With its impressive film library and unabashed passion for the genre, it would seem Shudder is perfectly poised to produce top tier horror documentaries. Thankfully for horror fans, the streaming service agrees. Shudder takes the original doc plunge on February 7th, with Horror Noire. The film is a deep dive into the history, impact, and social insights of black horror films. It’s a much-needed look at an oft-ignored perspective on horror history.
Horror Noire, directed by Xavier Burgin and based on the book by Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman, takes a look at the history of black roles and representation in horror, as well as the impact of black directors and actors in the evolving art of horror from a black perspective. It’s gorgeously produced — structured around interviews with scholars of black horror as well as interviews with actors like Tony Todd (Candyman), Rachel True (The Craft), Paula Jai Parker (Tales from the Hood), Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead), and Ken Sagoes (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master). As well as directors like Rusty Cundieff (Tales from the Hood), William Crain (Blacula), and Jordan Peele (Get Out).
“Horror Noire speaks to the need from the beginning of cinema for black representation in horror”
The film intersperses it’s impressive array of horror talent with plentiful clips — the bread and butter of any film history documentary. The glimpses into the films up for discussion are fantastically edited and well placed within the interviews for maximum impact.
But what really makes Horror Noire shine are those interviews. The talent assembled for the film is impressive. The featured filmmakers were often personally involved in films from the 1970s through the present. Their perspectives are uniquely first hand, speaking as creative participants in the evolution of black horror itself. Combined with the knowledgeable scholarly excerpts, who provide the necessary historical context, the group of contributing talent adds the essential emotional and social connections to the subject at hand.
Horror Noire speaks to the need from the beginning of cinema for black representation in horror, as well as the unique ways a black perspective can bring out the best in a genre that has always been home to powerful social themes. The sentiment that emerges, again and again, is that the black experience is itself, a horror movie. It’s a reality of danger, threats, and oppression that makes black creatives and audiences uniquely acquainted with fear. Horror Noire approaches its survey of black horror from that essential perspective. Each film offers an insight into elements of the black experience, as well as a window into the common horror themes that, in reality, black filmmakers have a deeper understanding of than anyone else.
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The documentary primarily focuses on films that challenged the previously stereotypical and racist representations of black characters in horror. The result is that the film offers more of an overview of horror eras prior to the revolutionary release of Night of the Living Dead in 1968.
The early portion of the documentary does illuminate several lesser-known black filmmakers who were creating progressive, early horror films amongst a sea of racist stereotypes in the genre. It’s an essential illumination of past contributions to horror. However, I would have liked more time devoted to black horror prior to 1968. I understand that sadly, examples of black horror filmmakers and positive black representation in horror were sorely lacking in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. The fact that the documentary had little to discuss for those decades speaks to that. But a little deeper insight into what little was there would have been nice.
It’s a minor qualm in an otherwise staggeringly in-depth film. The breadth of insight into the horror corners of Blacksploitation cinema is itself worth the entire documentary to witness. The horror films of the era, though often problematic and divergent in quality, allowed the horror genre to explore social and cultural themes unique to the black experience. The insights in interviews with director William Crain, and his experience making Blacula (1972), are fascinating.
Horror Noire spends less time on 80s horror than fans of the era may have liked. It focuses on the unfortunate tendency for the slashers of the decade to fall into traps of stereotypes and tokenism, which is sadly true. However, the mention of several films that defied common tropes deserved more time, as did the ability to hear from the black actors who worked in horror during the decade.
But all of this is understandable considering the amount of discussion needed for the films of the 90s into the present. Candyman (1992) gets a well deserved deep dive into all its simultaneously revolutionary and problematic aspects. Tales from the Hood (1995) is given its overdue attention, with great behind the scenes insights from director Rusty Cundieff. Horror Noire rightly highlights Tales From the Hood as an essential influence on Get Out. It brought to the forefront the horror stories that lie in countless corners of the black experience. In fact, I wished that more of the stories in the film and its framing story could have been examined. Tales From the Hood is so emblematic of the social insights of black horror that it deserved a deeper dive. But any shortcoming in this department was in the interest of time and can be forgiven.
“Horror Noire will leave any film history nerd and horror fan with a deeper understanding of black horror cinema.”
The documentary probably gives its most shining attention to Get Out, and with good reason. Jordan Peele’s masterpiece is in many ways the ultimate result of all the groundwork laid by black horror creators and audiences until now. It’s depth of theme and profound understanding is highlighted by most of the assembled interview subjects as well as Peele himself. Up until he gets the chance to discuss his own film, Peele offers excellent thoughts on multiple eras of black horror. But by the time he gets to talk his own work, he points out layers in Get Out that will blow your mind.
When all is said and done, Horror Noire will leave any film history nerd and horror fan with a deeper understanding of black horror cinema. In this sense, it’s a success in the vein of many film documentaries before. Where it truly raises the bar is in its assemblage of black filmmakers, actors, and scholars. They offer perspectives too often ignored in horror retrospectives. Any shortcoming of the film is due to time constraint. It could have been a docu-series — so rich and worthy of examination is every corner of its subject matter. But as it stands, Horror Noire remains as a can’t miss piece of documentary filmmaking.
Horror Noire premieres on Shudder on February 7th. We highly encourage you to watch it as soon as possible, and let us know what you thought on Twitter, in the official NOFS Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!