Fright Club: Best Black Characters in Horror

We didn’t want to let Black History Month slip by without recognizing the best black characters in horror. Obviously, this is actually a countdown and podcast we could have done at any time, but any particular excuse to talk about William Marshall must be taken!

Regardless of the (far too often proven) cliche that the token black character in any horror film is simply the first victim, there are many amazing characters and actors worth celebrating in this list. The all time kickass Pam Grier stars as a voodoo practitioner in Scream Blacula Scream (1973), Morgan Freeman brings his characteristic gravitas to the role of mentor cop and general smartypants in Seven (1995). Wesley Snipes combined vampire and badass in the Blade trilogy, as did Grace Jones in Vamp (1986) – and these are just a few of the candidates we will not be mentioning.

Nope, instead we present you with the five best black characters in horror.

5. Selena (Naomi Harris), 28 Days Later (2002)

When it outbreak comes – and you know it will – what you want on your team is a pharmacist (someone with some medical training) who is not afraid to use a machete. Naomi Harris was the brains and the backbone of the ragtag group of survivors in 28 Days Later. Without her, Cillian Murphy wouldn’t have made it.

The great Danny Boyle, working from a script by Alex Garland (who wrote and directed the magnificent Ex Machina last year), upended a lot of expectations, giving us tenderness in the form of the great Brendan Gleeson, and a vulnerability in the newly-acquainted-with-the-apocalypse Murphy, but the brains and the bravery are Selena’s. That isn’t to say the realities of gender inequality disappear during the apocalypse – Nope! But this is a really uncommon character in a horror film: a strong, black female survivor.

4. Peter (Ken Foree), Dawn of the Dead (1978)

When George Romero returned to his zombie apocalypse in 1978 – nearly a decade after he’d rewritten the zombie code with Night of the Living Dead – he upped the ante in terms of onscreen gore, but there were some pieces of the formula he wasn’t ready to let go of.

Two members of SWAT join their newsman buddy and his producer girlfriend, take off in a helicopter, land at a mall, and set up house while that whole zombie thing blows over. Ken Foree and Scott Reiniger as the buddies from SWAT create the most effective moments, whether character-driven tension or zombie-driven action. While the leads were flat and bland, Foree not only delivers the film’s strongest performance, but Peter is the most compelling character and the one you’re least willing to see go.

3. Candyman/Daniel Robitaille (Tony Todd), Candyman (1992)

Oh my God, that voice! Yes, Candyman is a bad dude, but isn’t he kind of dreamy?

Like a vampire, the villain of Cabrini Green needed to be both repellant and seductive for this storyline to work, and Todd more than managed both. With those bees in his mouth and that hook for a hand, he is effortlessly terrifying. But it’s Todd’s presence, his somehow soothing promise of pain and eternity, that makes the seduction of grad school researcher Helen (Virginia Madsen) realistic.

Clive Barker wrote the original story, and the racial tensions that run through the film are both intentional and required. Madsen’s raspy-voiced heroine offers a perfect counterpoint to Todd, both of them a blend of intelligent and sultry that make them more parallel than opposite.

Todd would go on to love again in the Candyman sequel Farewell to the Flesh, as well as star or co-star in countless other horror films, but it was the first time you hear that voice in this film that sealed his fate as an iconic horror villain.

2. Blacula/Mamuwalde (William Marshall), Blacula (1972)

Did someone mention awesome voices and onscreen presence? The great William Marshall is the picture of grace and elegance as Mamuwalde, the prince turned vampire.

The film is a cheaply made Blaxploitation classic, with all that entails. For every grimace-inducing moment (bats on strings, homophobic humor) there’s a moment of true genius, almost exclusively because of Marshall’s command of the screen and the character.

Though he’s often hampered by FX as well as writing, the character remained true throughout the film, even to his death. It’s the kind of moment that could be brushed aside, in a low budget flick with a lot of plot holes and silly make up. But there’s more to Blacula than meets the eye.

Blacula is a tragic antihero and it’s all but impossible to root against him. Marshall brought more dignity to the role of vampire than any actor has, and the strength and respectability he imbues in the character were not just revolutionary at the time, but were so pivotal to that particular character that he has become a legendary character in the genre.

1. Ben (Duane Jones), Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Over the years, much has been made of director George Romero’s assertion that Duane Jones’s casting in Night of the Living Dead had nothing to do with his color; Romero simply gave the role to the best actor.

Maybe so – and certainly Jones’s performance alone has a great deal to do with the success of the film – but casting a black male lead in this particular film at this particular juncture in American history is among the main reasons the film remains relevant and important today.

Jones plays Ben, the level-headed survivor holed up in a Pennsylvania farmhouse trying to wait out the zombipocalypse. Ben is the clear cut leader of this group of survivors, caring for the shell-shocked young white woman (Judith O’Dea), working in tandem with the young couple also hiding out, and engaging in a needless and ugly power struggle with that dick Mr. Cooper.

Jones’s performance is, as Romero points out, easily the strongest in the ensemble, and that work alone would have made the role and the film memorable. But it’s the kick to the gut documentary-style ending that not only marks the film’s sociological period, it is a horrifying reminder of all that has not changed in the world.

Fright Club: Future Oscar Winners in Horror

One of the most fun facts in acting is that most of the greats, even the truly greats, started off in horror. And, apparently, they all co-starred at one point or another with Keanu Reeves, whose Oscar is apparently still forthcoming. Today we look at some horror films with casts dripping with future gold.

5. Constantine (2005)

Two Oscars plus three nominations. Not for Constantine, obviously, but that’s the hardware and would-be hardware shared among the cast of this one.

We have no explanation for this, but Keanu Reeves shows up three times in this countdown, regardless of the fact that he’s never been nominated for an Oscar.

No!

Francis Lawrence (of the many Hunger Games fame) made his directorial debut with this big screen take on the comic Hellblazer. Reeves mumbles his way through the lead role of John Constantine. Destined to hell because of an early-life suicide attempt and cursed with the ability to see demons and angels in their true form, Constantine battles on behalf of the light in the hopes of regaining favor and avoiding his eternal fate.

Tilda Swinton plays the angel Gabriel! Peter Storemare plays Satan! I don’t know what else you need to convince you to waste two hours, but Rachel Weisz also plays twins, Pruitt Taylor Vince plays a priest, Djimon Hounsou plays a witch doctor, and there’s absolutely no reason any one of these people said yes to this job. Glorious!

4. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

OK, well Coppola alone has five outright Oscars and one Thalberg Memorial Award, as well as nine additional nominations. Add to that Oldman’s win and nomination, Hopkins’s win and three nominations, Ryder’s two nominations and Richard E. Grant’s nom and you have to just wonder why this movie doesn’t work better.

Overheated, overperformed and somehow undeniably watchable, Francis Ford Coppola’s take on Stoker’s classic vampire tale is a train wreck.

Keanu Reeves is awful. Winona Ryder is awful. Anthony Hopkins is so over the top as to be borderline hilarious. And yet, Coppola somehow matches that ridiculous volume and pitch with a writhing, carnal atmosphere – almost an oversaturated Hammer horror, all heaving breasts and slippery satin.

At the heart of the film is a glorious Gary Oldman, who is particularly memorable as the almost goofily macabre pre-London Dracula. Tom Waits makes an impression as Renfield, Richard E. Grant offers a nicely wearied turn as the asylum’s keeper, Dr. Seward, and the lovely Sadie Frost joins a slew of nubile vampire women to keep the film simmering. It’s a sloppy stew, but it is just so tasty.

3. The Gift (2000)

Blanchett has two, Swank has two, Simmons has one, writer Billy Bob Thornton has one plus, including Danny Elfman and Greg Kinnear, there’s another 11 Oscar nominations for this cast and crew. And yet…

Thornton co-writes this supernatural backwoods thriller, allegedly about experiences his mother had as a clairvoyant. Sam Raimi, who’d just directed Thornton to an Oscar nomination with A Simple Plan, directs a star-heavy cast: Cate Blanchette, Keanu Reeves, JK Simmons, Gary Cole,  Hilary Swank, Giovanni Ribisi, Katie Holmes and Greg Kinnear.

Blanchette is a small town Georgia fortune teller (though she doesn’t like that label). Recently widowed and raising three young boys, she’s the picture of vulnerability and Blanchette is, of course, excellent. This is one of Reeves’s stronger performances, too, as the violent rube suspected of murdering a lovely young missing person (Holmes).

Ribisi does the best by the film, which is a fun if predictable little spook show. Raimi can’t quite find his tone, and humorless horror is definitely not the filmmaker’s strong suit. Still, the cast is just about enough to make the film really shine.

2. Zombieland (2009)

Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin and Bill Murray each have at least one Oscar nomination; Stone’s also won one. And in a lovely change of pace, the movie they made together kicks all manner of ass.

Hilarious, scary, action-packed, clever and, when necessary, touching, Zombieland ranks as one of the most fun zombie movies ever made. How much of that is due to Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s spot-on screenplay? Loads. How much credit goes to director Ruben Fleischer? Well, he did stage that utterly fantastic theme park kiosk shootout of death, didn’t he?

But let’s be honest, the chemistry among the four leads, their comic timing and simple, undeniable talent is what raises this film to the highest of genre heights.

1. American Psycho (2000)

Truth be told, Christian Bale should have won the Oscar for this iconic slice of perfection. He did not, but he did win for The Fighter, with three nominations in quick succession after that. Reese Witherspoon has one win, one nom and Jared Leto has one win. Meanwhile, Chloe Sevigny has one nomination to Willem Dafoe’s four.

It this film better than all of those? Hell yes. These fantastic actors mingle in a giddy hatchet to the head of the abiding culture of the Eighties. American Psycho represents the sleekest, most confident black comedy – perhaps ever. Writer/director Mary Harron’s send up of the soulless Reagan era is breathtakingly handled, from the set decoration to the soundtrack, but the film works as well as a horror picture as it does a comedy. 

As solid as this cast is, and top to bottom it is perfect, every performance is eclipsed by the lunatic genius of Bale’s work. Volatile, soulless, misogynistic and insane, yet somehow he also draws some empathy. It is wild, brilliant work that marked a talent preparing for big things.

Screening Room: Godzilla 2, Rocketman, Ma

Big, bold, oversized weekend in movies. We talk through Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Rocketman and Ma and hit on all that’s worth a look in new home entertainment.

Listen to the full podcast HERE.

Screening Room: Aladdin, Booksmart, Brightburn, Shadow, Non-Fiction, The White Crow

A veritable smorgasbord of films available this weekend – something for every appetite. We run through Aladdin, Booksmart, Brightburn, Shadow, Non-Fiction, The White Crow and all that’s new in home entertainment.

Listen to the full podcast HERE.

Screening Room: Long Shot, UglyDolls, The Intruder, Her Smell, The River and the Wall, Ask Dr. Ruth

A lot of new movies opening in Edgame’s aftermath. We talk through the good, the bad, the ugly, the missable and what’s new in home entertainment, including Long Shot, UglyDolls, The Intruder, Her Smell, The River and the Wall and Ask Dr. Ruth.

Listen to the full podcast HERE.

Screening Room: Missing Link, Hellboy, Little, After, Master Z

Lots and lots to cover in the Screening Room this week: Missing Link, Hellboy, Little, After, and Master Z: Ip Man Legacy.  Plus just as many new home entertainment releases. Strap in!

 

Listen to the full podcast HERE.





Screening Room: Us, Gloria Bell, Dragged Across Concrete

Not a lot of waste in this week’s Screening Room! Whether theatrical releases or home entertainment, every film is a recommendation: Us, Gloria Bell, Dragged Across Pavement and more.

 

Listen to the full podcast HERE.





Screening Room: Kid Who Would Be King, Stan & Ollie, Serenity and More

Old Hollywood is a theme this week, with head scratchers and surprise gems in the mix. Join us as we talk about Stan & Ollie, The Kid Who Would Be King, Serenity, The Great Buster, Genesis 2.0, Yours in Sisterhood plus new releases in home entertainment.

Listen to the full podcast HERE.





Screening Room: Upside, Basis of Sex, Replicas and More

A lot of movies, some of them quite surprising, to talk about this week in the screening room: The Upside, Replicas, On the Basis of Sex, A Dog’s Way Home, El Angel and Rust Creek. Plus, we peek at new releases in home entertainment and tease next week’s features.

Listen to the full podcast HERE.





Fright Club: Best Horror Movies of 2018

Was 2018 the lamentable year in horror that some dumbasses suggest? No! There was a wild and impressive range in independent horror and blockbuster stuff, gore and comedy, psychological scares and slashers. It was a really fun year to look back on, as we do today to rank the best in horror the year had to offer. Join us, won’t you?

10. The Ritual

David Bruckner has entertained us with some of the best shorts in horror today, including work from V/H/S, Southbound, and one of our favorites, The Signal. Directing his feature debut in The Ritual, Bruckner takes what feels familiar, roots it in genuine human emotion, takes a wild left turn and delivers the scares.

Five friends decide to mourn a tragedy with a trip together into the woods. Grief is a tricky, personal, often ugly process and as they work through their feelings, their frustration quickly turns to fear as they lose themselves in a foreign forest where danger lurks.

The film works for a number of reasons, but its greatest triumph is in making the woods scary again. That environment has become such a profound cliché in horror that it is almost impossible to make it feel fresh, but there is an authenticity to the performances, the interaction among the characters, and the frustration and fear that grounds the horror. And then there is horror—intriguing, startling, genuinely frightening horror. Yay!

9. Unsane

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy—brittle, unlikeable and amazing) is living your worst nightmare. After moving 400 miles to escape her stalker, she begins seeing him everywhere. She visits an insurance-approved therapist in a nearby clinic and quickly finds herself being held involuntarily for 24 hours.

After punching an orderly she mistakes for her stalker, that 24 hours turns into one week. And now she’s convinced that the new orderly George is, in fact, her stalker David (Joshua Leonard—cloying, terrifying perfection).

After laying bare some terrifying facts about our privatized mental health industry, Steven Soderbergh structures this critique with a somewhat traditional is-she-or-isn’t-she-crazy storyline. Anyone who watches much horror will recognize that uneasy line: you may be here against your will, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be here.

And the seasoned director of misdirection knows how to toy with that notion, how to employ Sawyer’s very real damage, touch on her raw nerve of struggling to remain in control of her own life only to have another’s will forced upon her.

He relies on familiar tropes to say something relevant and in doing so creates a tidy, satisfying thriller.

8. Mom and Dad

I brought you into this world, I can take you out of it.

It’s a joke, of course, an idle threat. Right?

Maybe so, but deep down, it does speak to the unspeakable tumult of emotions and desires that come with parenting. Wisely, a humorous tumult is exactly the approach writer/director Brian Taylor brings to his horror comedy Mom and Dad.

Why do you want to see it? Because of the unhinged Nicolas Cage. Not just any Nic Cage—the kind who can convincingly sing the Hokey Pokey while demolishing furniture with a sledge hammer.

7. Overlord

Perhaps you don’t know this, but Nazi zombies have a horror genre unto themselves: Shock Waves, Zombie Lake, Dead Snow, Dead Snow 2, Blood Creek. Well, there’s a new Nazi Zombie Sheriff in town, and he is effing glorious.

Overlord drops us into enemy territory on D-Day. One rag tag group of American soldiers needs to disable the radio tower the Nazis have set up on top of a rural French church, disabling Nazi communications and allowing our guys to land safely.

What’s on the church tower is not so much the problem. It’s what’s in the basement.

A satisfying Good V Evil film that benefits from layers, Overlord reminds us repeatedly that it is possible to retain your humanity, even in the face of inhuman evil.

Plus, Nazi zombies, which is never not awesome!

6. Revenge

The rape-revenge film is a tough one to pull off. Even in the cases where the victim rips bloody vengeance through the bodies of her betrayers, the films are too often titillating. Almost exclusively written and directed by men for a primarily male audience, the comeuppance angle can be so bent by the male gaze that the film feels more like an additional violation.

Well, friends, writer/director Coralie Fargeat changes all that with Revenge, a breathless, visually fascinating, bloody-as-hell vengeance flick that repays the viewer for her endurance. (His, too.)

Fargeat’s grasp of male entitlement and the elements of a rape culture are as sharp as her instincts for visual storytelling. Wildly off-kilter close-ups sandwich gorgeous vistas to create a dreamlike frame for the utterly brutal mess of a film unfolding.

Symbol-heavy but never pretentious or preachy, the film follows a traditional path—she is betrayed, she is underestimated, she repays her assailants for their toxic masculinity. But between Fargeat’s wild aesthetic, four very solid performances, and thoughtful yet visceral storytelling, the film feels break-neck, terrifying and entirely satisfying.

5. Halloween

David Gordon Green’s direct sequel is, above all things, a mash note to the original. Visual odes continually call back to Carpenter, often in ways that allude to an intriguing about-face the film is leading to.

Kills—more numerous and grisly than the first go round—are often handled offscreen, just the wet thud or slice of the deed to enlighten us until the corpse gets a quick showcase. The result is a jumpy, fun, “don’t go in there!” experience reminiscent of the best of the genre.

The film takes it up a notch in its final reel, as tables turn, panic rooms open and cop heads become Jack-o-lanterns. The result is a respectful, fun and creepy experience meant to be shared with a crowd.

4. A Quiet Place

Damn. John Krasinski. That big, tall guy, kind of doughy-faced? Married to Emily Blunt? Dude can direct the shit out of a horror movie.

Krasinski plays the patriarch of a close-knit family trying to survive the post-alien-invasion apocalypse by staying really, really quiet. The beasts use sound to hunt, but the family is prepared. The cast, anchored by Krasinski’s on-and-off-screen wife Emily Blunt is amazing. That you may expect.

What you may not expect is Krasinski’s masterful direction: where and when the camera lingers or cuts away, how often and how much he shows the monsters, when he decides the silence will generate the most dread and when he chooses to let Marco Beltrami’s ominous score do that work for him.

It’s smart in the way it’s written, sly in its direction and spot-on in its ability to pile on the mayhem in the final reel without feeling gimmicky or silly.

3. Mandy

Writer/director Panos Cosmatos’s hallucinogenic fever dream of social, political and pop-culture subtexts layered with good old, blood-soaked revenge, Mandy throws enough visionary strangeness on the screen to dwarf even Nicolas Cage in full freakout mode.

Like Cosmatos’s 2010 debut Beyond the Black Rainbow, Mandy is both formally daring and wildly borrowed. While Black Rainbow, also set in 1983, shines with the antiseptic aesthetic of Cronenberg or Kubrick, Mandy feels more like something snatched from a Dio album cover.

Cosmatos blends ingredients from decades-spanning indie horror into a stew that tastes like nothing else.

Surrender to it.

2. Suspiria

Luca Guadagnino continues to be a master film craftsman. Much as he draped Call Me by Your Name in waves of dreamy romance, here he establishes a consistent mood of nightmarish goth. Macabre visions dart in and out like a video that will kill you in 7 days while sudden, extreme zooms, precise sound design and a vivid score from Thom Yorke help cement the homage to another era.

But even when this new Suspiria—a “cover version” of Dario Argento’s 1974 gaillo classic—is tipping its hat, Guadagnino leaves no doubt he is making his own confident statement. The color scheme is intentionally muted, and you’ll find no men in this dance troupe, serving immediate notice that superficialities are not the endgame here.

1. Hereditary

Grief and guilt color every somber, shadowy frame of writer/director Ari Aster’s unbelievably assured feature film debut, Hereditary.

With just a handful of mannerisms, one melodic clucking noise, and a few seemingly throwaway lines, Aster and his magnificent cast quickly establish what will become nuanced, layered human characters, all of them scarred and battered by family.

Art and life imitate each other to macabre degrees while family members strain to behave in the manner that feels human, seems connected, or might be normal. What is said and what stays hidden, what’s festering in the attic and in the unspoken tensions within the family, it’s all part of a horrific atmosphere meticulously crafted to unnerve you.

Aster takes advantage of a remarkably committed cast to explore family dysfunction of the most insidious type. Whether his supernatural twisting and turning amount to metaphor or fact hardly matters with performances this unnerving and visual storytelling this hypnotic.