Supernatural Noir: Miracles for Sale by K A Laity

Supernatural Noir: Miracles for Sale

What a delight! Thanks to Ray Garton and Paul D. Brazill for leading me to Tod Browning’s last film, Miracles for Sale. It’s a fun romp with magicians, psychics, trickery, grifters, and plenty of style. Currently airing on TCM, it’s also available in various versions online in the usual places.

I admit to giving short shrift to Robert Young because I first knew him as Marcus Welby M.D., a show my grandparents liked. What could be less cool than the gently ironic know-it-all elderly doctor? Yet he brings a witty humour to Miracles, which gives it charm. Most of the time the laughs walk a fine line along with the noir ambience and the spookiness. It’s a strange mix. Young’s Mike Morgan is a former stage magician who now makes elaborate tricks for other magicians. The opening war scene is a bit off-putting (including yellow face) but it turns out to be an overly-wrought saw-the-woman-in-half trick that Morgan is staging for a client. His house is a delight of tricks and surprises.

Morgan also devotes his time to exposing spiritual charlatans, admitting that there might be ghosts and whatnot, but he doesn’t want people exploiting the vulnerable with tricks. That kicks off the real plot when a gal in trouble (Florence Rice) runs into his shop to ask for help but can’t tell him the whole story. The plot is the least interesting part of the film and comes from Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat.

The fun is all the characters. Ray mentioned how little this seems like a Browning film. The one aspect that does is the characterisation, especially the brilliant cast of character actors. Frank Craven is a hoot as Morgan’s dad. He often ends up the victim of his son’s elaborate tricks-in-progress but he gets plenty of good lines. Henry Hull is cadaverous fellow magician Duvallo. The bickering La Claire couple (Lee Bowman and Astrid Allwyn) demonstrate that magic is just part of their acting on stage. The always delightful William Demerest plays a grumpy detective (the whole investigative team is a bit wacky).

Frederick Worlock is the mysterious Dr. Caesar Sabatt, accompanied by Gloria ‘Dracula’s Daughter’ Holden as the equally mysterious Madame Rapport. Browning has the camera rest on her singular face and as it lingers a sense of the uncanny arises. Though she only has a few scenes, that otherworldliness serves well when it comes time for the séance.

There’s a locked room mystery that isn’t much of a mystery—after all, by the time the first body shows up we’ve seen all manner of trickery explained. But the staging of the murders within pentagrams, the noir-shadowed streets of the city, and the suggestion that real unexplained mysteries from the beyond may be at work combine to give the film an enjoyable stylishness that’s definitely worth a try.

Good fun!

Supernatural Noir: Cast a Deadly Spell (1991) by K A Laity

Supernatural Noir: Cast a Deadly Spell (1991)

Having recently seen (and wrote about) Witch Hunt (1994) I was looking forward to seeing this mash up of supernatural and noir, largely because I figured Fred Ward would play the part of PI Harry Philip Lovecraft a lot better than a rather wooden Dennis Hopper did in the later film. That guess was correct.

Ward immediately gets what the film is meant to be a plays the noir elements with an edge of satire and humour. He channels the classic Bogey Spade but with a sense of irony, knowing this is a crazy mash-up of elements and an exercise in nostalgia. Ward is an underrated actor who always bring a everyman sensibility and a weight of intelligent emotion to every part he plays. He brings life to the part and a reality despite the clichés, over-the-top dramatics and clunky dialogue.

Because the rest of Cast a Deadly Spell is not up to his abilities. That includes a young Julianne Moore who is given next to nothing to do apart from lip syncing to someone else’ song and carrying out every cliché in the femme fatale playbook. You can almost see her composing a strongly worded letter to her agent. Yet at moments she makes us believe in her Connie (heart of) Stone, which is more than can be said for the rest of the cast.

David Warner phones it in. Lee Tergesen is quite good with very little help, despite being literally gay-bashed. I thought the role of Lovecraft’s witch partner, Hypolyta Kropotkin, was too small in Witch Hunt, but it’s miniscule in this film. Arnetia Walker gets very little to do except save Lovecraft’s ass.

The Lovecraft storyline intertwines with a Big Sleep-style detective narrative; nonsense with a virginal debutante (Alexandra Powers) that attempts to evoke both the Sternwood sisters at once. Needless to say the Lovecraft garbage is vile. It’s also incredibly boring and clichéd. Virgin sacrifice? Really? Oh hey, Necronomicon. Admittedly less of a cliché in 1991, but secret book of secrets has been a staple of horror films for a very long time.

Worse are the Gremlins. And they are really called that in the credits. Someone recently shared a meme about how cretins believe the moon landing was faked with an image of what SPFX looked like in 1969. The ‘old ones’ in this film really look like cheap knock offs of the Gremlins films (the first in 1984, which gives you an idea of the quality). Rubber monsters age poorly, but they would have looked out of date in 1991. I know, low budgets and all (this is an HBO made for tv movie) but Witch Hunt shows how much more effective you could be with more subtle effects. That movie is looking better now.

A shame because the concept of supernatural noir is such a great one and has been done really well (*cough* by people associated with this site). Fred Ward was so good. If you’re more forgiving of bad FX and hokey plots, you might find it ‘A great way to spend an evening!’ as Entertainment Weekly did. Potato, po-tah-toe.

Supernatural Noir: Witch Hunt (1994) by K A Laity

Supernatural Noir: Witch Hunt (1994)

I am so grateful fabulous film critic Anne Billson retweeted a reference to this into my timeline. She has great taste in films as well as encyclopaedic knowledge (seriously, check out her work). Also it could not be more on-brand for my stuff: a mash-up of witchcraft, horror, hard-boiled and noir: The film takes place in a fictional Los Angeles where magic is real, monsters and mythical beasts stalk the back alleys, zombies are used as cheap labor, and everyone—except hardboiled private investigator H. Philip Lovecraft (Hopper)—uses magic every day. 

It turns out to be the sequel to a film also penned by Joseph DoughertyCast A Deadly Spell, which is more directly Lovecraftian (and which I have also ordered). Witch Hunt, however, is really hard to get hold of unless you want to pay a steep price for VHS (the horror, the horror). But it’s available on the site you probably guess it will be in the mean time: there must be some kind of rights issue.

Just peep at that cast list: Dennis Hopper, Penelope Anne Miller, Debi Mazar, Eric Bogosian, Lypsinka – Julian Sands! And veteran director Paul Schrader at the helm. There’s a lot good here: a satirical take on both the crime classics and on the ‘witch hunt’ against Hollywood in the 50s. So much potential: somehow it never gels. A few laughs land and land squarely: having the fabulous witch Hypolita Laveau Kropotkin (Sheryl Lee Ralph) summon Shakespeare just to get him writing pictures. Priceless final sight of him, face up against the window of limo wheeling him away to be chewed up with all the other screenwriters.

I think the basic problem is Schrader: he’s great at building tension but awful at comedy and even worse at action. Almost everyone plays their part well: almost no one connects to anyone else playing theirs. To have that sort of Hammet fast-talking wit you can’t have so much space between the actors. Miller is great as the actress who fears her career has just walked off with her producer/husband. She has a great balance of brittleness and ambition. Debi Mazar is so great that I expected her part to be bigger. Bogosian as the McCarthy stand-in is a combination of smarm and sleaze. Lypsinka makes a wonderful villain running a ring of high-class magical call girls. There’s a nod to the film noir tradition with a snippet of The Big Combo playing in a drive-in.

Even Sands isn’t chewing scenery too much as ‘Finn Macha’ (hahahaha) but his cod Irish accent often slips into something, I dunno – German? He does good menace as a foil to Hopper’s investigator.

Hopper just isn’t there. I’m looking forward to seeing Fred Ward play the same role. I suspect he will be better. I haven’t looked up any of the reviews of the film at the time. Not sure what was going on with Hopper: after his stellar turn as the über creepy Frank Booth in Blue Velvet this would seem to be a great role, but he never seems involved. There’s certainly no believable chemistry with Miller. Ralph does her part in trying to portray their uneasy relationship as friends with adjacent offices, both helping out people in trouble.

There’s a lot to like about the story: it could easily be redone with most of the script intact. Dougherty seems to have stepped into production work instead of writing, but I bet he’d take another chance at having this done right. See it while it’s free.

Roman Dalton – Werewolf PI is FREE!

roman dalton

When a full moon fills the night sky, Private Investigator Roman Dalton becomes a werewolf and prowls The City‘s neon and blood soaked streets. There are six Roman Dalton Yarns written by Paul D. Brazill in this short collection.

You can currently grab it for FREE from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca , Amazon.com.au and the rest!

And there’s even a PLAYLIST HERE!

Recommended Read: The Man in the Palace Theater by Ray Garton

Showbiz writer John Bellows has fallen off the grid. He arrives at his old workplace looking distinctly dishevelled and convinces one of his old workmates to accompany him to the run down Palace Theater.

Ray Garton’s The Man In The Palace Theater is splendid. A beautifully written, atmospheric and haunting short story.

The Man In The Place Theatre

 

Recommended Read: Love Is A Grift by Graham Wynd

The first story in this tasty collection is Love Is A Grift – a twist on classic noir and crime fiction tropes that sharply changes its location – Ireland, Belgium, Finland, Scotland – and POVs – a hit-man, a femme fatale, a patsy – as it cleverly tells its tale.

Hammer Films, Girl On A Motorcycle, Tom Waits, Max Fleischer cartoons, Mark E Smith, Dorothy Parker, small-town Americana, domestic and dystopian noir and much more are all gleefully thrown into the noir mix along the way.

Graham Wynd’s Love Is A Grift is a lethal cocktail of noir short stories liberally spiked with a dark and delicious wit and is highly recommended. 

love-is-a-grift

 

Supernatural Noir Playlist by Paul D. Brazill


supernatural noir cover

Supernatural Noir is collection of my short stories that I consider to be both supernatural and, er, noir. And of course, there’s music all over the place!

Drunk On The Moon by Tom Waits

It started with a song. Tom Waits’ Drunk On The Moon, to be precise. A neon soaked torch song with more than a twist of noir. A song of the city at night, sung by a man who sounded like a wolf – and not just Howlin’ Wolf. And once upon a time, there was a magazine named Dark Valentine who were looking for cross genre short stories. So, I wrote a yarn about a werewolf private eye. And I called it Drunk On The Moon.

Gloomy Sunday by Mel Torme

One of the regular cast of the Roman Dalton world in Duffy, bar owner and Mel Torme fan.

I Ain’t Superstitious by Howlin Wolf.

The first song on the Wurlitzer jukebox in Duffy’s Bar when Roman Dalton – werewolf private eye- walks into the bar.

She’s My Witch by Kip Tyler

Sometimes a You Tube recommendation is good. And sometimes, it’s so good you have to use its title for one of your yarns.

Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival

Bad Moon Rising has probably used in dozens of werewolf books and films. Not that would stop me using it for one of my yarns.  But since my sister sent me a t-shirt that said Black Moon Rising, that was the title I used.

The Endless Sleep by Robert Gordon

Teenage Death Songs were popular in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. The most famous is probably the Shangri Las’ Leader of the Pack. Some of those ditties even had a supernatural aspect, such as John Leyton’s Johnny Remember Me or Jody Reynolds’ Endless Sleep. I’ve chosen the version by the effortlessly cool Robert Gordon.

Stamp Of A Vamp by Vic Godard and Subway Sect

Vic Godard’s Subway Sect were on of the first handful of British punk bands. Blatantly anti-rock and ant-stupid, they had little to no chance of the commercial success of the likes of The Clash and Sex Pistols. By the time I eventually got to see them – at Marton Country Club in the early ‘80s- Vic Godard had ditched dirty, smelly rock completely and had embraced swing and crooning with great gusto. Stamp Of A Vamp was their first single from that period and although major commercial success continues to elude Vic, he is still on the go and out and about.

Spectre vs Rector by The Fall

Even as early as their second album – Dragnet, 1979 – The Fall’s professionally cantankerous Mark E. Smith was keen to alienate as many people as possible with this painfully produced, but brilliant album. Spectre vs. Rector is a ghost story. As is my gangster yarn Spectres.

Here’s my Supernatural Noir playlist, if you’re that way inclined:

Bio: Paul D. Brazill’s books include Last Year’s Man, Guns Of Brixton, A Case Of Noir, and Kill Me Quick. He has had writing published in various magazines and anthologies, including The Mammoth Books of Best British Crime. His blog is here.

This post first appeared at Toe Six Press.