Atlanta filmmaker Isaiah Rice aims to change the face of horror films

An openly gay man and lifelong horror fan, Rice is turning the 1980s-inspired grindhouse horror aesthetic on its head. His latest short film, “He’s Watching You,” features a Black queer couple.

The cannon of Black horror films is limited. The cannon of horror films featuring Black queer characters, even more so.

It’s a sobering reality that Black fans of the genre have endured for decades until the mainstream explosion of Academy-Award-winning writer/director Jordan Peele’s cinematic success. In the spirit of Peele, Atlanta-based actor, writer, and filmmaker Isaiah Rice is on a mission to change the face of horror again.

An openly gay man and lifelong horror fan, Rice is turning the 1980s-inspired grindhouse horror aesthetic on its head in his latest short film, “He’s Watching You.” The film follows Sidney(Rice) and Ryan(Schyler Tillett), a young millennial 20-something Black queer couple visiting a cabin in the woods for a romantic getaway to rekindle their broken relationship. Sidney is a recovering drug addict fighting to stay clean after rehab. Ryan is a recent law school graduate with hopes that the cabin trip will bring them closer together now that Sidney has reached a level of sobriety.

While their backgrounds differ, one key thing remains true– their love for one another. However, as romance unfurls at the beginning of the night, it ends in horror with a fight for survival.

Credit: YouTube

Credit: YouTube

“While the core leads are two Black queer men in a relationship, the focus of the story is not centered around their sexuality,” Rice says. “This is an issue that most films focus on when it comes to having queer characters. The general queer storylines seem to focus on the trauma of coming out of the closet, hiding your sexuality from society, or at times being oversexualized. “He’s Watching You” is a grindhouse horror film, but it has nothing to do with the character’s sexualities. They happen to be a queer couple in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he says.

A dance and political science alum of Bates College, Rice tells The Reckoning the seed for his short film was first planted after expressing his frustration to a film professor about the lack of representation of Black queer couples in horror.

“Anytime you see a Black queer man on film in a relationship, his partner is always white,” Rice says. “And I remember voicing this to him, and he was like, ‘Okay, so clearly this bothers you. What are you doing to change it?’”

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Rice also recalls reading author James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” around the same time and having a similar reaction that pushed him further toward creating the kind of representation he wanted to see.

“James Baldwin, a Black queer man, is writing a queer piece of literature about two white men being in love. And I was like, what would this look like if they were Black? You don’t get to see a lot of images of two Black queer men in love,” he says. “I wanted to show Black queerness at the forefront.”

Before diving into his latest project, Rice released “Kevin’s Curiosity” (2020) and “Vengeance” (2021) with limited resources. Both are short films centering on queer Black characters. Rice says he’s intentional in pre-production and on set about the type of film he’s making and has zero tolerance for anti-Blackness or homophobia.

“If anything around Blackness, queerness or two Black men being in a relationship bothers you, this is not the project for you. I’m very adamant that this is what it is,” Rice says before acknowledging how homophobia reared its head with potential Black collaborators.

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“I did go to other Black filmmakers, but this wasn’t a project they wanted to work on,” he says. “And I think that’s another conversation regarding Blackness, queerness, and homophobia. At the end of the day, I’m still going to push forward a Black queer agenda.”

From the page to the screen

An online concept trailer of Rice’s latest short film for potential investors proves he is taking the production quality of “He’s Watching You” seriously.

Selena Alston, a Black woman and the film’s director is helping Rice push forward that agenda and is equally passionate about telling this particular story.

“I think it’s important to open that door to let other people see that we’re all people; we all go through something,” Alston says in the concept trailer. “We all have the same fears. We all have the same emotions. It’s not gay fear - it’s fear. It’s a human experience. For me, that’s very important to make it even more real to people who may not even feel like they have some type of a connection with someone who is gay, or someone who is Black and gay,” she says. “It gives them - oh, that person is just like me. I would be afraid if this person followed me, so we’re no different.”

Rice also says he hopes his film will impact Black audiences in a similar way that singer and actress Brandy Norwood’s performance in the 1998 slasher “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer” influenced him. But beyond that, he’d like his film to counter the often stereotypical representation of Black characters when included in the genre.

“I loved Brandy growing up,” he says. “So seeing Brandy survive in “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer” was dope. That was so cool because I never saw a Black person in a horror film that wasn’t trying to be stereotypical - ” Leprechaun In the Hood.” What would it look like if there were Black characters on screen who survived and the subject matter wasn’t around their Blackness? They just happened to be Black characters in this situation.”

While production on “He’s Watching You” is tentatively scheduled to begin during the first quarter of 2023, Rice is crowd-funding via Seed and Spark to raise the $23,000 necessary to complete production on the short film. The incentives for financial supporters range from a shout-out on social media, a one-on-one acting session with the writer and director, an autographed digital copy of the script, to an executive producer credit on IMDB, and all other prizes with a $6,000 donation.

“The financial support means there are people who see the vision and the need for more Black queer representation to be present in film and media,” he says.

From the generosity of strangers, Rice hopes their support will be the missing ingredient that takes his dream from the page to the screen.

Visit Seed and Spark to learn more about “He’s Watching You” and how you can become a financial contributor.


Credit: CNP

Credit: CNP

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Today’s story comes from our partner, The Reckoning, a digital publication covering Atlanta’s Black LGBTQ+ community powered by the Counter Narrative Project. Visit them at thereckoningmag.com or on Twitter @cnptribe.

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