Harrowing Shadows: 11 Macabre Masterpieces of Horror Noir

At its darkest, noir naturally shades over into horror, as countless genre films have demonstrated over the years. In honor of “Noirvember,” here’s a list of eleven exemplary works of horror noir:

 

Freaks (1932)

Steeped in dark-carnival atmosphere, Tod Browning’s controversial shocker is also driven by a noir narrative. A scheming pair of lovers (the trapeze artist Cleopatra and the strongman Hercules) plot to seduce the dwarf Hans, to poison him following his marriage to Cleopatra, and then steal his wealth. The climactic scene in which the titular sideshow performers carry out their vengeance against the conspirators during a driving rainstorm forms a classic combination of horror and noir.

 

Psycho (1960)

No director mixed mystery and suspense with terror and horror better than Alfred Hitchcock. This seminal cinematic adaptation of Robert Bloch’s novel conveys a strong noir vibe: driven by love to a desperate act of robbery, a fugitive woman suffers bloody comeuppance at a lonesome motel (at the hands of a quite violent “femme”). The private detective who subsequently searches the old dark house overlooking the Bates business doesn’t fare much better.

 

Blood Simple (1984)

The Coen brothers’ debut effort signals its dark leanings in its very title (drawn from a line in Hammett’s Red Harvest). This tale of marital infidelity and attempted vengeance (by the cuckolded husband) features shocking acts of murder, premature burial, nightmare visions of revenant return, and one frightfully rogue private detective. The sense of horror is only intensified as randomness and misunderstanding precipitate a series of catastrophic events. My all-time favorite film noir.

 

Angel Heart (1987)

Alan Parker’s adaptation of William Hjortsberg’s genre-splicing novel, in which a hard-boiled detective stumbles onto the occult, delivers some truly horrifying visuals (the blood spill seems almost as copious as the rainfall). It also offers one of the most stunning plot twists this side of Chinatown. Throw in a frightfully good performance by Robert DeNiro as the sinister Louis Cyphre, and the quintessence of horror noir is achieved.

 

Cape Fear (1991)

De Niro rears his psychotic head here in this remake of the 1962 film, playing the Robert Mitchum role like a redneck Hannibal Lector. Any notion that De Niro’s Max Cady is your basic criminal stalker is destroyed the second he bites a hunk out of Ileana Douglas’s cheek. There’s also a great set-piece in which he grimly outwits a private detective on a stakeout. Director Martin Scorsese underscores the horror noir nature of the film in a harrowing, protracted climax that transpires during a raging squall.

 

Basic Instinct (1992)

Ok, calling this one a “masterpiece” might be overstating the case, given the abundance of sleaziness and cheesiness. But the horror here extends far beyond the gratuitous glute-shots of a butt-naked Michael Douglas. Sharon Stone is a modern-day femme fatale guaranteed to turn wet dreams into sweat-soaked nightmares. After the savage, in medias coitus icepicking in the film’s opening, the recurrent sex scenes splashed across the screen utterly terrify even as they titillate.

 

Se7en (1995)

Much of David Fincher’s work qualifies for this list, but none of the director’s other films can surpass this one’s combination of the gritty and the grotesque. In lesser hands the basic premise (a serial killer with a baroque schema) might have seemed derivative, the stuff of made-for-cable movies, but Fincher crafts a masterfully-atmospheric film filled with viewer-traumatizing tableaus (the crime scene for the “Sloth” victim alone places Se7en in the horror noir hall of fame). Even when the narrative leaves the seedy confines of the city for sunny expanse in the climax, it heads off into shocking, devastating territory.

 

Dark City (1998)

The best and darkest of the numerous future-noir films that followed in the wake of The Matrix. Alex Proyas’s stunning cinematic vehicle starts with standard noir elements (the main character finds he has lost his memory, as he awakens in a room with a dead prostitute sprawled on the floor) and then takes the idea of urban entrapment (in a rain-slicked nightscape) in a whole other, mind-bending direction. The film’s human-corpse-wearing alien “strangers”–extraterrestrial Cenobites engaged in bizarre experiment–are as unnerving a group of villains ever to form a criminal underworld.

 

Shutter Island (2010)

Scorsese sways toward the Gothic in this adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s thrilling twist on a detective novel. As if an island asylum for the criminally insane (where illicit, secret experiments might be taking place) wasn’t creepy enough already, the film adds some spectacularly heavy weather, rat-infested caves, and a protagonist haunted by visions of scarred monsters and corpses come to life. I would also argue that the gut-punch of a climactic plot twist here hearkens back to Angel Heart.

 

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

A moody, highly-stylized piece shot in black and white and melding street crime and the supernatural, director Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut film checks all the appropriate boxes. The female of the title is more fearful than someone to fear for: an antiheroic Iranian vampire who prowls the stark wasteland of Bad City (and who leaves quite a mark on a drug-dealing pimp). Calling this one the lovechild of Nosferatu and Sin City isn’t some pithy pitch, but rather an acknowledgement of two of the works that ostensibly influence Amirpour’s artistic vision.

 

True Detective, Season 1 (2014)

Technically, this is not a theatrical film but an HBO series, yet a perfect addition to the list nonetheless. Show creator Nic Pizzolato invokes weird-fiction writers such as Ambrose Bierce, Robert Chambers and Thomas Ligotti, as he scripts a gripping narrative in which a murder investigation uncovers conspiracy and depraved ritual. Season 1’s Louisiana mise-en-scène is at once haunting and haunted, and the killer’s discovered lair in the finale makes the Sawyer abode in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre look like it belongs in Better Homes and Gardens.

 

Lore Report: “A Grain of Truth” (Episode 158)

Some journeys into history are more dangerous, because while legends might offer us a window into the past, we have no control over the things we might learn. Folklore might hold a new detail that could unlock our understanding of who our ancestors really were, but it could also reveal something else–our failures, our flaws, and the less savory aspects of human nature. Folklore contains powerful stories, for sure, but it also holds something darker: the truth about who we are.

 

In Episode 158 of the Lore podcast, host Aaron Mahnke serves as our storytelling tour guide of Vancouver Island in British Columbia–a place sporting more than its fair share of strange tales. Mahnke narratively explores local ghost towns (the remnants of an era of gold fever), spectral ladies in white, even a haunted castle. Most extended coverage is given to “Caddy,” an ostensible sea serpent reputed to swim in the surrounding waters of Vancouver Island, and which seemed to transmute from the mythic to the grimly physical when a bizarre carcass (pictured above) was discovered inside a whale’s stomach in 1937 (intriguingly, Caddy is also connected here in “A Grain of Truth” to a certain legendary sea creature from Scotland). The true reward of this episode, though, comes from Mahnke’s thematic concern with stepping back from the specific examples and pondering the very purpose–and ongoing power–of folklore.

 

Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Tales, Ranked–#24, #23, #22

[To read the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

24. “Confessions of a (Pornographer’s) Shroud” (from Vol. 3)

Throughout his career, Barker has shown a penchant for combining the genres of hard-boiled crime and supernatural horror. In this early instance, a mousy accountant is branded a smut-peddler after being framed by the criminal group he got himself mixed up with; enraged at his public humiliation, Ronnie Glass begins to take revenge on the underworld figures, but ends up tortured and murdered himself. Normally, that would be the end of the story, “Except that it was [only] the beginning” here. Rebelling against his ultra-violent demise (and the horrifying, “life-decaying banality” of the pathologists handling his corpse), the still-sentient Glass animates his death shroud and shapes it into humanoid form. This metamorphic “mansheet” makes more than haunting use of its funereal garb; the ghost stalks and physically assaults its killers. And when this masked antihero finally works its way up to the kingpin Maguire, the result is one of the wildest and most unforgettable scenes of sudden evisceration ever to be splashed across the pages of genre fiction.

 

23. “Revelations” (from Vol. 4, The Inhuman Condition)

Another noirish tale, in which spectral figures prove decidedly visceral. On the thirtieth anniversary of the notorious murder, the posthumous Buck and Sadie Durning return to the Cottonwood Motel in lonesome Texas where Sadie shot and killed the serial philanderer Buck (Sadie herself ends up executed for her lethal efficiency: “In the final analysis, that was why they’d sent her to the chair. Not for doing it, but for doing it too well”). The couple intends to come to grips with the crime and come to terms with each other, but the attempted reconciling is complicated when the Bible-thumping evangelist John Gyer and his browbeaten wife Virginia are driven by heavy storms to take rooms at the so-called “Slaughterhouse of Love.” Buck is a grim figure to begin with–his chest wound continues to spew blood, like some twisted stigmata–and his unrelenting lustfulness leads him to semi-materialize and sexually assault Virginia. As unsettling as a ghostly rapist might be, though, the real horror here is the maniacal, Apocalypse-obsessed Gyer, who goes on a righteous rampage in the climax. Still, the tale features one of the few optimistic endings to be found in the Books of Blood, as Virginia manages to dispatch both Buck and Gyer with a single bullet. Sadie then advises Virginia to escape significant punishment by feigning insanity, and Virginia gets the ultimate laugh on her brimstone-sermonizing husband in her satirically-resonant line of clinching dialogue.

 

22. “New Murders in the Rue Morgue” (from Vol. 2)

An overt sequel to “Poe’s immortal story,” one that reworks the origins of “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Barker’s elderly protagonist, Lewis Fox, claims that his grandfather met Poe and inspired him with the report of an actual Parisian crime, solved by Lewis’s great uncle, the real-life C. Auguste Dupin. Barker outdoes Poe here for recounting bizarre murders in grisly detail. The first victim is said to have bitten off her tongue in terror as she was flensed of skin and muscle by a deadly razor; a later unfortunate suffers a frightful defacement: “The creature had taken hold of his lip and pulled his muscle off his bone, as though removing a balaclava.” But whereas the precursor narrative is neatly resolved via Dupin’s brilliant act of ratiocination, “New Murders” opens onto ambiguity and insanity. The ironic possibility remains that it was Lewis’s friend Philippe who killed the first victim, Natalie, in a fit of jealous rage after his young lover allegedly seduced Philippe’s trained ape (the product of a mad experiment, as Philippe attempts to test the validity of Lewis’s family legend). Subsequent murders while Philippe is in jail (where he soon chews open his own wrists) might be a strange case of his upraised beast aping the irrational violence initially modeled by its beloved master. In Barker’s scathing worldview, humans often form the most horrifying monsters of all.

 

Fatal Attraction–An Alternate Ending

Fatal Attraction is a film long familiar to me (pet rabbit in the stewpot!) through pop culture, but one that I had never actually seen from start to finish. I finally watched it the other night (it’s now streaming on Amazon Prime), and while I found it an entertaining (early) entry in the Psycho Stalker subgenre, I couldn’t help but think that the opportunity for a truly killer ending was missed.

Towards the conclusion of Adrian Lyne’s 1987 film, Dan (Michael Douglas) reaches his breaking point with Alex’s (Glenn Close) harassment and endangerment of his family. Half-crazed himself, he breaks into her apartment and violently attacks her. In the midst of strangling her to death, he appears to come to his senses, and relents. Alex isn’t the forgiving or forgetting type, though, and soon charges at Dan with a butcher knife, which he manages to wrest from her. After a lengthy stare-down, he places the knife on the counter and silently exits.

But what if the scene didn’t end there? Imagine if the unstable Alex–who already slit her wrists earlier in the film because she couldn’t bear the prospect of losing Dan, decided to pick up the knife and kill herself with it after he walked out. Given the signs of forced entry and the fingerprints left on the weapon by Dan, it would be easy for the police to then arrest him for Alex’s presumed murder. To me, this would have been a much more interesting turn of events than the standard climax Fatal Attraction proceeded to present, complete with incidents that had to seem cliched even at the time (wait, she’s not really dead and leaps up for one last attack before being shot!). It would also shift the questionable moral tone of the film, which ends up situating the adulterous Dan as the heroic defender of his family (we last see him having his hand shaken by a policeman, and being drawn into the embrace of his still-loving wife). The alternate ending I’ve envisioned would not leave the character unpunished for his infidelity. How darkly ironic Dan’s fate would have been if he was ruined for doing the right thing morally-speaking (not killing Alex), after the wrong choice he made by having an affair in the first place.

A more downbeat ending for sure, but arguably a more satisfying one. A young Michael Douglas naturally conveyed smugness, so I don’t think viewers would have been all that bummed to see his character receive his comeuppance.

 

Mob Scenes: Lovecraft Country

Given its pointed combination of fantastic horror and American history, and its critical engagement with H.P. Lovecraft’s bigotry, it’s no shock that Lovecraft Country features a racially-charged mob scene. What is surprising, though, is that the same incident–the Tulsa riot of 1921, one of the ugliest events in the history of the Republic–is handled so differently in Matt Ruff’s source novel and the HBO series it inspired.

In “The Narrow House” section of Ruff’s novel, Montrose Turner is sent on a mission to retrieve a group of magic tomes from a named Henry Narrow (an alias assumed by Hiram Winthrop’s fugitive son). Arriving in Aken, Illinois, Montrose learns that Narrow is already dead, but interacts with Narrow’s ghost inside an apparition of the man’s house. As the price of his posthumous assistance, Narrow requests that Montrose tell him a story, and Montrose proceeds to relate his experiences in the Tulsa riot. Montrose explains how the riot started: the arrest of a black man named Dick Rowland after he was (falsely) accused of attacking a young white woman named Sarah Page; a white mob’s attempt to lynch Rowland at the jailhouse; the intercession of armed black men on Rowland’s behalf; the shootout that followed, and the eruption of violence as the white mob endeavored to torch a wealthy black neighborhood. Montrose’s father Ulysses was one of the neighborhood’s defenders against the white mob, and is fatally wounded while trying to protect Montrose. Montrose’s tale concords with the one then shared by the ghost Henry, who was himself shot and killed (along with his colored wife and child), and had his house burned down by a racist mob that refused to welcome a mixed family into the Aken community.

In the “Rewind 1921” episode of the HBO series, Montrose, his son Atticus, and Atticus’s girlfriend Leti all time travel back to Tulsa to retrieve the precious Book of Names (which they’ve learned was secretly possessed by the Turner family, but perished in the fires set by white arsonists). In a tense sequence that stretches almost the entire episode, the Tulsa riot explodes around them as the protagonists attempt to locate the book. The violence is especially hard-hitting when witnessed onscreen–the brutal murder, for instance, of a young Montrose’s friend, who is shot in the head at point blank range. Panoramic shots of the raging inferno after the neighborhood is set ablaze reveal the absolute war zone into which Tulsa has been transformed.

In Ruff’s novel, Montrose’s father acts and dies heroically, whereas in “Rewind 1921” he is shown to be an abusive, homophobic alcoholic. The main difference between book and series, though, is in the handling of the Tulsa riot. As impactful as the imagery of mob violence is in the episode, it lacks the backstory furnished in “The Narrow House,” and is employed more as a dramatic backdrop–another dire obstacle thrown in the time travelers’ way. Ruff’s book section (which uses the testimony–quoted in The Chicago Defender–of an African-American survivor of the riot as an epigraph) deals less sensationally but more informatively with the historical events. Both book and series do a fine job of demonstrating how that fateful day in 1921 has scarred Montrose and shaped his character, but the book proves more effective in its more naturalistic (even as Montrose converses with a ghost) invocation of the ignominious moment in American history that played out so chaotically and devastatingly in Oklahoma.

 

 

History Lessons: “Nine Nightmares” (Episode 2.6)

Some quotable quotes from the season 2 finale of Eli Roth’s History of Horror, an episode that focuses on “nine uncategorizable films that push the boundaries of horror”:

 

Eli Roth: Great horror films entertain us and provoke us. They put society under a microscope, making us question not just what we fear, but why we fear it.

 

Jordan Peele: Sort of existing with a privilege, and a privilege that many of us enjoy, is violent act. And that’s the central theme of Us. This idea that when we look in the mirror, both individually and collectively, we might realize it’s not as simple as ‘I’m the good guy.’

 

Mary Harron: When we were filming American Psycho, I realized that the fear a woman has going on a date, or going to a guy’s apartment, and something bad happening, or him suddenly transforming from one kind of person to another, is a very strong female fear. Movies are a way of exploring those fears.

 

Joe Dante: [The Wicker Man is] about faith and how faith doesn’t really pan out for you. I wouldn’t say it’s on the side of the paganists, but it certainly comes close, because devout as the hero is, it doesn’t save him.

 

Michael Dougherty: The [E.G.] Marshall story [in Creepshow] does represent a lot of the sociopolitical things that were going on at the time. You know, him being a blatant racist character who is trying to live in this protective white bubble, literally, in his compound, and he’s terrified of other things getting into that world.

 

Chris Hardwick: Horror is the genre that gave us the bad good. Like there could be a really great horror movie and that’s fun to watch, but a really bad horror movie can be fun to watch, too.

 

Alexandra Billings: The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous; it’s breathtaking. So it’s unfortunate that it sits on a foundation of transphobia in a really big way, in a really blatant way. Because Dressed to Kill came out at a time when trans people were still thought of as illegal, making us murderers made perfect sense. It wasn’t a big stretch to think that we would go from jail to killing someone.

 

Eli Roth: It’s supposed to be shocking. you’re not supposed to watch and then move on to something else. You know, if you can get through Cannibal Holocaust, you see some of the most incredible, incredible filmmaking ever.

 

Skin Fic: Clive Barker’s Book of Blood Tales, Ranked–#27, #26, #25

[To read the previous countdown post, click here.]

 

27. “The Madonna” (from Vol. 5, In the Flesh)

The central setting–the derelict Leopold Road Swimming Pools, with their labyrinthine layout and “echoing mausoleum” soundscape–is undoubtedly Gothic. The erotic and the grotesque are also conjoined in this tale, as naked, nubile beauties breastfeed Lovecraftian beasties (asexually reproduced by the titular creature). But the sudden transgendering of the main character, Jerry, is treated as more miraculous than macabre, a “wonder” to be embraced rather than a horror to be endured. A vivid deconstruction of masculinity, “The Madonna” encapsulates Barker’s career path–his eventual shift beyond the strictures of genre horror to the imaginative possibilities of the dark fantastic.

 

26. “Twilight at the Towers” (from Vol. 6)

Barker’s ability to hybridize is quite evident in this atmospheric mash-up of espionage and lycanthropy narratives. Cold-War Berlin is an arena of intrigue for the KGB and the British Security Service, who each feature special agents harboring especially dark secrets. When a lupine wild card is added to the cat-and-mouse games of politics, scenes of stunning transformation (“His flesh was a mass of tiny contusions, and there were bloodied lumps at his neck and temples which Ballard might have taken for bruises but that they palpitated, as if something nested beneath the skin”) and savage mutilation (“The beast swallowed down the dead man’s eyes in one gulp, like prime oysters”). What is most noteworthy here, though, is the fact that Barker’s narration clearly valorizes the naturally-free werewolf tribe at tale’s end, anticipating the author’s depiction of the Nightbreed in Cabal.

 

25. “Sex, Death, and Starshine” (from Vol. 1)

A would-be production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night gets the Phantom of the Opera treatment, as Barker injects blood (and other bodily fluids) into the traditional “haunted theater” story. The restless figures haunting the Elysium Theater are no ethereal ghosts; they are starkly physical–and libidinous (as exemplified by that unforgettable scene of afterlife fellatio). For a narrative, however, that features multiple deaths, fiery destruction, and a graveyard breakout that overshadows Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, the dominant note struck isn’t really one of horror. Barker offers sardonic commentary on the world of modern acting, as the troupe of thespian revenants preparing to hit the mortuary circuit (targeting “a sorely neglected market”) in the conclusion prove more skilled at breathing life into their roles than do their living, artistically-challenged counterparts.

 

Lore Report: “Hanging On” (Episode 157)

 

It’s the one obstacle that we seem unable to overcome. We might be able to eliminate physical pain for a while, or broken social structures that hold us down. We’ve been able to cure diseases and send humans to the moon, but we’ve never been able to put a stopper to death. At least, that’s what we’ve been led to believe. But the history books contain hints at an alternate answer, one that says  even something as  permanent and certain as death might be avoided. Death, some believe, can truly be beaten. And if the stories are true, there are some who have already succeeded.

Immortality is in the air in the latest episode of the Lore podcast, as host Aaron Mahnke covers “our undying obsession with living forever.” The first half of “Hanging On” is devoted to a broad survey of the Philosopher’s Stone, the Holy Grail, Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth–subjects with which the listener is likely familiar already (although it was interesting to learn how the myth of Sisyphus ties in). But the episode really hits its stride when Mahnke relates the incredible tale of William Cragh, a 13th-Century Welsh rebel who suffered capital punishment for his crimes (he was hung–twice) but somehow managed to make a full recovery from his grim execution and live on another eighteen years. Cragh’s miraculous resurrection ranks among the wildest stories in the history of Lore, but is soon matched by the episode’s closing segment, concerning a ritual of living burial in Vermont that served as a folksy, early rural version of cryogenics.

Apropos of its topic, the episode enjoys an extended runtime (44 minutes). “Hanging On” gets off to a bit of a slow start, but rewards the listener for hanging in with some astounding folklore in its latter half.