Tom Jolliffe takes us into Noirvember with a selection of straight to video noir films…
Dark tales of murder, intrigue, adultery, crime, punishment, femme fatales and lots of ominous dark shadow. Film noir and in more recent cinema history, neo-noir, have offered up an array of moody gems. Noir has infused so much of the action, thriller and drama genres particularly. There have been many classic examples throughout the history of cinema since it was popularised in the 40’s and 50’s (the lighting styles of the classic era, particularly inspired by German expressionism). Film noir came and went, later replaced by neo-noir, which was even grittier, more violent and doubled down on moral ambiguity.
Whilst we can look over an array of neo-noir classics, how about we start things off with the humble straight to video film? Neo-noir and its classification tended to be more connected to the film themes over the visual aesthetic, which tended to categorise classic film noir, but the DTV (direct to video) arena has long offered plenty of space for the neo-noir, among its more linear fascination with straight up horror and action particularly. Here are 10 DTV noir films worth your time this Noirvember…
Give ‘Em Hell Malone
This homage to classic detective noir with a post-modern edge, had plenty of cult potential, without ever quite taking off. Tom Jane has a ball as Malone, a sardonic P.I right out of Bogey school who has to protect a briefcase from an onslaught of mobsters. Directed by Russell Mulcahy (Highlander), this blends old school high contrast noir shadows, with graphic novel colour. There’s an array of time period influence in the vehicles and costumes, giving the film a contemporary and old fashioned fusion (not unlike a far less Gothic Burton Batman). It’s great and it’s underrated.
It would be rude to do video premieres and not cover (or should this be uncover…) Shannon Tweed. Tweed has probably done better, but I have a soft spot for this. Scorned (also known as A Woman Scorned) had a trailer preceding some VHS rental I’d procured back in the mid-90’s. The film? Who knows, but the trailer for this (complete with an extra raspy, trailer voice guy) introduced me to the majesty of a Tweed picture.
This is basically a complete rip off of The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. The trash factor and the titillation is ramped up to eleven. You’d expect nothing less from an Andrew Stevens production (he also co-stars). Tweed, reeling the loss of her husband, who happens to be an abusive douche (but she’ll do anything for), sets out for revenge on the man she blames for hubbies suicide. She poses as a tutor and sets about seducing the husband (Stevens) the wife (Kim Morgan Greene) and their son who looks inexplicably old, given Greene only looks about 30 in this (and was in fact younger than Tweed). It’s ludicrous, cheesy, but good fun and Tweed sizzled in films like this, never required to match the De Mornay’s and Stone’s of this world with her acting (but she’s not as bad as the critics might have made out).
We’ve covered Tweed, it would also be rude not to cover Joan Severance, and indeed video and cable premiere deity, C Thomas Howell. Not to be confused with the Mel Gibson starrer, this Payback comes from the distinct eye of Anthony Hickox, who by the mid-90’s was moving away from the Horror which had been his bread and butter, into everything from action, drama, thrillers and fantasy.
Payback is an interesting and very engaging thriller which sees Howell set off for revenge against the old prison guard who tormented him and killed his mentor inside. Said guard (played by Marshall Bell) has since been blinded and retired (opening a small town diner). What should be an easy dose of revenge gets complicated by his gorgeous young wife (Severance). It’s an intriguing and twisting tale with double crossing and antagonists aplenty (notably a distrusting Richard Burgi who is instantly wary of Howell).
As far as the softcore starlet club of the 90’s, Severance was the best actress and she has a good dynamic with Howell. It’s stylish and always engaging, and the cast for this kind of film is pretty stellar. Hickox would revisit noir infused thrillers a few more times over the years, not least with an underrated Lundgren vehicle Jill The Ripper which might have found more love for its quirks and grimy S&M elements in a post 50 Shades landscape. Payback, like many of Hickox’s overlooked non-horror work, really deserves a nice Blu-Ray treatment.
A Hitchockian sci-fi noir from the director of Cube. It’s a blending of North By Northwest, Total Recall and several more as a game of corporate espionage and dirty tactics between two tech giants, catches a mild mannered salesman (Jeremy Northman) in the middle. He gets tasked by one to spy on the other, then rumbled and vice versa, with a few more twists to come.
Vincenzo Natali never quite broke out like he should have after Cube, with Cypher quite unluckily hitting video shelves bar a few limited releases around the world (including the UK). It’s visually stylish, clever and whilst it gets pretty complex, never feels too convoluted (Sci-fi does give you an out to an extent). Lucy Liu pops up (and is great) as a mysterious femme fatale with hidden motives and Northam’s shift in character as he takes on his ‘role’ is also engaging. This becomes very much an engrossing and noir-ish detective story as Sullivan (Northam) must uncover the truth amongst the espionage and hidden motives.
The Boondock Saints
This might well be the biggest cult straight to video hit there’s ever been. Initially destined for slightly more of an impact on the big screen, it was unceremoniously dumped on video after a very (very) limited run at US cinemas. Greeted with poor reviews and following a litany of similar Tarantino and John Woo inspired crime/action capers, Boondock ended up quickly gathering word of mouth among video renters. Sharp dialogue, quirky characters and a lot of double gun toting shootouts have since seen this attain cult status, a sequel and now rumours of a second sequel. Troy Duffy’s gangster neo-noir actioner is cool, bolstered by great chemistry from Norman Reedus and Sean Patrick Flanery and the support cast (including Willem Defoe and Billy Connelly) is great.
As far as cult crime capers go, this certainly has a reputation that precedes it now. This can often lead to disappointment when you finally get round to watching it. I caught it over a decade after release and it definitely did live up to the reputation it had build by then. Besides, Willem Defoe will never let you down.
This was something of an oddity in Dolph Lundgren’s early CV. After his Punisher film stumbled on its US release, delayed and eventually heading straight to video, Lundgren’s early promise as a rising action hero seemed scuppered. Cover Up would fail to find a wide audience outside of Europe, hitting the video shelves. where Lundgren would soon become a popular mainstay. Where this film differs from his run and gun specials preceding it, is that Lundgren plays an investigative journalist looking to uncover the truth behind the suspicious deaths of two soldiers, not long after a military compound was raided and attacked. He’s tasked with a lot of dialogue in an early career attempt to branch out.
Soon he uncovers the disappearance of a chemical agent, military cover ups and double agents, all whilst finding himself increasingly under threat from hostiles. It’s not action heavy to put it mildly (but does feature a sterling Vic Armstrong constructed car chase), focusing on slow burn espionage in the vein of Jack Ryan. As such it never quite clicked with action aficionado’s expecting more Dolph destruction. Still, the Israeli settings, nefarious rain swept meetings in cars, and a love interest (who of course ultimately becomes a femme fatale) lend itself to plenty of neo noir aesthetics and double crossing. All it lacks was a stronger finish. Much like Payback, this one could really do with a decent Blu-Ray edition (most DVD editions tend to have bad transfers and are in 4:3 rather than the widescreen intended).
Action specialist Jesse V. Johnson has always shown a dramatists sensibility. At best, he makes his protagonists interesting and his antagonists complexly engaging. Prior to setting up a great working relationship with Scott Adkins, Johnson had a run of low budget genre films, often with a neo-noir tinge and plenty of throwbacks to cinema of the 50’s-70’s. An old school aficionado it seems, and it’s been inflected in many of his films.
The Butcher sees Eric Roberts in a rare post millennium leading role as Merle, a one time next-big-thing boxer, turned vig collector. He’s betrayed and double crossed by a rival (with a ‘Don’ position about to be opening up) and left for dead. Merle, aka ‘The Butcher’ sets out for revenge. Whilst it’s a tried and test formula, it’s sharply written with some nicely rounded characters and dialogue. The support cast, boasting Robert Davi, Keith David, Geoffrey Lewis, Jerry Trimble and Michael Ironside, are great. It’s Roberts however who truly shines, giving a bittersweet reminder of how interesting a performer he can be, injecting Merle with a quiet and honourable vulnerability. He didn’t get nominated for an Oscar and three Globes back in the day without reason. Johnson’s home might be action, but he always gets a performance from his cast.
A twisting and complex character piece set during a high stakes card game. A cast boasting Sylvester Stallone, Melanie Griffith, Gabriel Byrne, Thandiwe Newton and Jamie Foxx should have meant a shoe-in for cinema release. As it was, Shade stagnated a little while looking for a home, before eventually heading straight to video.
At this point in his career, Stallone was stagnating too. It seemed his box office power was dead. He’d had a string of cinematic disasters and sent himself up in a kids film (Spy Kids 3). Shade however, saw him in good form. He enjoys playing something of an antagonist here, with oodles of charisma, riffing with the excellent support cast around him in a smoky, sharp dialogue filled card caper. Stuart Townsend is a solid lead and whilst the film does lose its grip in places, it’s got enough energy and twists to see it through.
Produced by Roger Avery, and written by a former cohort of Avery and Tarantino, Craig Hamann, Boogie Boy is every inch the 90’s, post Pulp Fiction, Tarantino love-in. What it has going for it, is an interesting mix of broken and flawed characters, caught up in criminal activities and running afoul of gangsters after a drug deal gone bad. Ex con Jesse (Mark Dacascos) is trying to go straight, but gets pulled back to crime by his former cell mate (Jaimz Woolvett). There’s a great cast, with Frederic Forest and Emily Lloyd playing eccentric motel owners, as well as John Hawkes, Traci Lords, Michael Pena and Joan Jett. Dacascos plays a character with some suggestion of being confused over his sexuality, something almost uncovered in video premiere film back then. The more rote action moments and some overtly ‘Tarantino’ dialogue probably do this a disservice at times, but overall it’s an interesting and unique neo-noir tale. It’s just been rather unfortunately forgotten in time.
Coming well into his descent to video premiere status, Until Death is a grimy, dark and morally corrupt noir tale, with Van Damme doing Bad Lieutenant for the first half of this film. It largely takes place in night scenes, caked in darkness and illuminated by neon. JCVD is intense as the corrupt cop with some odd sequences in the midst of his breakdown. He ends up shot in the head (by the criminal he’s long hunted) but not quite dead. Upon waking up, he must recover from brain damage, recover his humanity and then get some cold hard revenge (on a decent, if second gear, Stephen Rea). The second segment of the film, which goes Regarding Henry, isn’t quite as engaging, as JC being a total bastard in part one is impressive, but it builds to a suitably dour 70’s inspired finale. It wouldn’t be the first film dosed heavily with noir that saw Van Damme get dark, with Wake of Death preceding it a few years earlier, equally effective as a 70’s styled throwback.
What is your favourite straight to video neo-noir? Let us know your thoughts on our social media channels @flickeringmyth.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/