10 BIPOC horror movies to binge this Halloween
From genre classics and beyond, sheer terror doesn't discriminate
I have a confession to make: I'm a coward. I scare ridiculously easily. I'm the person who jumps when someone comes up behind them and who covers her eyes when something gory is about to happen.
I wasn't always this way. When I was a child, my cousins and I would sneak and watch movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Child's Play — movies our parents had expressly forbidden — and we would revel in the fright they induced.
But at some point in my very insecure and painfully uncomfortable teen years, the thrill of getting scared was replaced with a numbing terror that I wanted to avoid at all costs. Since then, I've generally stayed away from horror films, leaving the room when my husband puts on the latest edition of The Purge and rapidly changing the channel whenever a commercial for a new Saw movie comes on.
But last year marked a turning point. I decided to make a historic exception to my blanket no-horror rule and went to the movie theatre to watch Get Out. I did so because even before the incredible reviews, the huge box office numbers and the dream-like award season that was to come, the trailer alone had awakened a fervent curiosity that surpassed my immovable dread.
It was a horror film with a Black lead that made racism its scariest monster. What would that look like?
After years of dismissively watching trailer after trailer of white characters struggling with some supernatural threat, Get Out — with its Black male star (who clearly wasn't going to die first) and a scare that was very, VERY close to home — made me sit up and pay attention.
My reaction is apparently not an anomaly but part of an increasingly documented trend: diversity helps the bottom line. A recent study by the Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA revealed that horror films in particular do better in the global box office when the cast is diverse.
So on opening weekend, I was there in front of the big screen clenching my armrests, jumping in my seat and yelling at the characters. I emerged from the theatre with a feeling I hadn't anticipated: awe.
Watching Get Out at the theatre reminded me of the best thing about watching horror movies: seeing them with my cousins. In the cinema, the entire audience was yelling and jumping with me. We were all on the collective journey of trepidation to unease to undeniable terror — and it was awesome.
It also revealed something new: a film with a protagonist I could recognize, and a situation I could relate to. It made the entire experience way more visceral and as a result, a ton scarier. I wanted more.
This Halloween, I've compiled a list of horror films for you to binge. But instead of the blood-hungry slashers about suburban blonde teenage babysitters that I watched as a kid, I've looked for films that have Black people, Indigenous people or people of colour (BIPOC) as their lead characters.
This is not a comprehensive list by any means. Rather, it's a starting point. Sometimes race and culture is at the forefront in the film; sometimes it isn't. Some of these films may leave you too terrified to leave your couch after watching; others made me laugh out loud because their campiness. But all should be viewed the way I now believe all horror films should be watched: with people who will laugh, scream and jump with you.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
When George Romero, the legendary filmmaker behind Night of the Living Dead, passed away last year, Jordan Peele tweeted: "Romero started it."
Indeed, Romero's independent film is credited with revolutionizing the entire horror genre. He brought fear to ordinary and everyday locations and created monsters who were your neighbours, your siblings and your children. Even though it never uses the word, every zombie movie, TV show and comic book since has taken notes from Romero's depiction of a slow-moving, persistent cannibal horde of the undead.
Most notably, however, was Romero's decision to cast the English literature professor turned actor Duane Jones as his lead. Just six months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jones appeared on the big screen as Ben, the lead character and undeniable hero of one of the most important horror films ever made. Although Barbra's hysteria is incredibly frustrating to sit through in 2018, the movie is still brilliantly captivating decades after its release.
Bees Saal Baad (1962)
In Bees Saal Baad, a film considered a benchmark for horror in Indian cinema, vengeance is meted out over generations. Not only does the man who committed the crime have to pay, but so does his son — and now, his grandson faces the threat of impending doom. The crime that sparks this intergenerational killing spree is the rape of a young girl who kills herself soon after, and her anguished spirit is blamed for the murders. Since this is horror done Bollywood-style, music plays a huge part in the film. As well as being a box office success, one of the songs, "Kahin Deep Jale Kahin Dil," has remained popular in the decades since. The music in North American horror films really needs to step up.
Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013)
History is a rich breeding ground for horror, and some of the most effective stories are the ones that feel disturbingly close to home. The alien amoeba that crashes on to Earth on a meteor is not quite as scary as the monster rooted in the world right here. The experiences that have emerged out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission often sound like something out of a horror story — so it's no surprise that one of the most striking supernatural films to come out of this country uses a residential school as the site of its most fearsome terrors. Filmmaker Jeff Barnaby shies away from any romanticized depiction of Mi'kmaq life, preferring instead to create complicated and nuanced characters all led by the brilliant young actress Devery Jacobs. In the film, death does not always mean the end, life does not always yield hope and ghosts are not always unwelcome.
The Ring was the first in a long line of Hollywood remakes of Asian horror films. Despite the success of this movie and its ensuing franchise, there are many who consider the Japanese original Ringu as the stronger version.
Forget the blood, forget the gore: that's not where the scare comes in here. Is there any other film that has mastered that subtle, creeping sense of dread as skillfully as Ringu? I couldn't even finish re-watching a scene on YouTube while researching this column.
The Blaxploitation era gave us many gifts: classic songs by Isaac Hayes, the action hero we all deserve in Pam Grier and unapologetically political back-stories that would never get the green light in Hollywood today.
It also gave us Blacula — a film that didn't impress many critics but that audiences flocked to see. William Marshall stars as the 18th century African prince whose dreams of stopping the slave trade are prevented by the original Dracula who gives him immortal life and locks him in a coffin. (I told you these movies were political.) I doubt that Blacula — "Dracula's soul brother" — will give you too many scares today, but like so many other Blaxploitation films, its bold storytelling and badass characters will keep you entertained.
Ang Pamana: The Inheritance (2006)
Years before The Haunting of Hill House had Netflix viewers rabidly searching for hidden ghosts in every frame, Filipino-Canadian filmmaker (and CBC Arts senior producer) Romeo Candido crafted his own family drama set in a haunted house.
Fusing Filipino folklore with Western horror tropes, the film follows four grandchildren who learn they have collectively inherited their lola's home and farm following her death. This younger generation proceed to not only inhabit the haunted house but also to insult and anger the various spirits and beings that reside there with their Western skepticism and lack of cultural knowledge. In a world of manananggals, dwendes and kapres, ghosts are the least of their worries.
I'm not sure if the kids still do this, but when I was in elementary school — right after trying the ouija board, and just before attempting "light as a feather, stiff as a board" — a bunch of us would crowd around a mirror and do the Candyman chant.
Well, they would. I stayed by the door and kept my mouth shut.
The terrifying Candyman — played by underrated character actor Tony Todd — was no joke to me then, and upon re-watching the trailer I have a strong suspicion he is still no joke to me now.
The myth of the Candyman is that he was the son of a slave who grew up to become a well-respected portrait artist. But he was brutally massacred by a lynch mob after falling in love with a white woman. The Candyman now haunts the area where his ashes were scattered, killing those who summon him with the hook that the lynch mob gave him as a replacement for the hand they cut off. I doubt I got all of that when I was in elementary school.
Ganja & Hess (1973)
This is a vampire film stripped of every trope, defying every story convention and rebelling against every expected visual cue. There are no capes and fangs, no pale faces or coffins. In Bill Gunn's visual experiment, vampirism becomes an entryway into an exploration of addiction. Starring the distractingly handsome Duane Jones (his second entry on this list) and the scene-stealing Marlene Clark, Ganja & Hess is not concerned with telling a story as much as it is interested in immersing you in a feeling and an aesthetic journey. If you want to be scared, watch something else — but if you want your expectations shattered and your imagination ignited, this might be one to watch.
As a woman living in the city, I've spent much of my life being warned not to walk alone at night. But this film is based on an urban legend in parts of rural India that warns village men, not women. If they go out after dark, they are at risk of disappearing. A female ghost is known to attack men, leaving behind only the garments they were wearing. This film, which was released in theatres earlier this year to great success, combines the spooky legend with a ton of jokes, some dance numbers and a few scares — the perfect ingredients for an entertaining night.
In the same year the water crisis in Flint, Mich. hit the headlines, C.J. "Fiery" Obasi released this Nigerian horror film — a story about zombies rising out of the slums of Lagos because of a contaminated water supply.
It's a poignant and haunting parallel that also illustrates the simple brilliance of this Nollywood film. Despite revelling in the supernatural, it stays grounded in everyday realities. The main hero of the film is a well-rounded character named Romero — a clear tribute to the pioneering filmmaker. In another salute to the late director of Night of the Living Dead, the word "zombie" is never used. Rather, the undead this time around are called "ojuju." No matter the name, they still have the potential to leave you paralyzed with fear.