Saturday, December 18, 2010
Book Review: Horror Noir
In short, this 2010 film book from McFarland doesn't disappoint.
Meehan returns to his film studies with a well-written monograph on the "juncture of criminality and monstrosity" in cinema, the crossroads where horror and film noir intersect.
In his introduction, Meehan rightly notes that, in large part, film noir and the horror film share a "realm of cinematic style," meaning, as he enumerates them: low-key ratio-lighting, absence of fill-light, wide-angle lens use in close-ups to distort faces, etc.
Meehan also points out the deployment in both genres of "anti-traditional narrative techniques," meaning flashbacks and voice-over narration specifically. This chapter nicely sets the parameters of the ensuing survey, allowing the reader to understand which productions exist in the unique "space" of the horror noir, and why so.
Following the introduction, Meehan provides a nifty and pithy distinction between supernatural and psychological horror, and then launches right into the macabre meat of the book: a decade-by-decade survey of films he highlights as belonging to this union of genres; to this so-called "horror noir."
The author begins the study in the 1930s with films such as Dr. X (1932) and Freaks (1932) and then moves into the 1940s with examples such as Nightmare Alley (1947) and Night has a Thousand Eyes (1948).
The chapter-by-chapter scan of the decades brings readers right up to the present with discussions of recent films such as The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008). That often-derided (but I think genius...) Chris Carter film is actually the epitome of horror noir, particularly in its emphasis on the film noir theme of "black medicine," (think Eyes without a Face, as Meehan trenchantly points out...).
I must confess, this was not an angle of the Carter film I had really considered thoroughly, and which makes an I Want to Believe re-watch absolutely necessary. On a side-note, I deeply respect and admire film books that achieve this goal; they make me want to go back and see a film again, with new information critical to a different interpretation of it. In the course of the book, Meehan achieves this threshold over and over, bringing a new and valid viewpoint to films you have enjoyed in the past, but perhaps on a different basis.
In between the decade survey chapters, Meehan takes the reader down some fascinating side alleys too, into "Monster Noir," "Hitchcock's Psychological Ghosts and Dopplegangers," "The Noir Horrors of Hannibal the Cannibal" and my personal favorite, "Mean Streets of Hell," the chapter that discusses Exorcist III (1990), Jacob's Ladder (1990), Se7en (1995), Lord of Illusion (1995) and Scorses's Shutter Island (2010). All of these films endlessly fascinate me -- even if some don't quite work -- and it was illuminating to read about them under this new, organizing rubric of horror noir.
As a writer of reference books myself, I am sensitive to reviews that note how I reviewed 300 films reaaly well, but forgot one. I mean...nobody's perfect, you know? Gee whiz! I don't want to be a book reviewer who can't see the forest through the trees like that.
However, -- that caveat established -- I must point out that Horror Noir does not mention or review the film I consider to be the greatest horror noir of the 1990s, and one made by the film noir's greatest modern director, Roman Polanski.
I'm talking about 1999's The Ninth Gate, starring Johnny Depp. That work of supreme intelligence and depth co-opts the highest quality of the film noir (the outward "investigation" leading to an inner discovery about the nature of self) to imply a world beyond our mortal perception; a world of authentic evil. The Polanski film also features a great, infinitely ambiguous ending which was perfect for the Y2K times in which the film was crafted.
Beside that gap in the discourse, however, Meehan ably and intelligently surveys over 110 horror noirs (from Alias Nick Beal  to The X-Files I Want to Believe ) here. And to his credit, does a fantastic job discussing and analyzing Polanksi's famous Rosemary's Baby (1968) and the noir elements it co-opts so successfully.
Meehan ends his nearly-three-hundred page film survey with the thought that film's evil twins -- horror and noir -- will take new shapes in the years and decades to come. If so, I hope Meehan will continue to document these evolutions and revolutions, and perhaps even tackle another intriguing subject he mentions tangentially in the text: Western Noir.
Paul Meehan's Horror Noir: Where Cinema's Dark Sisters Meet is now available at Amazon.com and also through the publisher, McFarland, here. I can recommend the latest Meehan book without reservation, and also suggest you pick up a copy of Meehan's groundbreaking Tech Noir.