Black As Night: Biting social commentary

As part of Welcome To The Blumhouse, Black As Night focusses on a marginalised community in New Orleans who are the victims of a group of merciless vampires. We spoke to the film’s writer Sherman Payne and director Maritte Lee Go about creating a vampire movie you may not have seen before…

“I wanted to do something that honoured all the black people in my life, specifically the women. To show how they may tackle an issue with a vampire versus the kind of characters we’re usually exposed to,” writer Sherman Payne tells us about his new vampiric horror-comedy, Black As Night, which is about a teenage girl who discovers that vampires have been targeting vulnerable people in the black community and sets out for some payback.

“I was watching industry trends and over the past 10 or 15 years we’ve had a real resurgence of the vampire medium,” Payne explains. “Whether it’s something like Vampire Diaries or True Blood, or even way back to the Twilight stuff, there seem to be a pretty archetypal character that was used in all of those vampire mediums, which was a young white woman who was a bit of a damsel in distress, and dealing with things the way that she might.

“I just had a strong reaction to that. No shade to those shows and movies, I do like them, but I thought about how maybe a black woman might respond differently and how the black women in my life might respond very differently and very specifically in that exact same situation.”

This idea also caught the eye of the movie’s director, Maritte Lee Go: “The script came across my desk and I was completely enamoured with it. I’m obsessed with horror. I love vampires, and I’d never read a script like this, I’d never seen a young woman of colour slay vampires!

“So I really felt like it was something for me. If there’s something that I’d love to do or if I know something’s meant for me, I get these tingles all over my body. As soon as I read it I got those and I was like: ‘This. I have to do this.’ So I pitched on it for Amazon and for Blumhouse and they luckily loved my pitch!”

Indeed, Black As Night is part of 2021’s Welcome To The Blumhouse – a group of four films released on Amazon Prime from up-and-coming filmmakers. After the success of the 2020 WTTB movies (which included sci-fi drama, Black Box and familial thriller, The Lie), this year’s movies are taking a definite horror vibe, and Black As Night fits in very firmly with that, though adding a dose of humour at the same time.

“It was so interesting because it would teeter on horror and comedy, and I love that,” Go continues. “It feels like a very well-rounded story. I really just felt like I was that girl, trying to figure out who I was, to find my inner beauty, but also had dreams of just being a badass.”

That badass is the film’s protagonist, 15-year old Shawna (played by Asjha Cooper) who vows revenge on the newly-discovered group of vampires after they kill her drug addict mother.

“I wanted to really give my character a take-charge attitude,” Payne says of Shawna. “I wanted to give my character the vibe that she is really willing to get shit done and not be a foible amongst vampire politics. I wanted to make her a hero.”

Indeed, after discovering the vampire leader’s lair, she gathers a group of friends together to take on the undead – not a move you’d usually expect from a teenage girl who discovers monsters are living in her neighbourhood!

And these are real monsters. Don’t be expecting a handsome potential romantic interest from these vampires; they’re here to feed and they don’t care what destruction they leave in their wake.

“I felt like the romance would not be with the vampires,” Payne confirms. “I think that the young women that I knew, that I was very inspired by, would probably think the vampires were gross. I wanted to get rid of the idea that these blood-sucking monsters were something sexy and romantic and actually make them the monsters that I think they would be in real life if they existed.”

With clawed fingers, and eyes that burn bright as they stalk their prey, it was also the director’s intention that these were vampires that you would be afraid of. “I definitely wanted eyes that had never been seen before,” she tells us. “Jessica from Veiled Optics did an amazing job. She’s one of two people in the whole world who can paint contact lenses. So each contact lens was hand-painted by her and they covered the full sclera.

“As you’ll see, there are different tribes of vampires and so we had a design for each of the tribes. I did a lot of work with the makeup effects team on how their nails would be, what their skin texture would be. Also, teaming up with VFX and working with all of these department heads creatively was such a blast because we saw what had been established, and we were able to take that and run with it for this modernised storytelling of it.”

This is certainly a modern telling of a classic vampire story. This is a world where Twilight exists, where Payne’s previously mentioned ‘resurgence’ of the vampire medium has taken place. So when Shawna sees a monster sucking the blood of a human, she’s in no doubt as to what it is. “I wanted this to be a world where vampire media existed and that she was aware of it,” Payne nods. “I’m not into world-building so I didn’t want to start from scratch and try to explain why vampires existed. I just wanted to live in a world where Buffy exists and Dracula exists, and she has some knowledge about it.”

When Shawna (pictured in the foreground, played by Asjha Cooper) sees a monster sucking the blood of a human, she knows what it is… and takes them on!

Black As Night certainly takes on a Buffy vibe in that it melds horror with comedy, and mixes it in with serious topics. Set in New Orleans, Black As Night focuses on the impact of Hurricane Katrina and the devastating aftermath left in its wake. It’s been 15 years since the disaster and still plenty of people in the local community have been left struggling to regain what they lost. “I’m old enough to remember when Katrina hit, and follow the devastation of what happened afterward,” Payne remembers. “So I’m always interested in these big societal, cultural and political issues that affect black people just in my day-to-day life.”

It’s these people who the vampires target for their nightly meal. These are people who, when they disappear, won’t draw attention and won’t be missed, so the undead can feed to their heart’s content without any interference: “Vampires are predators and predators do not feed on male models and aristocracy and rich people,” Payne tells us. ”Predators take advantage of the most vulnerable of the species and I think in our society, the most vulnerable people are the people who are not wealthy, who may be struggling with addiction, who may be out on the street. The people who have really been pushed to the periphery of our community in our society.”

“Audiences are getting smarter,” Go adds. “There’s a lot of stuff happening in the world that we are all thinking about that is just bubbling under the surface. There’s a lot of rage, and we want to get our voices out, but put it in a way that it can be accessible to everyone. The cool thing about horror is that it can be translated in any language, and the world understands.”

Just like plenty of the horror greats before it, Black As Night uses its genre platform to comment on modern societal issues.

“When we’re talking about what’s happening in the United States today and while we were shooting it, the Black Lives Matter movement was happening… [the movie] just had so much inner turmoil and frustration,” Go says. “To express that in such a medium that would reach the world, it really brings empathy and understanding to people who feel like they’ve been marginalised and never been seen before.

“That’s really important for me. My purpose in what I want to do in this world is, I want to first and foremost entertain, but bring empathy and understanding through entertainment, through horror. To explore what it is to be a dark-skinned female, and understand what it feels like inside their head and the issues that they’re going through. That no matter where you’re from, what your skin colour is, that we all have the same fears and that we can all attain greatness!”

“People go to the movies to see things that are fantastic,” Payne adds. “I mean if you really want reality, you look out of your window and it’s pretty boring. We want to see things that are exciting and fantastic and there’s something innate in us about the fear of death and being attacked by monsters and things that go bump in the night.

“Specifically with what we’re doing in this movie and the more recent generation of social commentary and horror movies and thrillers is, monsters are a useful metaphor. When I think about vampires, I don’t just think about the sexiness and the romantic nature of these vampires swooping into people’s lives and ravishing them. I think about, what does it say about addiction? Vampires are addicted to blood. What does it say about, again in this movie specifically, what does it say about how we treat the members on the lowest rung of our society? I just loved working on this particular script because the metaphor was so strong for us.”

With such a strong sense of social commentary in the script, alongside genuine monsters and a good dose of humour, it was important that the young cast of Black As Night could understand just what was needed from them. “In all honesty going into it I was like, ‘I don’t know if it’s gonna work’,” Go laughs. “But we found such talented actors who were able to play very grounded characters and bring themselves to it, but also were able to flip into comedy and then horror was… we just had these very versatile actors who could do all that.”

What results is a movie that the filmmakers hope you haven’t seen before by taking the popular notion of vampires and flipping it on its head to reveal a nasty side that you don’t see too often and a heroine you see less often still. “What I’d love for people to do is to see something that’s been done a million times for years on end,” Go tells us. “And to see this movie that has taken that kind of classic vampire tale and twisted it and modernised it in and put it into their own words.”

“I would love people to consider how we treat the outcasts and marginalised of our society,” Payne adds. “I would love people to maybe think about their preconceived notions of skin complexion and how that affects people. Certainly in the black community we’ve all experienced some version of colourism, and I want people to come away thinking about the things that really affect places like New Orleans but honestly affects cities all over this country. About the housing rights and creating safe environments for people to live and not pushing them out due to gentrification or other means of eliminating their housing options.”

“I want people to realise that they can tell their stories too, that there’s no limit to what this world wants to hear, that you are all so valuable, and your voice matters,” Go agrees. “I also think that it’d be amazing for people to walk away and say that your exterior, or your circumstances don’t define who you are.

“Your strength comes from within, because we’re going to see Shawna who’s a badass! We haven’t seen a hero like this before and to have that type of hero is groundbreaking and I just hope that connects to women alike.”

Black As Night will be released on 1 October on Prime Video.