Horror movies are finally part of the zeitgeist. The genre has catapulted from seasonal niche to taking awards like Jordan Peele’s best original screenplay Oscar win for Get Out (2017), containing some of the highest-rated/watched media like American Horror Story (2011-present), and being valued as social commentary. At its finest, horror holds a mirror up to society exposing the fears and anxieties we each hold within. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, what is in the mirror looks nothing like you if you’re Black.
After the release of Get Out, there has been a new surge of socio-political horrors putting the lens on people of color (POC). Some may have the idea that it was Jordan Peele who started the trend, but it’s been going on since the creation of the genre. While progress has been made, one of the ways horror still finds itself lacking is in its POC representation. This isn’t to say there haven’t been movies before Get Out that included POC actors, but more often than not these roles were auxiliary at best and sacrificial at worst.
Here are some of my favorite horror films with Black actors who not only survive the films but shape them. Or to put it simply: movies where Black people don’t die first.
Bad Hair (2020)
I wanted to start off with a new film that came out of Hulu’s Halloween efforts this year. Written, directed, and produced by Justin Simien (creator of Dear White People), Bad Hair is set in the 1980s and follows Anna (Elle Lorraine) pursuing her career at an MTV-like station called Culture. When a takeover shakes the company, Anna is forced to get a weave to cover her natural hair and better suit the network’s changing image. It soon becomes clear that it’s not just a hair change but an identity change. What starts as a working girl story quickly changes into a transformation tale akin to The Fly (1986).
The body horror in this movie is visceral and eye-catching especially to viewers with tender heads. The hair is utilized as the villain; from jump scares to brutal slayings, it does a wonderful job representing the raving lunatic with a thirst for blood — literally — as it subsists through consuming it. In one scene, Anna’s new hair even consumes her menorrhea for nourishment, taking waste-not-want-not to whole new degrees. As her career grows so does the weave’s blood lust and things get even more complicated once she realizes other people are getting the same weave she did.
This movie bills itself as horror-comedy, so the aim is to entertain more than horrify, but Anna’s transformation IS frightening to watch. It leaves viewers asking what parts of ourselves are we willing to give up just to excel? When does adapting become an act of violence against ourselves and those we love?
Vampires vs. the Bronx (2020)
Another 2020 movie from streaming service Netflix for this year’s Halloween offerings, Vampires vs. the Bronx is exactly what it sounds like — the craven undead warring against the boogie down.
Written by Oz Rodriguez and Blaise Hemingway, this movie has goonies vibes for days as a group of kids go about trying to organize a block party to raise money for their favorite local bodega. This is vital as the neighborhood is increasingly gentrified by a wealthy real estate group strategically buying up property. Of course, vampires are the culprits, and from there the title becomes the plot. The movie does itself a service by not trying to reinvent the wheel with vampires. These are classic creatures of the night: not showing up in mirrors, not being able to enter places without being invited in, and relishing in draining victims of their blood. There is a particular vampire who plays the stereotypical Transylvanian undead with a dash of hipster that is delightful to watch.
While a comedy foremost, there are some genuinely affecting events within. From watching favorite characters die to watching the group of gangly preteens realize that they can affect change on their own despite their age, it is boisterous and scary in a way that not only makes you root for the heroes but has you also believing in yourself and your friends at the end of it. They leave room for a sequel which I hope comes to fruition. It also pays homage to the next movie I’m about to mention.
The People Under the Stairs (1991)
If you’re a devout fan of Wes Craven, then you might know about this one. The People Under the Stairs, like Vampires vs. the Bronx, is a horror-comedy about gentrification but swap out the vampires with kidnapping and cannibalism.
The film starts off with Fool (Brandon Adams) finding out his family is getting evicted. So obviously he must go to his landlord’s house to steal a purported fortune, but instead of riches, Fool finds a bunch of people locked in the cellar. As Fool runs through the house trying to escape his insane landlords, the film serves up shock scares, social commentary, and a good amount of gore. While the movie is funny, it’s also terrifying in the sense that there is nothing supernatural at play here — these are just normal people doing awful things. Another great thing about the movie: it has Ving Rhames in it.
As the years go by, this movie becomes more and more relevant. This can be clearly seen with Jordan Peele tapped to produce a remake. It’s a fun and interesting watch. A warning though: if you weren’t afraid of gimp suits before, you might be after seeing this movie.
All these films have been dubbed or claimed themselves to be horror comedies. While they are personal favorites, it’s a disappointment that they are comedies. I believe filmmakers opt to mix humor in these movies centering Black experiences in order to make the very real parallels we see in our own lives easier to manage. One day I hope there will be more horror movies with Black leads that aren’t comedies but just good horror.
Aaron Laroche is a comedian and writer based in New York.
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