Horror Noire makes a smart decision right off the bat that more anthology horror films ought to: Forego the wraparound device. Directing the wraparound is a thankless task most filmmakers can’t, don’t, satisfactorily accomplish, with a few exceptions like Terror Tract, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie and V/H/S/2 setting a standard that other films routinely miss out on.
The lack of a wraparound is a welcome gesture but not a qualitative detail. This is neither good nor bad, which is a relief, because the latter outweighs the former in Horror Noire. Like the second wave of Welcome to the Blumhouse films, the movie’s intention is to provide a half dozen underrepresented voices a stage to tell a diverse range of horror stories, each centered around different aspects of Black American experience. Also like year two of Welcome to the Blumhouse, Horror Noire’s structure doesn’t serve all of its contributions for lack of room at the table. The movie clocks in at 150 minutes and still the segments feel underbaked or overcooked, or most frustratingly robbed of their potential as shorts instead of as features.
In a way, this is a good problem to have. Each of Horror Noire’s chapters brims with energy, imagination and a touch that’s personal to each of their authors; taken as a whole, the picture demonstrates that countless movies are out there waiting to be made by filmmakers hungry for a chance to make them. But a good problem is still a problem. The promise resting at the heart of Horror Noire goes largely unrealized, and all the better intentions go nowhere. This is fine—everyone deserves an opportunity to fail. The big damn bummer here is that the film takes multiple opportunities, one right after the other, and fumbles four out of six times before finally recovering 100 minutes in.
In Joe West’s “The Lake,” Abbie (Lesley-Ann Brandt) moves into a new house to start a new life, but runs afoul of temptation and transformation when she sets foot in—guess what?—the lake right outside her door; in Julien Christian Lutz’s “Brand of Evil,” an artist (Brandon Mychal Smith) painting murals for nonprofits is offered a gig designing arcane symbols for a mysterious (white) client; in Zandashé Brown’s “Bride Before You,” a woman in Reconstruction-era America hides a monstrous secret in the walls of her home; in Rob Greenlea’s “Fugue State,” an investigative journalist’s religious skeptic husband falls under the sway of a cult; in Robin Givens’ “Daddy,” a father trying his best struggles with his demons to protect his son; and in Kimani Ray Smith’s “Sundown,” the protagonists find out in the worst way why no one in the small town they’re canvassing goes out during the day.
Uniformity eludes Horror Noire’s component parts, and the outcome depends on resources. “Brand of Evil,” distant kin to Peter Strickland’s In Fabric, has a spooky hook: Each design the lead sells to his client turns into a sentient sheet that devours the supporting characters. But the climactic sequence rests on awkwardly animated FX buttressed by equally awkward performances, which tanks the entire enterprise. “Fugue State” ties together its plot threads in about the blink of an eye without leaving space for its revelations to breathe. The narrative ends, and Horror Noire strides into the next one. In contrast, “Bride Before You” ends on a note where “gruesome” and “visceral” sound as one, but the ride taken to get there is bumpy and dry, empty without the use of a voiceover track to fill the dead air. Lenora Crichlow’s reading voice is compelling and inviting, but the dialogue forces her to spell out “Bride Before You”’s deeper meaning through repetition.
“Daddy” and “Sundown” succeed through simplicity. Both segments know what they’re about and how to be about it, streamlining in the case of “Daddy” and pacing in the case of “Sundown.” Givens adds no fat to her entry while Smith keeps up a tempo where comedy intersects nicely with his take on supernatural white supremacy. These segments ultimately reflect what Horror Noire attempts to achieve elsewhere while simultaneously reflecting why the achievements fall short: Neither “Daddy” nor “Sundown” forget their One Big Idea and they carry through on that One Big Idea without distraction (other than, in the case of “Sundown,” a big swing from Peter Stormare, doing his best Suthun’ gentleman accent but landing somewhere in Swedish Foghorn Leghorn territory).
But that’s the danger of the anthology format. Consistency is elusive. Doing away with the wraparound makes great sense, but Horror Noire doesn’t advantage itself with that choice; it’s still weighed down by incohesion. Maybe the movie has one segment too many. Maybe going down to five and reallocating some of that running time for the others would have allowed the rest to stretch their legs. This, of course, is a Barnum statement for all anthology horror movies, which so often force audiences to take the good with the bad. But the goal of an exercise like Horror Noire should be more: Its success should mean opening doors for new productions like it. That the film embraces so many storytellers is admirable, but too many stories and not enough hours in the day bogs the project down and holds it back from being what it could have been.
Directors: Joe West, Julien Christian Lutz, Zandashé Brown, Rob Greenlea, Robin Givens, Kimani Ray Smith
Writers: Steven Barnes, Tananarive Due, Ezra Claytan Daniels, Shernold Edwards, Victor LaValle, Al Letson
Starring: Rachel True, Lesley-Ann Brandt, Brandon Mychal Smith, Malcolm Barrett, Lavell Crawford, Peter Stormare, Lenora Crichlow, Tony Todd, Erica Ash, Tone Bell
Release Date: October 28, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.