10 Classic Film Noir-Horror Crossovers
Horror and film noir have always been kindred spirits. The bleakest of movie genres, they’ve spent decades exploring the dirty crevices of humanity and projecting their findings on the big screen. They have their cosmetic differences of course, with noir fixating on urban decay and horror reveling in the supernatural, but their thematic similarities make it so that when they do cross paths, it is a match made in
So, as you unpack the remnants of your Halloween candy, Classic Movie Hub has decided to bring you ten horror-noir crossovers that’ll make you hang up your fedora and think twice about answering your door come nightfall.
1. The Leopard Man (RKO Pictures, 1943)
Val Lewton’s influence on horror cannot be overstated. His films revolutionized the genre, from his moody, gothic aesthetic to the notion that sometimes the scariest creatures are the ones we can’t see. Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943) have been praised for their unnerving complexity, and rightfully so, but the film I’ve chosen for this list is 1943’s The Leopard Man.
The third and final collaboration between writer/producer Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur, The Leopard Man is a marvelous red herring of a movie. We’re led to believe that an escaped leopard has been killing innocent people in New Mexico, only to be have the rug pulled out from under us and replaced with a darker, more disturbing truth. I won’t spoil the twist, but rest assured that it’s a darn good one.
Based on a novel by pulp author Cornell Woolrich, The Leopard Man is arguably the scariest of Lewton’s works– a masterful balancing act of fear and blinding paranoia.
2. Hangover Square (20th Century Fox, 1945)
Hangover Square gleefully drops us into the shoes of its unstable protagonist, Harvey Bone. Played with magnificent bluster by Laird Cregar, Bone is a composer who suffers from blackout migraines– or so his therapist (George Sanders) tells him. As we come to learn, these blackouts act as a coping mechanism whenever Bone gives in to his deviant and murderous desires. It’s a classically noirish method of denying harsh realities.
Once Bone learns of his double life, however, he promptly embraces his deviant nature and goes full serial killer, while the audience is dragged along for the ride. The intrusive camerawork does a great job of getting us into Bone’s headspace, sharing in his fragile, constantly shifting state, and even opening up some room to feel sympathy for him before his inevitable demise.
Said demise, a fiery parade of music and mayhem, would go onto inspire the creation of horror icon Sweeney Todd.
3. The Spiral Staircase (Universal Pictures, 1945)
A gothic offering from director Robert Siodmak, The Spiral Staircase is sure to frighten anyone who’s left home alone on a dark night. The film is about a mute housekeeper named Helen (Dorothy Maguire), who’s hired to care for a labyrinthine home in the English countryside. The house initially provides a peaceful silence, but that gets shattered once Helen discovers she’s not alone. There’s a serial killer on the loose, and it appears that he’s chosen Helen as his next victim…
Those familiar with Siodmak’s other works (Phantom Lady, The Killers) should know what they’re getting into here: evocative storytelling, airtight pacing, and crisp black-and-white imagery. The film has a nimble quality to it, playing off of Helen’s frazzled mind state as she searches the grounds, knowing each shadowy corner could be her last. It makes for thoroughly antsy viewing.
Again, I’d recommend watching the film in the company of others. Especially if any spiral staircases are nearby.
4. Decoy (Monogram Pictures, 1946)
The gloriously mean-spirited Decoy might seem like a traditional film noir on the surface: femme fatale Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie) attempts to cheat a kindly doctor and her gangster boyfriend on her way to the top. But things take a decidedly supernatural turn when the gangster boyfriend– who hid a bundle of loot in the desert — is captured and sentenced to the gas chamber.
Not one to give up easily, Margot concocts a genuinely batty scheme that sees her seduce the doctor, steal her boyfriend’s corpse, and, well, attempt to bring him back to life. The craziest part is that it actually works.
The reanimation sequence brings this film noir to a screeching halt, only to have it start up again and hop on the fast track to horror central. The betrayal and brutality that follows makes Dr. Frankenstein’s ordeal look positively quaint by comparison. A career high for both Gillie and her husband at the time, director Jack Bernhard.
5. Secret Beyond the Door (Universal Pictures, 1947)
Monsters and murderers are certainly frightening, though sometimes, the biggest threat can come from those close to us. Perhaps even from a spouse. 1947’s Secret Beyond the Door explores this idea through the perverse union of Celia (Joan Bennett) and her new husband Mark (Michael Redgrave). Charming enough on the surface, Mark practices a rather morbid hobby behind closed doors: he likes to build exact replicas of rooms where notorious murders have taken place.
Needless to say, Celia is a little unnerved by this. Especially when Mark explains that the room’s symmetry can dictate the actions that take place within– a replica of the murderer, so to speak. It’s all very hammy and verbose, but director Fritz Lang knows how to generate unspoken tension, and each scene builds upon the next like a terrifying game of jenga. You begin to worry about Celia being in the same house, let alone the same marriage.
Secret Beyond the Door sucks you into its domestic nightmare, and may even have you glancing at your spouse a bit different afterwards.
6. The Amazing Mr. X (Eagle-Lion Films, 1948)
I’ll admit the title of The Amazing Mr. X doesn’t sound all that promising. Eagle-Lion Studio definitely should have stuck with the film’s UK title, The Spiritualist, which strikes much closer to the heart of its chilling story. It revolves around Christine (Lynn Bari), a mourning widow who hears the voice of her late husband one night on the beach. Determined to learn more, she connects with a mysterious psychic (Turhan Bey) who may or may not be playing her for a sucker.
This is a cheap film, there’s no two ways about it, but the dreamy cinematography of John Alton gives each scene a sensation of uncertainty. We don’t know if Christine is imagining her ghostly encounters or simply falling prey to suggestion in her fragile state. Even better, the story runs us ragged from one possible answer to the next, until we’re left utterly baffled in the final act. It’s a fun way to spend 80 minutes.
Those who enjoy the film should also check out 1948’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes, a similarly coarse look at the world of psychics and fortune tellers.
7. Alias Nick Beal (Paramount Pictures, 1949)
A retelling of the Faust myth with guns and fedoras, Alias Nick Beal is another forgotten gem of the 1940s. Ray Milland plays the titular character, a smooth talker who strikes a business deal with a bumbling district attorney (Thomas Mitchell) to clean up the streets. Of course, the deal comes at a great price, and the district attorney is left scrambling to escape his evil predicament before its too late.
What I like most about Alias Nick Beal is that it tackles its source material with some nuance. Milland is definitely playing a version of Satan here, and wonderfully, I might add, but the film doesn’t hammer us over the head with it. Beal’s creepiest moments are often the ones that draw little attention to themselves, like when he’s first seen exiting a mysterious fog, or the way he simply appears in a scene as opposed to entering through a door.
It may not be as profound as some of the other inclusions on this list, but Alias Nick Beal (also released as Strange Temptation) is still worth checking out.
8. Dark City (Paramount Pictures, 1950)
1950’s Dark City, like Decoy before it, took a noir premise and twisted it to the point of being unrecognizable. The film revolves around a gang of card sharks (Charlton Heston, Ed Begley, Jack Webb) and the fallout of one of their marks committing suicide. Initially, the police look to be their biggest problem, but then the mark’s mysterious brother comes into town looking for revenge– brutal, otherworldly revenge.
To be clear, we’re never told if this vengeful figure, played by Mike Mazurki, is meant to imply a supernatural presence. But we certainly get allusions to it, in the way he taunts and terrifies members of the gang before killing them. His face constantly remains hidden in these scenes, further shrouding whether or not there is humanity to his actions.
That’s not even getting into the film’s terrifying climax, which plays out like a direct precursor to John Carpenter’s slasher classic Halloween (1978). For a more detailed breakdown of Dark City, click here.
9. Angel Heart (Tri-Star Pictures, 1987)
Far and away the most unsettling film on the list, Angel Heart is a true masterpiece of the macabre. Mickey Rourke plays Harry Angel, a scruffy private detective who’s hired to track down a missing crooner in 1950s New Orleans. It appears the crooner was heavily into the occult, however, which means Angel has to turn over some unsavory rocks and question some deranged characters in his search. When he finally does track the crooner down, it’s a plot twist for the ages.
This film continues to scare the hell out of me. The script’s weblike narrative is masterfully spun, but beyond that, it’s the morbid, forlorn atmosphere that continues to haunt on repeat viewings. Rourke plays the most doomed gumshoe who ever lived, a film noir trope stuck in a flick that turns satanic before its final reel.
Angel Heart is not for the faint of heart, particularly with regards to some of its more graphic content. That being said, few horror-noir combos pack such a deafening punch.
10. Cast a Deadly Spell (HBO, 1991)
What a wacky mystery this is. Cast a Deadly Spell openly mocks horror and film noir, while simultaneously playing into the tropes of both genres. It’s set in a fictional version of 1948, where monsters and mythical beasts exist, zombies are used as cheap labor, and human beings use magic on a regular basis. Except, that is, private detective Philip Lovecraft, played with resigned swagger by Fred Ward.
Lovecraft is a dogged, old fashioned sort, which proves crucial when a tawdry Los Angeles scandal threatens to eradicate the entire planet. I won’t spoil the details– honestly, I wouldn’t even know where to begin– but I will say that Cast a Deadly Spell is loads of eccentric fun. Ward opts to play it straight opposite a gallery of grotesque creatures, and the results land somewhere between Chinatown and Disney’s Halloweentown.
HBO released a Lovecraft sequel in 1994 titled Witch Hunt, though it lacked the playful eccentricity of this film.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub Danilo Castro is a film noir specialist and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.