History piles up in every city but some cities obscure the past better than others. You can still see bits of the New York and Chicago that were, for instance, but they tend to exist next to — and usually in the shadow of — gleaming modern buildings and other signs of change. New Orleans has pushed forward as well, but the past has a way of seeming a little less, well, past in certain spots. The French Quarter might ordinarily be a gathering spot for out-of-towners to consume (and sometimes vomit up) hurricanes while considering other sorts of debauchery, but all the carousing takes place in streets and alongside buildings that have remained largely unchanged for centuries (even if some of them now play host to, say, a Hustler Club).
Slip away from the crowds and the shadows thicken. The shops promising charms and voodoo tokens might be largely for tourists but they also speak to beliefs with deep roots in the city. History and its ghosts, not all of them settled, can seem close at hand. It’s no wonder the city has become a popular setting for horror even beyond the works of Anne Rice, a New Orleans native and on-again, off-again resident of the city whose fiction made it synonymous with vampires. On the movie front, New Orleans played a key role in the pretty-good Candyman sequel, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh and served as the ideal setting for Paul Schrader’s shadowy Cat People remake. Both are worth seeing. They’re also technically better than the first film in this selection of New Orleans horror films, but this column likes to err on the side of offering a broad sample (and digging for oddities from the past). With that in mind, here’s a triple feature that features the Crescent City at its most horrific.
GOOD (OR GOOD ENOUGH): Mardi Gras Massacre (1978)
Let’s get something important out of the way immediately: Mardi Gras Massacre is a horrible movie. But it’s flavorfully horrible, a gory but weirdly half-hearted film that grooves to a disco beat as it goes about its weary business. Directed by the New Orleans-based Jack Weis, it almost plays like an attempt to construct a horror movie using the most basic elements and nothing more: some kills, some gore, a villain, a chase, roll credits.
Paced like a daiquiri hangover, Mardi Gras Massacre develops an almost hypnotic power as Weis keeps repeating the same scenario over and over again. William Metzo plays John, whom we meet asking a bartender/pimp “of all the ladies in this bar tonight, which one do you think is the most…” Then, after a long pause, he finishes the sentence: “evil?” Without pause, the bartender directs John to Shirley (Laura Misch Owens) who honestly doesn’t seem particularly evil. Nonetheless, she ends up on the wrong side of John’s blade after stripping completely nude and allowing herself to be strapped down. One gory (if not particularly convincing) evisceration later, Shirley’s days of doing ill-defined evil are behind her.
Weis seems so convinced that this precise combination of nudity and graphic violence is what horror moviegoers want to see that he essentially stages the same scene again and again, only breaking up the progression of slayings with scenes of a New Orleans cop named Frank (Curt Dawson) investigating the killings while romancing a prostitute named Sherry (Gwen Arment). The action only picks up toward the end when Frank hits the streets and we finally get some glimpses of New Orleans proper, including a few shots of a Mardi Gras parade. Otherwise even the title’s a misnomer. Mardi Gras plays out in the background, briefly, and while John has no compunction about serial killing, nothing quite like a massacre ever happens. Even the plot — which eventually reveals John to be sacrificing prostitutes to an Aztec god — borrows heavily from Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast. Yet for all his willingness to stage graphic killings, Weis’ doesn’t have anything close to Lewis’ brio for bloodletting.
Still, for all its flaws, it’s a fascinating movie that reveals how easy it is to throw in all the elements of a functional horror movie while still getting everything wrong. It also plays like a period piece that was out of time even in its time, a movie made for the most undiscerning ’70s grindhouse audiences that somehow lay dormant until making the rounds in 1983 and 1984. It’s hard to imagine what ’80s audiences thought of its disco-era fashions and score, to say nothing of its borderline incompetence, when they opted to see it instead of Tootsie or The Verdict or caught it on the second half of a drive-in bill with Firestarter. New Orleans has its own traditions. Fortunately, this seems to be the only example of this disembowelment-intense school of horror filmmaking.
BETTER: Angel Heart (1987)
Mardi Gras Massacre barely got any mainstream attention apart from ending up on the list of video nasties in the UK, where it still hasn’t received an official release. (UK readers: It’s OK.) Another New Orleans horror film, however, arguably received too much mainstream attention a few years later. Before director Alan Parker made some trims, Angel Heart was originally given an X rating ahead of its release in March 1987. That undoubtedly would have attracted some attention regardless of its stars. But one of those stars happened to the then-19-year-old Lisa Bonet, best known at the time as the teenaged Denise Huxtable on The Cosby Show. And it was the explicit sex scenes in which she appeared — including one that takes a bloody, violent turn — that earned the film its X.
Cue endless hand-wringing and headlines like “Cosby Star No Angel in Film Role,” which appeared above a largely sympathetic profile that ran in the Detroit Free Press next to a glowing Elvis Mitchell review. (“[A] very intriguing piece of mysticism and 1950s-based melodrama.” “8 out of 10.”) Cue also a lot of hypocrisy from Bill Cosby, who approved Bonet’s decision to do the film then took every opportunity to trash that choice, the film, and the controversy around it. In Newsweek, for instance, he said, “It's a movie made by white America that cast a black girl, gave her voodoo things to do and have sex.”
To reluctantly give credit where it’s due, Cosby’s not entirely wrong in his analysis of the film and Bonet’s role in it (even if the “American” part is only half-right). Here’s Elvis Mitchell again: “Like many other Britishers, former English commercial director Parker is in love with the idea of the American black experience as the metaphoric Heart of Darkness. He exploits Harlem and New Orleans as areas where the subjects continually dance with the devil.” Adapting William Hjorsberg’s 1978 novel Angel Heart, Parker’s film essentially equates voodoo with Satanism and turns a clutch of religious and folkloric traditions of the African diaspora into the exotic trappings for a twist on the Faust story. But, as with Mitchell in ’87, it’s still possible to recognize those dubious elements while getting bowled over by Angel Heart’s style and arresting moodiness.
Mickey Rourke stars as Harry Angel, a ’50s New York private eye who might feel like a hardboiled cliché if Rourke’s every choice didn’t suggest unexpressed inner turmoil. He’s hired by a man named Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro), sporting long, impeccably manicured fingernails and an intimidating beard to track down a long-vanished crooner named Johnny Favorite, who vanished after returning from World War II with neurological damage. It turns out that Cyphre has some sort of unfulfilled contract with Johnny that he’s eager to fulfill. Both Rourke (all nervous cool) and De Niro (all understated menace) turn in fine work here and their scenes together have a tension that might partially be attributed to their working relationship. On the audio commentary, Parker likens the filming of their scenes together to “prize fights.”
Harry’s search eventually takes him to a New Orleans dripping with secrets, danger, and local character, from overweight, racist cops to streetcars to neighborhoods in which jazz music pours out of seemingly every entranceway. The film piles cliché on top of cliché, but Parker’s command of style makes it work. Like Ridley and Tony Scott and others, Parker’s roots go back to the British ad world of the 1960s, which doubled as test labs for stylistic experimentation. Here he’s selling some idea of New Orleans as a nexus of sex, danger, and supernatural darkness and even if the product itself is a little suspect, it’s hard to resist the come-on.
BEST: The Beyond (1981)
Where Parker made art out of a tourist’s idea of New Orleans, Lucio Fulci used the city and its outlying region as raw material for a gory fever dream. There’s little making sense of Fulci’s 1981 film The Beyond (a.k.a. E tu vivrai nel terrore! L’aldilà, which translates as “And you will live in terror! The afterlife”). There’s only surrendering to its madness, a kind of funhouse distortion of Southern Gothic trappings and Satanic nonsense rendered in colors that sear the eyes. (Eyes have a rough time of it within the film as well.)
English actress Katherine MacColl, a Fulci regular, stars as a New Yorker who inherits an old hotel on the outskirts of New Orleans. Unbeknownst to her — but known to viewers, since it’s part of a quite long prologue — the hotel was the site of some mob justice a few decades earlier thanks to the locals being turned off by some strange goings on involving the supernatural and an artist in the process of making an evil painting. Soon, the hotel begins swallowing those who renovate it and returning them as zombie-like creatures. Also involved: a blind woman named Emily with a seeing eye dog and a cursed book entitled Eibon (a direct nod to H.P. Lovecraft in a film thick with his influence).
Ultimately, these elements don’t cohere into anything, well, coherent. But, as usual with Fulci, that’s more a feature than a bug. Like many films made in America by directors from elsewhere (including Angel Heart), The Beyond makes its American locations look disorienting by focusing on details others might not notice. A lonely stretch of highway, for instance, serves as the setting for one of the film’s strangest images, that of Emily alone in the middle of the road with no one else around. Fulci also seemingly has a special fondness for the city’s many used bookstores, which do look like the sort of places where pieces of arcane lore might hide in plain sight for decades. (The cultural difference also account for a sign warning passersby to “Do Not Entry” a particular hospital door.)
He’s even more fond, of course, of gore. The Beyond not only doesn’t skimp on the gross stuff, it revels in it. No part of the body gets off easy in the film, but eyeballs get the worst of it and the film’s undead ghouls look like they’ve come back from the other side worse for wear than most animated corpses. But Fulci also brings the talent of a stylistically gifted filmmaker to The Beyond. Of the Italian directors to take giallo elements to horrific extremes in the ’70s and ’80s, Dario Argento may have gotten the plaudits, but Fulci’s best work has its own sort of thrilling, disgusting intensity.
Not that many noticed at the time. In the States, The Beyond made the rounds in an altered form in 1983 and 1984 under the title 7 Doors of Death, around the same time Mardi Gras Massacre was playing in theaters to similarly little notice. In Alexandria, Louisiana, you could even see it in the same multiplex showing Fulci’s City of the Walking Dead for a while. Or, as most moviegoers did, you could opt for The Big Chill, Scarface, or Silkwood. But the video store era was kind to Fulci’s reputation and The Beyond got a second life in 1998, when Quentin Tarantino’s short-lived Rolling Thunder Pictures sent some of the director’s favorite films back to theaters (and introduced the U.S. to Wong-Kar Wai). Fulci had died two years earlier. But, as The Beyond insists, some things live on even after death.
Keith Phipps writes about movies and other aspects of pop culture. You can find his work in such publications as The Ringer, Mel Magazine, Vulture, TV Guide, Decider, Polygon and TheVerge. Keith also co-hosts the podcast The Next Picture Show and lives in Chicago with his wife and child. His all-time favorite horror film is Dawn of the Dead but he’s still baffled by the moment when the biker decides to use the blood pressure machine in the middle of the zombie attack. Follow him on Twitter at @kphipps3000.