The early 1990s were a tumultuous time in the relatively recent past in U.S. history. It was also a time of social and political awakening. Hip-hop music was hitting its stride and could no longer be ignored by mainstream America. Director Spike Lee achieved critical acclaim for his epic 1989 depiction of inner city racial tensions during the hottest day of the summer in DO THE RIGHT THING. Along with DO THE RIGHT THING came the rebellious theme “Fight the Power” by hip-hop legends, Public Enemy. The stage was set, and there was no turning back.
Afrocentric horror was nothing new. The 1970s brought us blaxploitation twist to genre films with BLACULA, DR. BLACK, MR. HYDE, and BLACKENSTEIN. In most cases, these films were entertaining, but only applied an African American cast to an already established mythology. Not only that, but also for comedic effect.
Twenty years later, horror audiences were finally treated to movies that depicted African American characters in meaningful roles. Films like DEF BY TEMPTATION, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, CANDYMAN, and TALES FROM THE HOOD helped socio-political ideas about race and class push to the forefront of horror cinema.
Director Wes Craven had never shied away from interjecting a thought provoking allegory to his films, but 1991’s THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS pushed the envelope further. The film treated it’s audience with the respect it deserved. White America hadn’t been forced to look at the crumbling inner city struggle. When Leroy (Ving Rhames) plans a burglary at the residence of a white couple that live in the neighborhood, the scheme is not racially motivated. The targets are chosen, because they are the slumlords that are taking the rent money from community, but were letting the buildings they managed, fall apart.
Little do Leroy and his crew know, that the Man (Everett McGill) and Woman (Wendy Robie) are not only rich slumlords sucking the neighborhood dry, but they are also blood thirsty psychos that revel in murder, torture, and kidnapping. No other horror movie had depicted the inner city struggle of race and class so blatantly before or since. Seeing the down trodden people, that had been screwed over by the couple, ban together showed real hope for what we can do when the working class work together.
The next year brought us the amazing and thought provoking CANDYMAN, based on the story THE FORBIDDEN, written by master of horror Clive Barker. Nobody gave a fuck about the projects, let alone horror audiences. Thanks to CANDYMAN, every horror nerd knows that Cabrini Green was the most notorious housing project in Chicago. Not only did CANDYMAN bring attention to the living conditions of housing projects, but it also introduced us to Daniel Robitaille (Tony Todd), one of the most sympathetic characters in horror movies since James Whale brought the Frankenstein’ s monster to life in 1931.
Not only does the audience feel compassion for the murderous titular soul, but you hope he is returned to his love, who is reincarnated in college grad student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen). This is the first time I can remember an inter-racial love affair in a main stream horror film. Yes, CANDYMAN is filled with top notch gore and brutal kills, but it’s also a story of love, revenge, and class struggle. CANDYMAN is a revolutionary tale that remains a milestone in the history of genre films.
A staple of the horror genre has always been the anthology film, and in 1995 executive producer Spike Lee helped director Rusty Cundieff bring his vision of an Afrocentric EC-Comics-style movie called TALES FROM THE HOOD become a reality. Before TALES FROM THE HOOD, Cundieff had only directed the independent, hip hop, mockumentary FEAR OF A BLACK HAT. With only done a comedy before, TALES FROM THE HOOD could have easily gone the route of a horror comedy or high camp very easily. I’m glad it stuck to the format of E.C. Comics morality tales.
The vignette ROGUE COP REVELATION mirrored the recent events of the Rodney King beating, while HARD-CORE CONVERT was able to relate black on black gang crime as being the same as lynchings of the Klu Klux Klan. Other topics covered are domestic violence and normalization of racism. Thanks to an all-star cast that included David Alan Grier, Clarence Williams III, and Corben Bersen, and Spike Lee’s name behind it, TALES FROM THE HOOD received a wide release and made horror movie history.
Sure the ’90s were a turbulent time, but thankfully horror kept up with the times. The horror genre became a trojan horse that helped a generation deal with the Bush Sr. presidency. A revolution was happening, and it was an exciting time to be a horror nerd. African-American horror fans finally had intelligent cinema they could relate to, and white horror fans were made conscious of the hardships endured in the black community. Honky America was losing their grip on most aspects of the media, and due to the rise of “urban horror” they finally had a real reason to be scared shitless.
Tags: Black History Month, Black History Month Week, Clarence Williams III, clive barker, Corben Bersen, David Alan Grier, Everett McGill, Horror, Rusty Cundieff, spike lee, The 1990s, Tony Todd, Ving Rhames, Virginia Madsen, Wes Craven