The horror genre has come a long way since the early days of Universal and the cinematic black and white tales of Dracula, The Wolfman, Frankenstein, and other unspeakable and chilling horrors. The genre in more recent decades has also brought to the screen examples of horror stories that had a predominantly black cast. I am not going to get into the political rights, wrongs and whatever’s in Hollywood and the film industry in general when it comes to casting black actors in leading or minor roles in a movie, but I am going to look briefly at a handful of Horror films that have black actors in the principal roles. I suppose it is best to start back in the late 1960’s when racial tensions were at their height in America and were dominating the news in a number of other countries which also included, I must sadly say the United Kingdom.
One of the first horror movies that I personally noticed a black actor cast in a prominent or leading role was the 1968 Zombie picture The Night of the Living Dead, which was brought to the screen by filmmaker George A Romero. The movie centres upon a group of seven people who find themselves thrown together and trapped in a farmhouse that is under attack from undead corpses. Actor Duane Jones takes the lead being what I suppose is the hero of the piece and is to be honest the glue that holds the production together.
The film is now considered a classic that was ground-breaking at the time because of its positive and selflessly brave portrayal of a Black man in a role that was not centred around his race or colour. The film was more effecting and chilling because it was filmed in black and white which gave it a realistic persona. It was a movie that spawned several sequels, imitations, and spin offs and is I think a pre-cursor and inspiration for the popular TV series The Walking Dead, as well as setting the stage for motion pictures such as the Evil Dead seriesand more recent horrors such as World War Z. The plot is a simple one, Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny visit their father’s grave in a remote cemetery and are suddenly set upon by zombies. (I have this trouble daily). Barbra escapes the clutches of the undead and hides in what she thinks is an abandoned farmhouse. She is soon joined by Ben (Jones) who stops at the house in the hope that there could be fuel there for his vehicle. It soon becomes apparent that they are trapped there and are surrounded by the Zombies who have designs on attacking and devouring humans. Ben sets to work and starts to secure all the doors and windows in the hope of keeping the flesh eaters out. They manage to listen to news reports which tell them that the creatures are everywhere, seemingly rising from the dead in search of humans. Barbra and Ben discover that they are not alone and find five more people hiding in the basement of the farmhouse. Harry, Helen, Karen, and a young couple, Tom, and Judy.
Dissension soon sets in with Harry deciding that he should take charge with the group’s situation becoming steadily worsens all of them realising that their chances of surviving the night is lessening by the hour. I think this film is so frightening and unsettling because there is some sort of a scientific or partly rational explanation offered as to what is going on and because the horror and the dread is being inflicted upon ordinary people. The horror in the storyline is not happening due to something supernatural or linked to any legend or myth such as werewolves or vampires, the location of the farmhouse in Ohio too helps greatly as it is something that audiences can relate to rather than a grand old creepy mansion, the location the acting and the music becoming important and integral features. The performances from some of the cast because they are at times so bad becoming more believable, thus adding much to the overall atmospheric aura of the production. The score was not an original one, with much of the music being re-used from stock/library music cues written by composer Fred Steiner and others and culled from 1950’s B horrors such as Teenagers from Outer Space etc. Romero utilised music cues from libraries because he was on such a low budget that it did not r.un to a composer writing an original score. The music from the movie was issued on LP record in 1982 by Varese Sarabande and has received a few re-issues which came in varying colours, the most recent being the 2018 double LP set on the Waxworks label.At the time of its released it was a movie that was met with mixed reviews, but it is now most certainly a classic horror.
We go to the seventies for the next example of Black Horror as it was dubbed, Ganja and Hess also star’s Duane Jones as one of the titular characters Hess Green, who along with his fellow anthropologist Dr Matara, uncover the remains of an ancient African tribe who are bloodsuckers called the Myrthians. When they unearth the ancient place, they unleash an evil force buried for centuries beneath the ground. Matara, is possessed by the spirit of the Myrthian queen and attacks his partner with an ancient knife and then kills himself. After the attack Hess decides t return to America, but soon discovers that he has acquired an insatiable thirst for blood. He seduces Matara’s widow and soon has her craving the same. Together they begin to lure innocent victims into a trap, leaving a trail of bodies that are all drained of blood. Although this is a movie about humans drinking other human’s blood (Renfield’s syndrome) the word vampire is never mentioned, so is it a vampire movie? Well, the elements are all there, but officially no it is not. Duane Jones, is excellent, and comes across as sophisticated, and charismatic as the bearded Dr. Green, and Marlene Clark does well in her difficult role.
The film’s soundtrack makes great use of an African chant that entwines itself through Hess’s consciousness when he is craving blood. And talking of craving if you are looking for fangs, crucifixes, holy water, bats fluttering around and capes you may find yourself disappointed, but in the end will reap the rewards of this classy and interesting movie that deals with addiction, possessiveness, and African American sexuality.
Directed by Bill Gunn and Lawrence Jordan, it was released in 1973, and contained a score by composer Sam L. Waymon, who also made an appearance in the movie. Waymon was born on August 16, 1944 in the USA. He is a composer and actor known not only for his score to Ganja and Hess (1973), but also for his work on Just Crazy About Horses in 1978 and Personal Problems in 1980. He is the brother of Nina Simone. The soundtrack from Ganja and Hess is available on Howlin’ Wolf records.
Staying with the 1970’s and the vampire theme we go back to 1972 and Blacula. Now this was different if nothing else, and if you are looking for sophisticated well walk away now. The movie is set in a contemporary time-period, but it also had a black Vampire character lead in the form of Shakespearean actor and Opera singer William Marshall. Who although did have his failings made an imposing Vampire figure.
The story begins with an African Prince (Marshall) going to Transylvania where he meets and is bitten by the infamous Count Dracula. Cursed with the name Blacula and entombed in Dracula’s Castle after he fails to convince the Count to support him in his cause to end the slave trade. Two hundred years later, a pair of interior decorators, transport Blacula’s coffin to L.A. where he awakens with an unquenchable thirst for human blood. Blacula then begins to pursue a woman who resembles his long dead wife.
The woman’s brother-in-law, a pathologist becomes suspicious of Blacula and decides to investigate the events that seem to be following the vampire around. Sounds interesting does it not? Well maybe, the problem was the movie was attempting to bring the Vampire into the 20th Century, but instead of bringing just the horror it also attempted to give the story a Shaft like vibe and one thing that Blacula certainly was not is hip. Blacula could have been a good movie, the ideas were there but they just did not develop them enough to make it step up to what it was certainly capable of becoming.
The film was mildly successful and because of this a sequel Scream Blacula Scream soon followed in 1973, which was even more of a disaster. Many saying that it was probably the worst horror movie from the 1970’s, well that’s a matter of opinion I suppose. Blacula had a score by composer and arranger Gene Page, with the sequel being scored by Bill Marx, to tell the truth the best thing about both movies is their musical scores.
I will go out on a limb here and say that Bill Marx, did a great job and his score was more in tune with the action on screen and set the scene perfectly, whereas the Blacula score by Page, was more like a collection of disco tracks both vocal and instrumental that had been tracked to the movie, at times being out of place and sync,
I think that the idea was to make some money out of the score as Page was a big name in the popular music industry at the time, working with the likes of Barry White, providing the arrangements for various Motown works, as well as working with Johnny Mathis & Denice Williams, Whitney Houston, Peaches & Herb, Kenny Rogers, the Righteous Brothers, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, the Whispers, Gladys Knight, and many others. As well as having hits in his own right with a disco version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the floor filler Satin Soul which was released on Atlantic records.
So, the producers of Blacula hoped that the score would become a cross over hit with many disco-goers and soundtrack collectors alike as scores such as Shaft by Issac Hayes had done two years previously. Page also scored Brewster McCloud in 1970 and provided the score for Mother Juggs and Speed in 1976. He died in 1978. Blacula was released on LP back in 1972 and is now available on digital platforms The score for Scream Blacula Scream is sadly at this time still not released, but maybe one day it too will see the light of day.
The 1970’s was also a decade in which we were treated to Blackenstein, I feel that this really needs no explanation, or maybe I just don’t want to talk about it? But suffice to say that Mary Shelley and Boris Karloff would not have been amused by this little flick. The movie had a score by Cardella Di Milo who was an actress and composer, known Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999) and Dolemite (1975). And contained music by Ukrainian composer Lou Frohman, who scored numerous movies including Slime People in 1968. Moving on swiftly, to another Black Horror which starred William Marshall, and was a blaxploitation version of The Exorcist, or at least had a story that was similar. Abby, was released in 1974, it focused upon a marriage counsellor who was living with her pastor husband, and her deeply religious mother, her uncle (Marshall) is an exorcist and after travelling to Africa he releases a demon who follows him back to his home in America and duly possess Abby the demon of sexuality is an unholy Nigerian deity and after the demon enters her body Abby becomes a violent, obscene, and a sexually obsessed vessel of raw evil, nothing it seems can stop her or the entity that commands her.
It is then down to her uncle to attempt to free her from the evil. Music was by composer Robert O Ragland, who penned a serviceable score that underlined and punctuated in all the right places.
The movie was not that bad actually and fared better than most Black Horror’s from the 1970’s at times being referred to as a cult classic. The end sequence where the demon is expelled is explosive, literally, but its one of those moments when your not sure whether to laugh, scream or just look on in disbelief. Try and catch the film on Blu-ray or on you tube if you can, no soundtrack was released.
From the 1970’s to something more recent, and to US which I have to say is one of my favourite horrors in the last few years. I am not what you would call a horror devotee as I am too squeamish to go for the gore and the real horror stuff, but US intrigued me and my interest was fed even more by the highly effective score that composer Michael Abels wrote. Abels is in my opinion one of the most talented film music composers around today, his work is not just inventive and original, but it also works so well within the context of the film and also has to it a great entertainment value away from the images. The movie itself was an intense roller coaster ride of events, written and directed by Jordan Peele, this is a slick and classy horror, and one that you can’t stop watching even if you’re brain is telling you too, addictive viewing in other words. It’s also a movie that makes you stop and think which is always a good thing.
The plot focuses upon the Wilson family who decide to take a holiday in Santa Cruz, the plan being to stay with their friends and spend time with them. The family have a day at the beach, where their son Jason almost wanders off, which makes his mother even more protective of her family than she normally is. During the night four people break into the mother’s childhood home where they are staying, and to the families horror they see that they are strangely familiar as in they look like them, but have grotesque and malevolent personalities and are out to do them harm.
The action is fast paced and at times violent, harrowing, and blood spattered, but it is still a movie that seems to draw one in and once you are drawn in you cannot stop watching. The score is integral to the storyline and the composers use of eerie and virulent sounding voices is masterful.
The score is available on digital platforms. Abels also scored the excellent horror Get Out, which was also directed by Jordan Peele with the music also being integral to the plot and adding greater depth and atmospherics to an already affecting piece of cinema. The score is available on digital platforms.