A Brief(ish) History of Blaxploitation Horror Movies

The Blaxploitation film era is, for better or worse, a cornerstone in the foundation of modern Black history. The subgenre, a portmanteau of Black and exploitation, came at critical time between the late 1960s when social turbulence and Black Pride intertwined and the 1970s era of superfly style, disco and funk music, and the continued reign of the all-mighty Afro. Blaxploitation gave audiences films that centralized our communities and made us the protagonists, infusing our stories with socioeconomic commentary Black slang and music, Black fashion, and much more. 

split image of blaxploitation horror movies abby, sugar hill, and blacula
American International Pictures

Many of the behind-the-scenes creatives were also Black, at times putting a realistic eye on their content. Their work was not without controversy from some prominent Black leaders about how these stories reflected the collective. To be fair, not every portrayal shined a positive light on Black communities. However, this explosion soon led to Hollywood’s continuous capitalization and curious outside eyes. A flurry of stories that were, well, exploitative and leaned into harmful stereotypes about Black people came about. (I’m looking directly at Dino De Laurentiis’ Mandingo.) These non-Black filmmakers and directors would take any story and “Blacken it up,” usually to the point of pure nonsense. 

Blaxploitation’s meteoric rise and decline took place in the same decade. But its influence continues to resonate in Black media of all genres. Most people rightfully point to films like Shaft, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and Foxy Brown as the pivotal films of this genre with a profound influence on their descendants. But Blaxploitation horror is arguably just as important with stories centered around crimes, rituals, and period drama with supernatural narratives. Oftentimes, exploring the full scope of what it meant to be a Black American during this time period—or any time period, honestly—involved some aspect of horror, even if it was only clear to the intended audience. Let’s explore the history of a few pivotal (and maybe not-so-great) Blaxploitation horror films. 

When you consider the scope of filmmaking in any genre from decades past, it is often hard to pinpoint definitive “firsts.” We tend to largely filter genres through a mainstream or highly-lauded indie perspective, so many films fly under our radars. Who knows if an indie filmmaker made a lost-to-time Blaxploitation horror in, say, 1967? But, we do know that one of the earliest Blaxploitation horror films is also one of the most successful films of this era, period.

William Crain’s brilliant Blacula (1972) is more than just a “Black Dracula.” It makes a profound metaphorical connection between slavery and vampirism through Mamuwalde’s misfortunes. He is a wealthy African prince who goes to Transylvania to petition Count Dracula to stop the slave trade. In return, Dracula refuses to comply, bites him, and curses him with the name Blacula. He’s resurrected in the 1970s and falls in love with Tina, a Los Angeles native.

At this time, horror was only a couple of years from giving birth to a golden age of slashers. Filmmakers leaned heavily into remakes in the early 1970s, including several Dracula flicks. So, taking that trend, putting Black people on both sides of the camera, and crafting a moving horror film with a love story undercurrent struck the perfect nerve. There were imitators, like the rightfully panned Blackenstein (1973), but zero duplicators. The Black vampire energy continued to permeate the air with a slightly less successful sequel, Scream Blacula Scream (1973). In 2021, plans for a Blacula reboot were underway.

A Brief(ish) History of Blaxploitation Horror Movies_1
Kelly-Jordan Enterprises

But the true standout Blaxploitation horror film of 1973 was Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess, a moody vampire film that dances with some tenets of Blaxploitation films like dealing with “The Man,” overt sexuality, and Afrocentrism. Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones starred as Dr. Hess Green, a wealthy anthropologist whose assistant stabs him with an ancient ceremonial dagger. Hess becomes a vampire as a result and falls in love with Ganja (Marlene Clark), his assistant’s widow. Ganja & Hess is a smart and sexy film with themes of assimilation, respectability politics, and more through the ebb and flow of the protagonists’ relationship. While Ganja can be perceived as the stereotypical “seductress,” there’s more depth to her character that she likely wouldn’t have gotten if written from a non-Black perspective.

Overall, Ganja & Hess resides on the more favorable side of Blaxploitation offerings. The film’s off-screen journey took a strange turn when its producers sold it to Heritage Enterprises. The company drastically recut the movie and packaged it as Blood Couple. I suppose the new owners thought it was a little too “smart” for audiences. Needless to say, Gunn wasn’t happy about the chopping of his movie, which was thankfully preserved in its original format. Ganja & Hess continues to resonate with modern audiences, from thoughtful examinations for its 50th anniversary to a discussion of the film in the documentary Horror Noire. Famed director Spike Lee’s remake of the film, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, brought it to a new generation’s attention in 2014, with many agreeing that there’s nothing quite like the original. 

This film set off a deliciously dark and creative spark that carried into 1974 with more Blaxploitation horror films. In fact, two of them came to us courtesy of American International Pictures (AIP). There’s the wildly silly yet enjoyable Abby, which follows a woman who is possessed by (or, depending on how you interpret it, influenced by) a West African spirit of chaos and lust. (The creators’ limited understanding of orishas is slim to none, obviously.) And that’s exactly what this film dishes out in ample amounts as Abby Williams (Carol Speed) becomes a hypersexual one-woman wrecking crew—a lifestyle not befitting of a preacher’s wife. (Abby also stars William Marshall, a.k.a. Blacula himself, as Abby’s archaeologist father-in-law.)

Abby became a financial success; however, it ran into a legal issue with Warner Bros. claiming it was far too similar to The Exorcist and therefore violating a copyright. There’s a noticeable influence but Abby’s writer G. Cornell Layne and producer/director William Girdler didn’t copy every single test answer. Still, it was pulled from theaters at the height of its fame. Abby spent decades out of print until its inclusion in CineFear’s Collector’s Edition in 2006. Since then, copies are hard to find with the “clean,” original copy of the film still unreleased. As of February 2024, Abby is available to watch for free on Plex. 

Much of Abby is quite campy and ridiculous. However, it does find some grounding in its decidedly good performances and unorthodox approach to a possession tale. The juxtaposition of chaos/evil spirits in a religious Black family and watching a “respectable” and proper Black woman completely turn from those notions offers food for thought but only if you want to go down that pathway. Otherwise, it is a great example of horror fun that’s so bad, it’s kinda good.

abby from blaxploitation horror film becomes possessed and sneers
American International Pictures

The horror genre at large needs its vampires and evil spirits for sure, but there’s nothing quite like a zombie flick. 1974 gave us a supremely fascinating and entertaining offering with Sugar Hill. Despite its behind-the-scenes creatives being largely white, Sugar Hill manages to tell a Black-led story that’s engaging and unique without much of the overt (and thinly veiled) racism of other horror flicks at the time. Is the representation perfect by any means? No. But it could certainly be much, much worse.

The titular character, played by Marki Bey, exacts revenge against a mob boss and his henchmen who killed her nightclub owner boyfriend Langston. Sugar goes to a voodoo queen (we love a voodoo queen) who summons Baron Samedi, the lord of the dead. Samedi raises an army of zombies to kill the mobsters. It’s an inspired premise with dialogue that is as classic Blaxploitation as it gets. Sugar Hill doesn’t lean into the excessive gore or brutality that we see in more current offerings like The Walking Dead; however, it establishes an unsettling atmosphere with its zombies.

Speaking of them, they are deceased African slaves who almost exclusively kill white people. There’s much to be said about a long lineage of Black pain, righteous anger, and, to a lesser degree, ancestral power and veneration. Bey’s Sugar Hill is one of the most badass women to ever grace a horror flick. She certainly laid the foundation for the Selenas, Michonnes, and Jerylines to come. As today’s youth would say, she was mothering.

Of course, there are other films that I won’t dive into, like the ridiculous Vampira (1974) that shows Dracula’s wife transforming into a “foxy lady” or the downright nauseating Poor Pretty Eddie (1975), with its touches of Blaxploitation and dousing of sexual assault. Gross. We can’t talk about them all, right? But we can move towards the end of the classic Blaxploitation horror era with 1976’s Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde. Under the direction of Blacula‘s William Crain, the story does an obvious play on the Jekyll/Hyde dynamic. Funnily enough, the doctor’s last name is not Black, but instead Pride (Get it?!).

He’s an LA-based wealthy gentleman who wants to cure liver cirrhosis. He experiments with potential cures on himself and attempts to force experiments on others. Pride turns into a white-skinned, freakish monster who kills sex workers and pimps before the police gun him down . Respectability issues aside, this film touches on historical and unethical experimentation against Black people. It also flips the Black-coded/othered monster trope established in earlier (and very racist) horror films on its head. Pride himself is supposed to be aspirational or a sell-out, depending on the viewers’ perspective. Predictably, (overwhelmingly white) reviewers at the time hated this film. But it continues to hold a special place in old-school horror fans’ hearts. 

That adoring sentiment also exists for J.D.’s Revenge (1976). It’s a rather somber Blaxploitation horror-thriller with some serious actors in leading roles. Glynn Turman stars as the quiet law student Ike who somehow channels J.D.’s superfly spirit during a hypnosis show. Decades prior, J.D. (David McKnight) was unjustly murdered for a violent crime against his sister that he didn’t commit. As J.D. overtakes Ike, the latter begins to act uncharacteristically while also trying to solve the aforementioned crime. It’s a mental trip that moves at a slower pace yet deftly explores the devolvement of one man’s mind. Good stuff, indeed. 

By the late 1970s, the Blaxploitation era as a whole began its decline; however, these films made a lasting impact on cinema. The ‘80s brought us offerings like The Last Dragon, a martial arts film with heavy Blaxploitation influence. But Black-led horror suffered despite the rise of franchises like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th. Many Black characters became tropes like the sidekick, Magical Negro, and sacrificial lamb. (Yes, exceptions exist, including Grace Jones’ campy Vamp (1986) and the no-good, very-bad Black Devil Doll from Hell (1984).)

Blaxploitation horror’s influence is stronger in the ‘90s and early 2000s, with the anthology series Tales From the Hood (1995), Leprechaun in the Hood (2000), Def By Temptation (1990), Candyman (1992), Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), Bones (2001) and a string of “hood” based films with titles ending in a Z (hello Zombiez). These films would explore issues affecting Black communities, like AIDS, abuse, and poverty, through the lens of scary stories. The continuous rise of hip-hop music further fueled these Blaxploitation-inspired films, with rappers Snoop Dogg, Coolio, and Ice-T stepping into acting.

a trio of young boys stand against a black background and scream as they hold up crucifixes

Now, it’s much more commonplace to see Black horror movies like Get Out, Us, The Blackening, The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster, Eve’s Bayou, and Vampires vs. the Bronx. There’s also the lower budget “hood” films like Amityville in the Hood (2021) and the wildly titled Bitch Ass (2022). (The latter actually isn’t as bad as you’d imagine, btw. It is not a masterpiece but better than those awful “Z movies.”) 

Many Blaxploitation horror films certainly had problematic elements; however, the idea that Black stories have a place in this genre space laid a foundation for great things to come. Whether introspective, silly, or downright bizarre, Black horror stories from the 1970s were truly a special time in cinematic history. 

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