What is noir in horror?

When most people hear the term “Film Noir” they think hard-boiled detective story or murder mystery, but film noir is not a genre, it is a style. There are a number of horror movies that are also noir. For example; “The Beast With Five Fingers” 1946 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” 1956, “The She-Wolf of London” 1946, and pretty much everything Val Lewton ever did.

The term film noir means black film. It is a French term coined by French film critics who noticed the dark and downbeat trend of American films that were being shown in French theaters. Film noir was invented in Hollywood with the help of immigrant directors such as Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder. They brought with them an impressionistic style that, when mixed with the American way of life, changed movie making and movie makers. The classical film noir period started in the mid 40’s to the late 50’s, however, the style can still be seen in far more recent films such as “Psycho” 1960, “The Exorcist” 1973, “Rosemary’s Baby” 1968, even “The Silence of the Lambs” 1991.

What sets these movies apart from regular horror movies is a certain artistry. Vivid images or the use of light and shade to convey mood. Camera angles that bring forth a sense of dread or insanity or something just not right or normal.

There are, of course, the standard images of noir; fog, cigarette smoke, rain, city streets, even cynicism. All of these various components are part of the storytelling. Audiences responded to these dark and foreboding images. It was a new art form. One that could be applied to the horror genre with titillating results.

What makes a horror movie a film noir? There are certain themes, characters, visuals and settings that can be applied to horror. The more of these elements that are used, the more noir the horror film becomes.

Protagonists with marked character flaws, perhaps a past that they carry around with them or even insanity. The proverbial mad scientist. Perhaps a loner, maybe paranoid who feels they were wronged by society. The Damsel in distress is quite often part of the horror noir. The woman in the wrong place at the wrong time or perhaps subservient to a husband, father or captor. In classic noir there is sometimes a femme fatale. In horror it’s not always a woman. Sometimes it is the obsession.

Visuals with sharp angles and contrasts of dark shadows and harsh lights. Nighttime. Although noir is mostly attributed to the period after WWII, architectural nuances such as Art Deco, Gothic or Victorian can be noir. Black and White movies lend themselves perfectly to the noir feel. A monochromatic palette. Unusual camera angles. The long dark hallway that stretches forever, the large hearth in a cold dank castle. Rooms bigger than they need to be making the characters in them seem smaller and inadequate. Low camera angles showing footsteps walking, a hand coming out to grab its next victim or perhaps just the shadow of a cat on the wall.

Places such as Dark fog laden moors or swamps. Forests with dead trees. Castles, thunderstorms and old empty rambling houses laden with dust and cobwebs. Apocalyptic films with empty streets, bleak and garbage strewn. Sounds echoing off the buildings. Just about anything that takes you out of the perceived reality and puts you into an alternate dimension.

The film noir rarely has a happy ending. So too with noir horror. Although the protagonist may survive and so may the damsel in distress, almost no one else does. Still there are no guarantees. Sometimes everyone’s gotta die.

Although there were a few horror movies done that could still be called noir, the 60’s brought changes that affected the feel of horror movies. The horror movie went from thriller to chiller. Instead of style there was more blood. Relaxation of the Production Code meant that directors and cinematographers didn’t have to be artists to convey horror. All they had to do was show it to you. In living color.

Coined by the French, inspired by German expressionism and born in America during WWII, film noir, in horror, is horror dressed up in style.