Horror Films by Directors of Color
Horror films aim to elicit fear. Evocative of people’s nightmares, phobias, and terrors, a horror film can feature anything from macabre creatures to psychological thrills and melodramatic disasters. Prevalent elements include demons and devils, gore and ghosts, cannibalism and clowns, slashers and Satanism, et cetera. With seemingly no limit to the horror genre, it’s easy to feel like once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.
But dig deeper into the genre and you’ll find horror films that far more accurately depict fears that hit a lot closer to home. Directors of color hone in on their own life experiences, as well as generational trauma, to illustrate worlds that are realer (and scarier) than any immortal serial killer. And when there are monsters or generic horror elements, they have more meaning than a simple avenue toward a chop ’em up bloodfest. Similarly, foreign horror tends to imbue more meaning into its scenes, characters, and context than your average American scary movie. Such intimate, well-woven horror intensifies audience anxieties.
Let’s explore horror movies made by both internationally and nationally renowned directors of color, analyzing their meanings and messages below.
Train to Busan
dir. Sang-ho Yeon
The zombie story that took the world by storm, Train to Busan is an action horror movie set in South Korea, where a chemical leak results in the apocalypse. Unbeknownst to passengers on an eXpress train, the infection reaches Seoul Station, leaving bloodied bodies and chaos in its wake. An infected woman also boards the train right before its departure, spreading death and rapid reanimation among the crew and passengers until they are split into factions of survivors and monstrous antagonists.
Train to Busan, like most zombie films, asks us to consider who the true monsters are: the zombies, or the people who survive through selfish means? Underneath this core theme is also a heartwrenching family drama, with a regretful father attempting to reconnect with his young daughter while also trying to save her from the carnivorous creatures. Train to Busan stands out because it’s about relationships, not just viruses. It’s about love and commitment, care and control, and how much heart people can have even as hearts are literally getting ripped out of strangers’ chests.
dir. Jordan Peele
Jordan Peele’s Get Out provides crucial commentary on American race relations. We follow a young Black man who is held back and hunted for the color of his skin, and valued as a commodity rather than as a human being. By taking classic horror tropes such as mind and body theft, but adding racist microaggressions and symbols of slavery such as auctions, Peele creates terror through reminding us of not-so-distant, and still extremely scary, American history.
This director/writer extraordinaire also brought audiences the horror film Us (2019). A home-invasion style horror flick, Us functions as a political allegory for the divide between people, parties, and principles. There’s also a direct criticism of the Hands Across America campaign from 1986, which put donation money into the pockets of the rich while less than half went to charity. When the antagonists fulfill their dream, they achieve this blood-red vision, and it’s certainly not a coincidence. Peele’s horror has elements of the fantastic but always returns us to the terror of the real world.
dir. James Wan
The first installment in a beloved horror series, Saw tells the nonlinear story of the mysterious Jigsaw Killer and two victims of a deadly game. These men must inflict pain upon themselves and each other in order to survive. While the physical tests of Jigsaw’s game are severe, the emotional toll is far more frightening — and damaging.
Like Jigsaw, the audience is captivating by how far these people are willing to go to survive. That psychological component is undeniably thrilling. But the most meaningful commentary comes from the men’s inability to see what’s right in front of them: the key to their ankle chains that immediately falls down the drain, and the location of the game’s mastermind. No more spoilers from here on out — just know Wan did an incredible job exploring ego, selfishness, helplessness, and the human condition.
Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017)
dir. Issa López
Tigers Are Not Afraid is a Mexican crime-fantasy-horror film that utilizes elements of magical realism to tell the story of children impacted by the Drug War. Perhaps the film with the most direct social commentary on this list, the movie functions as horror because it exposes the real-life, everyday horror of cartel-related crimes, such as human trafficking, on impoverished innocents.
The movie expertly uses the familiar ghost trope but this time in the form of victims’ bloody bodies to show how memories linger, and how murder leaves traces beyond the physical. By having young protagonists, Tigers Are Not Afraid also expands upon the idea that the next generations could be the ones to end what seems to be unceasing violence.
dir. Nia DaCosta
A modern sequel to the 1992 Candyman directed by Bernard Rose, Candyman returns to a now-gentrified neighborhood in Chicago where the legend was born. For those unfamiliar, gentrification refers to the process of a poor urban area changing as wealthier people moving in, which typically displaces the original inhabitants. Calling upon the animosity and negativity surrounding this injustice, Candyman explores racism, especially since most of the panic surrounding the Candyman lore involves plights and pursuits of young white women.
Since the film is fairly new, we won’t spoil it. Suffice it to say, however, that the moral of the story reminds us that prejudice exists in dangerous quantities across generations, and that even myths have their truths to tell.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
dir. Ana Lily Amirpour
For many women, the title of this understated Iranian film alone is enough to send chills up your spine. In a world where the feminine body is always in danger, nighttime is indicative of the most peril; girls are taught from the time they can read to walk in groups, walk in the light, and walk fast.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night depicts a lonely vampire who kills gruesomely at the start of the film, but then is slowly revealed to be enjoying normal activities such as listening to music and skateboarding. She kills rather listlessly, seeming to desire human connection even as she sates her hunger. And throughout it all is the subtle, very human story of a young man, his diseased father, and the humans — or humane monsters, or monstrous humans — who harm them both.
What is your favorite horror film created by a director of color? Let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to Let Your Geek Sideshow!
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