We have a theory that most movies and books in the noir mode actually aspire to be horror movies and books. And we think that a lot of horror films desperately want to be noir. Come to think of it, a lot of your action/suspense/thriller-type-things tend to feel an awful lot like they want to be noir AND horror. Then you have those berserk stepchildren who happen to be all of these things and none of these things. Those are brave writers and fearless directors playing around with theme and technique while they gene-splice genres and re-write the rules. You can do a lot when you throw away the playbook. You can invent your own stinkin’ genre. We took a stab at this recently with our collaboration on BLACK LIGHT for Muholland Books, which is a novel about a private eye with supernatural powers who gets in deep with a bunch of ghosts on a high-tech bullet train—how’s THAT for genre-bending? We’re pretty happy with how it’s shaping up and we think it owes a dark debt to a lot of the crazy films and books we grew up with, many of which probably had no idea how many rules they were breaking. We’ve been asked to share some of these bad bastards with you this week, by way of introducing you to our raunchy little pop-lit power trio, and we thought it might be a good opportunity to throw out some keen observations, witty personal anecdotes and clever banter that will almost certainly mark us as “serious authors” to the world at large. (Hear that sound? That’s Stephen with his tongue so far up his cheek he’s licking out his ear.) At the very least, you may find some of this information useful on a bar trivia question or something—after all we ARE professionals.
So let’s rack ‘em up: THE DARK 13, baby. Who wants to go first?
Marcus: If I may offer…THE CROW. I remember painting my face up and driving out to the Coralville, Iowa 3 Plex to buy tickets for myself and buds to see this film opening night. I then found myself watching it another twenty-four times over the next couple of years. Over and over again, this stark revenge tale sucked me in with a pulsating score & soundtrack that honored the graphic novel’s inspirations as much as the cinematography honored the novel’s panels. I knew I wasn’t the only one this film affected—for on subsequent Halloween’s, no matter which University Of Iowa kegger one may attend, there were always a handful of ‘Crows’ quietly hanging out in a circle with filled red cups, bobbing their heads in unison. Every now and then, you have a film which anchors itself to a terrific feeling or a sense-memory which is far beyond the running time of a movie. It meant a lot to share a love for THE CROW with buds and it raised the bar for graphic novel adaptations to come.
Stephen: Man, twenty-four times! That almost beats my record—I saw ALIENS thirty-seven times when it came out. On the subject of THE CROW, I think it’s worth noting the comic book also, because it really is an amazing work of gothic noir in the supernatural vein—so much bleaker than even the film was and just oozing with vision and style. All the art is in black and white, and it sometimes has the feel of an old classic horror film or crime thriller. It actually derives from a senseless tragedy the author was grappling with when he wrote and illustrated it—which is an artistic impetus I can really identify with. In the book, the crime that kills Eric Draven and traps his soul is more of a random occurrence—something that could happen to anyone by the side of the road, and the Crow itself is more of an Edgar Allan Poe specter. Beautiful, haunting stuff.
Patrick: Ha! I was at that Iowa kegger and I distinctly remember Marcus with electric tape wrapped around his jeans because he couldn’t find black leather pants in Iowa City. What a dork. Yeah, that movie was pretty badass. Not until years later did I discover the comic book. Stunning work. I heard a rumor at some point that the remake would be shot in black and white to emulate the comic book. The marketing people would never let that happen, but we can dream. Then again, can projectors these days even show black and white prints anymore? (wink-wink)
Stephen: While we’re on gothic noir, I recently re-watched DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE (CEMETERY MAN), and there’s one that really holds up after . . . what is it now, twenty years or so? It was an Italian film made in the early 1990s by a real visionary guy named Michele Soavi, who was a heavy disciple of Argento and even Lucio Fulci. You can see all those influences in this thing, along with his love for Terry Gilliam. Imagine a gothic-noir horror love story splatstick comedy, then throw out anything resembling a western sensibility, frame each shot with a obsessive desire for quirky perfection, color it all in a rainbow-polarized-in-darkness palette, and you sort of start to get the idea. It’s just a berserk tone poem of grim beauty that’s hell-bent on breaking the fucking mold when it’s done. As a noir horror it really works too, because it’s about this lone cemetery man gunning for the dead in a spooky graveyard, and he smokes cigarettes and drinks and you have the hard-boiled narration that holds the story together, but even while the film is hitting all those beats, it’s swimming in all these other obsessions, until it finally reveals itself to be some sort of art film. It’s like a clever bait-and-switch, but you really come away energized. That last scene at the end of the world still gives me chills. Some people will laugh at the dated special effects or whatever, but you don’t even have to squint hard to see the compete genius lurking under all that.
Patrick: Who says Rupert Everett isn’t castable in a straight role anymore? Just watch this movie! Seriously, though, I found this after seeing the EVIL DEAD movies and loved the insane tone and unorthodox camera angles. This is a really tough tone to nail, but when it works, cinematic genius! The success of our first film, FEAST, owes a lot to the genre-twisting in this one.
Marcus: There is an adrenaline, humor and style to that film which will consistently rope in new fans. NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, EVIL DEAD 2, SLITHER, all aimed at a daunting target and scored. The mischief in the violence is just wonderful.
Stephen: We should also mention DYLAN DOG, which was the comic series that sort of inspired this film—a great combination of detective thriller elements and supernatural stuff, but a lot less experimental than this film. It’s a great comic, though—one of my very favorites, all done in black and white, really well-written, each story novel-length, which is the standard comic format in Italy. DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE was actually a novel written by DYLAN DOG’s creator and I guess they decided to combine the two. The funny thing is that Rupert Everett was the model for the DYLAN DOG detective character, and so they cast him in this film as Francisco Dellamorte. For my money, there’s never been a more interesting horror noir protagonist in the movies. The comics are a different sort of thing, but they strike a really delicate balance between humor and horror. The character of Dylan Dog is more childlike—he’s obsessed with horror films and walks the dark fantastic, dealing with everything from zombies to invisible men to a deformed autistic freak named Johnny. The writing and art is just jaw-dropping in some of those. DYLAN DOG is as popular as SUPERMAN over there. Which is interesting because Brandon Routh played Dylan in a movie not long ago. I hear it’s in trouble, though.
Patrick: I like THE PUNISHER myself. I was around 11 when this comic book series came out and it knocked me on my ass. Up to this point, I had been exposed to the rather PG world of DC Comics. Of course, it was always “cooler” to read Marvel Comics, so when I took an animation class and the bespectacled, uber-geek instructor with greasy hair and constant five o’clock shadow introduced me to the more adult company, I was ready for the switch. He started me out with a little X-Men, which I enjoyed, but when he showed me The Punisher, I was changed for good. Suddenly, the hero could kill in cold blood. Justice was swift. And sweet revenge was drenched in blood.
Marcus: I remember seeing a bootleg copy of the Doplh Lundgren PUNISHER in the back of a comic shop when I was too young to get into an R rated movie. It was the coolest thing ever to be sitting on a hand-me-wayyyy-down sofa in the back of that shop, watching Ivan Drago catch chains, fire shotguns and speak so low that whales were nervous. The gravity of the comic books hit with severe brutality, and while I know I was old enough to be too young and still ‘get’ the PUNISHER film, the comic was definitely something I could only fully appreciate as an adult. It was born of such pure anger.
Stephen: You know, of the three PUNISHER films they’ve made so far, I actually like that first one with Dolf Lundgren the best. It’s a kick-ass bit of 1980s action movie tripe riddled with some truly gripping crime thriller moments and a terrific, emotional ending that works, even though Dolf looks totally stoned the whole time! It has a great score, too. That uncut bootleg version is amazing. They really went with the vibe of the comic on that one—no-holds barred justice. He kills EVERYBODY in that movie. The new ones aren’t as cool. Tom Jane was great in the second one, but the film was kind of boring and silly . . . and WAR ZONE . . . well, that one was just terrible. They thought a lot of carnage would cover the fact that there was no emotional center to the thing. I think Frank Castle is one of the more complex vigilantes out there.
Marcus: How about Snake Pliskken? I have a friend with one eye and the fact he has a sci-fi hero to look up to—a dude ten zillion times cooler than any given Marvel concoction you can name—is a tribute to how dry-ice cool this film still is. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is built on a foundation of attitude and frustration and yet made with a discipline that is telling of every drop of sweat that went into it. The horror lover in me was thrilled when the crazies attacked Snake Plissken and he displayed . . . fear. An action hero meeting up with a force that the audience could find terrifying and the hero found terrifying was an ultimate thrill. Action films by and large have built heroes so indestructible and calm under pressure that the urgency of any plight is undercut. Kurt Russell’s version of a badass showed up with an organ missing, a chip on his shoulder and an adroit sense of when to cut and run. The smooth, gliding camera work of Dean Cundey is the silent stalker amongst the cast. The camera prowls and exposes vulnerabilities that Snake’s good eye may not even pick up. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK is caffeine for the eyes. It makes one grateful for two middle fingers.
Stephen: It’s an amazing example of complete film noir in the classic vein: an unsympathetic hero, a stacked deck against him, time running out, and it’s all shot in superflowing shades of darkness and shadow. It might be the best photographed dystopian-future movie ever made in the eighties, with BLADE RUNNER and ROAD WARRIOR being close runners-up. EFNY is a purer vision, though—stripped down, no bullshit. It doesn’t get lost in the technology or the action—Snake is the thing, and the prison he must get his ass out of. I really like the dry-ice cool analogy, man. That says it all. EFNY is in my all-time top ten favorite movies.
Patrick: And speaking of unsympathetic heroes, I have to chalk up TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA. Remember this soundtrack? It was awesome. Wang Chung encapsulated ‘80s synth-pop perfectly. Like many, my introduction to William Friedkin’s Los Angeles based neo-noir came via the soundtrack. And could William Petersen (born in my hometown) be any cooler in the lead role? Between this and MANHUNTER the following year, how wasn’t he the biggest movie star in the world? Anyhow, my mom loved the soundtrack and figured the film would be just as “pop-friendly”. Wow, she couldn’t be any more wrong. This is a gritty slice of noir that followed two well-intending but morally corrupt Federal agents through the seedy underbelly of the City of Angels. I loved it. And when Petersen gets shot in the face at the end of the movie… whoa! The hero doesn’t always win.
Stephen: The ending of that movie is incredible. You’d never see that in a studio picture these days. I mean, he doesn’t just get killed—he gets obliterated with a shotgun—to the face! There’s a lot of things you just can’t get away with anymore. Another example is this obscure chase thriller called COHEN AND TATE that came out in 1988, which made something like a hundred and fifty bucks in the opening weekend—no kidding. It was pronounced the biggest box office disaster of all time in Variety. Which was a shame, because it wasn’t that bad at all. It was directed by Eric Red, who had written NEAR DARK and THE HITCHER. I actually worked for a few days as a special effects intern on COHEN AND TATE, and Eric was just obsessed with blood and gore—I mean that set was red, man!
Patrick: Sounds like Marcus.
Stephen: Yeah, I saw THE COLLECTOR. Ew.
Marcus: Wait’ll you see the sequel. We just finished shooting it.
Stephen: I shudder at the thought. That scene with the bear traps in the first one was hellacious, man.
Marcus: Well, we always try.
Stephen: The ratings board never would have you have that in the eighties. They were a shitload tougher on the indies back then, and they made Eric Red cut most of the ultra-violent shootouts from COHEN AND TATE—I mean, this stuff was over-the-top. People getting their balls blown off in extreme close-up, splattering everywhere, man! It’s actually a fairly clunky little movie, full of problems—it was Eric’s first film and he was still getting his sea legs—but the overall tone and key sequences are very effective. What makes it worth noting here is the genius way it utilizes horror film techniques to tell what is essentially a crime story. The opening sequence, for example (which I worked on), is set up like a monster movie, with this amazing dark score by Bill Conti and some great Victor Kemper cinematography characterizing the two hitmen, who are never seen on camera until the moment they strike. The setup takes ten minutes and the build is excruciating. The ratings board made them cut out the climax of that scene, which has an FBI guy getting blown head to foot in the most gruesome death-by-squib effect I have ever seen in a movie to this day. Let’s hear it for non-digital blood squirting!
Stephen: Eric actually posted some of the gore that was cut from COHEN AND TATE on You Tube recently (SPOILER WARNING: It’s the ending of the movie!), and I think the uncut version is coming out on DVD this month—it’ll be the first time the film has been released since the VHS in ’99. It’s a cool “lost” flick.
Marcus: (Watches the uncut gore from You Tube and shits his pants.)
Patrick: As far as crime stuff goes, I have to go with The Grifters—the book, not the movie. This little gem by Jim Thompson introduced me to the world of crime fiction. I was pretty young at the time and couldn’t have cared less about books. In fact, I didn’t like to read at all (other than the morning sports page in the Chicago Tribune). This contrasted with my older sister. She read everything. And fast. She was like Speed Reader on The Great Space Coaster, reading books in the time it took me to sit through a Tom and Jerry rerun. The problem was that the required reading at Evanston Township High School put me to sleep quicker than a spoonful of NyQuil. This all changed when I found The Grifters. In 1990, Black Lizard, an imprint of Vintage Crime, began reprinting Jim Thompson’s novels with these new covers of violent black and white photos underneath bold colored titles at harshly tilted angles. They were off-kilter, aggressive, and seductive – just what my impressionable eyes desired. Needless to say, I devoured the rest of the Jim Thompson set and my path down the dark alleyway of crime fiction began.
Stephen: I love Jim Thomson—I think he’s required reading for anyone even remotely interested in noir. My favorite is still The Killer Inside Me, which they made a pretty bad movie out of recently. A lot of filmmakers tend to screw up Thompson. Those black lizard guys came out with some amazing stuff. My favorite was always Andrew Vachss, who is a legendary child abuse crusader who dresses up his textbooks as these incredible crime thrillers. The best line from one of his books is also my favorite opening line of all time: “The sun dropped on the far side of the Hudson River like it knew what was coming.” That’s from BLOSSOM. Man, you can’t get anymore hard-boiled than that.
Marcus: Ahhhh…The Killer Inside Me….the title…just the title reminds me of another GREAT film which features the theme of an outer space killer inside all of us. Anyone with me? Dudes with beards? Snow?
Patrick: Paul Blart?
Marcus: JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING.
Patrick: Two Carpenter flicks on the same list?
Marcus: Yup. I watch this one about every six months to remind myself how horror and sci-fi should hang out more often—and so I never think there isn’t enough room for a powerful social metaphor in any film. I first saw this epic when I learned the hard way I was allergic to the pesticides sprayed on a local golf course. I was as swollen and immobile as the frozen victims of the Arctic Outpost and it was on this night…I learned it could be cool to grow a beard. However, I was 11 and that would have to wait another decade or so. Mr. Carpenter’s THE THING is the perfect answer to that popular “why do all these remakes?” question. For every twenty or so crappy re-do’s, a genuine triumph emerges. There is affection for the horror and a wondrous awe presented in the sci-fi elements of the tale. The performances are top-notch and the crisp whites and steel blues of the anamorphic cinematography add up to a magnificent experience. THE THING is the old friend that never let’s ya down.
Stephen: You know, it’s worth noting THE THING in a discussion of film noir because originally Carpenter and Dean Cundey wanted to shoot it in black and white, as a tribute to the original. The Howard Hawks film is amazing in the way it’s shot in shadows, and they wanted to re-create some of that—but the studio said no fucking way on such a big budget. So Carpenter went with a very subtle sort of “black-and-white-in-color” approach. It’s an incredible technique that really sells the bleakness of the scenario—but the film still did a nosedive at the box-office in 1982. That was the year of ET, the little bastard. THE THING is a way-cooler alien, man. It can look like anything and it makes you doubt the ground under your feet. That was the reason the remake was so necessary—they went back to the concept from the source book that was jettisoned in the original. The monster among us is classic mystery novel stuff. Textbook noir.
Patrick: Right, and let’s see how it is handled in the remake of the remake… err… I mean the prequel. After THE FOG debacle, I think we can all be skeptical of any Carpenter remake, but we can hope. A smart dude name Eric Newman who produced CHILDREN OF MEN and SLITHER has a hand in this one, so perhaps it’s not awful, which is what we are all always striving for…not awful.
Marcus: Not awful? How about one of the classics? SUSPIRIA.
Stephen: Oh man, the ultimate screaming horror noir! I was just a kid when I saw that and it scarred me for life
Marcus: You and me both. I was 12. This was the first film I watched through my fingers. I had to sit very close to the old wood-encased Zenith TV. I watched it late at night while my family was sleeping twenty-odd feet away. Sitting that close to Mr. Argento’s tale of witches in a ballet academy was a magnificent, all encompassing experience. The Goblin score shook the old wood floors beneath my PJs and the bold colors washed over the blanket around my head like a Willy Wonka snuff film. I don’t know why I have such love for an experience so damn traumatizing . . . but that, my amigos, is how the cookie crumbled. SUSPIRIA allowed horror to be beautiful. It allowed savage violence to be mesmerizing. For every tale a child could hear to keep them on the straight and narrow. SUSPIRIA seemed to be that tale for the adult that wanted to be scared like a kid once more…What a gift!
Stephen: The title literally means “whisper.” And Argento’s next film after INFERNO was TENEBRAE, which means “shadow.” That’s actually my favorite Argento—it’s got the most well-written script of all his films—but I really think “shadow” is a better title for SUSPIRIA, which just glows in neon darkness. That film was an inspiration to millions and it still rocks my world every time I watch it. Goblin is on my HIGH FIDELITY All Time Top Five Favorite Bands List.
Patrick: As a filmmaker, Marcus is deeply influenced by Argento. When we first moved to LA he showed me movie after movie in his dumpy apartment off of Franklin in Hollywood. I always loved the bit in the beginning of THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE when the killer is standing in the reflection of the mirror, which proves to be a revelation for the lead character later. Argento’s movies were certainly horror films, but they were also quiet thrilling.
Stephen: I like MARATHON MAN a lot as a thriller that wants to be a horror film. Obviously, it has one of the most notorious protracted torture sequences in history, but what makes it a horse of a even darker color in my opinion is the way the filmmakers seem to embrace the classic alienation and aloneness of man as the central theme—the classic tough guy archetype—but Dustin Hoffman’s character is also a Hitchockian everyman, caught up in a bleak undertow of evil he can’t understand or control, and when it rises to consume him, he descends into madness. It’s the old looking-into-the-abyss theme: when our backs are against the wall, we have no choice but to fight or run, but be careful how far you go. The film has a dark, hypnotizing worldview, which makes this a textbook film noir—but then you have Laurence Oliver’s Zell, the Nazi torture bad guy, who just chills you to the bone in the best tradition of horror film heavies like Vincent Price, but hit with an extra load of nitro, man. You really believe this guy is capable of anything when he puts the drill to Hoffman. A chilling, chilling movie—one that haunts you for days after watching it. And it also has one of the funniest and most ironic behind-the-scenes stories ever. Check this out: They were getting ready to film the climax where Hoffman is all bloody and fucked up and crazy . . . and as we all know, Hoffman is a real method guy . . . so he shows up on set looking like death warmed over and he walks up to Oliver and says: “I haven’t slept in six days, man, how do I look?” And Oliver kinda just shrugs and says: “Next time, try ACTING, my boy.”
Marcus: Hahahahaa…well…either way…the viewer won. What a movie!
Patrick: Okay, well, now I’m gonna throw a monkeywrench in the whole thing and bring up something really odd—but definitely a huge influence on me. Ralph Bakshi’s X-rated animated movie FRITZ THE CAT. That movie hit theaters before I was even born. Based on Robert Crumb’s comic strip, the VHS cover is what attracted me. I had seen HEAVY TRAFFIC and HEY GOOD LOOKIN’, but because this movie was X, I couldn’t rent it at my local video store. Of course, this restriction made it that much more desirable! Never to be deterred, my friends and I found a video store in downtown Evanston on Davis Street, which was willing to rent such filthy pulp to the underage (an establishment where I also stumbled upon the Faces of Death series). I absorbed the sex, drugs, and vulgarity, but it was the stylized realism of the animation that really impressed upon me. Life was no longer rainbows and lollipops… and I loved it.
Stephen: Wow. That’s a whacky entry. I get it, though. That movie knocked me on my ass, too. It doesn’t talk down to anyone. It actually takes a horrifying turn near the end, with a sadistic rape/torture sequence that really catches you offguard. Dark, dark stuff. Ralph wasn’t fucking around that time out. HEAVY TRAFFIC was the Bakshi film that really blew me away, though. It’s even more streetwise and off-the-wall, and has a real tough no-bullshit quality. Like a surrealist vibe rushing to meet blaxploitation, with elements of a gangster picture mutating into a coming-of-age story. It’s really unique. I met Bakshi once and he was this raging maniac. A scary guy. He was hosting one of his own films at a screening and he told the guy introducing him to fuck off.
Marcus: I think a lot of people who saw COOL WORLD would return the sentiment.
Stephen: So . . . umm . . . is that thirteen yet?
Patrick: No, we need one more. You got one?
Stephen: How about a look at something no one thinks of as horror at all, but is really dark noir, horror, and everything else. APOCALYPSE NOW anyone?
Patrick: Ha! Great film. My wife is Malaysian of Chinese descent and we make our way back to her motherland every other year or so. Now, we’re not talking about the city. This is the jungle. Looking out the back window of her childhood home you can see wild dogs chase monkeys into the banana trees. It’s hot as all hell and the bugs are the size of bats.
Stephen: Sounds like Austin.
Patrick: Anyway, this place smells like incense to combat the bugs and several times a day the Muslim prayer rings out from the nearby Mosque. I’ll always look out the back window into the dense jungle, sweat beading on my brow, and Willard’s lines flowing through my head, “Saigon…shit; I’m still only in Saigon. Every time I think I’m gonna wake up back in the jungle.”
Marcus: The cinematography of Vittorio Storaro is absolutely sumptuous. Every scene along the journey is a dissolving painting of reds, oranges and black. This is another film I know I saw when I was way to young to grip all the details…it played like an absolute fantasy-epic. Except there was cruelty instead of humor, there was still action…but people were begging…there was spectacle…but the world was burning. I remember watching it because I heard “Han Solo was in it.” Yikes. Not the best reason to see it. Definitely not the reason I remember it. Watching APOCALYPSE NOW and feeling so very far from understanding the history it was using as a backdrop inspired me to study the history of that war and ask questions. Ultimately, years and years later, when I knew a little something about something…I went back to that film and it was like being part of an entirely new experience. So many more layers became clear. It is a masterpiece twice over.
Stephen: I think the thing some people get wrong about APOCALYPSE is that it’s not really a war movie, per se. What I mean by that is it’s not a particularly accurate or realistic portrayal of a war so much as it’s this sensual, mystic, horrifying experience dealing with madness and insanity and the horror of war—a series of dark ruminations that kind of transcend genre. It’s one of my favorite films. There’s a scene in the REDUX version that’s just balls-out chilling, with the playboy bunnies in the helicopters and the corpse in the casket. I mean, wow. But I actually prefer the original cut of the film. It’s leaner, darker, more complex in certain ways. It’s a film about all shades of madness, just an amazing experience. The walk across the bridge with all that nightmare carnival sound still just blows me away.
So there you have it, fans. THE DARK 13. Seek them out. Live the madness. And buy our book in October—it’ll be out just in time for Halloween! If fact, but TWO copies. It makes a great gift. Really.
- THE CROW
- DELAMORTE DELLMORE (CEMETERY MAN)
- DYLAN DOG (comic series)
- THE PUNISHER (comic series)
- ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK
- TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA
- COHEN AND TATE
- THE GRIFTERS (book)
- JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING
- MARATHON MAN
- FRITZ THE CAT
- APOCALYPSE NOW
Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, have written the screenplays for Saw IV, Saw V, Saw VI, Saw 3D, and The Collector, which Dunstan also directed. Currently, they are filming The Collector 2, and writing a remake of The Outer Limits for MGM.
Stephen Romano is an acclaimed author, screenwriter and illustrator, whose many works include the first episode of Showtime’s Emmy-winning MASTERS OF HORROR television series, and the award-winning illustrated novel SHOCK FESTIVAL. Stephen is also the creator of tie-in books and promotional campaigns for classic horror films such as PHANTASM, THE EVIL DEAD, MANIAC, HALLOWEEN and Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBIE and THE BEYOND. He lives in Austin, Texas, where life is cheap.