Writer-director Kasi Lemmons’s brilliant feature debut “Eve’s Bayou” (1997) is probably not actually a “horror film” as we usually think of them. Yes, there are supernatural elements, including ghosts, psychic visions, and voodoo curses, but those elements suggest we view the film as more of a Southern Gothic tale than as outright horror. The settings and scenes, the thoughtful and worried characters, and the slow-burning inevitable catastrophe of the plot all give this movie the feel of a Tennessee Williams drama or a Shakespearean tragedy set in rural Louisiana.
Indeed, Lemmons is clearly well versed in Shakespearean tragedy. Her young characters quote from “Romeo & Juliet” for example. Yes, that’s a young Jurnee Smollett as Eve, our problem middle child at the center of this haunting story. Like Shakespeare’s work, this one also confronts us with ghosts and witches, terrifying prophecies, secret fears and forbidden desires.
Watch for familiar horror tropes but don’t expect jump scares or gross out scenes. “Eve’s Bayou” concerns itself with subtler, more domestic fears. It appreciates the ways we are haunted by our memories, whether they are crystal clear or remain cloudy and confused.
Ultimately “Eve’s Bayou” presents us with a story about a loving but troubled middle-class family and the adolescent growing pains that come from recognizing that one’s parents and other adults are all ultimately flawed humans who carry the baggage from past injuries and who continue to wound each other despite their best intentions.
As such, this film provides an important new perspective to our series considering Black Representation in “horror movies” of the era. While screenwriter and UCLA professor Tananarive Due is certainly correct in asserting as she does in “Horror Noire” (2019) that “Black history is black horror,” Lemmons’s film importantly reminds us that the undeniable and persistent horrors of Black history are not the only way to represent and understand Black Americans.
In this movie, we’re a long way from the barrage of horrifying images that shock us during the last episode of last week’s film “Tales from the Hood.”
Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the husband and father in “Eve’s Bayou,” has said of this film and the confusion it caused for studio executives struggling to understand how to market the movie, “Not every story about everyday Afro-Americans is a ‘hood’ film.”
The family in “Eve’s Bayou” may be descended from the children of a freed slave woman (begot by her former “master”), but these 1960’s Black people are decidedly middle class, respectable and respected members of their bourgeois community. Jackson’s character is the town doctor. His children speak French and quote Shakespeare. They’re all educated, cultured, and comfortable. The film pointedly makes no explicit reference to any of the civil strife or political upheavals of the decade.
The “horrors” in this film are intimate. They tap into the psyches and the emotions of these very human characters. As a result, over twenty years after its initial release, “Eve’s Bayou” still feels alive and fascinating. It haunts us as viewers to this day.