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Blaxploitation Horror Classics

Posted in Alexander S. Brown, blaxploitation, blaxploitation cinema, blaxploitation horror, cult classic, cult classics, cult favorites, Cult horror, discussion, entertaining, entertainment, frightening, Horror, horror art, Horror Fans, Horror Lovers, Horror Movies, Horror Punks, Independent Horror, movie discussion, movie review, movies, scary, scary movies on February 11, 2017 by Alexander S. Brown

With February being Black History Month, I wanted to write about a sub-genre that doesn’t receive the spotlight it deserves.  Rather than focus on movies that might be too contemporary, or mainstream, I would like to start at the beginning.  Below is a list of five Blaxploitation classics that have gained cult followings, and have laid the stepping stones for modern day African American horror cinema.

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House on Skull Mountain is an underrated gem with a simple premise.  The movie begins with a mambo by the name of Pauline Christophe who dies from old age in her home.  Upon her passing, the heirs to her estate arrive at her mansion to receive their inheritance.  Once gathered, each family member is terrorized and murdered by a supernatural power summoned by a bokor.

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Although I’m sure the scenery in this classic won’t creep out today’s younger generation, there are quite a few chilling shots and set designs.  Examples include: the land formation of Skull Mountain and the burial scene in the family cemetery.  Even the architecture and decoration of the mansion itself felt brooding and empty.  Overall, the entire property is a true stereotype to the word “haunting” in every aspect of its definition.  Furthermore, to increase the viewer’s tension, the director provides optical illusions, that subliminally keeps us observant of the architecture and character’s environment.

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Not only is there gothic eye candy galore, the movie is packed with symbolism.  A good portion of the symbols presented are self-explanatory, such as the hooded figure representing death, or the snake (whereas here it represents evil, rather than Damballa who is synchronized with positive entities.)  Yet, there are a few enigmatic segments.  The crow dropping a charm onto Pauline Christophe’s grave requires more interpretation from the viewer.  In some customs, the crow represents life magic, adaptability, and destiny.  The charm it drops is a voodoo symbol for death.  Also, this scene foreshadows later conflict.  Midway through the feature, we see a caged crow.  Although this could be interpreted many ways, my mind perceived it as symbolism representing repressed life, discomfort, and being restrained from one’s destiny.

Despite this being hailed as a part of the Blaxploitation genre, I feel it should take a step further and become known as Gothic Horror due to its style and set design.

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I hesitated on seeing Blacula for quite some time, because I had yet to develop a taste for campy cinema.  However, upon viewing it, I found myself quickly engrossed due its pacing, plot, and symbolism.

In this re-imaging of Bram Stoker’s masterpiece, Blacula opens with a strong reflection on slavery.  After Prince Mamuwalde and his bride, Luva, travel to Transylvania to convince the infamous Count Dracula to end the slave trade, Dracula transforms Mamuwalde into a vampire.  Such as what any slave master would do to his slaves, Dracula strips Mamuwalde’s of his African name and mockingly dubs him, Blacula.  Next, Count Dracula traps him in a coffin and leaves Luva to die in captivity.  Two centuries later, a gay interracial couple are snooping around a warehouse where they accidentaly release Blacula from his coffin.  Once free, Blacula goes on a killing spree where he encounters Tina, who happens to be the reincarnation of Luva.

One reason I appreciate this film is due to the decisions that were made while filming.  Originally, Blacula’s name was to be Andrew Brown.  Yet, actor William Marshall demanded that the character have dignity.  Because of Mr. Marshall, the concept of Andrew Brown was scrapped, and the backstory of Mamuwalde was born.  Also, the choice of a rhythm and blues soundtrack was a good decision.  It keeps the viewer drawn into the theme of the 70s, rather than the horror elements.

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Another reason I appreciate Blacula is because it is a solid horror movie.  Neverminding how some of the makeup isn’t top notch, the director redeems himself by providing suspenseful timing for scares.  A perfect example of this is the morgue scene where one of Blacula’s victims rises from a gurney, runs down the hall, and attacks the mortician.  In the few seconds this vampire is on camera, she is wide eyed with animalistic rage, her hair is disheveled, and her screaming mouth reveals a set of lethal fangs.  To this day, I can’t figure out why this moment is so effective.  I have been torn between questioning if it’s the makeup, the slow-motion filming, or a mixture of both.  Without a doubt, this vampire is what nightmares are made of.

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Throughout the movie, Blacula embodies an iconic physical and emotional character.  In some ways, his character design pays a greater homage to the literary Dracula compared to other movies.  In the book, Stoker provides brief description of Dracula’s facial hair.  Opposed to Gary Oldman’s Dracula who kept a gentleman’s mustache, William Marshall provides a facial canvas that is monstrously highlighted by bizarre hair patterns, which ends up being nightmare fuel.

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Abby is a movie that I was surprised to hear mentioned when I inquired on my social media about Blaxploitation Horror.  For years, it has been one of those hidden gems that I loved, but I thought no one else knew of its existence.   I can’t help but think Warner Bros. is to blame for is limited audience, since WB sued American International Pictures on grounds of copyright issues.  Because of the squabble surrounding Abby ripping off of The Exorcist, this movie fell into a premature grave that wasn’t resurrected until years later.  Despite Warner Bros. winning the infringement lawsuit, one would have to grasp at straws to see a deep connection between Abby and The Exorcist.

Abby begins with Dr. Williams (Abby’s father in law, played by William Marshall) lecturing his class about the entity named Eshu.  For his minimal explanation, we learn Eshu is a trickster, a creator of whirlwinds, and chaos.  Research proves this brief description is accurate.  However, research also explains Eshu’s duty is to ensure that the world maintains balance.  To obtain this balance, Eshu provokes chaos.

Next, Dr. Williams visits Nigeria and finds a puzzle box hidden within a cave he is excavating.  Upon opening the box, he unleashes the very spirit he earlier lectured about.  As coincidental as this sounds, the world of occultism shows there are 101 paths to Eshu.  After the spirit is released, it travels across the Atlantic Ocean where it arrives in America and possesses Abby.  Throughout the feature, it’s never explains why the spirit chooses Abby as its host.  However, since Abby is married to a reverend, and her father in law is also ordained, one can assume Abby’s possession is because she’s the closest of kin to Dr. Williams who isn’t a minister.

The movie does progress without conformation if the spirit possessing Abby’s body is actually Eshu or not.  Even at one point, Dr. Williams speculates the spirit isn’t actually Eshu.  Instead, it is an impostor.  Other than Dr. Williams uncovering the possessed artifact, and the speculation of whether or not the spirit possessing Abby is an impostor, there are no other connections I could depict between this movie and The Exorcist.

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Overall, Abby is fun.  Some of the makeup designs aren’t great, and once possessed, some of Abby’s dialogue sounds suitable for the spoof skit SNL did of The Exorcist.  By no means would I call this movie scary or grotesque.  Instead, it’s a fun installment in the Blaxploitation sub-genre that does deserve to be watched late at night with a group of friends.  Rarely do I ever say this, but I would be interested to see Abby remade.

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J.D.’s Revenge is a movie I had considered watching throughout my life, but I recently settled on viewing it prior to this blog.  The plot focuses on a New Orleans resident named Isaac.  One night when he and his girlfriend Christella are on a date, they attend a hypnosis act where he volunteers to be hypnotized.  When Isaac has successfully reached a trance state, he becomes the unwilling host of a hustler who died in the 1940s known as J.D.  With Isaac gradually acquiring more of J.D.’s mannerisms, J.D. eventually becomes the dominant inhabitant of Isaac’s body, resulting in attempted rape, murder, and exacting revenge upon those who murdered him and his sister, Betty Jo.

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Out of all of the movies on this list, I felt this one had the least to offer in regards to content.  Still, I enjoyed the movie as a period piece and a thriller.  Besides J.D.’s Revenge, being exactly what it is, a man possessed by a vengeful hustler, there aren’t any deep metaphors, or real social commentary to philosophize on.  With food for thought being limited, I suggest audiences to leave their brain at the door, relax, and enjoy this as a supernatural thriller.  The concept is simple, the cast is well put together, and there are quite a few fun one liners throughout.

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Sugar Hill is a movie I immediately fell in love with upon viewing.  The plot follows an upcoming voodoo princess named Sugar Hill.  After a gang murders her boyfriend because he refuses to sell his nightclub, Sugar Hill visits a voodoo queen named Mama Maitreese for help.  Once explaining the circumstance, Mama introduces her to Baron Samedi, who provides her with a gang of zombies to exact her revenge.  With the basis simplistic, this allows a greater concentration on the social commentary, which focuses on racism.

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This Blaxploitation classic is a must see due to the acting, casting, and character design alone.  One can’t help but like Sugar Hill.  She is portrayed as a strong, powerful woman, which I’m a sucker for in horror movies.  She is full of sass, isn’t afraid to risk her soul for sweet revenge, and whenever she is opposed with conflict, she remains calm with stone cold features.

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The overzealous portrayal of Baron Samedi is one of the most diabolic representations I have ever seen.  Rather his character moping about, he is energy driven with a wide-eyed gaze and a brazen grin.  By the glee he displays when assisting Sugar Hill, we can assume he loves his job.

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Mama Maitreese is a fun character because she is the true personification of what one might expect from an elderly voodoo queen.  She is full of knowledge, advice, and behind her grandmotherly appearance is a force not to be reckoned with.

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After honoring the strongest of Sugar Hill’s cast, I can’t close this blog without expressing my admiration towards her zombie gang.  Unlike the flesh-eating zombies that we have become so accustomed to in movies and literature, these zombies are the traditional Haitian ghoul whose sole purpose isn’t to eat, but serve their conjurer.  Their makeup and their bulbous, glassy eyes feel soulless, robotic, and they somewhat pay homage to the zombies featured in, I Walked with a Zombie.

I hope everyone enjoyed this list.  Besides the five movies I spoke of, there are quite a few other classics in circulation regarding African American themed horror.  At the moment, I’m not sure if I want to focus on movies or books for next Black History Month.  Instead of racking my brains over the subject, how about I leave the decision up to you?  Would you prefer next year’s African American Horror blog to be based on movies or books?  Please, leave your answer in the comments.

P.S. If you say movies, there’s a chance I will have quite a few contemporary films listed, most of which, everyone has already seen.  If you say books, there’s a chance I will have quite a few hidden gems up my sleeve.  The choice is yours.

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