. I say “horror film,” but it’s nearly impossible to categorise, which is very likely part of the reason that it was recut by producers into something called Blood Couple shortly after release. Duane Jones stars as Dr. Hess Green, who is attacked by his assistant with a knife belonging to a fictional ancient African tribe. He’s subsequently compelled to drink the blood of his assailant, completing his vampiric transformation. Shortly thereafter, the assistant’s wife shows up looking for her husband and, even once she realises what happened, begins a love affair with the doctor.
Stylish and deliberately paced, the movie focuses on their complicated and guilt-ridden relationship more than traditional vampire violence, with some barbed points to make about assimilation and, ultimately, religious hypocrisy. Bill Gunn had the misfortune to be a Black director at a time when blaxploitation was seen as the only marketable mould; otherwise, he might have been hailed as a visionary. In 2014, Spike Lee remade the film, with mixed success, as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus.
Sugar Hill (1974)
Actors: Marki Bey, Don Pedro Colley, Zara Culley, Charlie Robinson
The small surge in blaxploitation horror touched on most of the major tropes of the thriller genre, though the less said about some of them, the better (you can probably skip Blackenstein, for instance).
Here, it’s zombies — just not the Romero kind. In this case they’re the products of intervention by a “voodoo queen” (played by Mama Jefferson herself, Zara Culley) and Baron Samedi, loa of the dead in Haitian Voudou. “Sugar” Hill, so named because of her sweet disposition, has revenge on her mind after her boyfriend is killed by a white mob boss, and she enlists an army of zombies to destroy her enemies. There’s real creepiness and style here, and the zombies are particularly effective: covered in dust and cobwebs, and with bulging silver eyes, their design is truly distinctive.
J.D.’s Revenge (1976)
Actors: Glynn Turman, Louis Gossett Jr., Joan Pringle
American International Pictures, one of the major distributors of Black-themed pictures in the ‘70s, wasn’t known for innovation, and that house style is definitely apparent here: J.D.’s Revenge combines elements of blaxploitation and horror — but, more specifically, the horror of diabolical possession inspired by the success of The Exorcist a couple of years earlier. A 1940s gangster (the title’s J.D.) is framed for the murder of his own sister, then murdered by his brother-in-law. That’s the backstory. The film proper involves the law student (played by the always great Glynn Turman) who finds himself intermittently possessed by the late J.D.
Though not a huge hit at the time, it’s an effective thriller that avoids many (though not all) of the tropes of the period — and, intentional or not, there may be a message in the ways in which law-student Ike tries to fight the more stereotypical stylings of gangster J.D. The performances in this one set it above many of its contemporaries.
Def by Temptation (1990)
Director/Writer: James Bond III
Cinematographer: Ernest Dickerson
Actors: James Bond III, Kadeem Hardison, Bill Nunn, Samuel L. Jackson
The ‘80s were not a great time for Black-led horror. After a boom in the ‘70s, the Reagan era saw Black characters relegated to supporting roles — often only around to either die first or to serve as a sassy best friend (or both). In Def by Temptation, Joel and K play best friends since childhood. While Joel has become a minister, K put his religious upbringing aside to move to New York and become an actor. Of course, it’s Joel who becomes enamoured of the very mysterious woman that they meet during a night out in NYC. She seems great, but she happens to be a succubus… so, not so great.
The movie feels like a perfect bridge between the video store-horror era of the ‘80s and what was to come, with solid acting and great chemistry between the two leads, as well as some brilliant practical effects and a polished look thanks to cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, who had, and continues to have, an impressive career as a director and screenwriter. There’s also plenty of sex and nudity, so if that’s what you’re looking for in your horror, this is the one.
The People Under the Stairs (1991)
Actors: Brandon Adams, Ving Rhames, Bill Cobbs
Though they weren’t all masterpieces, Wes Craven generally tried to bring layers to his horror films, using genre tropes to talk about larger issues. People Under the Stairs is, by far, his least subtle move by that metric, and is all the better for it.
“Fool” Williams and his family are being evicted from their apartment by their landlords, the Robersons, a married couple who (it’s rumoured), are sitting on a cache of gold coins. An attempted robbery of the couple goes poorly, but Fool discovers that the couple are holding something else: any number of the neighbourhoods lost and forgotten children. The Robersons are kidnapping kids in the hope of finding their own perfect boy to raise — but so far, none of them have made the grade, and so have been locked in pens and forced to subsist on anything to hand… even each other.
There’s a lot going on here, including the very intentional resemblance of the villainous couple to Ronald and Nancy Reagan and television footage of bombs being dropped on Baghad during the Persian Gulf War. Perhaps most significantly, the people of colour are placed truly front and centre in the plot — the landlords don’t even have first names, creepily referring to each other as “Mummy” and “Daddy.” Fool is very much the hero of the film, and helps the Robersons’ prisoners see that, no matter the extent to which they’ve been degraded, their only chance out is through unity.
Actors: Tony Todd, Kasi Lemmons
The arrival of Candyman was a key moment in Black horror. It put a person of colour at the head of a slasher movie, set the film among Black people, and established racism and oppression as the source of the spirit’s bloody quest for vengeance — all set to a Philip Glass score.
Though not as prolific a killer as other slasher franchise stars, Tony Todd’s character was instantly iconic, and this year’s updated version demonstrates Candyman’s staying power. The movie is certainly among the best of its genre, though it’s perhaps not entirely unproblematic, in that it plays into tropes of sexually voracious Black men in pursuit of white women — though the script smartly incorporates that fact into the narrative by building the forbidden interracial romance into the character’s origin story. The setting, the real-life Cabrini Green projects in Chicago, grounds the narrative’s urban folklore, but the movie tries to have it both ways, alternating between wanting to tell a story about the humanity of the residents, and one that’s about how scary the projects can be to outsiders.
The movie also has a great supporting performance (though in the “supportive black friend” role) from Kasi Lemmons, who would go on to have one of the all-time great writer/director debuts with Eve’s Bayou, which we’ll get to shortly.
Demon Knight (1995)
Director/Writer: Ernest Dickerson
Actors: Jada Pinkett Smith, CCH Pounder
Demon Knight (aka Tales From the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight) didn’t get stellar reviews at the time of its release, but it has picked up a bit of a cult classic sheen over the years. I’m a sucker for a survivors-under-siege horror movie, and this one is a solid example of that genre, with a few things that make it stand out: director Ernest Dickerson, known to this point for his work as a cinematographer and Spike Lee-collaborator, makes tremendous use of practical effects and seems to be having a lot of fun with every goopy, gloppy, gory demon attack. It’s also got the future Jada Pinkett Smith taking the lead over the course of the film, becoming that rarest of horror film rarities — the Black final girl.
(The movie also has Billy Zane going full ‘90s-era Billy Zane as the boss demon, as well as bookending appearances from the Crypt Keeper. There’s a lot to like.)
Tales From the Hood (1995)
Director/Co-Writer: Rusty Cundieff
Actors: Rosalind Cash, David Alan Grier, Anthony Griffith, Lamont Bentley, Paula Jai Parker, Joe Torry, Clarence Williams III
The anthology format is often the perfect vehicle for horror — some stories overstay their welcomes at feature length, and scary stories often call for a bit more pithiness. Here we get four stories in a comedy/horror vein, all told in the lurid style of the great horror anthologies of the ‘70s, but with Twilight Zone-style twists and social commentary. Each of them has something to say, and they’re not shy about it. With a linking narrative involving three drug dealers looking to buy from Mr. Simms, proprietor of a particularly creepy mortuary, the stories deal with corrupt cops, domestic violence, racist politicians, and street violence, and each ends with a real punch.
Eve’s Bayou (1997)
Director/Writer: Kasi Lemmons
Actors: Lynn Whitfield, Samuel L. Jackson, Debbi Morgan, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Branford Marsalis, Lisa Nicole Carson, Meagan Good, Jurnee Smollett, Diahann Carroll
More of a psychological thriller than some of the more blatantly horrific films on this list, Eve’s Bayou is nevertheless a tense, thoughtful, and frequently disturbing story about the unreliability of memory, gaslighting, and the unrelenting hold of the past on the present — and their distinct impacts on Black American identity. Kasi Lemmons, one of the stars of Candyman (and who more recently directed and co-wrote Harriet), made a masterpiece with her very first directorial effort, aided by an all-time great cast.Beloved (1998)
Actors: Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Thandiwe Newton, Kimberly Elise, Beah Richards, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Albert Hall
I’m not sure if we’re meant to refer to Beloved as a horror movie, because of course “horror” is a thoroughly disreputable genre and Beloved is the product an Oscar-winning director working from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by a popular and critically adored author. But it’s all here: ghosts and poltergeists, shocks and blood. When it intends to make us uncomfortable, it goes hard, and perhaps it’s that (along with the movie’s unwillingness to colour within any genre lines) that lead to its failure at the box office.
The ghosts of slavery made literal refuse to let go of any of the film’s characters, and serve as a potently uncomfortable metaphor for the hooks that America’s past has dug into its present. Though directed by a white man, the film doesn’t soften the book’s complex and pointedly furious narrative, and it’s an opportunity to watch a stellar cast give career-best performances.
Director: Ernest Dickerson
Actors: Snoop Dogg, Pam Grier, Khalil Kain, Clifton Powell, Bianca Lawson
Ernest Dickerson, who’s already appeared on this lost twice, does not get nearly the credit he deserves for reigniting the flame of Black-led horror in the ‘90s, and then keeping it lit. Bones might not be his masterpiece, but it’s an awful lot of fun. It looks great (no surprise coming from Dickerson), and Snoop Dogg is surprisingly effective as the Freddy-esque title monster.
The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)
Actor: Sennia Nanua
Here, casting made all the difference. Though the character in the novel seemed to be white, the movie cast Sennia Nanua as the lead, Melanie, and also changed the story’s perspective to focus more intently on her point of view. That change adds context to the dystopian zombie story about a future overrun with zombies (well, OK, “hungries”) — Melanie goes from someone whose abilities are feared and deliberately curtailed to someone forced to come to terms with her own power. In other words, she comes to realise that she’s humanity’s future, not those in traditional positions of power, who would rather see her cast into the dustbin.
Get Out (2017)
Director/Writer: Jordan Peele
Actors: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Lil Rel Howery, Erika Alexander, Betty Gabriel, Keegan-Michael Key
It’s no exaggeration to call this the equivalent of an atomic bomb that kicked off a new age of prestige horror — and that, just as importantly, convinced studios that the audience for Black-led horror movies is far, far bigger than they’d ever imagined. Writer/director Jordan Peele made a movie that everyone was talking about — one that speaks directly to Black audiences, but also makes itself very clear to white viewers. The comedy elements only serve to enhance and deepen the horror, while the performances are uniformly first-rate.
Director/Writer: Jordan Peele
Actors: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Anna Diop
Us and Get Out naturally get lumped together, being the first two writer-director horror efforts from Jordan Peele, but they’re very different movies — though there’s continuity between them, if you look for it. While Get Out feels, in some respects, like a mission statement, Us feels like the product of a creative talent untethered from the need to hammer anything home. It’s a darker, more uncomfortable, and in some ways more disturbing film that digs into messy issues of class, income inequality, race, and mental health. The villains aren’t necessarily villainous, and the heroes aren’t nearly as heroic as they seem at first blush. The points being made aren’t nearly as obvious, and that’s seemingly by design in a movie that’s not afraid to start a conversation without an easy end point.
Actor: Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman
OK, so it’s confusing, but this is not the recently released Spiral that serves as the ninth instalment in the Saw series. That movie is something of a landmark in itself, in that it sees a Black actor (Chris Rock) take over as the lead of the franchise, having almost singlehandedly provided the star-power necessary to revive it.
This Spiral, rather, sits at the intersection of queer and black horror, two sub-genres with similarly fraught histories. Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman stars as Malik, who movies to a new town with his white partner, Aaron, and their teenaged daughter, each of them hoping for a little peace and quiet. Naturally, things get weird — first in recognisable ways (barbed comments, casual greetings not returned), and then in a more alarming fashion. Malik, though, both more assertively out and Black, seems to be the only one who really notices the worst of it, and begins to question both his relationships with his family and his sanity.
Black Box (2020)
Director/Co-writer: Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr.
Actors: Mamoudou Athie, Phylicia Rashad
We might not be quite at the point of being spoiled for choice, but there are indisputably more choices now than ever when it comes to scary movies fronted by Black artists: Bad Hair, Antebellum, His House, Spell, Ma, etc. Contrast that to, say, the ‘80s, when there were stretches of years during which you’d be lucky to find even a single major horror release with Black fox anywhere near the head of the film.
Black Box is a solid example of sci-fi horror in the style of Black Mirror (which, OK, the title clearly wants us to keep in mind). Following the car accident that took the life of his wife, Mamoudou Athie’s character has lost much of his memory and, as a result, much of his ability to connect with his daughter. He undergoes a sort of technological hypnosis in order to revisit his past, and finds increasingly disturbing figures hiding within his most significant memories.