San Francisco Noir

San Francisco Noir | Fred Lyon | Princeton Architectural Press | 224 Pages | 2017

“San Francisco has always teetered on the brink facing the vastness of the Pacific Ocean as it clings perilously to the western edge of the continent. So who would be surprised that the City by the Bay felt a need to bolster its identity? The gold rush jolted the sleepy village from a long nap that will never be resumed. Swept in with the influx of opportunists, a core of raffish rascals grabbed the reigns of a burgeoning government and a society already out of control.” — Fred Lyon

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The Moorstone Sickness

The Moorstone Sickness
Bernard Taylor | St. Martin’s Press | 1982 | 161 pages

The latent evil lurking below the veneer of peaceful, English village life ensnares a young London couple seeking escape from a recent family tragedy.

After the accidental death of their young son, Hal and Rowan Graham decide to leave the painful memories of their London flat behind, and start over in Moorstone, a remote village in the English countryside. Their new life journey has an inauspicious start, when Hal witnesses the shocking suicide of an elderly village resident while the couple is on route to their new home.

While the slow pace of life in Moorstone instantly enchants Rowan, Hal grows increasingly troubled by a strange undercurrent he perceives in the village. Many of the newcomers exhibit a startling change in character after arriving, seemingly as a result of the attention of influential patrons. These same patrons have an alarming propensity to end up in the local madhouse, which has an intake rate that far exceeds that expected of the tiny populace.

And then there is the well-worn altar stone on top of the hill.

Taking cues from The Wicker Man and The Stepford Wives, Bernard Taylor’s foray into rural horror mines the paranoia and mistrust towards country-folk, whose proximity to the land and tradition precludes their ability to fully escape from the heavy pull of ancient practices and beliefs. Of course, the Graham’s fear is fully justifiable, although Rowan’s late realization drives a wedge into their marriage—and threatens their survival.

The deliciously creepy atmosphere and corresponding anticipation of the inevitable terror to come, however familiar, sustain the entire breadth of the narrative, which comes to a rapid close once the village secrets are revealed. Hal and Rowan’s gardener and housekeeper—collecting nail clippings and leftover hair from the barbershop—are plotting something, but the question of trust lingers around the others in the village. Although the Graham’s marital strife takes center stage, the encroaching question of the villager’s motives builds an atmosphere of suspicion akin to a rural version of Rosemary’s Baby.

The housekeeper’s prepared lunches even evoke Minnie Castevet’s chocolate mousse, only lacking the under-taste.

The slow-burn suspense grows as the Grahams attempt to pull their new life together, with the nearly certain prospect of a sinister agenda at work against them. Is Rowan’s new best friend, Allison, a young woman waiting for her fiancé to return and take her away from the village, trustworthy? Or, how about the friendly doctor, whose chance encounter brought the couple to Moorstone in the first place?

The resultant downbeat ending keeps in tune with the overall mood, perfectly reflecting Hal and Rowan’s passive bewilderment to their mortally dangerous circumstances.

The Woman Hunter

The Woman Hunter
Starring Barbara Eden | Robert Vaughn | Stuart Whitman
Written by Brian Clemens | Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski
Made for Television | 1972 | 1 hour, 14 minutes

A luminous Barbara Eden, with the support of a handful of glamorous outfits, shines in this otherwise tepid made-for-television thriller.

Recovering in Mexico from the trauma of an auto accident, Dina Hunter (Barbara Eden) feels herself slowly becoming estranged from her cold, business-oriented husband, Paul (Robert Vaughn). Overcoming her early resistance, she falls for the masculine charms of her neighbor on the beach, Paul Carter (Stuart Whitman). Seemingly tracking Dina from afar, Carter could actually be an international jewel thief and murderer intent on stealing her valuable necklace.

Lumpy and hairy in a middle-aged, seventies leading man sort of way, Stuart Whitman provides easily the most terrifying moment in the film—the prospect of emerging from the surf without his swimming trunks.

Barbara Eden carries the low-grade, woman-in-peril story with her screen presence alone—including an unintentionally funny, weirdly jerky dance number that predates Elaine’s awkward dance on Seinfeld by about twenty years.

Unfolding without much suspense over most of its running time, The Woman Hunter crawls along at a slow pace until delivering a predictable, yet unlikely, twist ending. However, the modest locations and era fashions make for a pleasantly inessential, wallpaper viewing.

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Bonnie and Clyde

 

Bonnie and Clyde | Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot | Fontana Records | 1968

Vous avez lu l’histoire | You’ve read the story
De Jesse James | From Jesse James
Comment il vécu | How he lived
Comment il est mort | How he died
Ça vous a plus hein | You’ve had more huh
Vous en demandez encore | You’re still wondering
Et bien | Well
Écoutez l’histoire | Listen to the story
De Bonnie and Clyde | From Bonnie and Clyde
Alors voilà | So here it is
Clyde a une petite amie | Clyde has a girlfriend
Elle est belle et son prénom | She’s beautiful and her name
C’est Bonnie | It is Bonnie
À eux deux ils forment | Between them they form
Le gang Barrow | The Barrow Gang
Leurs noms | Their names
Bonnie Parker et Clyde Barrow | Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow
Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde

Moi lorsque j’ai connu Clyde | Me when I met Clyde
Autrefois | Formerly
C’était un gars loyal | He was a loyal guy
Honnête et droit | Honest and upright
Il faut croire | You have to believe
Que c’est la société | It’s the company
Qui m’a définitivement abîmé | That permanently ruined me
Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde

Qu’est-ce qu’on a pas écrit | What we did not write
Sur elle et moi | About her and me
On prétend que nous tuons | We pretend we kill
De sang-froid | Cold blood
C’est pas drôle | It’s not funny
Mais on est bien obligé | But we have
De faire taire | To shut up
Celui qui se met à gueuler | The man who starts to yell
Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde

Chaque fois qu’un policeman | Every time a policeman
Se fait buter | Gets busted
Qu’un garage ou qu’un’ banque | That a garage or a bank
Se fait braquer | Is robbed
Pour la police | For the police
Ça ne fait de mystère | That’s no mystery
C’est signé Clyde Barrow | It’s signed Clyde Barrow
Bonnie Parker
Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde

Maintenant chaque fois | Now every time
Qu’on essaie de se ranger | We try to
De s’installer tranquilles | To settle down quietly
Dans un meublé | In a furnished room
Dans les trois jours | Within three days
Voilà le tac tac tac | He is the tac tac tac
Des mitraillettes | Submachine guns
Qui reviennent à l’attaque | Coming back
Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde

 Un de ces quatre | One of these four
Nous tomberons ensemble | We’ll fall together
Moi je m’en fous | I do not care
C’est pour Bonnie que je tremble | It’s for Bonnie I’m shaking
Quelle importance | How important
Qu’ils me fassent la peau | They make my skin
Moi Bonnie | Me Bonnie
Je tremble pour Clyde Barrow | I’m shaking for Clyde Barrow
Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde

De toute façon | Anyway
Ils ne pouvaient plus s’en sortir | They could not get away
La seule solution | The only solution
C’était mourir | It was to die
Mais plus d’un les a suivis | But more than one followed them
En enfer | In hell
Quand sont morts | When Died
Barrow et Bonnie Parker | Barrow and Bonnie Parker
Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde

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The Surrogate

The Surrogate
Nick Sharman | Signet Books | 1980 | 249 pages

Following the death of his estranged, abusive father, Frank Tillson fights for the soul of his own son, Simon, in a battle of wills against the old man’s malevolent spirit.

Frank, a modestly successful radio talk show host, wants to shield his son from the corruption that taints his family’s considerable fortune, accumulated through a lifetime of unethical business practices. Determined to reject his father’s inheritance at all costs, Frank dodges all attempts from the family attorney to execute the will and name Simon the beneficiary of the entire estate. Soon after his father’s death, however, Frank begins to experience strange, unsettling phenomenon.

Sella Masters, a psychic guest on the radio show, experiences a clear telepathic vision of the tragic death of Frank’s wife, reliving the events of the previous year with uncanny detail. She later flees the studio after a ghostly encounter that she refuses to describe to Frank and the show’s producer. After developing some photos taken in the park with his son, Frank notices an ominous black smudge, vaguely human in shape, lurking over Simon in most of the images.

As incidents of garbled radio noise, strange phone calls, and ghostly presences continue, Frank ponders the possibly that his late father orchestrated everything before his death, in an attempt to exert his influence over his family from beyond the grave. Although his reluctance to acquiesce to his bullying father’s demands is understandable, Frank seems to ignore an easy out from all the supernatural shenanigans unfolding around him—take the money now, and figure out how to dispose of it later.

Ignoring this obvious solution, a sense of menace grows around Frank, who stubbornly clings to the theory that his friends are setting him up, even as more and more inexplicable manifestations haunt him and Simon. A creepy highlight occurs when Angela, a radio production assistant, recounts her confrontation in Frank’s bathroom with the spectral visage of his father manifesting from the oily bathwater.

Less effective are the telepathically charged encounters with the Tattered Terry doll, a sentimental leftover possession from Frank’s late wife that occasionally serves as the vessel for the old man’s rampaging spirit. Softly padding around the apartment on cloth feet and attempting to strangle people, the possessed Tattered Terry unnecessarily sends the story into unintentional campy, killer doll territory.

Taking possession into a whole other realm, Sella Masters returns later in the story, acting as an alluring succubus and seducing Frank—while controlled by his father’s spirit—making for an awkwardly incestuous coupling.

The Surrogate resolves in a mostly unsatisfying fashion, part supernatural horror and part everything-explained, Scooby-Doo mystery, although the downbeat ending accurately reflects Frank’s serious shortcomings as a ghost hunter.

Orgy of the Dead

Orgy of the Dead
Starring Criswell | Fawn Silver | Pat Barrington | William Bates
Written by Edward D. Wood, Jr. | Directed by Stephen C. Apostolof
1965 | 1 hour, 32 minutes

“No one wishes to see a man dance.”

A burlesque review thinly masquerading as a horror film, Orgy of the Dead bumps and grinds through a series of topless, loosely horror-themed routines, before the sun eventually rises on its denizens of the night.

Driving at night in search of inspiration, horror writer Bob (William Bates) and his girlfriend Shirley (Pat Barrington) crash their car, inadvertently stumbling upon a strange ritual underway in a remote cemetery. An evil Master of Ceremonies (Criswell, Plan 9 From Outer Space) and Vampira look-alike Black Ghoul (Fawn Silver) conduct a series of performances under the full moon designed not only for their own macabre viewing pleasure, but also to test the very souls of the damned performers. Captured by the evil pair’s inexplicable Mummy and Wolfman minions, Bob and Shirley are forced to watch the proceedings, while waiting for their ultimate fate to be decided.

Enhanced by garish colors and an inherently appealing mid-sixties style, a full dance card of nudie performances by Zombie Girl, Cat Girl, Streetwalker Girl, Slave Girl, Indian Girl, Gold Girl, and more (equally stereotyped) follows, all accompanied by groovy instrumental scores. The two hosts leer and nod, with Criswell appearing to read his lines from cue cards, while the classic monster minions spout some corny shtick from the sidelines. Bob and Shirley wiggle against their bonds while more performers gyrate through a dry-ice fog, hanging low over a cemetery setting that appears to have been leftover from a late-night horror television show.

This jiggly curiosity delivers a delirious mid-century visual treat—to the right audience—for a short while, but becomes something of an endurance test at feature film length.

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The Case Against Satan

The Case Against Satan
Ray Russell | Paperback Library | 1962 | 160 pages

I hope you rot in Hell for eternity, you lousy son of a bitch.”

Written nearly a decade before William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist shocked readers with its depiction of demonic possession, The Case Against Satan details two Catholic priests in their struggle to free a young girl from—what seems to be—a diabolical influence.

Following a succession of strange episodes, Robert Garth brings his daughter, Susan, to the attention of Father Gregory Sargent, a new parish priest struggling with a history of alcoholism and doubt about his own faith. Susan suffers from a series of violent physical reactions against attending Mass, and exhibits an uncharacteristic display of vulgar behavior for such a previously sweet sixteen-year-old girl. Gregory learns that Garth also brought his daughter to seek the counsel of his predecessor, Father Halloran—towards whom she made carnal advances and violently attacked with her bare hands.

The arrival of Bishop Conrad Crimmings to the parish precipitates an impromptu experiment with Susan, involving the rosary blindly applied to her skin. Seeing the burn left on Susan’s arm after contact with the holy article, Bishop Crimmings concludes that her condition stems from demonic possession, and sets in motion the plans for her exorcism.

“Why, of course. I am human, am I not? A little girl. A little girl with filthy desires.” And she yelled, “DUNG!”

Perhaps shocking and controversial in the era of its first publication, the potentially blasphemous content in The Case Against Satan seems almost mild by comparison to more graphic, post-Exorcist horrors. Some of the language issuing from Susan during her exorcism is suggested rather than explicit, although disturbing revelations regarding incest and murder surface over the course of the sessions.

“Mankind is dung,” she said. “The Church is a dungheap, a congregation of dung. Dung in the wind! Father of dung! Son of filthy dung!”

Attempting to be more than a straightforward horror novel, The Case Against Satan functions as a dialectic between Crimmings and Gregory over the nature of possession. They argue whether psychologists are actually purging demons with their clinical methodology, or that church-appointed exorcists are relieving psychological problems through their benedictions. Believing in the literal presence of Satan in the young girl, Bishop Crimmings struggles to solidify the faith of Father Gregory, whose own interest in the field of psychoanalysis logically leads him to a less supernatural origin for Susan’s affliction.

The ambiguity of Susan’s illness is preserved throughout the story, with apparent psychological causes to her symptoms, although Gregory ultimately overcomes his own doubts to embrace his faith. Suspension of disbelief is a key artistic tenet, but since the novel invites the question, the application of existing rules of logic cannot be helped. How can any rational argument compete against the warped, self-affirming rationale—the lack of evidence against Satan is itself evidence that Satan is withholding evidence of his own existence—of true believers? Father Gregory ultimately offers his reductive version of the whole affair, “She was possessed of the Devil. They cast him out. She’s fine now.”

A few references to real-life exorcism cases and figures of Catholic psychoanalysis inform the details of Susan’s possession, intentionally blurring the line between fiction and reality. However, the author seems to finally side with the protagonist, descending into pure, unrepentant hokum in his epilogue, with an anecdote involving an inferred visit from the “Lord of the Flies” while writing the novel—ending with his typing the words, “Begone, Satan!

The Well

The Well
Jack Cady | Avon Books | 1982 | 208 pages

A twisty, kaleidoscopic haunted house pulsates at the center of The Well, shifting and reforming its demonic horrors around its human occupants, imprisoning them in a legacy of familial evil.

John Tracker, along with his secretary girlfriend, Amy Griffith, returns after a twenty-year absence to the hulking, decrepit Tracker family estate on the banks of the Ohio River. Originally built by his great-great grandfather, Johan, but continually added on by successive generations, the mansion reflects the religious fanaticism ingrained in the Tracker family through its uncanny layout. Maze-like rooms, secret staircases, disguised passageways, and mechanical traps—consisting of hidden, spring-loaded weapon—were conceived and installed to confuse and trap intrusions by Satan himself.

The Tracker House has an intriguing, real world precedent in San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House. Sarah Winchester, the widow of firearms manufacturer, William Winchester, spent nearly forty years of ceaseless construction on her rambling, seemingly improvised (with doors and windows leading nowhere) mansion that was allegedly haunted by the victims of the weapons her husband produced. The fictional Tracker House evokes a similarly appealing sense of strange history and mysterious atmosphere, with its correspondingly secret (and frequently deadly) constructions.

The Tracker House, however, lies in the path of a new freeway construction, and is slated for destruction following the legal death pronouncement of John’s father. Justice Tracker, missing for over seven years, had long become estranged from his wife and son. Intending only to survey the property, John and Amy are trapped inside for the duration of a furious snowstorm, and soon the couple fall victim to the insidious atmosphere of the house and the psychic weight of the Tracker family history.

Readers expecting much a story arc will most likely be disappointed, since The Well primarily delivers a minimal, atmosphere-laden psychological horror. Chapters consistently repeat a familiar pattern, starting with an anecdotal piece of Tracker family history, illustrating a macabre or tragic event in the lives of John Tracker’s ancestors. John and Amy then attempt to travel to some location within the house, negotiate a series of labyrinthine rooms and dodge deadly traps, while avoiding the roaming ghoul that was formerly John’s grandmother, Vera. Along the way, John reflects on his diabolical family history, his own feelings towards his father and grandfather, Theophilus, and his possible love towards Amy. Repeat.

The sense of menace, with its source in the heat-blasted well beneath the sub-cellars of the mansion, and the grotesque tableaus discovered along the way are enough to fuel a dense, diabolical atmosphere that soak the characters, rather than propelling them through a linear narrative.

Devil in the Darkness

Devil in the Darkness
Archie Roy | Long (London) | 1978 | 184 pages

Lost on the remote back roads of rural Scotland during a ferocious snowstorm, newlyweds Paul and Carol Wilson take refuge in a neglected, decaying old mansion. Inside Ardvreck House, an infamous estate with a dark and disturbing history, they encounter a strange team of soldiers, film technicians, and paranormal investigators who have temporarily taken up residence to document any potential incidents of supernatural activity before the upcoming scheduled destruction of the mansion.

The storm destroys the only bridge out from Ardvreck House, effectively stranding the couple and motley group of investigators in the isolated estate. Startled awake during the night, Paul hears scraping and pacing sounds coming from the abandoned attic floor above him. Summoning the courage to investigate while his wife sleeps, Paul finds only the empty, undisturbed tower room. However, the inexplicable noises are only the beginning, as the house psychically “recharges” from the presence of its new occupants.

A regression therapy session with Ann Parish, a member of the research team with a successful history of recalling events before her birth, triggers a spiritual communication with a former servant of the estate. Mary Elizabeth Rolfe, a maid to the murdered mistress of the house, was herself the victim of a drowning under mysterious circumstances. Ann’s past-life recollection under hypnosis as Mary triggers an academic disagreement between Meredith and Bourne, the two psychic researchers on the team. Is Ann communicating directly with Mary’s spirit, or is she actually Mary’s reincarnated self, reliving memories of her previous life? Or, is she just adeptly improvising suppressed details of Mary’s life that she has previously learned? This debate arguably holds more potential interest than any incidents of moving furniture or spectral appearances at the windows.

A slim haunted house story recalling earlier classics such as Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House and Richard Matheson’s Hell House, Devil in the Darkness takes some time before the supernatural encounters seem threatening enough to place it characters in mortal danger. It channels the established notion of a physical place storing a psychic charge that can potentially influence generations to follow, with a paranormally receptive party triggering its release. The single most terrifying encounter—when Carol seems to feel Paul in bed behind her, only to discover him instead at the bedroom door—also harkens back to a similarly ghostly reveal in Hill House.

Devil in the Darkness also retreads a bit of Stephen King’s The Shining. Meredith and Bourne debate the advisability of simply leaving the estate, hunkering down against the inclement weather inside the collected cars of the assembled party. Their discussion on the potential harm posed by the apparitions evokes the “pictures in a book” conversation between Dick Hallorann and Danny Torrance at the Overlook Hotel.

Ardvreck House, like Hell House before it, was stained by the shocking and amoral behavior of its privileged residents. The vile act at the core of its haunting is ultimately revealed through a discovered letter. The reading of the brittle pages functions as a sort of epilogue, providing a firsthand account of the historical horrors. However short, this new narrative–with its previously unknown characters–stalls out whatever momentum the fiery climax had delivered, even while providing an explanation to all the ghostly bump-and-grind shenanigans.

Author Archie Roy, simultaneously an academic professor of astronomy and amateur investigator of the paranormal, seems to have been more engaged with the nature of the debate over mediums, psychic phenomenon, and the implications of the purported evidence of the supernatural-–expressed here through the opposing viewpoints of Merideth and Bourne—than delivering a new take on the haunted house. Still, genre fans who have exhausted the classics will find enough here to keep them interested.