Noir: The Horror Film’s Kissing Cousin


‘Cat People’

The horror film is logically part of one of Halloween’s prevailing rituals. As we become more and more comfortable, too comfortable, with the idea of “binge watching” as a culture, the notion of getting together with family and friends and watching several horror films, at once, several days out of October sounds even less far-fetched than it used to. It’s a communal association; celebrating, like trick-or-treating, the primal nostalgic juvenilia of the Halloweens of your past, and this celebration provides us an illusion of cyclical containment that’s intensely comforting. It’s no different than watching the Macy’s parade on Thanksgiving or insisting on making that same dish at Christmas. As comforting as rituals can be, they can always be amended, though, if, for no other reason than to occasionally yield more yearly rituals.

Even fanatics might blow the occasional circuit watching nothing but horror films for a month. One of the genre’s great pleasures is its sense of apartness from most other types of films: It exists to provoke within you a negative response. That’s a phenomenal modus operandi for something generally conceived of as a money-making enterprise to have, particularly in these days of determinedly, disingenuously, flatulently “empowering” pop culture. The horror film, even a bad one, abounds in discordant notes that put even temporary brakes on passive, unblinking thoughts. But, watching, say, thirty in a row can leave one a little numb to the despair and rage and terror and distrust that comprise the horror film’s emotional palette. Contrast is important, in all elements of life; and the film noir, the horror film’s kissing cousin, can step up to provide an essential note for your Halloween double and triple features.



Noir and horror have always been closely linked. American noir films, which are classically thought of as those crime films in the 1940s and 1950s that abounded in stories of private eyes and vigilantes and gangsters and gorgeous women of ambiguous, ever-shifting loyalties, generally aim to provoke negative reactions that are essentially the same as those brought on by the horror film, though they often revel in jazzy comedy and curb-side grit that can pair nicely with the purplish fantasias of the horror movie. The American noir often utilizes film grammar borrowed from the German Expressionists, which is to say that its roots directly spring partially from horror films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and M (the latter occasionally thought of as an early noir, and its director, Fritz Lang, would, of course, contribute hardily and more literally to the noir with masterworks such as The Big Heat and Scarlet Street).

Post-1950s noir films of all countries, often self-conscious examinations of the tropes of the earlier films, tend to amp the horror element up even further, reveling in the free-associative freedom of mixing criminals, figurative monsters, with literal monsters that symbolize their troubled mindscapes. David Lynch, whose work is often grouped uneasily into the less traditional, more avant-garde realms of the horror genre, is the most obvious example of a contemporary director blending the lines of the noir and the horror film. Others filmmakers in this vein are Alain Robbe-Grillet, Takashi Miike, and, occasionally, Catherine Breillat and Claire Denis, among many others. More recent examples are Ben Wheatley and Jim Mickle, who’re similarly invigorated by the sour-and-sweet mix-and-match contrast of genre mutation. But this isn’t new. The two genres naturally comingle. Lang’s aforementioned work is frequently grouped in both depending on the mood of the critics doing the grouping, and so is Alfred Hitchcock, whose film, Psycho, could be considered a film noir. And Vertigo could be called a horror film, while we’re at it.



What’s a horror film or a noir, particularly considering the pronounced elasticity of both? The ultimate answer is close to personal opinion, though horror films tend to favor more overt fantasy elements (monsters, alternate realms, psychic phenomena, ghosts) and Grand Guignol violence (operatic butchery, decay), while noir films are generally crime stories with a thin pretense of “realism,” however stylized and heightened it may unavoidably be. But these are superficial distinctions. The genres share profound commonalities (right down to unerring specificities, such as a Freudian obsession with water), beyond their obvious confidence in things not working out according to a social plan. They are both surveys of the landscape of the mind; anatomies of a human’s flirtation with established taboo. For an embodiment of the symbolism of both genres at once, see, among others, Cat People, a definitive horror-noir directed by Jacques Tourneur (who made classics in both genres: I Walked with a Zombie, Out of the Past, Night of the Demon) that merges the chiaroscuro cityscapes that reflect a noir hero’s psyche with the Freudian beasts and monsters that typically torment the mind of a horror protagonist.

Both genres thrive on atmosphere. Cinephiles are often revealed to have been first drawn to movies through either the horror film or the noir, and that’s no surprise: To work, both ideally rely on the medium’s full range of tools of manipulation, while displaying an invigorating sense of tactile physicality–as in the musical, you’re very aware of humans, and the intimacies of the positioning of their bodies within the frame of the horror and the noir, which are, lest we forget, essays in sex and violence firstly and mostly. A romantic comedy can get by, if it must, on performances and quick, sharp zingers (though both of those qualities are in short supply in most contemporary rom-coms), but horror and noir, in order to paint those landscapes of the fraught mind, must be visually and aurally precise, or even knowingly imprecise, as the found footage subgenre often is to dreary effect. Loan Shark, say, is an unpretentious quickie made on a scrappy budget and with an effectively sparse sense of environment, but it features an opening scene that succinctly conjures the paranoia and hopelessness that’s part and parcel with all true noirs (and horrors): two pairs of feet pound the pavement, in memorably percussive unity, as they follow an object of prey.


‘Loan Shark’

Both genres share another overwhelming trait, and it’s the biggest: they are tales of loneliness. No matter what political or thematic resonance is intended, no matter how pointedly or incidentally sexiest these pictures are, no matter how violent, lurid, or crudely or elegantly fashioned they are, films of these genres are always about loneliness. Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, one of the most famous horror films and one of the most famous noir films ever made in this country, respectively, share more than their director, Roman Polanski: they are both coming-of-age tales of a hero learning that she or he is all alone, out there on their own plane, disenfranchised from a world of great collusion and corruption. Similarly, when I think of Hammer director Terence Fisher’s efficient noir, Blackout, I think of that greatly evocative opening ten minutes, with the hero at a piano bar, loaded and broke until a woman appears, potentially an apparition out of his dreams. These films are about the costs of failing to fulfill social contracts, and the potential hazards inherent in attempting to broker new contracts, and that’s why they pair ideally with one another for marathons to watch with your sweetie, whom you cuddle on the couch in the dark in the comfort of knowing that you evaded—for now, for just this moment—the fate of those poor suckers on screen.

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