There is, however, a long history of horror movies featuring black characters as villains and vampires that not only live until the end (or almost until the end) of the movie but also, instead of being killed, are the ones doing the bulk of the killing.
Spanning the ’70s blaxploitation era through the present, these movies include the stunningly outrageous, the intentionally hilarious, the unintentionally bad and the legitimately horrifying.
In honor of Halloween, below are 10 classic black horror movies that you should know.
1. Blacula (1972)
Released at the peak of the blaxploitation era, Blacula gave audiences an inventive spin on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897), along with film’s first black vampire. Starring William Marshall in the title role, Blacula tells the story of an African prince who is bitten and turned into a vampire by Count Dracula after the prince asks Dracula for his help in stopping the slave trade. Blacula awakens 200 years later with a thirst for blood and terrorizes Los Angeles. He also finds a woman who he believes is the reincarnation of his wife. With taglines like, “His bite was outta sight!” Blacula grossed over $1 million, making it one of the highest-grossing films in 1972 and sparking a wave of other black horror movies.
2. Ganja & Hess (1973)
In this movie, Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones) plays an archaeologist who is studying ancient African tribes when his mentally unstable assistant, George (Bill Gunn), stabs him with a germ-infested dagger, which turns Hess into a vampire. Subsequently, George kills himself, and Hess marries his widow, Ganja (Marlene Clark), who ultimately learns his secret.
More involved in experimental and art house films than mainstream horror movies at the time, Gunn, who also wrote and directed the movie, said that he accepted the project with the intention of using vampirism as a metaphor for addiction. Ganja & Hess was a critical success at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival. Spike Lee remade the film in 2014 as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, which received lukewarm reviews from critics.
3. Abby (1974)
Another blaxploitation horror movie, Abby, presented an update on The Exorcist. In fact, producers originally considered titling the movie Blackorcist. This time, however, a preacher’s wife, Abby (Carol Speed), is possessed by a Yoruba sex spirit. The film was set to be a hit, grossing $4 million in its first month; however, Warner Bros. sued the film’s distributor for copyright violation because of similarities between Abby and The Exorcist. Consequently, the film was pulled from theaters after its first month, and it wasn’t seen again until 2004, when a copy of the movie was released on DVD.
4. J.D.’s Revenge (1976)
A young law student, Isaac Hendrix (Glynn Turman), becomes possessed by the spirit of a 1940s gangster, J.D. Walker. J.D.’s spirit slowly assumes full control of Isaac’s body and uses it to seek revenge on the people who murdered him and framed him for the death of his sister. Although the movie received mixed reviews from critics, Turman and Lou Gossett Jr., who plays a preacher who becomes embroiled in the plot, received high praise for their strong performances.
5. Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983)
Although it’s a music video, Thriller makes the list because, at 14 minutes long, it is considered a “mini-movie.” Oh, and more important, because it’s awesome. I mean, Michael Jackson goes on a date … and transforms into a werewolf … and then into a zombie … and then he leads a flash mob of awesome zombie dancers in one of the most iconic choreographed dance routines in history. Whet??? In 2009 the Library of Congress inducted Thriller into the National Film Registry, making it the first music video to receive this honor. The registry named Thriller “the most famous video of all time.”
6. Def by Temptation (1990)
The ’90s picked up where the blaxploitation era left off and introduced a new wave of all-black horror movies in urban settings, referred to by some as “urban horror.” Starring Kadeem Hardison, Samuel L. Jackson and Bill Nunn, Def by Temptation tells the story of a woman (Cynthia Bond) who seems perfect, but in fact, she is a vampire temptress who feeds on the blood of the men she seduces.
7. The People Under the Stairs (1991)
Horror-movie hit-maker Wes Craven wrote and directed this twisted tale about Fool (Brandon Adams), a 13-year-old kid from a black Los Angeles neighborhood, who, along with two friends (one of them played by Ving Rhames), attempts to rob the suburban home of his family’s evil landlords, the Robesons, a brother and sister. However, he becomes trapped in their house of horrors and discovers the cannibalistic “children” whom the sibling slumlords have been keeping under the stairs. The film did very well at the box office, and before he passed away in August, Craven announced that he was developing The People Under the Stairs as a television series for Syfy.
8. Candyman (1992)
Ranking up there with Blacula, Candyman is one of film’s most famous black horror villains. In this movie, a grad student who is working on a thesis on urban legends learns about the legend of Candyman (Tony Todd), an artist and son of a slave who fell in love with a white woman. As a result, white people chopped off his hand, replaced it with a hook, rubbed honey all over his body and watched him get stung to death by bees. His ghost is invoked anytime someone is bold enough to say the name “Candyman” five times in front of a mirror—at which time he shows up and murders the person who summoned him with his hook hand.
Candyman was a mainstream success and is consistently ranked among the greatest movies in horror-movie history. The film’s positive reception resulted in two sequels: Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh and Candyman 3: Day of the Dead.
9. Tales From the Hood (1995)
Black horror movies in the ’90s often addressed issues affecting black communities, like gangs, drugs and police brutality. In this horror anthology set in South Central Los Angeles, an eccentric funeral director (Clarence Williams III) tells three drug dealers (Joe Torry, De’aundre Bonds and Samuel Monroe Jr.) about four different horror vignettes based on his deceased clients as he leads the drug dealers through his mortuary. Each mini-morality play touches on themes like policy brutality, racism, gang violence and domestic abuse. In a twist ending, the funeral home owner reveals that he is not who he said he was, and the three drug dealers are forced to face the harsh consequences of their damnatory actions.
10. Vampire in Brooklyn (1995)
In this horror-comedy-romance written by Eddie Murphy, the actor stars as Maximillian, the incredibly suave, sole survivor of a race of Caribbean zombies. To keep his race from dying out, he must find Rita (Angela Bassett), the daughter of a male vampire, and convince her to help him keep their legacy alive. Maximillian travels to Brooklyn, where Rita lives as a detective. He terrorizes the New York City borough as he woos Rita, who is unaware of her vampire lineage. He bites her on the neck to turn her into a vampire, and ultimately, Rita must decide whether she will propagate the race of Caribbean zombies or fight to remain human.
The film received mostly negative reviews, which Murphy blamed on the wig he wore, while the film’s director, Wes Craven, blamed Murphy for refusing to play his character funny, instead insisting on playing his character totally straight.
What are your favorite black horror movies?
Akilah Green is a recovering Washington, D.C., lawyer-lobbyist-politico turned TV and film writer and producer living in Los Angeles. She currently works for Chelsea Handler’s Netflix talk show, Chelsea. She has also worked as a staff writer for Kevin Hart’s production company, HartBeat Productions, and as a consultant for Real Time With Bill Maher on HBO. In addition, she co-wrote and is producing Scratch, an indie horror-comedy feature film, and is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow Green’s adventures in La La Land on her blog, Twitter and Facebook.