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Film Review: Horror Noire Sinks Its Teeth into the Genre’s Sordid History of Representation

on February 08, 2019, 12:37am

The Pitch: It’s easy to forget that most people don’t go beyond 20 miles from where they were born, so the electric screen is their window to the world. For that reason alone, modern horror has an obligation to show the outsiders pushed aside for more than a century that they’re valid. Either as heroes, like Daniel Kaluuya in 2007’s Get Out or Melonie Diaz in last year’s Charmed reboot, or even as villains, like Angela Bassett in 2013’s American Horror Story: Coven or Wei-Qiang Zhang in 2002’s Dracula: Pages From Virgin’s Diary.

Xavier Burgin’s documentary, Horror Noire, based off Robin R. Means Coleman’s book of the same name, is a fantastic history lesson on Black America’s relationship to the storied genre. In less than 90 minutes, the Shudder-exclusive doc revisits history through a number of talking heads: Ken Foree and Keith David prove they need a show together, Rachel True finally gets her shine, and while Pam Grier doesn’t pop up, Machete Maidens Unleashed more than makes up for her absence. Academics also have their say as anyone who bought Scream Factory or Arrow’s Candyman Blu-ray will recognize Tananarive Due, for example.

Horror Noire crams a lot within its short time frame, but it’s always entertaining, and like the best horror films, the documentary will certainly hold up under repeat viewings. But more importantly, Horror Noire will begin to open doors: for Asians, for the LGBTQ, for the disabled communities, for the Latinxs, and for Native Americans to all walk through and tell their scary stories.

The Orient Distress: Around 329 million people live in the US. Of that, around 21 million are of Asian descent. With a crowd that size, we should see more of them on screens, right? Tokenism and its many forms are a leitmotif in Horror Noire, and Asian-Americans can definitely dance to that tune. Films like Girl From the Naked Eye and Better Luck Tomorrow should be rules, not exceptions. The latter launched Justin Lin’s career, so authenticity’s definitely a plus. Karyn Kusama has staked her claim, and it’s only a matter of time before we take more notice of Justin Chon because of Gook.

But it’s obvious we need more Asian-American voices, and horror’s always welcoming. James Wan currently has the genre in the palm of his hand, but he’s Australian. Imagine the kinds of monsters shaped by the Japanese who descended from internment camp survivors, or the Cambodians who survived Pol Pot. A Nightmare on Elm Street was inspired by what happened to some who escaped the Khmer Rouge, y’know.

Pride and Prejudice: In America 2017, 4.5% of adults fell somewhere on the rainbow spectrum (the ones who were honest about it, anyway). Twelve-point-six percent of Americans in 2018 had a disability. Those figures might not seem like much, but the US is over 300,000,000 strong. Horror Noire mentions the slow trickle of Black cinema’s acceptance. The sole thing coming to mind created by disabled hands is an unfinished trilogy of surreal films written by and starring a man with cerebral palsy, Steven C. Stewart.

What Is it? and It Is Fine! Everything is Fine. were directed by Crispin Glover, the best Joker we never had, and the only way you can see them is when he tours with them, so anyone who’s uncomfortable can immediately ask questions. The kind of reaction horror audiences live for, and it was written by one person out of 12.6% Americans. The 4.5% have had better luck lately: Ryan Murphy and Bryan Fuller, among others, have kept the blood gushing for years. Still, there’s plenty of room for more terrifying tales of the LGBT experience, as fact or metaphor.

Montezuma’s Revenge: This part’s gonna have a lot of love for John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons. You’ll trip over history’s long tail of racism and sexism whacking Black cinema in Horror Noire. The only group in these amber waves of grain who have it harder than Black Americans is Latinx Americans. Even now, their contributions to this country and the world are barely acknowledged. If they’re remembered. They’re the only people besides White Americans to have fought in every US war.

Even worse, they’re victims of history’s biggest genocide: their population dropped from 75,000,000 to 3,650,000 by the time European colonizers were done. (In fact, said colonizers did so much killing, they cooled the planet to the point of helping cause the Little Ice Age.) Today, Latinxs are being caged, with families separated and toddlers being put on trial. Yet the most American horror has to offer Latinx these days is the honor of having Dia los Muertos’ meaning whittled down to Becky’s cute new skull makeup.

Then there are Native Americans. A group of people who were rewarded for welcoming strangers off the boat by getting massacred, forced onto ever-dwindling reservations, discovering alcoholism, and being told by jagoffs they don’t belong here. Mohawk was an awesome step in the right direction, but it wasn’t a scary tale made by a Native American. Part of creating is venting frustration, so the blockage of a rage centuries old that could be released with a fertile imagination and a camera would be healthy and astounding.

Verdict: Just like Metallica is a gateway to heavy metal (“I’m tired of Hetfield. Guess I’ll give Sepultura a try.”), or Batman is a gateway to comics (“Joker died again? I’m gonna read Sandman.”), Black horror is a gateway to other horror (“Tales from the Hood was cool. Gimme that Black Sunday.”). With that in mind, Horror Noire will also open doors for horror fans both old and new, while also reminding them that the can take these movies at much more than face value. Then the outsiders will branch out to other horror movies from other cultures and realize there’s not much that represents them. And then they’ll go off and make their entries into the genre of violent delights and ends. It’s very cool.

Where’s It Playing? Horror Noire is currently streaming on Shudder.

Trailer:

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