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My new book CONQUER collects a series of stories that previously appeared in OCCULT DETECTIVE QUARTERLY and OCCULT DETECTIVE PRESENTS, featuring John Conquer, a tough, magically inclined African American private eye operating in Harlem in 1976. Sort of a cross between SHAFT and CONSTANTINE (or BROTHER VOODOO if you’re hip), Conquer get tangled up with the ghost of a pimp, a morgue full of vampires, a Carolina Boo-Hag plaguing a group of Crown Heights House Queens, and a Hoodoo-wielding hitman among other dangers.

CONQUER sprouted from my love of Blaxploitation movies of the 70’s, particularly SHAFT, TRUCK TURNER, THE MACK, and TRICK BABY, but most especially in the oft-overlooked subgenre of Blaxploitation horror, which constitutes what I consider to be the first golden age of African American horror cinema, when pioneering horror director William Crain brought the genre to life.

African Americans had appeared in horror films prior to this of course, usually in supporting roles, as in WHITE ZOMBIE, BLACK MOON, and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, but this era of Black performers playing to Black audiences was something altogether different. African Americans weren’t just vessels or emblems of exoticism and mystery for white audiences anymore. In the wake of the Black Power movement, in movies like ABBY and GANJA & HESS, they became fully fleshed characters with their own agency, operating within their own cultural and societal mores.

Here are three of the very best, huge influences on my own work in CONQUER.

Blacula

When talking about Blaxploitation horror, the unfortunately titled BLACULA is both essential and seminal. An African prince, Mamuwalde, soliciting Count Dracula’s help in opposing the European slave trade, is instead turned into a vampire (Dracula mockingly dubs him ‘Blacula’ hence the title) and walled up in stone, only to be inadvertently unleashed on 1970’s Los Angeles by a pair of antique dealers who buy and import his locked coffin. It’s impossible not to be impressed by actor William Marshal’s classical gravitas. He’s an out of time character perennially unamused by the funky antics and hip demeanor of everyone around him, solely intent on regaining his lost love Luva in the person of Vonetta McGee (the first time I can recall this tried and true reincarnated love trope being used in a vampire film). Forget your preconceptions. BLACULA is not the cheese-fest everybody writes it off as. It’s the first breath of African American horror cinema delivered by the criminally underappreciated father of horror soul cinema William Crain and it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Tod Browning’s DRACULA.

Blacula film poster

Sugar Hill

Another bonafide classic of the genre and one of my personal favorites is 1974’s SUGAR HILL. When a nightclub owner is beaten to death by a gang of hustlers trying to muscle in, his girl Sugar (Marki Bey) enlists the help of aged Voodoo mambo Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully) to contact the Guede god of cemeteries Baron Samedi (played magnificently by Don Pedro Colley), who raises an army of silver-eyed undead slaves to enact revenge. The Voodoo zombie horror genre had been thoroughly mined and abandoned by white Hollywood by 1974, superseded by Romero’s flesh-eating ghouls, but SUGAR HILL is the first attempt at paying obeisance to Vodoun’s actual cultural underpinnings by a mostly Black cast. And it’s a genuine blast from start to finish, from its winsome lead’s interactions with Colley’s trickster god take on Samedi to the unique kills – including a disembodied chicken foot attack!

DOCTOR BLACK, MR. HYDE

Blaxploitation horror master William Crain delivers another nuanced, solid entry in this burgeoning genre, the sorely underseen DOCTOR BLACK, MR. HYDE, in which Bernie Casey portrays a brilliant young physician vying to find a cure for the syphilis that claimed the life of his prostitute mother, all the while wrestling with deep-seated feelings of cultural isolation brought on by his ‘white’ education and manner. Failing to find willing test subjects, he tests his serum on himself and, in a brilliant flip on the tired trope of evil black/good white, transforms into an ID-driven psychopath with white skin. It sometimes tips the scales on the exploitation end with gratuitous nudity and violence, but there’s no missing the multilayered themes at work, particularly in the climactic showdown with whirling police helicopters atop the Watts Towers, a clear inversion of the racial interpretation of King Kong.

movie poster for DOCTOR BLACK, MR. HYDE

We are in the midst of a new renaissance of Black horror cinema, as evidenced by the popularity and quality of films like GET OUT, US, and BAD HAIR. The foundation of this new generation of Black horror filmmakers deserves to be honored in the persons of Black horror pioneers like William Crain and groundbreaking films like the ones mentioned above…but the list doesn’t stop there. I urge you to check out these stone-cold 70’s black horror classics: GANJA & HESS, JD’s REVENGE, WELCOME HOME BROTHER CHARLES, ABBY, THE THING WITH TWO HEADS, LORD SHANGO, THE BEAST MUST DIE, DEVIL’S EXPRESS and THE HOUSE ON SKULL MOUNTAIN. 

This era and subgenre ought to be considered the Universal Horror equivalent for African American horror, and these films are its touchstones.

Edward M. Erdelac

Edward M. Erdelac

Author

Edward M. Erdelac is the author of thirteen novels, including Andersonville, The Knight With Two Swords, and The Merkabah Rider series. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies and magazines, including Star Wars Insider Magazine. His latest book, a collection of supernatural stories starring an occult detective in 1976 Harlem, Conquer, inspired by his love of Blaxploitation, Brother Voodoo, and Ernest Tidyman novels, is now available. Born in Indiana, educated in Chicago, he now lives in the Los Angeles area with his family. News and excerpts from his work can be found on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Amazon.

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