Horror Noire (2019)

It’s initially tempting to receive the Shudder-produced documentary Horror Noire as a kind of celebratory victory lap after the financial & awards season successes of Get Out helped greenlight so much new black art in the horror genre. Indeed, the film includes several interviews with black creators whose latest projects were funded in the wake of Get Out’s game-changing pop culture impact, including author Robin R. Means Coleman, whose eponymous source material itself was greenlit into this feature-length documentary the very morning after Jordan Peele won his Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (as reported on an episode of Shock Waves early this year). Horror Noire does allow the recent success story of Get Out to boost morale on its back end, and several black authors & filmmakers do use the opportunity to plug their latest projects, but this documentary is just as much of a rebuke as it is a celebration. It’s first & foremost an academic conversation covering the history of black representation in American horror cinema, from the coded racial caricature of amoral classics like King Kong & The Creature from The Black Lagoon to the celebratory upswing in black filmmaking in the modern day. The history of black representation, black audiences, and black art in American pop culture doesn’t leave a lot of room for Horror Noire to play like the victory lap a lesser film could slip into, and it’s impressive to see a talking-heads doc on this scale & subject to be willing to have those tough conversations. As one interviewee puts it, “We’ve always loved horror, but horror hasn’t always loved us.”

The list of celebrity interviewees from The Black Horror Hall of Fame gathered here is impressive and alone worth the effort of putting this doc together: Jordan Peele, Ernest Dickerson, Ken Foree, Tony Todd, Loretta Divine, Keith Davis, The Craft’s Rachel True, etc. Their talking-heads commentary is smartly staged as audiences watching the screen inside a movie theater rather than as creators toiling in their workspaces, emphasizing how onscreen representation shaped them as people as well as artists. The real joy of this film, however, is how much it allows author Robin R. Means Coleman to guide the discussion in her own words instead of letting the flashier celebrity interviewees fully take over. She obviously has a reverence for horror cinema as an artform, but she’s also fearless in interrogating the ways it has failed black audiences since the very beginning. American history itself is declared to be “black horror.” Birth of Nation is framed as a horror film from black audiences’ POV. Tropes like the easily scared back buffoon providing comedic relief, the “magical negro” helping white characters navigate supernatural realms, and the sole black character being the first to die – and so on – are called out for their social menace even in beloved horror classics like Candyman & The Shining. Get Out’s success is contextualized as a cyclical breakthrough moment that’s already been seen before in landmark texts like The Night of the Living Dead, Blacula, and post-Spike Lee 90s gems like Tales from the Hood. Coleman is given free rein to throw bare-knuckled academic punches here, and she does not disappoint.

Although this isn’t the surface-level celebration of black success stories in horror cinema that it easily could have been, it’s still only a thematic primer that compresses Coleman’s rigorous academic text into a breezy 83min discussion. As such, I didn’t walk away with too many deep-cut recommendations for titles I haven’t seen before (Sugar Hill, Abby, and Def by Temptation being the few standouts), but the implied promise is that there’s plenty more to dig into once I pick up the book that inspired this production. Since this is just a standalone feature and not a ten-part mini-series, however, that compression is perfectly suited for the task at hand: using the success of Get Out to center a crucial academic discussion that well deserves the signal boost. It’s not the exhaustive, final word on the topic the way a lengthy academic text could afford to be, but it’s a worthwhile conversation starter that isn’t afraid to take on the Goliaths of the genre as it interrogates a history just as worthy of scrutiny as celebration. A weightier film would’ve been less digestible in a single sitting, and a lighter one would’ve underserved the political & emotional severity of its subject. In that way, Horror Noire finds an ideal Goldilocks middle ground, while doing the essential public service of amplifying Robin R. Means Coleman’s authorial voice.

-Brandon Ledet

Bloody Birthday (1981)

The lineage of films borrowing from the killer-children British chiller Village of the Damned has echoed thunderously over the last half-century – from the Euro-grindhouse provocation of Who Can Kill a Child? to the corny folk tale of Children of the Corn to the cosmic Christmas horror subversion of The Children and beyond. If 1986’s Bloody Birthday does anything especially novel with this Evil Children subgenre it’s in the way it retrofits Village of the Damned into the post-Halloween slasher format. If you cut the killer children angle out of the film entirely, this picture would be unmistakable as a cheap-o Halloween knockoff. Its designated bookworm Final Girl archetype walks down suburban streets fending off invitations to party & sin with her promiscuous friends, scenes that look like half-remembered recreations of specific Halloween moments. Her doomed-to-die neighbor friend’s dad is even town sheriff, like in the John Carpenter classic, and the final showdown with the film’s pint-sized killers is a harrowing night of babysitting gone awry. Swapping out the looming presence of Michael Myers with a small cult of toe-headed rascals is a pretty substantial deviation from the Halloween slasher template, however, offering the Village of the Damned formula an interesting new subgenre avenue to explore. It’s an unholy marriage of two horror sensibilities that likely shouldn’t mix, and that explosive combination makes for a wickedly fun time.

Unlike in Village of the Damned, there isn’t much explanation provided as to why the murderous tykes of Bloody Birthday are evil. The three unrelated miscreants are born simultaneously in a small town during an absurdly windy solar eclipse, and their wickedness is waved off with Astrological babblings about cosmic alignments. What’s more important than their origin is the Lawful Evil characterization in their costuming & murder tactics. They dress like shrunken-down Reaganite adults and sidestep the traditional slasher weapon of a glistening kitchen knife for more pedestrian tools of chaos: skateboards, baseball bats, shovels, cars, etc. One of the little tykes even hunts down his elders with a stolen handgun – which would be a disappointing weapon in the hands of a Michael Myers but is genuinely horrifying when operated by a child. It’s unexpected details like that gun that keeps Bloody Birthday exciting even if you’re already over-familiar with the slasher genre at large. It’s not interesting enough for teens to make out in a graveyard in this film; they have to make out in a grave. Not only do the children have an unsettling prurient interest in adult sexuality, peering in on sex & private stripteases; they also fire a bow & arrow through their peephole. After two 2019 releases (Ma & Psycho Granny), this is the third film I’ve seen this year where a killer maniacally scrapbooks about their crimes – a very unsettling hobby for a child. This is a deeply ugly, unwholesome glimpse at Reagan Era suburbia, and the kids are not alright, not at all.

That spiritual ugliness also extends to the film’s look & sound. This is a repugnantly colorless affair, dealing almost exclusively in muddied browns & greys. The sound quality of my blind-buy DVD copy left the dialogue outright indecipherable, prompting us to switch to Severin’s digital restoration currently streaming on Shudder (which was only slightly better, but at least audible). Unlike in most first-wave slashers of its era, the murders in the film actually weigh on the community they terrorize, which mostly manifests in teary-eyed funerals, public meltdowns at kids’ birthday parties, and hospitalized psychiatric retreats to aid recovery. It’s a sense of grief & despair that keeps the mood harshly grotesque & rotten, even when the Evil Children’s wicked deeds stray into over-the-top camp. I personally never tire of the killer-children horror genre and had a lot of fun with this film’s peculiar melding of Village of the Damned tradition with Halloween modernism. It’s an ugly watch in both texture & sentiment, though, one that’s bested as a bygone nasty in its genre only by Who Can Kill a Child?. It works wonderfully well as a genre deviation for both the killer-children thriller and the traditional first-wave slasher, and there are plenty of cartoonishly excessive joys to be found in its intergenerational kills. It’s just also a nasty slice of schlock in its own right, though, so be prepared to squirm between your guffaws.

-Brandon Ledet