Monday, September 24, 2018

Book Review: Horror Noir by Paul Meehan

Horror Noir: Where Cinema's Dark Sisters Meet by Paul Meehan

Author Paul Meehan draws an uncontroversial but fascinating connection between horror films and film noir. The noir genre grew up in America with the pre-World War II departure of many German film makers (like Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger, among others) who were steeped in the German Expressionist movement. Expressionism used high contrast and often surreal images to create a feeling of uneasiness or dread. The style fit naturally to horror films and was used to great effect in Universal's series of classic monster films--Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, et al. The supernatural elements (vampires, curses, magic) slowly diminished, especially with the series of low-budget but highly influential B-movies produced by Val Lewton, many directed by French emigre Jacques Tourneur. Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie clearly have supernatural elements but Tourneur would go on to more great acclaim with Out of the Past, which has no supernatural elements whatsoever.

Film noir emerged as a distinct genre especially in the post-WWII era, when an air of cynicism, dread, and despair filtered into the gangster and crime drama films, first seen in WWII-era films like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. The genre's style was well suited to Gothic stories like Jane Eyre or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and modern versions like Rebecca. Alfred Hitchcock is mentioned early and often, even getting his own chapter that looks more deeply at Vertigo and Psycho.

Noir saw a demise in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The style still came out in the 1960s and 1970s, sometimes using supernatural elements, as in Rosemary's Baby or Eyes of Laura Mars, sometimes not, as in Chinatown or Peeping Tom. Horror went its own way after Psycho, with many slasher films. A serial killer craze was started in the 1990s by The Silence of the Lambs, mixing the police procedural elements of noir with seemingly superhuman killers who can barely be stopped.

The book provides an interesting history of the two genres and how they cross over. The Hitchcock and Lewton chapters were favorites. A very interesting chapter details the relationship between detective and supernatural thriller radio shows from the 1930s and 1940s and the movies they inspired that fit the horror-noir bill. The book is a very enjoyable read if you are interested in either or both genres.


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