Justin Simien grew up loving horror movies, largely thanks to his aunt Zora, who, in his words, “probably messed me up quite a bit by letting me watch things like ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ at a shockingly young age.” But he wasn’t a fan of simplistic slasher films; he was drawn to what he calls “social commentary thrillers” like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Stepford Wives,” which incorporated valuable messages among the scares.
And yet, the director never thought about making a movie in the horror genre. “Honestly, it was just white to me,” he says. Instead, Simien went on to write and direct the acclaimed film “Dear White People” and its spinoff Netflix series. One day, he and his friend and producer Julia Lebedev saw a “bonkers” South Korean movie called “The Wig” about — you guessed it — a possessed hairpiece. The two started joking about what Simien’s version of such a film would be, how it would focus on the Black experience in America and the relationship Black women have with their hair. Simien was especially intrigued by society’s perpetuation of the idea that if Black women looked and behaved a certain way, they could have it all. “Hair is just the metaphor we’re using, but it’s really about interrogating the system of white supremacy that tells Black women in particular, ‘All of your dreams will come true if you just give your entire body over to capitalism,” says Simien. “I started to imagine what I could do. And then I was like, ‘Oh, my God, why the hell am I not doing this?’”
Simien’s film, “Bad Hair,” takes us back to 1989 and centers on a career-oriented young woman named Anna (Elle Lorraine). At the urging of her boss, Zora (yes, named after that beloved aunt), played by Vanessa Williams, Anna gets an expensive weave — one with a mind of its own and a taste for blood. Incorporating satire, horror and some pretty impressive practical effects, “Bad Hair” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year and will hit Hulu on Oct. 23.
“Bad Hair” is just one of several current or upcoming films that use the horror genre to paint incisive portraits of politics and society. There’s “Antebellum,” a mind-bending thriller that stars Janelle Monáe as a plantation slave, which arrived in theaters in August and examines how America’s original sin of slavery continues to shape the present day. HBO is earning raves for its series “Lovecraft Country,” which is set in 1950s Jim Crow America and makes a point of showing that in a world full of supernatural creatures, human beings can be the scariest monsters of all. October 30 marks the release of Remi Weekes’ “His House,” concerning a pair of Sudanese refugees who struggle to acclimate to a new life in England and a home that’s menaced by ghosts.
Horror might seem an unlikely conduit for social messages because, simply put, it took a long time for it to be taken seriously. Sure, 1973’s “The Exorcist” won a screenplay Oscar and is regarded as a masterpiece, and Alfred Hitchcock has a passionate following, but many classic horror films, from “Halloween” to “Friday the 13th” to “Scream,” were initially regarded as disposable entertainment. For many years, such movies have been seen as escapism at best or exploitative garbage at worst.
But recently, the genre has taken a massive leap in the respectability department, with Jordan Peele’s 2017 box office juggernaut “Get Out” marking a new high point (Peele won an Oscar for his screenplay). Its success opened up the genre for more filmmakers of color to tell their stories.
Jason Blum is the powerhouse producer behind both “Get Out” and Peele’s follow-up, “Us,” and his Blumhouse Prods. has become synonymous with quality, accessible genre films that turn a profit. Throughout October, the studio will debut eight films on Amazon Prime Video under the mantle “Welcome to the Blumhouse.” Blum says that the success of “Get Out” has made the concept of social messaging in films more palatable. “We have found that filmmakers are eager to bring us material that makes a statement, so we have tried to be rigorous about having a good story, one with compelling scares, and making sure the message feels organic versus just trying to feed audiences a lesson,” he explains.
“Antebellum” producer Sean McKittrick, who was also a producer on “Get Out” and “Us,” says horror is an ideal conduit for politically charged stories. “Most of our fears have some sort of social context to them,” he notes. “All these fears we have — racism and ignorance and hate and this polarization of politics — it’s all based in and fueled by fear. So what better way to explore social problems than through genre film?”
Not all filmmakers want to tackle civic and cultural issues on a grand scale. For Weekes, “His House” was less about making a political statement on immigration or prejudice than it was about telling a personal story focused on belonging and being torn between two cultures. Though the filmmaker grew up in London, his grandparents were from other parts of the world, and Weekes says that growing up as young people of color, he and his friends felt torn. “There was one side of us that wanted to fit in and assimilate, kind of disappear into the culture and be part of, I guess, Britishness,” he says. “But there’s this other side of us that felt very rejected and wanted to pull away and find belonging in our midst and be proud of that and rebel against the culture.”
In “His House,” Sope Dirisu and Wunmi Mosaku play Bol and Rial, a couple who escape the perils of South Sudan only to deal with new terrors when the British government places them into public housing. In addition to the ghosts in the walls, they are confronted with everyday threats, from menacing neighbors to an unsympathetic system that seems to actively work against them — and then wants them to be grateful for what they can get. While Bol is almost relentlessly optimistic, dedicating himself to believing in this new land, Rial struggles to feel at home. “I thought that could be a way into the story, if these two sides were a married couple, and this is their way of trying to work out who they were in this new world and how they want to move forward into it,” says Weekes, who adds that the resulting film is about much more than scares. “I love horror films, but I didn’t want this to just be about horror. It’s about the emotional journey and the emotional feelings of the characters over how does it feel to be in that place?”
While socially conscious horror films have picked up steam in recent years, there were early predecessors. Many point to George A. Romero’s seminal 1968 film “Night of the Living Dead,” which features a Black protagonist (played by Duane Jones) who fights zombies and survives, only to meet his end at the hands of humans. Says Simien, “What you start to get out of that movie is that the Black experience as it is, without embellishment and without adding monsters and supernatural elements, is a horror story.” He goes even further back, pointing to 1933’s “King Kong”: “If you think that this giant Black figure with thick white lips trying to steal a white woman is not a coded racial clue, I would say you are naive.” Simien cites other films, including 1972’s “Blacula” and 1973’s “Ganja & Hess” — a vampire film that also starred Jones — as being incredibly innovative for the time. “A lot of stuff that gets put into the Blaxploitation category is actually art-house cinema,” he says.
Back in 1992, TriStar Pictures released a horror film called “Candyman,” loosely based on the Clive Barker short story “The Forbidden.” Writer-director Bernard Rose changed the setting from the British class system to Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing development and focused on issues of class and race; the Candyman was a Black man who was tortured and murdered for loving a white woman. Produced on an $8 million budget, it went on to triple that at the box office and spawn two sequels. Perhaps more important, “Candyman” made an impression on a lot of young filmmakers, including Peele, who co-wrote and produced a “spiritual sequel,” directed by Nia DaCosta. The new version also examines the issues of gentrification and the murder of innocent Black men. One of the most anticipated releases of 2020, “Candyman” has been pushed to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Though DaCosta made the film prior to the shutdown and before the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked social justice protests, she notes that the subject matter has always been timely. “I think everyone has known that there’s something wrong about the way violence is enacted against Black people, and I think everyone does have to pay attention now,” she says. “And while people may say our film is prescient, for me this movie could have come out in ’92, ’97. This exact movie. It feels like it should be prescient, but I feel Black people carry this pain with them all the time.”
DaCosta believes the horror genre lends itself to social commentary because “it’s f—ing terrifying in the real world.” She adds, “It’s a good way to get people to sit up and look and pay attention or to give a s— because they themselves are invested and have come to be scared. And along the way, hopefully they can be enlightened in one way or another.”
Monáe loved being scared by films like “Nightmare on Elm Street” when she was growing up, but when deciding to sign on for “Antebellum,” she focused on the genre’s potential for a more powerful aim. “There comes a point in my life where my purpose is not to shy away from the actual realities that are horrific. It’s to highlight those and to use my voice to bring awareness and tell people, ‘Yes, we can have all those movies for entertainment purposes, [but] here’s the real devil we need to be dealing with right now, and this is one that we need to be fixing,” Monáe says. “Racism is our monster; systemic oppression is our monster. And we have to deal with these themes first, and we have to deal with them openly and honestly.”
DaCosta says another reason horror works is simply that the genre is a low-risk gamble: “If a studio is going to take a risk, it’s going to be in horror.” Weekes agrees, noting that it’s a great gateway for filmmakers of color to make their mark. “As cynical as this sounds, I think movies like ‘Get Out’ and films like ‘Black Panther’ have been really important to show the industry that obviously our movies are popular and they make money and that people go to see them,” Weekes says. “It gives us a chance to explore themes and ideas that historically we’ve been unable to explore before in a more commercial place.”
Simien says he was in development on “Bad Hair” when “Get Out” hit theaters, and he credits that film with “supercharging” the process of getting his movie financed. He vividly recalls watching “Get Out” in a crowd that was both Black and white. “Maybe because people love Jordan Peele, they came into that film with eyes wide open,” he notes. “And you could feel it in the audience as it dawned on different people what that movie was really about. The themes of Black horror have been here awhile, but they got a big financial and social breakthrough with that movie.”
Of course, a film’s messages will reach people only if they see it. “I think in order for it to be done successfully, the film needs to stand on its own, have a great, compelling story and be entertaining,” says Blum. “When it meets those qualifications, you’re then able to work in a message more successfully. When audiences are engrossed enough, social messages feel less medicinal.”