Harrowing Shadows: 11 More Macabre Masterpieces of Horror Noir

Last Noirvember’s post gets a sequel: here are eleven more exemplary works that blur the genre lines between horror and film noir. And here on the day after Thanksgiving, I can think of no better place to start than with…

 

Black Friday (1940)

This crime drama–framed as the memoir of a condemned murderer–riffs on both Frankenstein (with Boris Karloff playing the rogue-scientist role in this one) and Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. After mild-mannered English professor George Kingsley is grievously wounded on the street when a gang of treacherous criminals (including Boris Karloff) attempts to depose its leader, Karloff’s well-meaning Dr. Sovac rescues his friend by implanting the injured gangster Red Cannon’s brain in Kinglsey’s body. Unfortunately, Cannon’s murderous personality starts to manifest in the organ recipient, and Sovac succumbs to greed and unscrupulous manipulation when he learns that Cannon has half a million dollars hidden somewhere. It’s hard to upstage Karloff and Lugosi alike, but actor Stanley Ridges does just that as he shapeshifts between the characters of Kingsley and Cannon.

 

Cat People (1942)

An early variation on the werewolf theme, in which Simone Simon plays a Serbian immigrant plagued by the dread that passionate or angry arousal will cause her to transform into one of the feral predators of the title. Her fears are legitimate; the Old World story told to her as a child is true. Simon’s Irena character soon bares her long claws, turned uncannily catty by jealously over her husband’s burgeoning romance with his co-worker. This Val-Lewton-produced, Jacques-Tourneur-directed film masterfully employs chiaroscuro lighting, establishing a noir ambiance well-suited to its theme of a dark shadow self. Cat People features some hair-raising thrills (e.g. the swimming pool stalking scene) and one of the first (and best) jump scares in the history of cinema.

 

Nightmare Alley (1947)

In this carnival noir classic, a sideshow performer temporarily rises to fame and fortune by perfecting a phony mentalist act. The film’s plot includes naturalistic unpleasantness (the inescapable degradation of alcoholism) and supernatural suggestion (the grim workings of the Tarot deck). But Nightmare Alley shines as a work of psychological horror, as it explores the corrosive effects of guilt. And the spurious mentalist more than meets his match in a femme fatale who is not averse of playing mind games of her own. The one shortcoming in this otherwise stellar adaptation of William Gresham’s novel is the excision of the recurring bad dreams signified by the title. Hopefully, Guillermo del Toro reinstates this aspect of the story in next month’s star-studded remake of the 1947 film.

 

Torso (1973)

This Italian giallo film directed by Sergio Martino features some stunning visuals (and I’m not just talking about the gratuitous nudity). A masked, foulard-wielding killer who strangles and then mutilates his victims runs amok on the student bodies of a university in Perugia. The murderer, though, is not merely motivated by his psychosexual kink (which stems from a traumatic childhood incident); many of his current victims are those who were attempting to blackmail him. Torso is a lurid murder mystery that also proves an influential proto-slasher, as evident in the film’s extended climax (in which a final girl emerges from the carnage caused by the killer’s crashing of a slumber party in a mountaintop villa).

 

Blow Out (1981)

Brian De Palma’s Hitchcockian neo-noir stars John Travolta as a sounds effect technician working on a slasher film called Co-Ed Frenzy (Blow Out cleverly opens with a stalking scene from the film-in-progress). One night, while out gathering wind recordings, the protagonist witnesses a car wreck that was actually a staged ambush aimed to disgrace the Pennsylvania governor (the Presidential hopeful was driving with a female escort, whose grifter partner lies in wait to snap incriminating pictures for the tabloids). The scheme doesn’t go according to plan, though, and the incident turns into a political assassination. The shooter, played by John Lithgow, is an absolutely terrifying character (who takes to serial killing to cover-up his impending elimination of the escort). This sinister strangler certainly could teach a few tricks to Co-Ed Frenzy‘s resident slasher.

 

Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)

Made for HBO, this inventive urban fantasy stars Fred Ward as Harry Lovecraft, a hardboiled detective working in late-1940’s Los Angeles (a city rife with the practicing of magic and the presence of unworldly creatures). The private eye is hired to track down an elusive tome called the Necronomicon, and the case leads to encounters with gangsters, gun molls, and even a gargoyle (a figure formed by impressive practical fx). At times the proceedings in Cast a Deadly Spell devolve into comedy, particularly in a scene that pays obvious homage to Gremlins). But the sense of cosmic horror is unmistakable in the film’s apocalypse-threatening climax, in which a Cthulhu-esque colossus makes an awe-striking appearance.

 

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

The antiheroic Seth and Richie Gecko (George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino) are a pair of bank-robbing siblings and fugitive killers on the run. Holding a pastor and his teenage children at gunpoint, they have the family smuggle them south of the border to a Mexican desert strip club. There, the Geckos plan to meet up with an associate who will transport them to a legendary criminal haven known (in a nod to Jim Thompson) as “El Rey.” All standard crime noir fare, until the film takes an abrupt left turn into supernatural horror when the strip club turns out to be a front for a horde of monstrous vampires. Director Robert Rodriguez has his ensemble cast wade hip deep in bloody gore, delivering slick dialogue all the while.

 

Saw (2004)

While later installments (featuring increasingly baroque traps) earned the franchise a torture porn reputation, the original Saw plays out as a heady mystery-thriller. A pair of apparent strangers (Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell) awaken shackled in a grungy bathroom, with no memory initially of how they got there. Even more unfortunately for them, they soon learn that they have been ensnared by the serial killer Jigsaw, whose fiendish game rules present murder as the only hope of escape from the room. Dark crime story elements and situations abound: a policeman who loses his badge but gains a vendetta, a freelance photographer who is hired to snap photos of an adulterous doctor, an innocent man blackmailed into illicit activity by the injection of poison. The foot-hacksawing in the climax is utterly cringe-inducing (reminiscent of Psycho‘s shower scene, more violence is implied than actually depicted), but that image gets trumped by the most startling faked-death twist this side of Diabolique.

 

Secret Window (2004)

David Koepp’s criminally underrated film (adapted from the Stephen King novella) stars Johnny Depp as Mort Rainey, a distraught writer who caught his wife in a motel tryst. Holed up inside his lake cabin afterward, and suffering from depression and writer’s block, Mort is confronted by a menacing stranger named John Shooter (played wonderfully by John Turturro, although Robert Mitchum would have been perfect for the role had the film been made a half-century earlier). Shooter shows up on the doorstep with claims of plagiarism, and attempts to strongarm Mort into making amends. This is another film sporting a killer plot twist, and the climax (besides invoking “The Fall of the House of Usher”) conveys strong vibes of American Gothic horror.

 

Zodiac (2007)

David Fincher’s film combines procedural (the quest by law enforcement officers and journalists to discover the identity of the Zodiac killer, a taunting, Jack-the-Ripper type who terrorized real-world California in the 1970’s) and thriller elements. The balance isn’t always perfect, but Zodiac makes the list for its interspersed scenes depicting the titular killer in action. Fincher’s dramatizations of the slayings are deeply unsettling, especially since the audience is aware that it is witnessing the historical reenactment, not mere fabrication. Even scenes where the Zodiac doesn’t succeed leave their mark. In one nightmarish sequence, Zodiac gives a young mother a lift (after first sabotaging her car tire), and his nonchalantly voiced intention to throw her baby out the window before killing her has to be one of the most horrifying movie lines of all time.

 

The Invisible Man (2020)

The 1933 Universal horror film (which easily could have been slotted on this list as well) receives a brilliantly dark update. Elisabeth Moss plays Cecilia Kass, a woman trapped in an abusive relationship with an optics engineer. Her mate, Adrian, is also frightfully obsessive: even after Cecilia effects a narrow escape from his home/prison, he plots to get her back by faking his death and then stalking her while wearing the cutting-edge cloaking suit he has designed. Adrian is invisible but not intangible: he represents quite a physical threat. But the real horror of the film is psychological, as the Machiavellian title villain methodically messes with Cecilia’s mind. Such high-tech gaslighting, and the battle of wits that ensues when Cecilia catches wise to the con, makes for one wickedly entertaining film.

 

 

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