NOIR HORROR

©2019, by M. Keith Booker

The most obvious candidate for a crossover of noir motifs into other genres was horror, the darkness of which already had so much in common with film noir. Indeed, the Hollywood studios seem to have conceived of horror and film noir essentially as two variants of the same genre, at least through the 1940s. As a result, it is perhaps not surprising that the most respected body of horror films of the 1940s is virtually indistinguishable from film noir. Here, I am thinking of the sequence of horror films produced by Val Lewton for RKO Studios, beginning with Cat People in 1942 and extending through Bedlam in 1946. In addition, many films normally considered to be film noir veered into territory so dark and frightening that they might just as easily be considered horror films. And, finally, in the neo-noir era, a number of horror films have self-consciously adopted film noir techniques in a version of the kind of postmodern pastiche typically employed by neo-noir films in general.

Lewton’s moody, atmospheric films depend for their effects as much on noir-style visuals as they do on any specific horror motifs. And, though Lewton did cast horror legend Boris Karloff to act in several of the films, all of Lewton’s RKO horror films were directed by important film noir directors and most were shot famed Italian-born cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who is perhaps best known for his equisite camera work in the film noir classic Out of the Past (1947). For example, Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Leopard Man (1943)were all directed by French director Jacques Tourneur, who is probably best known for directing Out of the Past. The Seventh Victim (1943), The Ghost Ship (1943), Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946) were all directed by Mark Robson, who would go on to direct the noir boxing films Champion (1949) and The Harder They Fall (1956), as well as the important noir-like war film Home of the Brace (1949). Lewton’s The Curse of the Cat People (1944) earned Robert Wise his first credit as a director when he took over from the film’s initial director (who had fallen behind schedule) halfway through. Wise then directd The Body Snatcher (1945) outright. Wise would, of course, go on to have an extremely distinguished career in Hollywood, including turns as the director the noir film Born to Kill (1947), the noir Western Blood on the Moon (1948), the noir boxing film The Set-Up (1949), and the noir film The House on Telegraph Hill (1951).

Cat People, probably the best of Lewton’s RKO horror films, is a stylistic and atmospheric tour-de-force that, among other things, serves as a prime example of the lush black-and-white cinematography that would set Lewton’s horror films apart from their contemporaries, giving them something of the look of the best noir films. Thematically, it’s largely a collection of clichés, including a link between feminine sexuality and big cats that had already been seen in the Panther Woman Lota in Island of Lost Souls (1932). It’s also an entry in the evil-comes-from-the-primitive-Balkans sub-genre of horror film (which dates back to Dracula), mixed with the all-cats-are-evil motif so commonly found in American film. Here, a Serbian woman (played by a French actress on the theory that any European can serve to signify foreignness) comes to America, feeling lost, but falls in love with and marries an American man. The relationship seems promising at first, but then it all goes terribly wrong, partly because she hails from a village with a legacy of devil worship and so might be bearing a curse that turns her into a dangerous cat if she gets too passionate. All of that might sound like a hackneyed B-picture. It isn’t, though. It’s a brilliant masterpiece of a B-picture, despite how any plot summary makes it sound. It truly has to be seen to be believed. It was remade in 1982 with Nastassja Kinski as the cat woman (and with a great song by David Bowie). The remake was in lurid, living color, which is probably one reason why it is not nearly as good as the original.

Of all the Val Lewton horror films, The Seventh Victim (1943), directed by Mark Robson, is probably the one that seems most like a fairly straight film noir. However, it does feature a Satanic cult that in some ways anticipates the one in Rosemary’s Baby. Lots of twists, though, including the fact that the cult members are pledged to nonviolence, which puts a bit of a damper on the horror. Moreover, as one would expect of Lewton, it’s not really about the scariness of Satan or anything supernatural. This one is about the fundamental strangeness and scariness of other people, no matter how well we think we know them. Of course, that’s largely true of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), as well.

Curse of the Cat People (1944) is another low-budget film gem. It has absolutely nothing to do with Cat People (or cat people), and very little to do with conventional horror (though it has a ghost of sorts). But it captures very nicely the genuine horror of being a child in an adult world. In this sense it is typical of Lewton, whose horror films often only pretend to be about supernatural phenomena, but are really very much about the terrors of daily life in the modern world. They sometimes seem simply to express or even endorse fear of things like feminine sexuality or nonWestern cultures, but just a little interpretive twist can produce critique. This one is particularly powerful as an antidote to all those horror films in which various demon children are terrifying to adults. If kids scare us adults, just think how we look to them.

If Lewton’s horror films could often just as easily be considered noir films, the category of noir films that could just as easily be considered horror films has some notable entries as well. Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door (1947) might not even be regarded as a noir film had it not been directed by noir master Lang and had it not featured Joan Bennett, who had also starred as the femme fatale figure in Lang’s noir masterpieces The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). In fact, Secret Beyond the Door is a sort of Gothic drama in which Bennett’s Celia, a woman of some means, has just married architect Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave), only to discover that he has hidden certain elements of his background from her (including the fact that she us not his first wife). In addition, his behavior (and that of other members of his household, especially including his secretary Miss Robey (Barbara O’Neil), seems increasingly strange and suspicious, until it eventually becomes clear that Lamphere has become a psychotic killer thanks to childhood trauma. He blames women for his trauma and is dedicated to seeking revenge against them; he thus might have killed his first wife and plans to kill Celia. Miss Robey, however, turns out to be the really murderous one, though her character is not well developed. In addition, the film doesn’t seem to know what to do with the characters of Lamphere’s strange sister and son. Finally, this rather interesting film (which includes some nice touches of horror such as the fact that Lamphere collects and rebuilds in his own home rooms in which various baroque murders have been committed) is marred by an unrealistic happy ending in which Celia, through her love, helps cure Lamphere of his psychosis, so that they can live together happily ever after.

1947, perhaps the peak year for film noir as a whole, also saw the release of Delmer Daves’ truly strange The Red House, featuring Edward G. Robinson as a farmer with one wooden leg and an obsessive concern with keeping people out of a densely wooded area on his farm. This area contains a mysterious red house that the film suggests, through a building series of hints, might be haunted. It turns out that it is haunted, but not by ghosts. Instead, it is haunted by memories of a shocking event that occurred many years earlier. This film is almost unclassifiable, but the score by Miklós Rózsa helps to push it at least partly into the realm of noir (mixed with horror). Features an early (almost cartoonish) performance by Rory Calhoun as a Li’l Abner-type woodsman who helps shoo would-be trespassers away from the woods.

One the greatest of all noir films that bleed into horror is The Night of the Hunter (1955), featuring noir icon Robert Mitchum as a psychotic “preacher” who preys on widows and orphans, but ultimately meets his match in a semi-mythological figure of feminine strength. Mitchum also plays a sinister psychotic killer in Cape Fear (1962), another noir film that is frightening enough to be considered horror. Here, Mitchum’s character serves a prison term for rape; after he gets out, he terrorizes a lawyer (played by Gregory Peck) he blames for his conviction and incarceration. This film was remade in 1991 by Martin Scorcese, with Robert DiNiro as the psychotic killer and Nick Nolte as his target. The remake is well made on a realtively high budget, but doesn’t really improve on the fright value of the original.

It should also be noted that 1955 also saw the release of the French horror noir classic Les Diabolique, directd by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Here, the somewhat frail Christina Delassalle (Véra Clouzot, real-life wife of the director) is the owner of a somewhat rundown boy’s boarding school, which is run by her abusive husband Michel (Paul Meurisse), who (among other things) openly cheats on her with Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret), another teacher at the school. Most of the film involves a very noir plot in which Christina and Nicole (with Nicole as the instigator) seemingly conspire together to murder Michel and to make his death look like an accident. It turns out, however, that Michel has faked his death so that he can apparently return from the dead (seemingly pushing the film into the realm of supernatural horror), frightening Christina into having a heart attack. The plan works, but there is still a final twist, adding to the horror aspect of the film.

After the breakdown of the Production Code, horror films were able to pursue shocks more overtly and thus drifted away from the noir mode, even as the original noir cycle itself came to an end. The noir mode does, however, occasionally resurface in horror, as when most of Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987) reads like a neo-noir detective story that takes the ironically-named 1950s Brooklyn private eye Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) to exotic New Orleans in search of a missing person. Indeed, much of this film reads like a riff on the neo-noir classic Chinatown (1974), with New Orleans standing in for L.A.’s Chinatown as a bastion of mysterious non-Western energies. Rourke’s Angel even spends much of the film wearing a sunguard over his nose, clearly recalling the nose bandage that Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes wears through much of Chinatown. However, once Angel arrives in New Orleans, the film seems to want to become a voodoo film. Then, in the final analysis, it turns into a sort of demonic possession film, essentially a reworking of the Faust legend, in which Angel turns out (unbeknownst to himself) to have sold his soul to the devil (played by Robert DeNiro, thus inevitably making Satan seem like a sort of supernatural Mafia don). In the end, DeNiro’s Satan comes to collect, and Angel is doomed. Rourke’s acting cracks at the seams in places, and the film as a whole goes a little heavy on the depiction of New Orleans as a sweat-drenched land of racism and black magic. There’s also a particularly hokey shot of a baby with glowing eyes at the very end (possibly a Rosemary’s Baby homage), but the film as a whole is highly entertaining.