Remember Shudder’s 2019 documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror from director Xavier Burgin? It was great, wasn’t it? And if you thought to yourself that you’d love a sequel, you should know that this week’s Shudder premiere Horror Noire is not that. Not exactly.
Instead, it is an anthology of six horror shorts made by Black filmmakers. Writers, directors, performers, ideas, perspectives, points of view — everything the documentary made us realize we were not getting – is delivered by the anthology.
Production values and performances in every film are solid. Familiar faces of veteran talent elevate the individual pieces. Tony Todd, Malcolm Barrett, Rachel True, Peter Stormare, Lenora Crichlow and others turn in memorable performances in creature features, Gothic horrors, psychological horrors and comedies.
Todd, True and Barrett star as a married couple pulled apart by a cult in one of the strongest entries, Rob Greenlea’s Fugue State, a sly comment on a common problem. Kimani Ray Smith’s Sundown is a fun reimagining of horror tropes led by Stormare’s characteristic weirdness and the action hero stylings of Erica Ash.
Julian Christian Lutz’s Brand of Evil reworks familiar ideas, turning them into an unexpected creature feature that’s both savvy and strangely touching.
Other shorts are a little less successful. Robin Givens’s Daddy digs into parental horror but can’t balance build-up with payoff. Zandashé Brown’s The Bride Before You brims with insight and style, but an overreliance on voiceover narration keeps the film from developing the kind of atmosphere it hopes for.
Joe West’s The Lake also falls just short of keeping you interested and guessing, although a fuzzy backstory allows for a more thought-provoking lead character than you might expect.
The full stash runs two and a half hours and might have played better as a short series. It’s a long commitment, and every film has weak spots, which makes the time really feel like a commitment. But there’s much to enjoy with each episode. Taken as a whole, there’s variety enough in style and substance to promise something for everyone.
In horror, it’s often what you hear—not what you see—that terrifies you. Who can send chills of terror or thrills of another kind with just a whisper? We talk about the best voices in horror.
5. William Marshall
Effortlessly elegant, William Marshall commands respect even before he speaks. It’s impossible to imagine him playing Bar Patron #2. This is the man who tells you what to do, and you listen. You comply. And you hope he keeps talking.
4. Keith David
A classically trained singer, Keith David uses his voice like a tool of his trade. Voice over work, stage acting, song, drama, horror—his buttery baritone leaves an impression everywhere.
3. Christopher Lee
Like another great British actor with another unforgettable voice, Boris Karloff, Lee gained fame playing characters who barely (if ever) spoke. But soon enough, he was lending his saucy baritone to literally hundreds of projects from film to voice overs, theater to music. His elegant growl brought terror to The Lord of the Rings films, but long before that, it graced Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man screenplay with perhaps the greatest delivery it could have hoped for.
2. Tony Todd
Todd’s physical presence guaranteed that he be noticed in a scene, but that voice made sure no one else would be. Seductive and sinister, tender and terrifying, the voice alone made you believe that Helen (or anybody else, for that matter) could be seduced regardless of the known danger.
1. Mercedes McCambridge
Like Nick Mancuso in Black Christmas and Teresa Wright in The Exorcist III, Mercedes McCambridge offered a show stopping, horror classic performance without even having to show up to the set.
The Oscar winner deepened her already gravelly voice with cigarettes and liquor to conjure a sound so sinister, it gives you chills.
Countless movies over the years have pondered what it might feel
like to be immortal. Writer Jon Dabach, in four separate tales with one thread
in common, wonders what it would be like not to be able to die.
His film Immortal strings together these stories,
each one directed by a different person (Tom Colley, Danny Isaacs, Rob
Margolies and Dabach himself), each one depicting one person’s relationship
The composite contains a horror short, two thrillers and one
Chelsea, starring the great Dylan Baker, offers a
somewhat overwritten first act. Baker is beloved old high school English
teacher Mr. Shagis, Chelsea (Lindsay Mushet) is the school’s star athlete, and
today’s lesson is symbolism.
Baker’s as nuanced and fascinating as always in a short that
starts things off with a solid smack.
Of the balance, Mary and Ted is most effective. Assisted
suicide advocates film a video of the longtime married couple played lovingly
by Robin Bartlett and Tony Todd. We, along with the crew, get to know them—their
love, their suffering—and then the crew leaves them to their task.
I feel like I want to send Dabach a thank you note for this
one, just to see Tony Todd this tender. The sub-baritone voiced horror icon (Candyman,
Night of the Living Dead) delicately wields emotion and heartbreak here
in a way we’ve certainly never seen from this actor. Bartlett offers an
outstanding counterpoint, the believable resignation in her delivery weighing down
A hit and run victim exacts precise revenge in Warren, which takes a particularly solitary view: So you just found out you can’t die. What do you do now? The absolute ordinariness, the down-to-earthiness of this one’s delivery—as well as the charmingly odd investigator—give it real appeal.
Even the one that feels most predictable takes a wildly
unpredictable turn—one the filmmakers do not shy away from capturing on film.
In each, there’s an element of discovery that punctuates the story. Dabach and
his team of directors capture a wide range of emotions and attitudes, but leave
the audience wondering just enough.
Immortal is essentially an anthology of short films, and in fact, the pieces do not intersect, nor do they clarify much. Instead, they offer four slices of life—well, slices of not death—and an intriguing look at what death means to us.
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.
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.
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.
Some people dream of the hero. There are folks who swoon during Avengers films, choosing their fave from the assemblage of good guys, or wait with baited breath for Wonder Woman to get her stand alone film.
But what about the bad guys? Are you saying that, just because we like a date with blood on their teeth, there’s something wrong with us? Surely not! Tell us you didn’t get a little weak in the knees for Skeet Ulrich in Scream, or swoon just a little when Catherine Deneuve seduced Susan Sarandon in The Hunger. Of course you did! And why not?
So today, we celebrate the sexy villains. Join us, won’t you?
George Pick #3: Elizabeth Olsen – Silent House (2011)
Olsen is a tremendous talent, consistently excellent even in lesser films. Silent House starts off strong but eventually relies too heavily on a gimmick and Olsen’s tight shirt to keep you interested. Still, Olsen’s vulnerable yet badass character is undeniably hot – tight shirt or no.
Hope Pick #3: Tony Todd – Candyman (1992)
No, he’s not classically handsome. In fact, on paper, Candyman is not that sexy of a villain. He has a hook for a hand, bees in his chest, that moldy velvet robe thing has to smell awful. But Tony Todd’s voice is the push over the cliff. When he tells Helen (Virginia Madsen) “Don’t fear the pain. The pain is exquisite,” you can’t help but want to believe.
George’s #2 Natasha Henstridge – Species (1995)
Species is more a SciFi thriller than a horror movies, but George gets to choose so it’s not up to Hope and her picky rules. No one could blame the guy for landing on this one – Henstridge is fierce and sexy and very naked. What is he, made of stone?
Hope’s #2: Johnny Depp – Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Sweeney Todd is to Hope what Chocolat is to normal people. Sure, Depp is a dreamboat regardless of his role, but with Sweeney Todd, director Tim Burton finally lets him get a little mean. When he lifts that blade above his head, singing of his “old friend,” he is hypnotic.
George’s #1: Salma Hayek – From Dusk til Dawn (1996)
Duh. Bow your head, dogs! When Salma Hayak appears in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk til Dawn, everybody pays attention – everybody in the bar Titty Twister, and everybody watching. Hayek is easily one of the most gorgeous humans on earth, and her snake-bedecked dance is no doubt enough to lure many voluntarily to her eternal servitude.
Hope’s #1: Rutger Hauer- The Hitcher (1986)
Hope had been nursing a crush on Hauer since Blade Runner, but it was The Hitcher that sent her over the edge. Unsettling, given the tender age at which she saw the film? No doubt, but his brilliant eyes and steely delivery and the way he seduced girlie C. Thomas Howell on that drive across the desert was just more than her bored little heart could bear. Don’t judge her.
Who did we miss? Let us know on twitter @maddwolf!