The Ruins: A Great Horror Novel and Its Adaptation

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Back around the time it was released in 2006, Stephen King praised The Ruins as “The best horror novel of the new century.” That ringing endorsement—along with some guidance from my knowledgeable horror peers over on Dreadit—lured me in to Scott Smith’s bleak adventure-death tome about a group of twentysomething Cancun holidayers who go off the beaten path and find themselves trapped in the third-circle of hell.

the ruins stephen king

This novel has been approved by Stephen King.

Naive tourists, secret treasure maps, locals warning of doom in broken English, Venus flytraps on methThe Ruins has all the bases covered when it comes to setting the stage for a hellish foray into a nightmarish look at trouble in paradise.

Premise: A pair of young American couples go to Cancun right before their post-collegiate lives are about to start. They meet a solemn German fellow and a trio of horny Greek dudes. Tequila beach parties and drunken hookups ensue.

Ryan Lochte Jeah

Ruins, bro… ruins.

It’s a generally lazy, uninspired vacationthat is until the German says his brother has gone missing after venturing inland  with a hot archaeologist to study some ancient Mayan ruins. To shake the group out of its static, drunken stupor, one of the Americans suggests they all hunt down the missing pair. A few ratty dirt roads and a trudge through mosquito-ridden jungles and sweltering heat later, they arrive at death’s doorstep. I’ll leave the rest to the reader/viewer.

As for drawbacks, as long as you’re aware that this book is more guilty beach-read horror-thriller than it is literary opus on the psychology of post-collegiate travelers trapped in the perilous hazards of a shitty hangover, there aren’t many. It might, however, dissuade some potential readers to hear that The Ruins israther inexplicablysexist as fuck.

Of the four main characters, two are typecast as stupid women with as much dimension as the backside of a broken Teva. One is the nagging, complaining worrywart. The other is the promiscuous ditz, Stacy, nicknamed “Spacey.” She cheats on her boyfriend with random guys, jerks off a dying guy in a tent, and thinks about jerking off another dying guy outside of a tent.

I'm having sex in a tent!

“Jeah?”

The book even acknowledges her smutttiness in a sequence where one of the male leads speculates on who each of their characters would be in the film adaptation of this story: “Well, there are two female parts, right? So one of you will have to be the good girl, the prissy one, and the other one’ll have to be the slut.” He continues, “The slut has to die. No question. Because you’re bad. You have to be punished.” Perhaps this is supposed to be some tongue-in-cheek self-affrontery by the writer, but it really just follows in line with one of the guiding themes of the book: That Scott Smith hates women.

There’s also sacrilege within the pages of The Ruins. In one particularly disturbing scene, our adventurers burn a copy of The Sun Also Rises. Such cruel injustice to the great Hemingway is perhaps the novel’s most vulgar and irreverent bit of savagery.

hemingway with a shotgun

Beware the wrath of Papa, Scott Smith!

OK, feminist and blasphemous grievances aside, it’s incredible how taut and compelling this book stays through its 369 small-print pages. I mention that number only because my favorite horror novel of all-time, Richard Matheson’s classic I Am Legend, weighs in at a relatively pithy 160.

haunted mask R.L. Stine

Required reading for my future offspring.

And this is where I need to confess that I’m not much of a horror reader. Sure, I devoured every John Bellairs and R.L. Stine book as a pre-pubescent (well, at least the first 35 or so in the Goosebumps series), but I’ve actually never read a Stephen King novel. I know, I know.

I guess I’m saying all this to point to the fact that I have no place quantifying King’s claim on The Ruins’ place in the post-millennial horror landscape. But… if you want to read an insanely dark, fiendishly thrilling page-turner about a bunch of college kids getting offed in the wilds of Mexico, Smith’s book is a poolside read for the ages.

Now on to The Ruins, the 2008 film directed by Carter Smith (no relation to the author), which you can currently find on HBOGo. I have to approach this on two levels: First, what I recall from watching it when it came out, and second, upon viewing it hours after finishing Scott Smith’s novel.

The early memories go like this: 1. Decent adventure-horror flick with a great premise despite some canned performances and a rather formulaic, anti-climactic finish. 2. A then-unknown Laura Ramsey having a really hot bedroom scene. 3. Good special effects for the time period. 4. Laura Ramsey being really hot.

laura-ramsey-the-ruins

“Jeah!”

As for my feelings on the film after reading the novel, it was much harder to digest. I understand that condensing 369 pages into 90 minutes is no small feat, but the ever-expanding and unsettling fear that is the foundation of the novel is all but lost here. Also, everything is dumbed the fuck down. In opposition to the book’s patient character studies, the film’s protagonists have the depth of a flip-flop footprint on hard sand. If the novel is, as I said, a beach read, then the film is more akin to a third-grade-level picture book. There is nothing the least bit heady going on here.
stephen king the ruins

As for upsides, a then slightly unknown Jena Malone delivers a standout scream-queen performance amidst a morass of shirtless Ambercrombie models who look like they just walked out of their first casting call. There’s also kind of a neat nostalgic genre element here for me. The Ruins was filmed in the aftermath of a long-running period of PG-13-ish films based on young adult novels that were basically platforms for mildly spooky thrills and, more often that not, Jennifer Love Hewitt’s boobs (see: I Know What You Did Last Summer, I Still Know…, and every other Lois Duncan-esque adaptation). These were campy, commercialized genre flicks targeting an audience of 12-to-15 year old boys, and I certainly took the bait hook, line and sinker.

jennifer love hewitt sexy tanning in i still know what you did last summer

JLH: The Sofia Loren of middling ’90s teen flicks.


The Ruins has the feel of those blockbuster-horror flicks of the late ’90s—specifically in their fixation with really hot damsels in distress, heroic shirtless bros who can’t act (#nodisrepecttofreddieprinzejr), and a level of predictability and campy bloodiness that was a far-cry from the torture-porn turn that occurred with the onset of films like Saw (2004). So yeah, if you were a child of the ‘90s, The Ruins definitely has a bit of throwback flair to the days when your lunch hours were spent debating whether you were going to marry Jennifer Love Hewitt or Sarah Michelle Gellar. (You don’t really get ’90s nods these days, with every director focused on making their horror flick look straight out of John Carpenter’s ’80s.)

But speaking of the Saws and Hostels and that whole torture-porn era that began to rake in big box office bucks in the early aughts, The Ruins goes there a bit as well. It has all the hallmarks, including gruesome decapitation, nudity, and abject human misery. So it’s kind of an interesting inter-decade middle-ground movie, if you look at it from that perspective. Or maybe it’s just campy horseshit. You choose.

90s horror vs. 2000s horror

What a difference a decade makes…

In terms of the question of where to startbook or movieI’m assuming most people reading this have already seen the flick. Not to worry. Many details both narratively and in terms of Scott Smith’s distinctive ability to get into a character’s head, are completely lost in the film.

And some names and fates are changed around, presumably so as not to play spoiler to Scott Smith’s loyal readers. I’m not saying the movie isn’t worth watching after reading, but the reason I got started on this whole post is simply to direct you toward an extremely engaging and perfectly accessible horror novel that, as you sit hotel-poolside sipping your fifth piña colada this summer, will make you very glad that you chose the comfy all-inclusive package instead of taking the road less traveled.

The Ruins
Novel by Scott Smith, 2006
GRADE: A / A-

The Ruins
Directed by Carter Smith, 2008
GRADE: C+
IMDb: 5.8

-Sam Adams

Family, Madder: Season Two of Bloodline Gets Bigger, Better and Bloodier

bloodline season two john rayburn
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[SPOILERS ahead if you haven’t seen Season One]

If you watched Season One of Bloodline and are thinking of getting your toes wet with the newly released Season Two, here are a few things to know. First, you’re still gonna have to fast-forward through that godwaful opening credit song every episode. Second, the entire season is predicated on the question “what do you want;” apparently the Florida Keys’ answer to Mike Royko’s Chicagoism “Ubi Est Mea?” Third, despite a somewhat-noticeable absence of the two best actors that were on the show (Ben Mendelsohn and Sam Shepard), Season Two is unequivocally much better than the first (a season that without Mendelsohn would have been the textbook definition of “middling”).

bloodline danny ben mendelsohn

Ben Mendelsohn, the greatest thing since sliced Daniel Day Lewis

Speaking of great acting performances, remember Kevin—the paranoid, skittish cokehead brother from Season One? Turns out Norbert Leo Butz is one hell of an actor. I’m not saying he quite fills Mendelsohn’s shoes, but old boy might just have a forthcoming Emmy to add to his stockpile of Tony awards. Even Kyle Chandlerthe grown-man’s Dean Cain, the political drama stand-in for Matthew Fox, the guy who would leave his second beer half-drank at a holiday barbecuedemonstrates what can only be described as “range” as his patriarchal detective John Rayburn takes on an increasing level of moral ambiguity.

norbert leo butz bloodline

We need to talk about Kevin…

As for other acting performances, Sissy Spacek is as good as ever and a newly cast John Leguizamo is downright creepy as a sleazy small-time blackmailer. In fact, one of the great achievements of this season is how seamlessly it weaves together a tapestry of ever-growing characters, and does so without dampening the effect of a taut thriller (note to the abomination that was True Detective Season Two). There are at least 20 meaningful roles in this season of Bloodline, few unnecessary, and all somehow intertwined in an ever-grim network of lies, murder and corruption.

To satiate viewers who wonder what happened to some of the better characters killed off in Season One, the series also goes to great length to employ flashback sequences that are a far cry from the distorted, garden-variety fare found in, say, Dexter. And speaking of that other show about murder and lies in South Florida, Season Two of Bloodline is far more heady and compelling than anything Dexter managed in its later seasons (they even stole Detective Batista and made him into the less-slapstick Sherriff Aguirre).

david zayas in dexter and bloodline

Not like David Zayas is being typecast or anything…

The main draws for me in Season One were the all-out grimness, Ben Mendelsohn and the fantastic use of the show’s seedy geographic setting. But really… Ben Mendelsohn. Other than that, it wasn’t much more than an above-average crime thriller that tipped its hand way too early. Those original factors still hold ground here (even with Mendelsohn’s diminished presence), but what we also get is a much more sophisticated show. A show that seems to haveunlike the Rayburn clanlearned from its past mistakes.

The writing is better, the narrative is more dynamically advanced, and characters other than Danny are actually given room to act outside of the Season One family archetypes that arguably constrained actors like Chandler and Butz.

I do have one major beef with this season, however. Where the first gave us full resolution (despite telegraphing it to the detriment of that whole “taut thriller” thing), now that the show is established, creators Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler and Daniel Zelman seem to be fine with the more commercially driven formula of leaving us wanting. People might disagree with me on this point, but to them and to the creators I simply say, “Remember The Killing!”

GRADE: A- / B+
IMDb: 8.3 (composite series score)

SEASON ONE RECAP:

-Sam Adams

Unsung Gory: 26 lesser-known crime, thriller and horror movies on netflix instant worth watching

26 netflix crime thriller and horror movies
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If you dig dark cinema and/or frequent this blog, odds are you’ve already seen such Netflix-sponsored classics as I Saw the Devil, Tell No One, Headhunters, Blue Ruin and Stake Land. If not, refer back to this list, which contains arguably 18 of the best films and series that run in that vein of bleak, thrilling morbidity.

What’s compiled below is a list of slightly inferior (in some cases—not all) modern flicks that took a lot more digging to find than the aforementioned titles. In other words, they’re mostly lower-budget, less hyped in critical and social media forums, or simply just overlooked. And if you feel this list is slightly short on horror, just refer back to this post.

If you’re new to the blog and the list seems a little thematically erratic, I’ll just reiterate that the focus of this site is to recommend movies not from one particular genre, but rather a series (horror, crime, thriller) which are all connected by an undercurrent of grim suspense. (See: my first post where I equate bleak cinema with ASMR.) This 26-part novella is also my attempt to repent for blogging infrequently of late, and thus offering you a laundry list of some of the better stuff I’ve watched over the past half year.

And the nominees are…

Almost Mercy
danielle golden bloody sexy in almost mercy

The main reason I held off from writing a longform post on this is because it’s a little smarmy for my tastes. Essentially, depressed, bullied loner boy meets insanely hot badass outsider chick (Danielle Guldin). Friendship ensues, and so does mass killing. Think White Rabbit (farther down the list), but with more of a Heathers / Ginger Snaps / Horns vibe. My other comparison would be an amalgam of We Need to Talk About Kevin, Gus Van Sant’s Columbine-inspired Elephant and Jennifer’s Body, with a tone and sardonic wit more in line with that Diablo Cody flick than the serious nature of Kevin and Elephant. Almost Mercy is definitely a lot of fun as 90s throwback black comedyjust be prepared for more tongue-in-cheek gore than actual horror or substance.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.2

Big Bad Wolves
Tzahi-Grad-Big-Bad-Wolves
It makes absolute sense why, in 2013, Quentin Tarantino called Big Bad Wolvesan Israeli murder-torture revenge thriller“the best film of the year.” I don’t say that because Wolves is a profound and overlooked piece of filmmaking. I say it because people with big egos generally tend to like what they see in the mirror, and Wolves is essentially a reflection of everything QT’s worked to stylistically cultivate over the past few decades. If you are a die-hard Tarantino fan, you might very well agree with him. If, like me, you think he’s gone into hammy, self-parody ever since his last great film (Jackie Brown), you might be of a couple minds.

Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown

Before the Gosling meme, there was this bad muthafucka…

 That’s not to say that I don’t think Wolves is a very clever and entertaining thriller with some wonderful style and plot twists. It’s just that QT’s character-as-caricature formulawherein corny jokes play substitute for human emotionseems just a little incongruent with a film predicated on child rape, child murder and agonizing revenge torture.

I guess I should briefly sum up the main premise here, which entails the father of said beheaded child and a vigilante cop using all means necessary to force a confession out of a potential perp in a secluded farmhouse basement. Directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado even give a wink to Pulp Fiction as the man is interrogated, using one of QT’s favorite tools for going “medieval on his ass.” I know fans of this blog might have a gripe with me calling this film insensitive, but it just seems that at the very least, the gravity of such vulgar material becomes rather implausible and divorced from reality in such slapstick kid gloves. In all, it feels like this film was created for the exact cine-sadist audience Michael Haneke was confronting and condemning in Funny Games.

OK, OK, I’ve cleared my conscience. If you can somehow cast aside the flippantly portrayed depravity this film addresses (not a small task), it then becomes a perfectly paced suspense-revenge flick, full of black humor, strong camerawork, memorable performances and some fantastic twists. It also gets points for the best use of Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” this side of We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Quite simply, Big Bad Wolves is a love it or loathe it movie, and I find myself caught somewhere between the two poles. But I can’t deny that it’s an impressive piece of filmmaking.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.8 

The Canal
the canal irish movie
When I put together a list of some of best lesser-known modern horror flicks on Netflix (see link in intro), The Canal was my glaring omission. Perhaps I held off on watching it due to the corny cover art on Netflix that makes it look like a generic, direct-to-DVD snoozefest. Or maybe it was the 5.9 score on IMDb (Reminder to self: IMDb scores are good signifiers for a film’s caliber in some genres, but they are to be distrusted like a back-alley three-card monte dealer when it comes to horror).

In fact, this film is so good that I’m doubling back on my claim that The Babadook was the best horror film of 2014 (granted, it was a pretty shitty year for horror). So what’s the deal with The Canal? Premise: An Irish film archivist moves his wife and son into a creepy old house located on a… canal, of all things. With a heavy tip o’ the cap to The Shining, our man starts losing his mind a wee bit, especially when he finds some films at work that reveal his house to be the scene of a century-old murder wherein a man killed his wife and kids.

the canal the shining here's johnny

“I think my dad’s gone craaazy!”



This familiar narrative I just described is pretty much where The Canal stops adhering to any genre conventions. I’ve stated on this blog that haunting movies generally don’t do the trick for me (just leave the fucking house, already!). But this one is more refreshing and palpable, if only because the majority of the film doesn’t take place in the house, and we don’t have to wade through an hour of creaking doors and power outages to get to the real meat. Moreover, The Canal operates on a heady, multilayered plain of psychological dementia that enters into a possessed mind in one of the most convincingand therefore terrifyingways I’ve encountered. Trippy, manic and skillfully crafted, the lack of recognition for director Ivan Kavanagh’s indie masterpiece is criminal. Queue it up without further delay.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 5.9

Blue Capriceblue caprice isaiah washington
Based on a wave of seemingly motiveless sniper killings that went down near Washington D.C. in 2002, Blue Caprice is carried by an air of unnerving tension as well as a sense of unavoidable dread. It brings to mind several sources, most notably Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968), loosely inspired by Andrew Clark’s 1965 freeway killings. In both films, random “targets” are sniped by a psychopathic killer who seems to have little more incentive for the murders than his own psychopathy.

Blue Caprice also employs a father-and-son-like power dynamic, as an embittered man brings a homeless youth into his care, only to brainwash him into being a cold-blooded killer. In this sense, the film evokes both Beasts of No Nation and the character of Chris, the trigger-happy corner boy from The Wire. The senselessness of the entire drama is conveyed as the killing spree unfolds almost nonchalantlymore as a brief footnote to the inexplicable psychopathy of these killings than as a crescendo or climax. The strongest feature of this film is without a doubt the maniacally icy and dynamic performance of Isaiah Washington. In all, Blue Caprice’s characters are fleshed out, but their criminal psyche and murderous underpinnings beg more exploration. Perhaps that makes sense, however, given the utter senselessness of their actions.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.0

Cartel Land
Jose Manuel Mireles cartel land
One of my favorite films on Netflix streaming is El Infierno, a Sam Peckinpah-tinged tragicomedy dealing with the societal horrors of Mexican narco culture. In my post on that film, I also recommended Narco Cultura, a good documentary on the subject in its own right. Surpassing that, however, is Cartel Landa doc that brings a retrospective “how the fuck did they get that footage” type feel to a war playing out between druglords and an army of ordinary citizens fighting back against tyranny. Makes sense why this was just up for Best Documentary Oscar.

GRADE: A-
IMDb: 7.4

A Company Man
Ji-seob So in a company man

Netflix’s most impressive foreign subgenre catalogue is arguably that of South Korean revenge thrillers. Oldboy and I Saw the Devil are the best of these, but they’re just part of a film movement that churns out great products at a breakneck clip, and A Company Man is a damn fine addition to the canon. Drawing a parallel between the corporate servitude of the Asian “salaryman” and the rigorously structured life of a hitman, Company Man excels as a bleak and action-packed, murder-revenge tale. There are a few other South Korean flicks on this list I’d check out before it (namely, A Hard Day), but if you’ve enjoyed the genre’s more popular offerings, you should be pleasantly surprised by this low-budget and high-grade counterpoint to Assault on Wall Street.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.7

Darkness on the Edge of Town
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This one’s a bit like that moody, bleak and cinematographically impressive country noir stuff that’s been coming out in droves of recent (Joe, Blue Ruin, Shotgun Stories, The Living, Winter’s Bone), but with more of a distinctly Irish feel. And not just in gorgeous shots of the 40 shades of green that canvass the hills of North Kerry. There’s a contemplative, almost mystical and dreamlike quality to the film, especially at its outset. The story revolves around Cleo, a fiery-tempered juvenile delinquent (Emma Eliza Regan) looking to avenge her sister’s death by going door to seedy door to find sis’ killer. Cleo is handy with a hunting rifle, and her house calls to shifty tinker drug dealers makes her character seem rather like a brogue-bearing mashup of Jennifer Lawrence’s character from Winter’s Bone and Katniss Everdeen. The film, also about friendship and duplicitousness, is nothing groundbreaking, but at the very least it’s a nice, little anti-Thelma and Louise b-movie with slick camerawork and an impressive performance from Regan.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.1

Dark Was the Night
kevin durand in dark was the night

In all honesty, this is probably the worst film on this list (OK, maybe with the exception of The Shrine). It starts with a hammy scene of mysterious terror that you’ve seen open any number of horror movies. But wait! From there, the next hour or so of Dark Was the Night ventures into a suspenseful and ominous creature feature that elicits a genuine fear of the unknown through a rather original premise and a lot more showing than telling.

Kevin Durandeasily recognizable from being typecast as the brawny asshole in just about every recent Hollywood action flickdelivers a complex performance that shows he’s more than just a b-movie Arnold. Sure, the main themes are trite and have been done ad nauseum, but the vast majority of the film delivers on good, old school suspense-horror (consider it a worthwhile M. Night Shyamalan flick, if there is such a thing). As for the payoffwell, that’s probably why you haven’t heard much about this movie. But sandwiched between two short and shitty bookends is a very compelling b-horror flick. I won’t say more other than that with a budget of about a million more and a few kinks worked out, this could have been a classic. And it’s always fun to see the great Nick Damici pop up in a horror flick, no matter how small the role.

Grade: B-
IMDb: 5.6

A Hard Day
A_Hard_Day
Combine the suspense and breakneck pace of Headhunters with the corrupt cop cat-and-mouse game of Infernal Affairs. Package it inside the South Korean murder-revenge template. Throw in a dash of Walter White-level maniacal crisis and a Michael Myers-esque killer and, well, you essentially have the recipe for A Hard Day. I’m actually surprised this movie doesn’t get mentioned more when the topic of South Korean “han” films arises and the ingenious, usual suspects are named (I Saw the Devil, Oldboy, The Chaser, The Man from Nowhere, etc.). If not up to those high standards, Hard Day is at least in the same ballpark. One of my highest-recommended flicks on this list.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 6.7

Jack Strong
jack strong patrick wilson Marcin Dorocinski
Wait, I’m fucking serious: Despite being marketed with a poster that looks like some lowbrow Tom Clancy political conspiracy schlock and having a title that only furthers this notion, Jack Strong is actually a very intelligent and compelling spy thriller. And that’s because it’s the exact opposite of everything its Netflix thumbnail connotes. For starters, Patrick Wilson (whose face takes up most of the Jack Strong promo poster) actually has very little screen time in the film. Jack Strong is also largely in Polish and Russian, with English subtitles. While it may look like a low-budget rip-off of The Sum of All Fears, it’s really more in the tradition of heady espionage flicks like The Debt, Citizen X and Munich (I’m not gonna mention Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy because I still have no idea what the fuck transpired in that movie). Thrilling, suspenseful and very well acted, one need simply ignore its awful marketing, and a very good film lies beneath.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.2

Kidnapped (Secuestrados)
secuestrados-Manuela-Vellés

Fuck, this one is bleak and grotesque. I mean, while not exactly A Serbian Film, it makes the Liv Tyler flick Strangers look like Home Alone. And it’s not even a horror film. Just a home invasion movie that takes us into the inner recesses of a horrific real-life situation, and then begs the question, “How much fucking worse could it get.” The thing is, it’s all very convincing, believable and well-acted. And I think calling Kidnapped “torture porn” would be a disservice to its vivid realism. I just don’t know why the hell anyone would be compelled to make this film. But it’s certainly better than Eli Roth’s Knock Knock, and if you liked Funny Games and are a cinematic sadist, you’ll most likely eat this shit up.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.5

Last Shift
last-shift-Juliana-Harkavy-bloody-sexy

Channeling the cult-classic Session 9, Last Shift brings us into the world of Jessica (Juliana Harkavy), a cop working her first shift. Of course she just happens to look like the half-sister of Jessica Alba and Hope Solo. Of course the shift is run alone. At night. In a precinct house that’s haunted by the spirit of a mass murder clan! Last Shift is one of those low-budget, sleeper Netflix horror titles that more than does the trick in terms of delivering continuous suspense and some good visual and psychological thrills. In fact, I’d go so far as to place it in the top ten horror movies of 2015. As a horror buff who is typically bored by paranormal films, this one easily kept my attention throughout. An impressive flick from up-and-coming horror director Anthony DiBlasi.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 5.7

The Living
Jocelin Donahue in The Living
If we can consider Blue Ruin, Joe, Winter’s Bone, Cold in July and Shotgun Stories as cousins related by the blood of country noir, than consider The Living their slightly jaundiced offspring. Director Jack Bryan takes the age-old formula of drinking, heartbreak, mayhem and embittered rednecks killin’ on other nearby rednecks for fuckin’ with their kinfolk. He then hands it over to a talented cast of horror and outlaw movie vets (including a few faces from Justified and House of the Devil’s Jocelin Donahue) and basically lets them shoot it out. While there’s a lot of good bleak-as-fuck hilljackery commencing here, veteran character actor Chris Mulkey absolutely steals the show as a two-bit philosopher hitman who’s just a few screws short of being a white trash Anton Chigurh. If you want bleak and backwoodsy, look no further.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.3

Man from Reno
Ayako-Fujitani-scary-sexy-in-man-from-reno

Man from Reno is, without a doubt, the best film ever made about the treacherous Japanese-British-San Francisco rare turtle smuggling syndicate. That absurd premise is what our heroine, popular detective novelist Aki, finds herself in as she struggles with a personal crisis and the task of cranking out her last opus. Then there’s the dark and handsome gentleman lover Akira (Kazuki Kitamura from Kill Bill and Killerswe need more of this guy), who’s got something to do with the whole shebang. Piecing it all together is a local detective working a murder casethe great character actor Pepe Serna (Scarface), stealing the show as a humble, aging version of Walt Longmire. 

pepe serna chainsaw scarface

Pepe Serna on the wrong side of a chainsaw in Scarface

So yeah, there’s a lot going on here, almost distractingly so (and sometimes the puzzle pieces collide a bit too quickly). But it’s all worth the slow grind. In the end, Man from Reno is a bizarre, multinational cinematic anomaly; equal parts Hitchcock and The Killing. And speaking of the latter, Man from Reno’s bleak Pacific Northwest cinematography brings a mood and visual flair that are as much a character in the film as any player. If you liked the Al Pacino and Christopher Nolan flick Insomnia, definitely check this out.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.9

Mea Culpa
mea culpa movie Vincent Lindon
Mea Culpaor as I like to call it, A Walk Among les Tombstonesis the type of gritty cop thriller that could easily rake in box office bucks with a Liam Neeson remake. The film opens with an older man in short shorts on the beach with his beautiful, much younger wife. The message here, I believe, is that it’s just another day in France.

Such sunny overtones quickly fade. A drunk-driving accident leads to a career and marriage flushed down the drain. It also leads to buddy-cop partners who were once thick as thieves now distanced by worlds of misery. But when a child is witness to a gangland murder, our fallen anti-hero must pick up the pieces in order to save his familyand perhaps even regain his sanity.

There are heavy undertones of Taken, including seedy Eastern European thugs and impromptu death-match boxing in dark warehouses with knives and towel-wrapped hands. I will say Mea Culpa suffers a bit from the old not-killing-the-bad-guy-when-you-have-the-chance syndrome, but it does the trick for a tense and action-packed thriller. Consider it the poor man’s Tell No One.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.1

Mystery Road
mystery road jason mask
Apart from what’s going on in South Korea and the slew of “country noir” films I can’t stop talking about, Australia has one of the stronger bleak, murderous film movements at the moment. Mystery Roada slow-burn detective thriller about an Outback sheriff trying to both solve a murder and navigate systemic and race-fueled corruptionfollows in the rich tradition of The Rover, The Horseman, The Proposition and Animal Kingdom, to name a few. Its existentially bleak, ponderous view of the Outback as expressed through vivid cinematography and minimalist dialogue is part of what makes this film compelling, and creates for a bit of an odd hybrid between Spaghetti Westerns, Samuel Beckett plays and the gonzo Ozploitation movement of the 1970s. It needs to be said that Mystery Road certainly puts the “slow” in “slow-burn,” but if you can dig a crime movie that’s predicated as much upon mood as it is upon plot, this one is certainly worth checking out. Bonus points: It also has a great side role from Hugo Weaving, as well a finale that makes up for the turtle’s pace of the whole affair.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.4

No Tears for the Dead
no tears for the dead bloody

As I said in my original post on the South Korean revenge-murder thriller No Tears for the Dead, “ It might not have the depravity or sophistication of some han classics, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more exhilarating foreign popcorn flick made in the past few years.” Seriously, this one gives the first three installments of the Die Hard series a run for their money. There’s nothing all that heady here (it’s more explosion-enhanced, shoot-’em-up blockbuster fodder than the grim glory of South Korean classics like I Saw the Devil and Oldboy). Still, director Jeong-beom Lee’s folllow-up to The Man from Nowhere impresses as a non-stop visual spectacle, and is buoyed by an all-star cast from South Korean revenge cinema. If you’re a fan of the Vengeance Trilogy but are simply in the mood for sheer entertainment on a more brainless level, No Tears is a whole helluva lot of fun.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.7

On the Job
on the job movie on netflix with Joel Torre

Probably among my top five within this list, On the Job is a Philippine prison-gangster flick that toes the line between drama and thriller. That doesn’t mean it’s by any means slowit’s just a more artful (and well-acted) affair than some of the other stuff on here. If you want some context, combine the coming-of-age and coming-to-power story of Un Prophete (man, that was one of the best films on Netflix), the interwoven, seedy fabric of Amores Perros, and the bleak Philippine crimescape of Metro Manila. And seeing as On the Job details the dynamic of two generations of assassins and their worldly troubles, perhaps a non-comedic take on In Bruges. All the rest you need to know about this film is that it’s about hitmen who have a deal with a political mob to be secretely released every now and then in order to pull of high-profile murders. Oh, and that it’s a damn good piece of modern crime cinema.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.0

The Seasoning House
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This is one of those weird and really good gems that just got buried in the ether of Netflix; the kind that never popped up in any “because you liked” lists and took me half an hour of mindlessly browsing to happen upon. Perhaps that’s because it’s a pretty damn difficult film to market. Premise: A deaf-mute girl in The Balkans is abducted into a military sex-slave house after watching her family brutally murdered by soldiers. She uses her wiles to avoid death at the hands of her captors, while simultaneously coming to the aid of her heroin-fed sex-slave counterparts. Doesn’t exactly scream date-night, does it? And it also isn’t really horror, so you can’t just slap a ghoulish image on the front and get traffic that way (see: The Canal).

OK, now consider that extremely fucked-up premise being executed to near-perfection; no torture porn, no exploitative thrills at the expense of of a very serious and evil situation. Simply an engaging thriller with undertones of bloody revenge on par with what you’d expect out of a South Korean “han” film. For those who can stomach it, Seasoning Houseactually a British filmis suspense and terror at its finest. Rest assured, you will never want to visit The Balkans.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.1

Scenic Route
scenic route josh duhamel

Wait, Josh Douchehamel made a good movie? I thought he was only supposed to star in Katherine Heigl flicks in which Katherine Heigl realizes her life sucks and then she meets Josh and realizes her life doesn’t suck, and then they go through a period that sucks, and then things don’t suck again. But no, Scenic Route is actually a pretty damn-entertaining flick, thanks in part to an ambitious and humorous script from Kyle Killen. Premise: a cleaned-up, dumbed-down ex-musician shackled by a white-picket-fence existence meets with an old stoner buddy, who’s the same lout he was when they used to hang. Road trip commences. Car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Bros are stretched to the limits of their friendship and sanity.  It’s kind of like that movie Gerry with Matt Damon, except that I didn’t feel like I swallowed a handful of Ambien ten minutes into watching it (fuckin’ a, Gus Van Sant, fuckin’ a…). I’m not saying Scenic Route is anything existentially groundbreaking, but it’s just really surprisingly good for a movie starring Josh Duhamel, and you could do a lot worse in terms of survival flicks.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.5

The Shrine
cindy-sampson-in-the-shrine

As I’ve said before, good horror flicks are few and far between. And I can’t highly recommend this one until you’ve gone through the 30 or so other modern horror films I’ve suggested on this blog. But worth your time if you’re a horror fan? Yeah, it at least holds that standard.

The premise is even a bit more creative and new than a lot of the stuff popping up these days: An American journalist, her photographer boyfriend and her intern travel to a remote Polish village to investigate a series of odd tourist disappearances. Combining elements of Devil’s Pass (watch that on Netflix over this if you haven’t seen it), Hostel and any number of possession films, Shrine at least creates an interesting and multilayered narrative. There’s even some cinematographically intriguing segments shot in the eerie mist of Polish hill country. Why many of these are clearly shot in front of a green screen is a mystery, and adds an unnecessary element of b-movie laziness. And as a former journalist, I’d rather not even get into the financial implausability of a small-time journo living in a high-end condo and flippantly buying three last-minute transcontinental flight tickets on her own dime simply because she has a story hunch. But there’s some decent special effects here and enough ambitious thrills and chills to at least merit a gander. I’ll just reiterate that this one’s low on the list and I’m mainly just throwing it in here for hard-up horror fans.

GRADE: B- / C+
IMDb: 5.6

Suburra
subarra movie Greta Scarano Alessandro Borghi

Damn, this is a great movieprobably the best on this list. I love how the opening scene cuts from a boring Italian legislative session to a neon-lit mansion bumping M83’s club-classic “Midnight City” (arguably the most MDMA-conducive song ever created). From there, the tone for Suburra is set, and it’s one of a cross-section of corrupt humanity overlapping into one another’s seedy, carnal and ultimately deadly worlds. The idea of intersecting narratives tied together by some intrinsically morose fate certainly brings to mind the early work of Alejandro G. Iñárritu (see: Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), now probably the most lauded director on the planet.

And as the scandalous lives of a corrupt politician, a gung-ho mobster, a nightclub promoter, a beautiful prostitute and the old guard of gangsterism clash in and around modern-day Rome, the movie also delves into some of the bleak Christian themes Iñárritu explored, especially in Amores Perros. Suburra is divided into daily chapters, with each one being prefaced by text signaling a countdown to “the apocalypse.” The true nature of this apocalypse is more existential and character-related than it is literal, but it would be hard to argue that the movie is, on some levels, not a story about the descent and end of mankind.

Pierfrancesco Favino and Greta Scarano sexy in Suburra

“It’s the end of the world… might as well double up!”

Fans of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher series will most likely love this as well, as it delves into the same neon-lit, trance-music soundtracked netherworld that brought a surreal mix of doom and glory to those movies. It’s worth noting that this is somewhat of a companion piece to the great Italian slum-gangster flick Gomorrah, made a few years prior, as Suburra’s director went on to turn that movie into a TV series. From a cinematographic standpoint, however, Suburra is an improvement on its predecessor. Oh, and a final note: There’s a climactic scene here that rivals the horsehead scene in Godfather. Just sayin!

GRADE: A-
IMDb: 7.5

Uncle John
Uncle John Ronnie Gene Blevins John Ashton
I know nothing about the fresh-faced, first-time filmmaker Steven Piet, but if I had to guess one thing about him I’d say he’s has seen a little film called Blue Ruin. My second guess on Mr. Piet would be that he’s seen a film called The Living. I’d also venture that he’s probably seen David Gordon Green’s Joe and Jim Mickle’s Cold in July. Whether Piet saw any or all of these films before creating Uncle John? I’d also guess in the affirmative, but that in no way means that Piet’s feature debut isn’t a damn good foray into country noir-ish territory in its own right. It’s also arguably the most “Midwestern Nice” movie since Fargo.

A split narrative follows both the budding workplace romance of two typical city millennials and the boy’s titular uncle and father-figure, a farmer living a few hours (and a few worlds) away from them. John is a good, plainspoken Midwesterner who works hard and meets a group of similarly Midwestern chatty-Cathy buddies for coffee every morning at the local diner. But of course, he’s hiding a dark secret. The performances of John Ashton as Uncle John and Ronnie Gene Blevins as essentially the same character he played in the movie Joe are much more compelling than what’s going on with nephew and his office hottie. Still, Piet’s use of a split narrative to contrast the safeness and sterilization of one generation with the cruder, hands-on know-how of a bygone era isdespite being a bit heavy handedan effective tool for conveying how dull and sheepishly naive your average Millennial is.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.3

When Animals Dream
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To avoid spoilers, I’m not gonna classify the subgenre of this slow-paced and thoughtful Danish horror flick. That said, when its main character, Marie (Sonia Suhl), starts growing weird patches of hair on her body, the gist becomes clear rather quick. I want to re-emphasive that “slow-paced and thoughtful” aspectit’s not in an artsy fartsy way that people will either love or hate, as was the case with A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. It’s more about combating demons and conspiratorily safeguarding evils within a family dynamic. It’s also about female sexuality and love, but it’s really a lot more grim than that. So the main comparison would be Let the Right One In, a standard few films can live up to (including this one). Still, Suhl’s performance is understatedly compelling and complex. And the bleak cinematography of an isolated European fishing town provides the perfect setting and mood to complement one of the more introspective horror flicks of the past few years.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 5.9

White Rabbit
Nick-Krause-in-White-Rabbit

Harlan is an angsty loner who grew up with an alcoholic dad whose lasting legacy to his son was an appreciation for guns. Then a neurotic pixie dream girl arrives at his high school, and their relationship plays out a lot like what went down in the Daniel Radcliffe movie Horns. White Rabbit is also very similar to Almost Mercy (see top of list), albeit darker and more bleakly homicidal. Basically, it’s like Columbine meets Donnie Darko, as seen through the eyes of rapper Cage (specifically his “I Never Knew You” music video). Matter of fact, actor Nick Krause looks a hell of a lot like Cage here. Shia LaBouef should cast him if he’s still working on that Cage biopic. Anyway, if you want some really good, really bleak and bloody teen angst, check this one out.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.2

A Wolf at the Door
a-wolf-at-the-door
I’ll quote from my original post here: “If Prisoners met Little Children and were lured into a back alley by Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, you might have a rough idea of what the Brazilian abduction film A Wolf at the Door is about. But even such a miasma of grim, adulterous, child-snatching malevolence would fall short of matching the depravity that exists in director Fernando Coimbra’s 2013 suspense tale.” Yeah, that pretty much sums up this slow-burn story of psycopathic lust, adultery, betrayal and murder. This is another one hidden deep in the Netflix archives that deserves much more attention.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.5

-Sam Adams

Westbound and Doomed: The Uncharted Terrain of Bone Tomahawk

bone tomahawk kurt russell
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Billed as a horror-Western, Bone Tomahawk is a film without direct cinematic precedent. For starters, it’s really more of a Western with a short horror film packaged seamlessly into one brief and glorious stretch of its narrative. It’s also the first very good film in the history of film to marry the two genres (with respect to the great Dusk Till Dawn, which isn’t really a Western). I am, of course, operating on the premise that such titles as Billy the Kid Vs. Dracula, The Quick and Undead and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter aren’t exactly “triumphs.”

Billy the Kid vs. Dracula poster

Not quite a classic…

Sure, you could argue that it draws from a patchwork of disparate sources: an amalgam of The Searchers and The Hills Have Eyes, or perhaps the warped offspring of The Descent and Apocalypto.

Apocalypto_stabbing

“This is how it feels to have one of the greatest films of its decade critically panned because its director is a racist piece of shit.”

The closest singular film I can link it to would be the black comedy Ravenous (1999). Both, after all, are cannibal-themed period pieces that traffic in undertones of supernatural terror while maintaining a sense of morbid humor.

Bone Tomahawk, however, is simply a different kind of animal. Its humor is more subtle; its horror worlds more horrific; its Western more… Western. The closest singular source I can link it to is Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, but while that would encompass Bone Tomahwak’s grotesque and philosophical Western leanings, it doesn’t fully capture the more traditional horror avenue into which it (quite literally) devolves.

bone tomahawk cult poster

Coolest movie poster of 2015?

In short, this movie does something profound for viewers like myself (and other adherents of the idea that bleak cinema is like ASMR) by combining two of the best grim genres ever created into a tidy little package of bloody carnage and retaining the bleakest soulful expression that each has to offer. Furthermore, there has never been a more perfect movie to recommend on a blog that doesn’t focus specifically on horror, crime, Western or thriller, but instead connects these genres through an undercurrent of thrilling morbidity and bleakness.

But enough gushy babbling. Here’s your goddam synopsis:

Like Ravenous, Bone Tomahawk is propelled in part by a fantastic cast of recognizable b-listers. Ravenous gave us the great performances of Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle and Jeffrey Jones. In Tomahawk we have Kurt Russell harkening back to his Snake Plissken and R.J. MacReady days as a mean-as-nails, no-nonsense sonuvabitch frontier sherriff.

Speaking of The Thing, first-time director S. Craig Zahler draws from a dark pool of horror and crime cinema vets to bring his script to life. Richard Jenkins (The Cabin in the Woods) steals the show as a simple-minded, chatty backup deputy who serves as Russell’s loyal bloodhound.

richard_jenkins_chicory_bone_tomahawk

“You know, I know the world’s supposed to be round, but I’m not so sure about this part.”

James Wan alum Patrick Wilson (who I’m starting to realize can actually act, even if he ain’t much with a Western accent) plays the lead of a crippled land surveyor spearheading a rescue party. We also get Sid Haig (Rob Zombie vet), David Arquette (Scream, Ravenous), Zahn McClarnon (Season Two of Fargo, Resolutionand Lili Simmons (True Detective, Banshee), with the latter looking way too hot for frontier life. Oh, and then there’s Matthew fucking Fox as a bloodthirsty playboy Indian hunter in what might just be his best-ever role (meaning it’s completely tolerable).

bone tomahawk matthew fox troglodyte

“Matthew Fox from Lost? You know what’s interesting about him? … Nothing.”

empire of the summer moon

Monster at the End of the Dream highly endorses this book.

I don’t really feel like giving much away about this film, as I think you should just experience it knowing that you’re going to get something Western, weird and horrific. But for a bit of background, it borrows the theme of a doomed four-man search-and-rescue party a la John Ford’s Searchers who are out to retrieve a damsel in distress from a group of “troglodyte” cave-dwelling Indians. (A story which was originally inspired by the capture of Cynthia Ann Parker, as chronicled in S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moona must-read for Cormac McCarthy fans, by the way.)

Packed with brilliant dialogue (especially in the hands of Richard Jenkins), claustrophobically sublime Old West cinematography and one of the best climaxes I’ve seen in any genre in years, Bone Tomahawk would surely make my list of the best horror films of the past decade. But then there’s the predicament of howlike a another one of my favorite 2015 would-be horror films, Springit isn’t a full-fledged horror film. It’s an anomaly. A brilliant, grotesque, slow-burn anomaly that you simply have to behold to comprehend.


GRADE: A-
IMDb: 7.1

-Sam Adams

NOTE: Bone Tomahawk is currently free for Amazon Prime subscribers.

Vengeance for Mr. Sympathy: Killer South Korean Thrillers on Netflix, Revisited

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Four film movements over the past several years have kept me optimistic about the direction of bleak cinema. In no particular order, there’s the new-wave of oft-’80s-inspired horror pioneered by Ti West and the like (see: You’re Next, V/H/S/2, House of the Devil, It Follows). Then there’s the existentially bleak bloodbaths on the Outback frontier of Neo-Ozploitation (see: The Rover, Animal Kingdom, The Proposition, Son of a Gun). I’ve also waxed gushy about my fondness for the “country noir” subgenre, highlighted by films like Winter’s Bone, Joe, Mud and Cold in July.

Last but not least, of course, is the most profilic of these movements, and coincidentally the one that Netflix sources most constantly for its streaming catalogue. I’m talking about South Korean revenge-murder thrillers, all recognizable through their dependence on the cultural notion of “han”perhaps one of the most brutal concepts to ever spawn a cinematic revolution.

american han korean han I Saw the Devil

American Han                                Korean Han

Eventually I’ll need to make a comprehensive list of the top films in this subgenre, but for now, suffice it to say that all the following should be watched: I Saw the Devil, The Man from Nowhere, Oldboy, Memories of Murder, The Chaser, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, The Host, Bedeviled.

If you’re a budding South Korean cinephile like myself, chances are you’ve seen most of the aforementioned titles. Or you’ve read about them on previous posts here. So let me offer forth three lesser-known South Korean flicks I just watched and thoroughly enjoyed. I’m not going to say they’re on the level of I Saw the Devil or Oldboy. They’re also all more fast-paced action-thrillers than what you might expect out of a Park Chan-wook film (i.e., they might be more accessible to those with weaker stomachs and shorter attention spans). Either way, if you have any interest in this movement, here’s a trifecta of very good titles that Netflix streaming currently offers:

A Hard Day
Sun-kyun Lee in A Hard DayFalling thematically somewhere between Infernal Affairs and Headhunters is director Seong-hoon Kim’s A Hard Day. The Infernal Affairs comparison comes from Hard Day being about a deadly game of cat-and-mouse involving crooked cops. The Headhunters one is mainly because Hard Day is the most nerve-wracking, tension-riddled thriller I’ve seen since that incredible piece of Norwegian cinema.

On the way to his mother’s funeral, homicide detective Go Geon-soo (Sun-kyun Lee) is involved in a deadly hit-and-run. He goes to excruciating levels to cover his tracks, with each of his deceitful moves testing the clock in James Bondian fashion.

a hard day Sun-kyun Lee

“I’m sorry mama!”

As his nightmarish evening continues, internal affairs exposes him and some colleagues for taking bribe money. And so it is that we begin our journey in rooting for a crooked, murderous cop, who somehow ends up being one of the film’s more endearing characters (that’s South Korean cinema for you).

As a multilayered web of duplicitous corruption unravels, our hero finds himself in an all-stakes deathmatch with a cunning psychopath who is essentially the South Korean Michael Myers (I’ll leave it at that to avoid spoilers).

Taking a page from common horror tropes, fast-action thrillers, and even Breaking BadA Hard Day is not a film for those suffering from heart problems, onychophagy or trichotillomania (although it may give your cinematic brain an erection lasting longer than four hours). Does it go beyond suspension of disbelief at times? Perhaps. But it’s also one of the most action-packed and entertaining South Korean thrillers I’ve ever seen.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 6.7

No Tears for the Dead
Dong-gun Jang no tears for the dead bloody
So about the title of this post: A main commonality between No Tears for the Dead and A Company Man is that they both follow world-weary assassins who are beginning to give in to a softer side when they’re roused out of bliss/apathy by a very personal offense. (It should be noted that this is a very common theme in “han” films.)

No Tears for the Dead is, after all, director Jeong-beom Lee’s folllow-up to The Man from Nowherea slightly superior film about… a world-weary assassin who is beginning to give in to his softer side when he’s roused out of bliss/apathy by a very personal offense. Often these offenses take place in the form of wives or young girls being kidnapped or murdered (happy holidays, by the way!).

Our lead here is Gon, a hitman who has a change of heart after an assignment goes south. As his comically evil bosses press him to take care of a woman he’s beginning to fall for, he decides to go rogue and flip the script on them. What ensues is one of the most action-packed, high-budget thrillers this genre has spawned. Die Hard is channeled in bloody, explosive tower scenes. Flashy, well-choreographed action comes straight from the Jason Bourne playbook. Taken is also an obvious thematic influence.

Min-hee Kim no tears for the dead bloody

Gon’s girl…

No Tears also has some nice side roles from recognizable han-thriller regulars, including the creepy fucker who likes to bowl with human eyes from Man from Nowhere (Hee-won Kim), and the ever-sinister Dana Lee (OK, you might know him more as  Mr. Takahashi from Curb Your Enthusiasm)…
kyoko black swan curb your enthusiasm

As for drawbacks, Jeong-beom Lee lays the melodrama on a little heavy here just as he did in The Man from Nowhere, but I guess that goes with the geo-cinematic territory. Also, as the film attempts to emulate some of the aforementioned American action-thriller classics, there are some hammy performances that unnecessarily rely on actors attempting to say hard-ass things in English when they clearly have no grasp of the language. (As opposed to, say, my immaculate mastery of the Korean tongue.)

Still, production and action-wise, this film accomplishes as much as any American action-thriller blockbuster in recent memory. It might not have the depravity or sophistication of some han classics, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more exhilarating  foreign popcorn flick made in the past few years.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.7

A Company Man
Ji-seob So in A Company Man

While A Company Man is predicated on the not-so-subtle parallel between the dehumanizing realities of Asian corporate servitude and the commitments of a hitman, I’m more interested in recommending it based on it being one helluva bitchin’, kickass action-thriller.

In this installment of world-weary South Korean assassins and their moral awakenings, our man Hyeong-Do (So Ji-Sub) works for a company that does ruthless contract killings. Of course, he meets a beautiful lady with a kid and he decides it’s time to hang up his cleats. Of course, this doesn’t work. I honestly have no reason to give you more of a premise, because it’s the exact same thing that was done in No Tears, Man from Nowhere, etc. The thing is, it’s a formula that works, and Hyeong-Do is just as brooding, handsome and homicidally superhuman as any of his cinematic forebears.

The action is especially strong here, including a wall-scaling, bullet-eluding opening sequence that would make both Jackie Chan and Neo from The Matrix proud. And then there’s that Office Space on PCP moment where our man goes to town on a knife-wielding foe with a rolled up office calendar.

a company man tps reports office space

“If you could get me those TPS reports, that’d be greeeat…”

The production value and cinematography here are certainly not on par with No Tears or Hard Day, which is why I’d say try one of those first (Hard Day is the best of these three, in my opinion). That said, the action is first-rate, the thrills and kills come a mile a minute, and there’s at least a semblance of something to chew on intellectually hereas opposed to No Tears. If, per chance, you viewed Assault on Wall Street (it was bannered on Netflix for awhile) and deemed it at least somewhat worthwhile, Company Man is basically the same movie. But with much better figurative and literal execution.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.7

-Sam Adams

Scream n’ Stream: 11 Netflix Double-Features for Halloween

netflix halloween horror rundown 2015
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It’s that time of the year againa time when Mother Nature sheds her stillborn august growth and icy rains rattle windows in the coal-black night. Swirling winds snake about the skeletal limbs of decaying trees and crunchy auburn leaves turn to pulpy slop underfoot. Mist steals from the quivering forest bracken like an army of tattered ghouls, seeking predatory respite in the warmth of human flesh, and the forlorn laments of the howling departed cast a gray hell across the heavens.

Or perhaps living in Wisconsin and reading too much Cormac McCarthy has finally gotten to me.

The point is that the autumnal hour is nigh to binge on horror flicks (and depraved cinema in general), so I’ve scoured the bowels of Netflix’s streaming catalogue to come up with a gnarly little menu of back-to-back features. Sure, some of them are bigger-name titles you’ve already seen, but if you’re having a horror-a-thon with some folks less acquainted with the genre, a film like Silence of the Lambs is a perfect thematic gateway to something a bit more foreign and bleak, like the Korean revenge-torture fest I Saw the Devil.

So just as you pair your imperial pumpkin ale with a hearty stew, pair these 22 flicks together for one hell of a ravenous All Hallows Eve binge.

Bloodsuckers and the Badasses Who Bludgeon Them
stake land from dusk till dawn damici drinkingWhen George Clooney starred alongside Quentin Tarantino and Harvey Keitel in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), he was nothing more than a hunky TV actor (having spent the three years prior in residence on Friends, Sisters and Bodies of Evidence). Then Seth Gecko came along and fucked shit up with a full-scale vamp massacre at the Titty Twister bar just south of the Texas border. You’ve all seen it, so no need to divulge further. But when TMC and AMC are revisting Halloween 1-7, why not queue up the best action vampire movie ever made? Oh yeah, and Salma Hayek as Santánico Pandemónium… Nuff said.

As an encore, Stake Land is a killer treat for any of your movie-night friends who aren’t as well-versed in indie horror. The great Jim Mickle’s vampire road story plays out like a longer and more fully realized Walking Dead episode. That parallel should make it extremely accessible for any viewer with even the faintest interest in horror, and Nick Damici is just one mean muthafuckin’ vamp slayer. (See him also on Netflix in the werewolf tale Late Phasesnot as good as Stake Land, but totally worthwhile.)

Stake Land
IMDb: 6.5
GRADE: A-

From Dusk Till Dawn
IMDb: 7.3
GRADE: A / A-

Candid Camera Carnage
vhs2 devils pass found footageI think it’s fair to say at this point that “found footage” has undergone a renaissance over the past several years, moving it from schticky, attention-grabbing, Blair Witch piggybacker to a subgenre with considerable merit and at least a few more avenues to explore. A prime example of this is the “Safe Haven” segment in V/H/S/2, arguably the best 40 minutes of “found footage” ever shot. V/H/S/2‘s other four shorts also hold up admirably, and the visual upgrade to HD from the original V/H/S’ shoddy handheld format creates for a much more fully realizedand less nauseatinghorror fest.

I had zero expectations for Devil’s Pass, a film about a documentary crew looking to unearth deathly secrets in Russia’s Ural Mountains. So I was surprisingly pleased with what amounted to essentially the poor-man’s found-footage version of The Descent. Sure, there have been better efforts in the subgenre recently (see: Contracted, Rec, Quarantine), but in terms of what Netflix has to offer, this is a nice diamond in the roughreplete with a healthy mix of gore, “jump scares” and ambitious CGI. (Side note: The Last Podcast on the Left covered the Dylatov Pass Incident rather hilariously, if ye ask me.)

V/H/S/2
IMDb: 6.1
GRADE: B+ / A-

Devil’s Pass
IMDb: 5.7
GRADE: B

Zombie Lockdown
day of the dead la horde zombie moviesIf it weren’t for George Romero, The Walking Deadand cinematic zombie culture as we know itwould probably be operating out of some cutesy, Twilight-style Christian chastity parable, with Selena Gomez and Zac Efron chewing at one another’s undead lips.

Thanks to Romero, we have unadulterated goreand the prototype for the haggard, flesh-hungry walker that gave birth to iterations such as 28 Days Later’s rabid, running walker and Dead Snow‘s militaristic Nazi walkers. While Day of the Dead isn’t Romero’s masterpiece (unfortunately Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead aren’t on Netflix, nor is 2007’s much-slept-on Diary of the Dead), it showcases the type of zombie makeup and special effects that infected the entire genre to present day. Sure, the dialogue and acting can be a bit stilted, but when the gates bust loose and the zombie bunker turns into an all-out war zone, Day of the Dead is just as entertaining as its modern-day counterparts.

If you want more of a no-nonsense zombie thriller full of gore and action that’s less of a nostalgic history lesson, the 2009 French film The Horde hits all the right notes. As I wrote in my original post on The Horde, it’s “basically the perfect film for Walking Dead fans who enjoy that show for the zombie-body-count factor.” (Last Walking Dead comparison today, I promise.) The tale of two warring factions—French cops and French thugs—joining forces to plow down zombies in a high-rise is a simple backdrop for an insane amount of lecherously good carnage. This movie isn’t heady. But never is there a dull moment as the body count piles in ways that makes World War Z look yawn-inducing.

Day of the Dead 
IMDb: 7.2

The Horde
IMDb: 5.9
GRADE: B

Serial Psychos
hannibal silence of the lambs i saw the devilSilence of the Lambs isn’t a horror movie, so why am I recommending it around Halloween, ye ask? For starters, it’s the most fucked up movie ever to win an Oscar for Best Picture (and at its time, arguably the best movie to win the award since The Deer Hunter 13 years prior). But more importantly, Anthony Hopkins’ iconic character of Hannibal Lecter (first introduced on celluloid via Brian Cox in Brian DePalma’s gloriously 1980s-as-fuck Manhunter) is one of the best portrayals of a homicidal psycopath in big-screen history (thus the avalanche of sequels). Further, watching Lecter in all his demonic genius for two hours sets the perfect stage for the chianti I’m pairing with these blood-red fava beans: South Korean director Jee-woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil.

In Devil, we meet Kyung-chul (played by Min-sik Choi of Oldboy fame). Choi, it should be noted, is basically the poster child for the bleak and magnificent South Korean torture-revenge thriller movement that includes such classics as Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy (all on Netflix), The Man from Nowhere (also on Netflix) and The Chaser. As the homicidal Kyung-chul tormentsand is tormented bya young cop to whom the mission is quite personal, Devil unfolds as one of the best dark thrillers from any land made in the past few decades. Psycopaths, cannnibalism and mesmerizing, blood-spattered cinematography—they’re all here. The nonstop madness of this film should also quell the complaints of those who “don’t do subtitles.”

Silence of the Lambs
IMDb: 8.6
GRADE: A

I Saw the Devil
IMDb: 7.8
GRADE: A- / A

Campy Carnage Camp
zombeavers tucker and dale vs evil
If we’re going the campy, comedic route, options abound on Netflix. Both Dead Snow and Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead are damn fun genre flicks, with the former leaning a little more toward horror and the latter a little heavier on self-parody. Housebound and Grabbers are also totally worth a ride, but for a perfect concoction of gore and guffaws, I’m gonna start with  Tucker and Dale vs. Evil and Zombeavers.

Tucker and Dale is pretty much a cult classic at this point. Its tale of two amiable rednecks unwittingly engaging in war with some “dumb college kids” camping in the backwoods is akin to Deliverance and Evil Dead meeting Joe Dirt. I personally liked Tucker and Dale even better than Cabin in the Woods (another film that pokes fun at what happens when dumb college kids go camping), meaning its easily one of my favorite horror comedies of all-time.

As for Zombeavers (also about wilderness-vacationing college kids)… I mean, it’s a movie called fucking Zombeavers. And that’s about as seriously as you should take it. If you come looking for nothing more than redneck jokes, t & a, bad puppet gore and an overload of “beaver” puns, you won’t be let down. This is definitely a movie to watch with a big group of people. My advice: the more booze, the better.

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil
IMDb: 7.6
GRADE: A- / B+

Zombeavers
IMDb: 4.8
GRADE: B / B-

Slashers and Home Invaders
scream_and_you're_next_slasher_movies
You’re Next is arguably the coolest movie on this list. It’s got just about everyone in the Ti West crew: West, Joe Swanberg, Adam Wingard (directing), Simon Barrett, Amy Seimetz, Kate Lyn Sheil, etc. Basically, it’s a cast of creatives who could walk into a coffee shop in Paris in the 1920s and fit in like a black-and-white striped shirt. What I’m getting at is that while I used to despise these hipsters for their mumblecore pretention, West and his counterparts are actually at the forefront of making good, modern horror movies that pay stylish homage to the genre’s past. And You’re Next—A home invasion thriller about an Australian survivalist girl who meets her boyfriend’s parents at the dinner party from hell—is arguably the collective’s best piece of work. (The Sacrament, V/H/S/2 and The Guest are all awesome, all from these folks, and all on Netflix, by the way.)

While there are movies from the late, great Wes Craven I much prefer to Scream (namely The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes and The People Under the Stairs), Scream was his biggest commercial success, far outgrossing A Nightmare on Elm Street. It was also one of those things when I was in junior high where if you were the last kid in class who hadn’t seen Scream, someone was bound to shit in your gym shoes. The movie has obviously spawned a host of horrible parodies and lesser sequels, but at least from the vantage point of a ’90s kid, its a slasher OG, and well, I just can’t really think of any slasher movie on Netflix that pairs as nicely with You’re Next. (Heads up: Scream leaves Netflix streaming on 11/1/15.)

You’re Next
IMDb: 6.5
GRADE: B+ / A-

Scream
IMDb: 7.2

People Said His Brain Was Infected by Devils (Possessed)
taking of deborah logan scream
When I posted my rather comprehensive list of the horror movies to watch on Netflix if you’ve already watched all the best ones, I can say in hindsight that there was one glaring omission: The Canal. Redditors (props) pointed me toward this slow-burn Irish chiller about a film archivist dealing with paranormal home events, and it turned out to be one of the eeriest damn movies I’d seen all year. Like I said, slow, but probably one of the most genuinely frightening movies on this list.

Also full of “jump scares” and a litany of mysterious chills, I was immensely impressed with the found-footage flick The Taking of Deborah Logan, about an Alzheimer’s patient who falls prey to demonic forces. Definitely in my top five as far as found footage goes, and also worth watching simply for one of the most awesome pieces of CGI imagery in any recent horror film.

The Canal
IMDb: 5.9
GRADE: B+

The Taking of Deborah Logan
IMDb: 6.5
GRADE: B+ / A-

Spawn of Satan
rosemary's baby mia farrow starry eyes
If Roman Polanski and R. Kelly have one thing in common, it’s that… they make great art! (Pedo-what? I said “art”…. Art I said!) Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and Frantic were to thrilling and chilling cinema what, say, 12 Play, Double Up and Black Panties were to landscape of modern gangster R&B.

In all seriousness, I’m throwing Rosemary’s Baby on here because a lot of people see it as one of the greatest horror films of all time, and I ain’t arguin’. Even nearly half a century and a few Swedish extraditions later, Polanski’s classic about the seeds sown by a demonic cult still measures up to the genre’s heavyweights.

As for Starry Eyes, I’m including it here mainly because Netflix just stripped us of House of the Devil (shame on you, Netflix). Still, if you’re in the mood for a little bit of Ol’ Beezlebub getting up your knickers, Starry Eyes is a grotesquely creepy flick about a would-be Hollywood starlet and her quest for fame. The parallel drawn between everyone in Hollywood being a fame whore and devil worship is perhaps a little heavy-handed, but give credit to Alex Essoe for one of the best horror performances this side of Essie Davis in Babadook. Put bluntly, this is some sick, twisted shit—and a pretty fun ride for those who can stomach it.

Rosemary’s Baby
IMDb: 8.0

Starry Eyes
IMDb: 6.0
GRADE: B / B-

Tastes Like Chicken (Cannibals)
Robert Carlyle in Ravenous
My favorite thing about Ravenous is the film’s fever-dream atmosphere, created in large part by Daniel Lindholm’s haunting melody that plays as a bloodied Guy Pearce trudges through the snowy Sierra Nevada wilderness. Part Jack London, part Cormac McCarthy and part Cannibal! the Musical, Ravenous’ admixture of existentialist pioneering, survivalist bloodbaths and tongue-in-cheek historical-fiction comedy create for an extremely fun, weird piece of cannibal folklore. And Guy Pearce (The Proposition, Memento), Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting), Neal McDonough (Band of Brothers) and Jeffrey Jones (The Pest) simply could not have been cast better.

If you want to go back-to-back cannibal (coincidentally Jeffrey Dahmer’s favorite coital position) and all you have is Netflix, you’re gonna have to run with We Are What We Are. I say that somewhat disparagingly because yeah, it’s my least favorite movie on this list. The tale of flesh-eating hilljacks preserving an old way of life is as predictable as can be, but… But! It’s directed by the great Jim Mickle (Stake Land, Cold in July), who uses an atmosphere of permanent torrential downpour to tremendous cinematographic effect here. It’s also got side roles from Michael Parks (Tusk, Red State) and Nick Damici (Stake Land, Late Phases), which should pique the interests of any modern horror fan worth their salt.

Ravenous
IMDb: 7.1
GRADE: B+

We Are What We Are
IMDb: 5.8
GRADE: B- / C+

Party in the USA!
american psycho american mary movies
Where so many attempt to carve a cult-classic novel with a maniacal protagonist into a a serviceable film, so few succeed. There are exceptions however, such as Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There’s also Mary Harron’s brilliant adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ apathetically savage tale about vapid consumerism and narcissism. Like Fear and Loathing, American Psycho, the movie, can be watched and quoted ad infinitum without it ever growing tired. And Christian Bale simply embodies Ellis’ character of Patrick Bateman in one of the finest antihero performances of all time. (I’ll let the reader judge if Kevin Spacey really deserved that Oscar for American Beauty in 2000).
American Psycho Patrick Bateman business card gifWhile reveling in an old favorite is always fun, if you’re a horror fan and haven’t seen American Mary, tripping you are. Katherine Isabelle’s role as a med student who turns to the blackmarket of body modification (all while taking out her vengeance on a seedy underworld of the upper-crust) is arguably the sexiest lead horror performance since… I’m gonna go with Eliza Dushku in Wrong Turn (great movie, by the way). Like American Psycho, Mary is also savagely and stylistically delightful, finding humor in the bleakest blood-spattered corners of our human fabric.

American Psycho
IMDb: 7.6
GRADE: A

American Mary
IMDb: 6.3
GRADE: B / B+

Creature Features
open water movie sharks blanchard ryan
I include Open Water on this list not because it’s horror, but because I’ve never been more genuinely terrified watching a movie on the big screen than I was when I saw this in theaters a decade ago. Through the guerilla lens of shooting at night in actual shark-infested Bahamian waters, director Chris Kentis creates serves up arguably the most viscerally infectious shark movie ever made. It’s not about big fins knifing a b-line through the water at unsuspecting maidens; Open Water‘s dread lies in nibbles on the feet, hazy outlines on an eye-level horizon of eternally foreign sea, and small splashes and flickering tails that all signal the most mindfuckingly awful death this side of what went down in George Sluizer’s 1988 Dutch thriller Spoorloos. This deserves a big screen, pitch black and utter silence.

Want more creature? The Host is another one I was lucky enough to catch on the big screen. I remember this vividly (despite being stoned out of my mind) simply because it had the best creature CGI I’d ever seen. As a mutant river monster wreaks havoc on Seoul, a family struggles with all the hallmarks of South Korean cinema—bitter anguish, bowel-churning pain and a quest for revenge. The story meanders a little toward the end, but it’s worth it for the creature effects alone (which hold up very nicely 15 years later, stoned or not).

Open Water
IMDb: 5.7

The Host
IMDb: 7.0

-Sam Adams

NOTE: I left several films ungraded simply because they weren’t fresh enough in my memory to be subject to such biased scrutiny.

NOTE 2: IMDb ratings for horror movies are criminally low. If it’s above a 6 and isn’t a critical darling (Babadook, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) or a blockbuster (Oculus), it will most likely be better than 90 percent of the movies nominated for an Oscar this year.

Brazilian Bleak: Wolf at the Door on Netflix Instant

wolf at the door Milhem Cortaz Leandra Leal
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If Prisoners met Little Children and were lured into a back alley by Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, you might have a rough idea of what the Brazilian abduction film Wolf at the Door is about. But even such a miasma of grim, adulterous, child-snatching malevolence would fall short of matching the depravity that exists in director Fernando Coimbra’s 2013 suspense tale.

While this film is not for the faint of heart, it’s also a bit of a departure from the material I typically recommend on this blog. It’s slow-burn suspense at its best—chiller, not thriller; horrific, not horror. It’s also a reminder of how many fantastic, bleak movies are coming out of South America (and often landing on Netflix) without ever getting much of any widespread appreciation (see: Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, Pescador, Carlos).

Essentially, where slum tales like Amores Perros and City of God left off, a new generation of excellently devastating filmmaking is taking place south of the border. So without further ado, here’s the rundown on another black diamond in the rough I stumbled upon deep in the ether of Netflix’s foreign catalogue:

Wolf at the Door
a-wolf-at-the-door-movie-leandra-leal-child
The film begins with a panning shot set to creepy synth music that leads us to the door of a preschool. It’s here that a mother learns her daughter was taken by an unknown woman posing as a family friend. The investigation for the girl is Wolf at the Door‘s narrative premise, but the story unwinds in a much more elegant and mysterious structural fashion than your typical whodunit thriller.

As police investigate, we meet our key players: Sylvia, the slightly clueless neglected wife; Bernardo, the creepy father who’s a slimy John Turturro lookalike; and Rosa, the psychopathic, attractive young mistress who for some unexplained reason is stalkerishly drawn to a slimy John Turturro lookalike.

john turturro Milhem Cortaz lookalike

“Ladies love the creepy teeth, bro.”

What unfolds is a series of Rashomon-style flashback scenarios leading us to the kidnapping and its underlying motivations. The cards are laid out slowly, but the chaos and unsettling psyches of two of the main characters only plummet to grotesquely deeper realms as we get to know them.

Wolf at The Door accomplishes the task of seamlessly humanizing and then dehumanizing what on the surface would seem to be very ordinary people. It also excels as a captivating movie that runs for 101 minutes without really introducing a single likable protagonist.

landra leal sexy wolf at the door

Hell hath no fury like a psychopathic mistress scorned…

Every detail here counts, so I won’t go much further. But if you liked Prisoners (one of my favorite dark thrillers of the past few years) and don’t mind a slower-paced, less Hollywood-friendly suspense flick, Wolf at the Door is up there with other grim, foreign-language abduction tales like Big Bad Wolves and The Silence (both on Netflix, by the way). The performances by Milhelm Cortaz (Bernardo) and Leandra Leal (Rosa) are also insanely good, with both actors exhibiting a diabolical range that catapults an otherwise-solid suspense tale into an unforgettable prism of human savagery.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.5

-Sam Adams