Film Noir—the dark and seedy underbelly of classic cinema. Highlighted by their urban settings, striking cinematography, and moody lighting, these grim tales gained popularity in the 1940s and often featured cynical heroes, tempting women, and skewed morality.
Throughout the years, these films and the novels from which these films sprang, have gone on to be direct inspirations in a wide range of genres with films like The Last Boy Scout (1991) and The Big Lebowski (1998). However, it is the science-fiction genre where this inspiration has been the most noticeable on the big screen.
Many Phillip K. Dick adaptations, such as Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), and Minority Report (2002), all lean heavily into the crime noir elements made famous by classic film noir. While several of these films found box-office success, the others would go on to become cult favorites. With the proven box-office potential, it’s shocking how little the horror genre has taken advantage of the many tropes found in these dark stories.
Thankfully, that all changed in the ‘90s when the horror industry finally came around to dipping its toe into the dark and twisted pond of film noir. With April being Cops n’ Killers month here at Nightmare on Film Street, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to shout out some of our favorite Horror Films Inspired by Film Noir, and to show some love to these genre-bending-mashups, filled with Private Investigators, Femme Fatales, and supernatural villains.
10. Tales from the Crypt Presents Bordello of Blood (1996)
Okay, Bordello of Blood is a bad movie, but it’s also hilarious if you are in the right headspace. Dennis Miller plays a private detective who, after overhearing a conversation between a beautiful woman (Erika Eleniak, Baywatch) and the police, gets involved in a case to find her missing brother. The case ultimately leads to vampires and a crooked Reverend. With its noir elements in place and plenty of laugh-out-loud moments (many unintentional), it’s hard to not enjoy this, especially on a “bad” movie night.
9. Naked Lunch (1991)
This year will be twenty-nine-years since the release of David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, and while not a direct adaption of the William Burroughs novel in which it shares its name, I am still amazed this film exists. Cronenberg’s film might not be a traditional film noir, but its setting, style, and bizarre deep dive into the psyche of Burroughs as a character makes the Naked Lunch a must-watch for fans of dark and twisted cinema. PS – I wish Cronenberg would’ve filmed this in Black & White.
8. Hellraiser: Inferno (2000)
Directed by Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange), Inferno wasn’t exactly what fans of the franchise were expecting from a fifth film when it was released in October 2000, but hey, after you have gone to space, the next logical step can only be film noir, right? Hellraiser: Inferno stars Craig Sheffer (Nightbreed, 1990) as a drug-using, unfaithful, corrupt detective caught up in a murder investigation involving The Engineer (Barker readers should recognize the name). The murder mystery is well done, but it is Thorne (Sheffer) and his descent into madness that would fit perfectly in the seedy underbelly of classic film noir; and that it makes this Hellraiser film highly recommendable (the last I can say that about.)
7. Witch Hunt (1994)
Way back in the early ’90s, HBO released two films based on Private Detective Harry Phillip Lovecraft. Witch Hunt is the second of these films (you might see the other a bit later), but what is shocking about these films is the massive amount of talent involved in making them. Witch Hunt directed by Paul Schrader (Hardcore, 1979), and starred Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider, 1969) as Lovecraft, Penelope Ann Miller (The Shadow, 1994), Eric Bogosian (Uncut Gems, 2019), Julian Sands (Warlock, 1989), and a score by Angelo Badalamenti (Twin Peaks, 1990). Witch Hunt sees Lovecraft involved in a story involving anti-magic hearings, corrupt politicians, and murder. The highest compliment I can give Witch Hunt is that it feels like a Raymond Chandlers Marlowe story if Chandler had added magic and zombies. This forgotten HBO original is worth tracking down.
6. Dark City (1998)
Alex Proyas followed up The Crow (1994), with this underrated noir-inspired film. On the surface, Dark City with its “hidden powers, chosen-one” main character and the creepy “Cenobite-like Strangers” might seem like a traditional Matrix (released a year later) meets Hellraiser cash grab. But, oddly enough, with its urban setting, amnesia stricken lead, shady behind-the-scenes characters, and beautiful damsel played by Jennifer Connelly (Labyrinth, 1986), it is the most noir film on this list. To say any more would ruin the surprise along the way, but if you’re a Lynch fan, or a fan of the films listed above, I highly recommend checking out this underrated gem.
5. Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)
The first (and best) of the two Lovecraft detective films produced by HBO in the early ’90s, this time starring Fred Ward as the hardboiled detective hired to track down the Necronomicon. The humor is what sets this film apart. It never takes itself seriously even when borrowing heavily from Chandlers seedy 1940’s L.A, or when taking its creature mythos from Lovecraft. While Witch Hunt is a lot of fun, Cast a Deadly Spell should have become a franchise for Fred Ward. Highly recommend for fans of film noir and horror-comedy.
4. Lost Highway (1997)
In my opinion, Lost Highway is the best David Lynch and his closest ever to making a horror. And, if I’m honest, it is by far the best movie on this list. With its noir-inspired plot involving blackmail (does it?), mistaken identity (or is it?), a beautiful femme fatale played by Patricia Arquette (Nightmare on Elm Street 3, 1987), and some of the most beautiful bizarre and head-trip nightmarish imaginary to grace the screen, you may not figure out what is going on (I have my theories); but if you’re a fan of uncomfortably dark and open-ended films, I cannot recommend Lost Highway enough.
3. Angel Heart (1987)
Angel Heart should be considered a masterpiece of horror noir. Mickey Rourke (9 ½ Weeks, 1986) stars as Harry Angel, a private investigator who is hired by Robert De Niro’s mysterious Louis Cyphre (think hard about that name) to track down a client who has skipped out on a debt. The trail eventually leads to New Orleans, where Angel becomes involved with a mysterious young woman, voodoo, and the occult. Angel Heart scores major points for taking the familiar tropes of hardboiled noir and adding a supernatural touch. With a mysterious client, a down on his luck private investigator, and a fantastic dark twist, this makes a perfect film for both horror and noir fans.
2. In the Mouth of Madness (1995)
Not many consider In the Mouth of Madness among John Carpenter’s best films, but it would be hard to find someone who doesn’t at least consider it film noir. Insurance investigator John Trent is hired by a publishing house to track down the missing Sutter Cane, and in traditional noir fashion, nothing is as it seems—from its interrogation style storytelling; to Sam Neill’s (Jurassic Park, 1993) John Trent feeling ripped from a 1940’s noir (fifty-years earlier and Bogart might have played this character); to the perfectly cast Julie Carmen (Fright Night 2, 1990) as the Femme Fatale. Featuring a bleak and trippy mind-bending finale, I cannot recommend In the Mouth of Madness highly enough. Like Cast a Deadly Spell, it’s the perfect mixture of classic hardboiled noir and Lovecraft.
1. Lord of Illusions (1995)
1995 was a fantastic year for hardboiled horror, with both of my top two films releasing that year. If Sam Neill’s John Trent feels like Sam Spade, then Harry D’Amour would be Mike Hammer. Barker captures that world-weariness perfectly—from the way he shoots the film to look and feel like a 1940’s noir, to the intentional slow pacing that allows the audience time to take in all the weirdness D’ Amour discovers in his investigation. Also perfect is the casting of Scott Bakula (Quantum Leap) as D’ Amour and Famke Janssen (Goldeneye, 1995) as Dorothea, the beautiful lady caught in the middle of two enemies destined to meet again. Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusions might not be the best film on this list, but it does capture that bleak hardboiled noir feel better than any other movie listed.