Halloween Treats: 'Blacula' and Other Horror Classics

Mark Harris is a walking encyclopedia of African Americans in horror films, including Night of the Living Dead and Blacula.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

TONY COX, host:

After you take the kids trick or treating tonight, you might want to give yourself a treat - a good horror flick. NPR's Corey Moore profiles three classics from three different eras, all of which feature African-Americans in leading roles.

Mr. MARK HARRIS: I drink your blood, the Omega Man, Play Misty for Me, Blacula, Death in Hades…

COREY MOORE: Talk to Mark Harris about African-Americans in horror films, and you'll see his a walking encyclopedia. He keeps an annotated list of more than 1,000 of his favorites, and he's constantly adding more.

Mr. HARRIS: Hell of the Living Dead, Son of…

MOORE: We met Mark at a local park in Burbank, just a stone's throw from Hollywood, where many of these films were produced. The 32-year-old married writer is always willing to talk about horror any time and anyplace.

Mr. HARRIS: It probably started around when I was 9 or 10. I've always kind of had an interest in scary things and being frightened.

MOORE: Mark has channeled his affinity for the macabre. He's created a Web site called BlackHorrorMovies.com. On it, a timeline dedicated to showcasing horror films starring black actors since the 1930s.

Mr. HARRIS: One of the first ones that really, really got me into like hardcore horror was Night of the Living Dead.

(Soundbite of movie, “Night of the Living Dead”)

Unidentified Man: It has been established that persons who have recently died have been returning to life and committing acts of murder.

Mr. HARRIS: It's like in the 1960s, and this black man was the lead character. He was basically bossing around this group of white people in this house, trying to ward off this group of zombies.

(Soundbite of movie, Night of the Living Dead)

Mr. DUANE JONES (Actor) (as Ben): Because if I stay up here, I'm fighting for everything up here. The radio and the food is part of what I'm fighting for.

Unidentified Man #2: We got to get down into the cellar.

Mr. JONES (as Ben): Go down in your damn cellar. Get out of here.

MOORE: That black man was Duane Jones, a tall, charismatic English professor turned stage actor. He played the resourceful Ben, the only African-American in that 1968 low-budget zombie film.

Professor HARRY BENSHOFF (Film, University of North Texas): Allegedly, the director George Romero did not really think about the casting when he cast and African-American as the central lead figure.

MOORE: Professor Harry Benshoff teaches film at the University of North Texas. He conducts much of his research on popular black actors within the horror genre.

Prof. BENSHOFF: Ben, the strong black African-American hero, is the most centered, likeable character in the piece. And, of course, then there's this very ironic ending.

MOORE: And it's an ending Mark Harris remembers well.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HARRIS: He actually is the sole survivor at the end of the movie. And then on top of that, the movie, you know, has this extra twist, where you think he survives. The next day, you know, there's a rescue party comes, and it's a bunch of rednecks and they shoot him, thinking that he's a zombie.

(Soundbite of movie, “Night of the Living Dead”)

Unidentified Man #3: All right, then. Hit him in the head right between the eyes.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

(Soundbite of body falling)

Unidentified Man #3: Good shot. Okay. He's dead. Let's go get him. That's another one for the fire.

MOORE: In real life, Duane Jones died of heart disease in 1988. He was only 52. His role in Night of the Living Dead became a prototype for many that followed during the blaxploitation era in the 1970s. One popular standout during that time:

(Soundbite of movie, “Blacula”)

Unidentified Man: Blacula.

MOORE: Blacula stars another classically trained actor, William Marshall, as Mamuwalde, an Africa prince who visits Count Dracula in the year 1780. That meeting in Transylvania doesn't go down too well.

Mr. CHARLES MACAULAY (Actor) (as Dracula): You will watch helpless until the black flesh rots from your bones.

MOORE: Dracula turns Mamuwalde into a vampire and locks him in a coffin.

(Soundbite of music)

MOORE: Fast forward centuries later to 1972. Antique collectors lug Blacula's tomb to Los Angeles. There, the vampire awakens and prowls for victims.

(Soundbite of movie, “Blacula”)

Unidentified Woman: There's a big dude with a cape.

(Soundbite of screaming)

MOORE: William Marshall died just three years ago of Alzheimer's. And since he starred in Blacula, critics say no one has brought as much dignity to a dark anti-hero - that is until Tony Todd.

His body of work includes a slew of films and television shows. But fans know him best from the 1992 horror film, Candyman.

(Soundbite of movie, “Candyman”)

Mr. TONY TODD (Actor): (as Candyman) I came for you.

(Soundbite of music)

MOORE: Todd plays a scary but sad-eyed ghost. The son of slaves.

Mr. TODD: Well, actually that was my input. That was my contribution, to be able to have a reason for what he was doing, because that was important to me. I didn't want to - I grew up on Blacula and Blackenstein and so forth. And I just wanted to have a little bit more longevity.

Unidentified Child: I can't say nothing, or Candyman'll get me.

(Soundbite of banging sound)

MOORE: The backdrop of the story is one based on urban legend. Candyman, a talented artist, is lynched for impregnating the daughter of a white landowner. A white mob retaliates:

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

MOORE: They chop off his hand, douse him in honey and turn a swarm of bees loose on him.

(Soundbite of movie, “Candyman”)

Unidentified Man #4: They burned his body on a giant pyre, and then scattered his ashes over Cabrini-Green.

MOORE: Centuries later, Candyman haunts the Cabrini-Green projects in Chicago, a sharp hook where his hand used to be. And when a series of unexplained gruesome murders occur, people become even more convinced Candyman is real.

(Soundbite of movie, “Candyman”)

(Soundbite of crashing, screaming)

(Soundbite of a heart beating)

Mr. TODD: (as Candyman) Your death will be a tale to frighten children, to make lovers cling closer in their rapture.

MOORE: Critics deemed the film a classic and listed it as one of Hollywood's scariest movies. It spawned two sequels.

Tony Todd, who recently paid us a visit in Los Angeles, stands about 6 feet 5 inches, certainly an attribute for playing scary roles. But in real life, he's far from menacing. His portrayal as some of the most frightening villains on screen is a testament to his strengths as an actor, one who also began his career in theater.

Mr. TODD: The most important feedback I get is when I travel to places like Jacksonville, Florida, St. Louie, Kansas City, the small places where there are pockets of African-American audience members. And they come up and there is such a immediacy of understanding in their eyes about what Candyman was, what sort of oppression he had to deal with and sometimes how heroic he was to them. And that blows my mind.

MOORE: Todd says he's looking forward to his next role, this time as a good guy in the upcoming film, Dark Reel, being produced here in Los Angeles.

Mr. TODD: And it's a spoof on the horror movie genre. It's a guy who infiltrates a movie set and then discovers a whole slew of murders. I play a detective this time, so I ain't have nothing to do with it.

MOORE: But still, there are fans who would kill to see Tony Todd in another scary role. There are rumors producers might remake Candyman.

(Soundbite of movie, “Candyman”)

Mr. TODD: (as Candyman) Be my victim.

MOORE: If that happens, you can bet fans like Mark Harris will be watching. As for his wife Patrice:

Mr. HARRIS: Oh no, no, no. My wife, she kind of leaves the room when she sees me put in a horror movie into the DVD player.

(Soundbite of screaming)

MOORE: For NEWS & NOTES, I'm Corey Moore, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: You can read more about Mark Harris's favorite horror films by visiting our Web site at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: That's our show for today. Thanks for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: I'm Tony Cox. Farai Chideya will be back tomorrow. Have a Happy Halloween. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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