This week’s interview is with Adam Murray who set up the Bristol Black Horror Club
Sorry for being a stranger. The absence from your inboxes is something I regret but it’s inevitable due to the amount of work I’ve been producing recently. But don’t worry I’ve missed you as much as you’ve missed me (I hope) and this week’s interview with Adam Murray, who set up the Bristol Black Horror Club, is a story I’ve been yearning to tell for some time.
It’s about how people of colour, like me, who grew up in white areas, felt horror in our everyday lives from racism but, paradoxically, sought out being scared by films and TV shows despite them being problematic. It’s a subject I discussed last year for BBC Culture from a US perspective — about how African-Americans were treated so poorly by the horror genre — but it takes a different form for British people of colour, as Adam will explain. You don’t have to like horror to get where we’re coming from and, believe me, its track record with racism has led me to shun certain ‘classics’ at times. In fact, the film we both talk about in detail here, The Beast Must Die (not to be confused with the recent Cush Jumbo TV mini-series — which I also liked), provides more unintentional laughs than shocks.
It’s a camp classic though and it made UK cinema race history — it’s the first British werewolf film to feature a black lead in Bahamian–American actor Calvin Lockhart, who is more famous for appearing in Predator 2 and Sidney Poitier-directed Let's Do It Again. It means a great deal to both me and Adam who have watched it countless times giving us plenty to say about how it was made and why it’s an important film to horror fans of colour. So if you need some pure escapism then please try to find a copy of the 1974 film described by ‘gavin6942’ on IMDB as “The Greatest Movie Ever Where A Dog Attacks a Werewolf”.
I sometimes muse months later over the controversial things people tell me in on-the-record interviews which I don’t print as they would unintentionally shock people out of context. Recently in a great discussion about the pain black people carry, a notable African-American sci-fi writer told me that black actors are warped by having to portray themselves as squeaky clean. “Just look at Bill Cosby!” Now the guy I interviewed would never seek to diminish victims’ bravery so I don’t think it’s worth publishing such details. (Just for you guys I guess!) But it shows how I’m forever trying to accurately represent and please everyone I work with.
I did this with the BBC Culture piece I wrote about American horror when I claimed director George A Romero, denied that he was ever intending to explicitly explore race issues by casting African-Americans (Dwayne Jones in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and Ken Foree in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead) as landmark lead characters. Because in the original draft I wrote the opposite, saying racism was always in the forefront of his mind. I was contradicted by the editor and the text was changed.
“I’ve got one for you, Dave!’ beams Adam, pictured above. “I think it’s because Romero was a kind of humble, hippy kind of guy and I think for many years white journalists misquoted him.
“Because what he actually said [in the documentary Birth of the Living Dead] is ‘Dwayne was the best actor for the job. So we cast Dwayne. That’s not saying that he didn’t see race. He then said: ‘We were frustrated with the time, we were frustrated with the war in Vietnam, we were upset that the hippie movement in the 60s didn’t work’”.
All this matters because black representation in horror films has been so scant and/or problematic before Jordan Peele shook things up with Get Out that people like Adam and I cling on to every little shed of hope when it comes to the films we loved growing up.
And it shows how a piece — commissioned by and edited by a white guy — can get its truth warped because writers of colour are eager to please in a white-dominated industry (92% of journalists are white). In my case, I want to get work and feel like I need to overly please commissioners because I don’t want to be labelled as a “difficult” person despite writing about racism and bearing the weight of anger I feel from having experienced a lot of it.
But these are excuses and I could, and should, have pushed back when the edit was made. I will do so more.
“In my early years,” Adam tells me. “I grew up in the Lowestoft, [East Anglia], Suffolk area. And my dad got a job in Wiltshire when I was 10 or 11 and we moved over to Swindon way. So as soon as I could get on a train at the age of 13 or 14 I was on a train to Bristol.
“I’ve been into horror,” he adds. “Since I was a kid.”
Adam has two parents who are both of dual heritage. (I tend to avoid the term mixed-race as it assumes that there’s a pure race.) His mother was from East Africa and spoke Swahili (“Kenya, Zanzibar, East Coast”) and his dad was from Cape Town, South Africa.
“I would hear,” he says. “All kinds of cool ghost stories from relatives. And I was growing up on the Broads and there was this book I was obsessed with called Ghosts of the Broads and the Usborne series of ghosts, UFOs and monsters.
“It was a way of processing real world threats because growing up in the 80s there were skinheads and racism on the streets. It wasn’t exactly the most hospitable of environments for any black or brown kid in the country.”
When white people look back at the 80s it tends to be infused with nostalgia but for people like Adam and I even breakfast cereal reminded us of racist threats. Remember the Weetabix skinheads?
“All of that stuff,” he says. “Was there. It was in comic books, in TV and skinheads will always be a frightening motif. All this racism in the playground, when you went shopping and when my folks went to work is rearing its ugly head again.
“Some of the need for Black Horror Club is based on those early experiences. Ultimately, horror can provide us with empathy.”
Adam’s conclusion — which I do agree with — is at odds with the way the British censor BBFC treated horror when we were growing up. It was seen as a corrupting force and was an extension of the media hysteria whipped up by films, such as Child’s Play. It certainly wasn’t based on evidence and entirely based on marketing of horror — and it didn’t work because for people growing up in the 1980s horror became taboo and an exhilarating thing to get hold of.
It’s bollocks really. I remember being so terrified by the idea of Candyman. I re-watched it recently for the BBC Culture piece I wrote and there were hardly any deaths. Instead it allowed me to focus on Tony Todd’s iconic portrayal of blackness and, sadly, how the white writer and director (Bernard Rose) twists this masculinity for cheap thrills. It’s entirely from the perspective of Virginia Madsen’s blonde Helen and revels in its jump cuts of black folks — which, again, isn’t scary in 2022 (nor was it 1992), it’s just offensive.
But the BBFC thought this would corrupt us and it meant my early years were spent sneaking into video shops looking at covers of films, like Candyman and Hellraiser.
“What would take place in your head,” Adam says. “Was always far worse.”
Adam’s first British horror film that he really enjoyed was 1967’s Quatermass and the Pit. Some would say it is a sci-fi film but it was made by Hammer Film Productions and its narrative, first based in a London underground then slowly revealing how humanity had been influenced by Mars, has a sense of dread throughout.
My interpretation of the film is that it’s a metaphor of the British fear of the “invader” (how ironic) ruining the bloodline of humanity which was a very real fear for racists in 1960s who saw newspaper reports of empire migration. (If you want a real world example of this then please read this piece I meticulously researched about the anti-racist campaigner Avtar Singh Jouhl who showed Malcolm X segregation in Smethwick and faced an obscene amount of prejudice). And this piece adds a fear of race riots into the Quatermass’s rich pit of themes.
“In a lot of speculative invasion horror,” Adam says. “Such as this and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, they all have motifs around borders: are the barriers there to keep the monsters out or to keep the monsters in? They’re based on notions of invasions and blood purity.
“As a mixed-race person I’m fascinated by it as it’s based on myths and constructs on what is or isn’t authentic.”
“It’s completely high camp,” Adam says about The Beast Must Die. “But there’s no way an American studio at that time  would have placed a male and female black lead against, inverted commas, the acting talent of Peter Cushing, Charles Gray and Michael Gambon.”
Listening to the transcript again Adam stifles a laugh when he says “Gambon” and that’s because by the mid-70s he was a celebrated stage actor who nearly became James Bond but looks visibly embarrassed to be in a horror film, like The Beast Must Die and kind of angrily phones it in. He has the tone of a posh guy in a road rage incident involving someone beneath him — which is an actual scene in the film and, yes, has the worst car-chase in cinematic history.
In fact, Gambon’s performance was a source of merriment when I used to watch the film with friends and I feel a bit guilty about this because, yes, it was great post-pub entertainment but it was also the kind of representation Adam and I were yearning for. The Beast Must Die may have been a wonky production about guessing who in the cast was a werewolf but it was, and perhaps is, the greatest British black horror film. And all this started because the film studio, Amicus, was in financial difficulty.
“Amicus,” Adam says. “Were thinking what was bankable and saw blaxploitation and moved in that direction with less of the exploitation. I think they pulled it off and, yes, you look back now at the film — it’s completely cheesy but it’s historically bookmarked between Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Ken Foree in Dawn of the Dead (1978)”
Adam then schools me in the film’s background. Apparently lead Calvin Lockhart pushed for his black co-lead Marlene Clark, who had just starred in the iconic black experimental horror film, directed by the legendary Bill Gunn, Ganja & Hess, and many white actors would’ve turned down the film because of its casting. In fact, many white actors probably wanted Lockhart and Clark removed but thankfully that didn’t happen.
“Calvin Lockhart’s performance,” Adam says. “Is brilliant. He matches Peter Cushing and I think he’s one of the most underappreciated character actors.
“If you think about how raw racism was then — in the studio system and in real life walking down the street — it says a lot about the cast around [Lockhart] and how they were politically progressive people.”
It may seem wonky now, with camp performances but the Beast Must Die should be celebrated. And so should Adam because his horror film club brings black representation to a wide audience in Bristol of all ages.
“Black Horror Club,” he concludes. “Is about reintroducing these films and pulling out the nuance as so much of it has been covered up. Like what happened to you with that white editor. George Romero’s probably turning in his grave!”
I’ve been writing a lot about desi pubs and I should have a major announcement soon relating to this. In the meantime check out this Atlas Obscura piece I wrote on the subject. But pubs aren’t always inclusive spaces for everyone especially if you’re disabled as this interview with the remarkable Steven Fenn proves. And if you want to discover the best TV episode ever that deals with racism then I’m your man.