The Fincherian Copycat: Netflix’s Mindhunter channels all things Zodiac

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For fans of serial killer cinema rooted in true crime, it’s not much of a stretch to say that David Fincher’s Zodiac is the modern-day gold standard. Fincher, a pioneer of both music videos and digital filmmaking, crafted scenes, moments, and frames that were at once sublimely enchanting and forebodingly ominousconvincingly turning the innocence of the freewheeling late-60s Bay Area into the tapestry of murderous havoc and foggy mystery that the film’s namesake created during his bloody reign of terror.

And while I thought Fincher’s Gone Girl was massively less inventive from a narrative standpoint (blame author Gillian Flynn), it and Zodiac shared an undeniably singular aesthetic. If I were a snooty film professor, I’d probably call this… “Fincherian.” This comes through in the director’s insistence on painstakingly calculated camerawork, trademarked by sweeping, panningand often surreallow-light shots that makes many of his frames look like Gregory Crewdson stills.

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A photograph by Gregory Crewdson… or what it feels like to be in David Fincher’s mind.

Fincher’s encyclopedic rock knowledge, used as pointedly and effectively as audiovisual masters like Tarantino and Scorsese, also doesn’t hurt (example A: The “Hurdy Gurdy Man” scene).

OK, that’s enough Fincher ass-kissing (I’ll point out that while he helmed Se7en, Fight Club and Panic Room, Zodiac is his only film I’m really nuts about).

The point is that, in many ways, Netflix’s Mindhunter feels like a follow-up to Fincher’s 2007 mystery-thriller surrounding the Zodiac Killer. This is apparent even in its opening scenebefore the credits introduce, you guessed it, Fincher as an executive producer (he’s also a director of four of the first season’s 10 episodes).

And much like the point-by-point casefile and eyewitness bent toward true-crime upon which Zodiac was founded, Mindhunter also does its homework. Its account of the onset of criminal psychological profiling by John E. Douglas, Robert Ressler and Dr. Ann Burgess (with pseudonyms in the show), plays closely to the script of Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, co-authored by Douglas.

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Speaking of great true crime cinema, check out Michael Rooker as Henry Lee Lucas in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (Amazon Prime)

After leaving off on one of the most baffling and psychologically fascinating serial murder cases in history, it’s fitting that Fincher would pick up a story that, circuitously, started where Zodiac left off (i.e., when you can’t track down a serial killer, how do you track down his mind?). The fact that Mindhunter is adapted by Joe Penhall lends the project even more grim potential (Penhall adapted Cormac McCarthy’s The Road).

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Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road: a feel-good father-and-son tale about foraging for treasures in the woods.

So yes, Mindhunter has a decidedly “Fincherian” aspect to it that should appeal to fans of Zodiac. That said, I’m not hailing it as the second-coming.

But before I get into criticism, I should probably give a little premise-oriented background.

Jonathan Groff plays the lead as Holden Ford (AKA John E. Douglas), a bright-eyed upstart federale who gets taken out of the field after semi-successfully dealing with a bloody hostage negotatiation. Shortly after, he meets up with a grizzled veteran Behavioral Science agent named Bill Tench (Holt McCallany as Robert Ressler, in the series’ most dynamic and enjoyable performance). As they go around the country lecturing small-town cops on FBI techniques, Ford makes it clear that he has much loftier ambitions than status-quo educational seminars. He’s a guy who wants to change things. And he won’t be stopped.

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Groff and McCallany: The He-Men G-Men.

Ford starts by visiting maximum security prisons to interview serial killers, something Tench begrudgingly becomes an accomplice in. As their insights into the most warped criminal minds start developing patterns that lead to results in the field, they’re joined by an East Coast professor, Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv playing Ann Burgess), who believes in the scope of Ford’s organically manifesting mission from God.

The series is at its best when it depicts conversation with deviant psycho killers like Edmund Kemper (the scene-stealing Cameron Britton, a seemingly gentle giant who also brutally killed his family and several young women) and Richard Speck. A twisted dynamic that begins to shine light on Douglas and Ressler’s revolutionary work comes through here, likely enhanced by parts of this dialogue coming from actual recorded conversations with the real-life killers.

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Cameron “Fat Paul Dano” Britton slays as Big Ed Kemper.

The subsequent application of Ford and Tench’s findings to cases involving sadistic murderers gives an already taught series that edge-of-your-seat thriller appeal. Simply put, it’s where the series bridges its procedural narrative with the reason we go the movies. And it works flawlessly.

Unfortunately, Mindhunter loses traction as it veers away from being a traveling case study on infamous serial killers and goes more into petty, bureaucratic FBI conflicts and relationship subplots. While the leads are very well fleshed-out characters as one would expect from Fincher, rigidly stereotyped performances from a bureaucratic FBI chief and a bumbling, deceitful assistant agent sidetrack the show into dull conflict, seemingly designed for the sole purpose of keeping our ace agents in a David vs. Goliath pigeonhole. And then Wendy Carr spends half an episode trying make friends with a stray cat. And episode 8in which a pervy high school teacher gets in trouble and Ford has girlfriend problemsis 50 utterly wasted minutes.

One of Season One’s most interesting threads is found in many of its episodes opening with mysterious glimpses into the life of a man who looks to be Season Two’s next villain. Why not flesh that out a little more to replace the minutiae?

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Jonathan Groff: Just your run-of-the-mill FBI agent working to crack the  D.E.N.N.I.S. System.

As for Groff’s lead turn, I’d say the jury’s still out. While my wife informs me he got famous by simulating on-stage sex with Lea Michele on Broadway and starring in HBO’s Looking, I’m fairly sure Groff is actually a rebranded Glenn Howerton (Dennis Reynolds from Always Sunny). Either way, I can’t figure out if he’s trying to play a sociopath interviewing psychopaths, or if sociopathy is just an affectation of Groff/Howerton. His character and performance are just a bit stilted. But perhaps the series is going somewhere with that.

Mindhunter clearly has some of the better hallmarks of Fincher’s workcinematographically, audiovisually, in terms of character development, and in its demented, mystifying intrigue. It just needs to make up its mind where it wants to go. Hopefully, Season Two will remedy that. In the meantime, it’s definitely a “must-watch” for Zodiac and Fincher fans.

IMDb: 8.9
GRADE: B+

-Sam Adams

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Psycho killer, ¿que es eso?: Sleep Tight is a Spanish bedtime story from hell

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Sleep Tight (Mientras Duermes) tells the story of a chronically miserable psychopath whose only cure for mitigating his unhappiness is inflicting despair upon the lives of others. After watching this film, I began to wonder if its director didn’t have a similar predilection toward his audience.

Said director is Jaume Balagueró, the man behind one of the all-time best found-footage horror films (REC) and its sequel, REC2. Here, Balagueró has headier ambitions than a straight-up horror-and-gore frightfest. While billed as a horror-thriller, Sleep Tight is more an ominous narrative wound around one man’s psychopathic existentialism and moral degeneration.

Still, situational hallmarks of the REC franchise are apparent, as the near entirety of this film takes place within the confines of a live-in hotel building (with all other scenes taking place in other indoor locations). The intention here seems to be one of focusing on an interior life and sense of unforgiving claustrophobia. Or perhaps Balagueró is just cinematically agoraphobic.

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In Rec, Manuela Velasco plays a reporter working on a series called “While You’re Sleeping”—further proof that Jaume Balagueró is fixated on fucked up shit happening … while people are sleeping.

As Sleep Tight opens, we are introduced via monologue to César, a balding, fortysomething manager of a live-in hotel who seems to be teetering on the brink of suicide. “Happy. That’s exactly my problem. That I can’t be happy. I never have been. Not even when good things happen to me. You can’t imagine what it means to wake up every day with no motivation. The effort it takes me to find a reason, just one, to not let it all go to hell. And believe me, I give it my best shot. My very best. Every day of my life.”

Sounds like ol’ Cesar could just use a lounge chair, a shrink and a healthy dose of Prozac, no? But as the film unwinds, it gets clear the issue is more psycopathy rooted in sadism than a simple case of the blues.

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“You mad, bro?”

Cesar’s descent into the treachery that fortifies his emptiness begins somewhat innocently. He feeds a neighbor-lady’s dog food that makes it sick (psychos always gotta start with the fuckin’ pooches…). He frames a co-worker he dislikes to get him fired. And he goes to his mute, invalid mother for confessionals about his dastardly deeds, just to revel in the horror on her face.

But these are all just side items on Cesar’s main menuone which involves dismantling the psyche of Clara (Marta Etura), a beautiful, happy-go-lucky female resident at his hotel. To avoid giving anything away, let’s just say that he unleashes a series of attacks on her that channel the Plagues of Egypt. Chloroform is also involved.

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Marta Etura as Clara, who has very little chance of sleeping tight.

Sleep Tight is a tightly wound exercise in psychological horror and tension. It’s well-paced, genuinely distressing, and includes a terrific performance from Spanish actor Luis Tosar as the demented Cesar. Still, something is off here.

My main issue with the film is that, as creepily compelling as Tosar’s performance is, Cesar’s character lacks a backstory. Perhaps the main point of understanding psychopathy is that it lacks rationale. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for Balagueró and screenwriter Alberto Marini not at least attempting to delve further into the enigma that is Cesar. Apart from the fact that he’s unhappy, sadistic and gets fired often, we don’t really know much about the guy. In other words, he’s a pretty unremarkable, garden-variety psychopath.

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“I don’t normally torment tenants, but when I do… eh, it’s actually pretty run-of-the-mill.”

There’s also a stylistic issue that seems a bit tone-deaf here. The heinousness of Cesar is celebrated by a soundtrack that turns to upbeat gleefulness when he’s at his worst. It’s unclear if Balagueró is trying to vilify his audience for their voyeurism a la Funny Games, or if it’s simply dark humor poorly misplaced.

I should also note that unless you’re fluent in Spanish, the dialogue can be a bit hard to follow at times, as subtitle work here lags several seconds behind (at least on Amazon at the time of this post). Not a fault of the film, obviouslyjust a heads-up for the viewer.

Complaints aside, Sleep Tight definitely does the trick if you’re in for a bleak, suspense psychopath flick. And its twist-ending is demonically pitch perfect. The main letdown is that much like its main character, Sleep Tight is just a few creative strokes away from completion.

IMDb: 7.2
GRADE: B / B+

-Sam Adams

Blue Detective: “Trapped” avalanches Iceland to the forefront of Nordic Noir

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The mining is in high-gear in the Nordic Noir landscape. Where Fortitude broke the ice and tunneled into its festering recesses, creator Baltasar Kormákur’s Trapped thrives on creating its own living hell within the crevasse of an isolated Northern Icelandic port village. It’s in this frigid microcosm that a brilliantly acted, tense and bleak murder-mystery unfoldsfinally giving the quiet island-country a voice amongst one of the most alluring bleak film movements on the planet.

To be fair, the sublime, rolling glacial terrain of Iceland has long graced our screens. But, as location spots, its beauty lent itself more as a geographical ghostwriter to foreign and fictional lands. Consider the visually arresting opening sequence of Prometheus, or John Snow being informed of his limited mental acumen by his beloved, robin-haired Wildling. These scenes took place in Iceland, but the eventsas we know them cinematicallyreally unfolded in Planet LV-223, and “North of the Wall.” Heck, even the aforementioned Fortitude was filmed mainly in Iceland, even though the show is supposed to take place in Norway.

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Fortitude‘s phenomenal first season included one of the best finales ever seen in a detective show. Its second season was serviceable.

Point being, Trapped is one of the first pieces of crime cinema to reach global audiences with a certified Icelandic export stamp on it. But more on that laterlet’s get to the plot.

Trapped begins with fire and iceits opening scene depicting a flashback of a young girl burned alive, followed shortly thereafter by a headless, limbless corpse being pulled out of the freezing ocean by stunned fishermen.

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Lend me a hand…

As soon as local police start investigating the cadaver, a massive storm hits and the tiny port town is snowed in. This prevents the swinging-dick, bigwig police from Reykjavík to offer their assistance. It also becomes clear that the foul play is linked to a massive ferry that’s just docked. The ship’s shady captain, a corrupt mayor, a fishy hotelier and a slimy underling politico are just a few in the Clue-like assemblage of suspects that three small town cops must sift through to put the pieces together.

The most complex performance comes from the American-born veteran actor Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (recognizable from from his role as the grimy, prophetic meth dealer who delivered one of the baddest pieces of dialogue in one of True Detective Se1’s best scenes). His detective Andri plays the lead as a man with the look and softness of an oversized teddy bear, but also the fierce, hunting instincts of a polar bear.

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“You got a demon, little man. And I don’t like your face. It makes me wanna do things to it.”

Other compelling performances come from Andri’s estranged wife Agnes (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir), visiting from out-of-town with a new boytoy in tow. As the storm shutters everyone in, Andri’s condition becomes even more pitiable as he endures his wife sharing a bedroom with boytoy down the hall from the couch he crashes on.

As the father of the incinerated girl, Pálmi Gestsson also turns in a complex performance as a man whose very existence is a rumination on grief and vengeance. In a show that doesn’t leave loose ends, his story comes full circle through a wicked stroke of poetic justice that ends in Gestsson delivering one of Trapped’s most profound and poignant scenes.

One last performance worth mentioning is that of Baltasar Breki Samper as Hjörturthe mysterious, scar-faced boyfriend of the dead girl. As he broodingly mopes and dopes around the little village in an oversized hoodie, Hjörtur becomes both in character traits and appearance the tortured embodiment of an Icelandic Jesse Pinkman.

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      “Life’s a bitch…”                                 “Yeah, bitch.”

Now back to the interplay between Trapped and its country of origin. Despite that Trapped is Iceland’s highest-budgeted series on record, it doesn’t go to lengths to boast about, or showcase, a sense of geographical or national identity. The bulk of the series is filmed in the small, Northern port city of Siglufjörðura place removed from the tourism bustle that has hit the nation by storm in recent years. And while a small amount of the show’s activity takes place in Reykjavík, Trapped isn’t concerned with providing a cinematographic tour of its capitol. A brief cityscape shot is providedseemingly for no other purpose than narrative clarity.

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Iceland’s stunning Blue Lagoon—a tourist draw Trapped could give two shits about.

This non-geo-centric approach is a departure from great crime shows like Breaking Bad, of which Vince Gilligan described its Albuqerque location as a “central character.” It’s also fitting, in multiple ways. It would seem counterintuitive to provide lingering, aerials of Iceland’s magnificently sublime glaciers and sprawling wilderness expanse in a show centered around a concept of claustrophobia. As a straightforward, bleak and rugged crime drama, Trapped is also under no obligation to kowtow to atmospheric localism to deliver the visceral gut punch it provides. And frankly, it doesn’t need it. This minimalist approach simply doesn’t hold the aesthetic appeal of similar dark, detective shows like Fortitude or The Killing.

That’s not to say that the cinematography is inept or ineffective in capturing a distinct feeling of placequite the opposite. It just so happens thatoutside of the show’s Icelandic dialogue and localeit could most likely have the same effect were it filmed in Alaska, the Antarctic, etc. Trapped is undoubtedly an Icelandic show. It’s just not unabashedly one.Ólafur Darri Ólafsson the shiningAs for narrative drawbacks, Trapped’s only one is that with such a large cast of characters and such a sprawling murder mystery, it can be difficult to remember who some of the side characters are when they’re mentioned in conjunction with investigations. The show could be difficult to follow if one didn’t simply binge itnot that each character doesn’t have a meaningful role to play, or that plotlines are overly complex. Someone involved in the production may have caught on to this, as each episode is prefaced by an appreciatvely throrough recap of events (necessary even when bingeing).

All said, Trapped is Nordic Noir at its bestthanks in large part to Ólafsfon’s standout performance, a well-crafted and resolved narrative, and an introspective ability to work within the emotional expanse of its geographically limited confines.

GRADE: A / A-
IMDb: 8.2

-Sam Adams

Dane Killers: The Department Q Saga on Netflix Instant

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Despite appearances, this movie does the opposite of suck.

In crossing language-barriers, film titles also often end up crossing eyes. It’s a movie politics endemic that has very little to do with good screenwriters and very much to do with cheap industry suits nickel-and-diming accomplished translators. After all, who would have thought that something called Elite Squad: The Enemy Within would be one of the best prison thrillers of all time? Or that a film called Jack Strongmarketed to look like a Sunday night CBS Jason Bourne spinoff starring Patrick Wilsonwould end up being a heady espionage thriller meriting mention in the same breath as The Debt or Citizen X?

I kept this in mind when I saw that a film called Department Q: The Keeper of Lost Causesburied deep in some subgenre of foreign crime flicks on Netflixhad a 7.2 on IMDb. Shit, I thought, I’ll fox with that…

After all, the last Danish crime trilogy I watched was Nicolas Winding Refn’s dazzlingly grim, career-launching Pusher Trilogya modern masterpiece in my book. (By the end of this post, you’ll see why I feel compelled to bestow Department Q with the illustrious designation of “second-best Danish crime trilogy ever.”)

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You’re broke, eh? I been shaking two nickels together for a month, trying to get them to mate.”

Actually, I should mention that “saga” is more apt than “trilogy,” as Department Q films continue to be made at a pace that’s setting up writer Jussi Adler-Olsen to look like a modern-day Danish Raymond Chandler.

Before I launch into a mostly spoiler-free dissection of all three films currently comprising the Q series, I’ll make the blanket statement that it’s essentially a very goodalbeit slightly slower and more formulaicmashup of True Detective SE1, The Dragon Tattoo Trilogy and The Killing. If that interests you, please do read on.

Department Q: The Keeper of Lost Causes
Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Carl Morck in Department Q
Speaking of The KillingDepartment Q lead Nikolaj Lie Kaas had a season-long role on Forbrydelsen, which, if the Danish hire good translators, might mean “The Killing”—a show that inspired the notorious four-season AMC show… The Killing. Which was a really weird series. Which I liked. Which was disjointed. Which went from lauded HBO series status to prolonged dud. And then for those of us who hung on for season three, arguably a damn good show again. (Featuring one of my favorite detective characters of all time, the great pre-RoboCop Joel Kinnaman as Holder.)
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But back to the first installation in the Q saga. We’re introduced to detective Carl Morck, a brooding, spiteful alcoholic who seems to be severely deficient in the department of fucks given. Like any troubled movie cop, Morck’s predicament is that he once had a good life, and now doesn’t. Thus the brooding. Oh yeah, and he fucked up a raid and got some of his guys killed. This gives more reason for brooding.

Instead of processing his guilt/grief, Morck comes back to work too early. Because that’s what brooding movie cops do. So his boss assigns him to a cold case detail operating out of a dank basement. There, he meets his sidekick Assad, the yin to his yangan upbeat, devout Muslim cop who blares bass-heavy rap and tells jokes. Morck doesn’t like jokes.

Their entry case appears at first glance to be an open-and-shut suicide involving a young woman who jumped off a ferry. But as Morck digs deeper, it’s clear that something more sinister than suicide may be at play here. The narrative unravels by interspersing flashback sequences of the woman’s life with developments in the present investigation.

A bleak road of torture, revenge and redemption awaits. While this film may be as formulaic as most adapted detective novels, it goes to some pretty twisted places, and its got a helluva lot more edge than your run-of-the-mill private-dick flick. With great performances to boot, this is some damned good, new-fashioned  murder mystery cinema.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.2

Department Q: The Absent One
Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Carl Morck in Department Q: The Absent One
In the second installment of Department Q, our men Assad and Danish McNulty are back at it, scowering cold case files in their grungy basement outpost. Of course by the time we revisit them, they’ve outworn their hero status and are once again the conspiculously eyed black sheep of the force. They also have a new wide-eyed, perky assistant who proves to be more adept than the ever-skeptical Morck could imagine. And to give our crestfallen protaginist an injection of much-needed humanity, Morck adopts a station house cat whose owner was murdered.

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Remember when John Turturro adopted the cat in The Night Of? Yeah, that’s like a thing in bleak crime cinema. Character development or something…


The case at hand here is a double-murder that took place decades ago at a posh boarding school called Griffendorf. As in all Q films, we’re treated to a healthy dose of murder flashbacks. These ones involve a band of torture-obsessed jocks, who in their blue-eyed, blonde-haired uniformity resemble some Danish offshoot of the Hitler youth. The Griffendorf torture squad leader, Ditlev Pram, comes off as a rapey Draco Malfoy, with his manic, obsessed lover playing the part of Hermioneif Hermione were more like Karla Hamulka. (Sidennote: Despite being easily accessible on Netflix, you really don’t need to watch Karla.)

Laura Prepon playing real-life Canadian murder assistant Karla Hamulka is kind of like if Jennifer Love Hewitt were cast as Aileen Wuornos in Monster.

Laura Prepon playing real-life Canadian murder assistant Karla Hamulka in Karla, AKA what Monster would have been like if Jennifer Love Hewitt had played Aileen Wuornos.

Modern-day Ditlev is a crime boss type, and his menacing portrayal by Pilou Asbæk gives us arguably the most fleshed-out villain in the entire Q series.

Again, we’re treated to a host of strong performances and a multilayered murder-mystery shot mainly in the effectively chilling gloom and doom of a Danish countryside manor. My only complaint here is that Absent One‘s conclusion is arguably a bit less epic than that of the other two Q films.

GRADE: B+ / B
IMDb: 7.1

Department Q: A Conspiracy of Faith
Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Carl Morck in Department Q: A Conspiracy of Faith

Where the second installment provided us with the basic element of a tautif not slighlty predictable, cookie-cuttermurder mystery, the third plunges more into True Detective terrain. Morck and Assad trade religious theology tinged with bleak existentialism while outposted in their squad car.

This transpires whilst a demonic serial killer builds his own Carcosa and kills with unstoppable fury, as if divined by the hand of the dark lord. As in True Detective SE1, Conspiracy of Faith rides the current of a heavy theological battle between the forces of light and dark. While none of this nears the heights of that seminal piece of television, “Q3” is a smarter, more sinister crime story with higher stakes than its predecessors. As such, it also begins to visit the guarded dimensions of Morck’s tortured soul.
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The finale doesn’t exactly shed the die-cast of formulaic predictability that taints the Q series and makes it a slighlty inferior product to, say, the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. Still, the meditative aspects of this film added to the enticing perpetual gloom that shrouds the series make it highly watchable fare for fans of bleak crime-mystery cinema. 

A cast of recognizable Norwegian actors includes Pål Sverre Hagen (the uber-baddie drug kingpin from In Order of Disappearance, playing his demonic role just a bit less hyperbolically here) and Jakob Oftebro (When Animals Dream, In Order of Disappearance, Lilyhammer).

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.0

In the end, two main things strike me about why the DQ series is so enjoyable. First, it fills a cinematic flat circle: It has much of the entertainment value of True Detective, but without making viewers feel like they need to write a thesis about the damn thing. Conversely, it’s heady enough to not leave that film of time-wasted disgust on my conscience that happens when I sit through two hours of SVU

The other quality about these films that works to their favor is, I must admit, the same thing I’ve been bitching about for most of this post: a formula. While that formula may not include meaningful character development, it does deliver the same admirable constants: Two entertaining movie detectives, great ensemble casts, memorable depictions of evil, and the same sublime cinematic lens that made The Killing‘s bleak scenery and atmosphere one of its most memorable characters. So yeah, I recommend that you fox with it.

-Sam Adams

A Georgian Film: Landmine Goes Click (on Amazon Prime)

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With a premise that might as well be an interwoven riff on Funny Games, Deliverance and I Spit on Your Grave, director Levan Bakhia’s Landmine Goes Click is probably the most disturbing thing I’ve watched since the notorious A Serbian Film. The story starts innocently enough, with a guy leaving his fiance and best friend standing on a live landmine in the middle of the European Georgian wilderness. That’s the innocent partleaving your friend and future wife to get blown to smithereens over an infidelity.

What devolves next is not for the faint of heart. Actually, I’m not sure who it’s for, or if I should even be recommending it on this blog. Which is why I bring up Funny Games, a movie I loathed watching but one that does pose the important question of why our society gets off on cinematic sadism. Or as Jamie Dornan put it in one of The Fall’s more memorable lines (before the series took a horse tranquilizer in Season 3), “Why the fuck are you watching this? You sick shit. What the fuck is wrong with you?”

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Why yes, Jamie Dornan did in fact get the role of a charming sexual sadist in Fifty Shades of Grey by playing a psycho-sexual sadist serial killer in The Fall. Gotta love Hollywood…

Indeed, that question begs answering in Landmine. One could argue that once this backwoods horror-show of rape, murder and torturous brutality comes to a close, there is a smidgen of moral resolution. But that might be a stretch.

All disclaimers aside, Landmine Goes Click is an expertly paced horror thriller that’s as evocative in its “revenge porn” as some of the most twisted major cinema to come out of the ’70s (I Spit on Your Grave, The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes). And it’s hard not to admire the all-out psychologically warped performances of Sterling Knight and Kote Tolordava as a Yank and Georgian in a cat-and-mouse game of mortal combat.

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Georgian actor Kote Tolordava (left) died shortly before the release of Landmine Goes Click in 2015.

As in Funny Games, some of Bakhia’s scenes do linger to a point of near-unwatchable unease. So don’t say I didn’t warn you. But if you can handle A Serbian Film, you won’t have any problems getting through this. You didn’t come to this website to read about Twilight, right?

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.2

-Sam Adams

Scream n’ Stream 2016: Five Netflix Double-Features for Halloween

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Before we get started, I need to air a grievance: Netflix really dropped the ball on modern horror this year. While Amazon Prime was adding instant classics like The Witch and Bone Tomahawk (and other really good stuff like Afflicted, Spring and Open Grave), Netflix basically added a few old classics, dropped half of the best horror in its catalogue, and then called it a day. Sure, there have been a couple bright spots in between (see: The Hallow, Hush, The Invitation), but it’s been a pretty disappointing year in blood spatter for the world’s most accessible and oft-used streaming service.

If you need further proof (as well as more recs beyond the 10 or so on this list) check out last year’s Scream n’ Stream post: 12 of those 22 flicks are gone. The good news is that Amazon Prime has been picking up a lot of the great stuff that Netflix dumped. If you are fortunate enough to have access to the Big 4 streaming services (including HBOGo and Hulu), check out this fantastic Halloween streaming calendar a blogger on Reddit put together.

All said, the pickins were slim this year when it came to Netflix. Especially as I didn’t want to include fare that everyone has already seen (see: The Babadook, Jaws, Children of the Corn, Hellraiserwhich are all on there). Don’t worry though, I scowered the bowels and came up with a handful of thematically connected back-to-back features that should easily cover you this Halloween weekend.

So without further adieu, here’s this year’s witches brew…

Charlie’s Demons (Charlie Brooker horror)
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For fans of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set is a stellar addition to the Netflix canon. It has all the wry, fatalistic wit and undertones of the hit series, but caters more directly to a horror audience. It’s also a great chance to see Brooker’s hellbent mind working in its primal infancy, shortly before Black Mirror made him a Lovecraft-level household name. I think the closest comparison here would be Zack Snyder’s fantastic Dawn of the Dead remake, as Dead Set revels in both the bloodlust of vicious, capable zombies while at the same time staying fiendishly tongue-in-cheek. It’s also a fun look at the early careers of future crime-series faces like Riz Ahmed (The Night Of), Warren Brown (Luther) and Andy Nyman (Peaky Blinders). Beyond that it’s just two and a half hours of viscerally engaging zombie goodness.

While I can’t say Playtest is my favorite episode from Black Mirror Season 3, it’s definitely not the worst. And in my humble opinion, an average episode of BM is better than a great episode of just about anything else on TV. Add the fact that it’s one of the few episodes in which BM ventures into the terrain of horror (the show is often horrific and bleak, but soul-crushing depression does not exactly a horror show make), and I’m even more hooked. This one features an American bro backpacking through Europe, only to meet a hot gamer chick on one of his last days in the UK. Strapped for cash, she directs him to a temp job that offers big cash to test a new VR videogame. A drive to an eerie mansion in the woods takes our man to a gaming experience borne straight out of hell. I will say that the lead is extremely fucking annoying, but some superb CGI and one mind-bending skullfuck of a narrative make this some damn good Halloween viewing. Playtest is also probably the greatest cinematic reminder ever of why sometimes you should just pick up the phone and call mom.

Dead Set
IMDb: 7.8
GRADE: B+

Playtest
IMDb: 8.4
GRADE: B+

Presence in the Precinct House
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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.

I’ll be frank: Baskinwhich pits a group of Turkish cops against a netherworld of nightmarish evil in an abandoned precinct househas very little in the way of a linear narrative or plot resolution. Trying to make sense of this movie is an exercise in futility, because the movie itself seems to have no interest in logic. All that said, the nightmarish visuals, incredible makeup and creative mindfuckery put this one in an otherworldly dream realm from hellkind of like Hellraiser. This is the kind of horror flick I’d recommend if you either, a.) smoke the ganj, or b.) are stuck indoors this Halloween with a delirious headcold and are ingesting large amounts of cough syrup. It’s just a very strange movie with very strange visuals, and if you attempt to experience it more as a ride than as a plot-driven piece, there’s a lot of fun to be had here.

Last Shift
GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 5.7

Baskin
GRADE: B-
IMDb: 5.7

Damsels in Digital Distress
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I know “found footage” is a pretty damn taboo subject among some horror fans, but between V/H/S/2, Afflicted, The Taking of Deborah Logan and a few others, I’ve been warming up to it over the past few years. The Den’s spin on the subgenre comes in the form of a webcam junkie (Melanie Papalia) who’s just received a university grant to do a study on a Facebook-meets-Skype web-chatting site called The Den (sorry, I’m too much of a luddite for a more specific comparison).

Her interactions with random strangers start innocently enough. Sure, there’s some pervs swinging their dicks around on the live site, but she also has some “meaningful interactions.” As she builds her data pool, an anonymous user starts sharing snuff films with her and hacking into her account. From here, her virtual reality and personal life merge as a living hell. There’s some corny acting and the typical horror cliche of inept authorities, but overall The Den brings a refreshing twist to the found-footage wave. And unlike many films in the subgenre and their supernaturally enigmatic endings, here we get some brutally chilling resolution.

Am I reaching to include Hush in a cyber-horror theme? Maybe. But a lot of this moviebased on a deaf woman dealing with a home invasion out in the woodsdeals with our heroine doing everything she can to save herself via the powers of the iPhone. It’s also one of the best new horror movies Netflix added this year. It’s also a solid slasher flick in a genre that has seen a steep fall-off in production, what with every horror movie these days about a talking doll or haunted house. Netflix horror regulars will likely have seen this. The rest of the world probably hasn’ta good enough reason for me to queue it up when folks are over this All Hallow’s Eve.

Sidenote: If you’re digging this cyber vibe, check out Black Mirror’s Shut Up and Dance—not horror, but arguably the best episode of Season 3.

The Den
GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.1

Hush
GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.6

50 Shades of Gangrene (Irish horror)
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When I put together a list of some of best lesser-known modern horror flicks on Netflix, 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. 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.

This familiar narrative 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.

As for The Hallow, it embraces traditional Irish folklore of banshees, faeries and evil bog creatures in what amounts to another surprisingly good slept-on, b-horror effort out of the Emerald Isle. Premise: An environmental conservationist moves his wife and newborn into a dusty, old brick mansion in the middle of the woods. Locals eye the newcomer with suspicion, warning him of ominous forces about the titular “hallow,” which he of course pays no heed to. One of the film’s strongest assets is how its cinematography plays off of the haunting Irish countryside, creating for an atmosphere of eerie, mystical gloom. There’s also some very strong acting, and not just via protagonist Joseph Mawle (whose lupine eyebrows alone may have you wetting your knickers). With a cast including Michael McElhatton (AKA Roose Bolton from Game of Thrones) and Michael Smiley (Kill List, Black Mirror, A Field in England) such catchphrases as, “This isn’t Londonthings here go bump in the night,” take on an air of menace that are as chilling as a midnight wade through a murky bog.

The Canal
GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 5.9

The Hallow
GRADE: B
IMDb: 5.7

Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid!
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Q: You know why no one ever makes Jonestown jokes?
A: The punch lines are too long…

OK, OK. Let me tell you why you should watch The Sacrament, a very thinly veiled “found-footage” recount of that time the homicidal megalomaniac zealot and pederast Jim Jones ritualistically killed off 900-plus people in a South American jungle. For starters, it’s directed by another cultish icon, the hallowed hipster-horror hero Ti West (The House of the Devil, V/H/S). Whether writing, directing or acting, Ti West has been involved in some of the past decade’s better horror showings (see also You’re Next) along with his plaid-clad homies Joe Swanberg, Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard. The Sacrament pits Swanberg as a Vice-esque journalist flying into an unknown jungle to research an ominous folk hero called Father (played by the great Gene Jonesno relation). From there, ominous undertones lead to all hell breaking loose in a suspense-packed 99 minutes of thrilling, if inherently predictable, damn-good horror.

I don’t really like to give away the genre of The Invitation, but seeing as this is a horror post I should let you know what this film is more “slow-burn suspense with deadly consequences” than it is all-out horror. However one would classify it, this take on the oft-visited “dinner party from hell” horror trope excels due to an expertly calculated level of psychological tension that courses through the entire otherwise-slow first hour of the film. I’m not going to outline the premise because, frankly, it would just take away from your viewing experience. Just know that it pairs well with The Sacrament.

The Sacrament
GRADE: B+ / B
IMDb: 6.1

The Invitation
GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.7

-Sam Adams

Streaming Bleak This Week, #5: Cash Only on Netflix

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There are few recent non-Tarantino films that draw from such a comprehensive, patchwork assemblage of crime cinema as director Malik Bader’s Cash Only. While I know I’m prone to describing a film as a hybrid of other films (with, of course, the intention of letting you know what you’re in for), one cannot help but cross-compare when it comes to this guttural howl of a movie.

Blending elements of Mean Streets, Boston gangster fare like Gone Baby Gone, every film in Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Pusher series, Eastern Promises, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour and even the notorious horror flick A Serbian Film, Cash Only is a dark foray into one man’s quest to find his own morality, save his family and walk through hell and back in order to do so. That hell also includes a scene very reminiscent to one of the more oft-quoted Pulp Fiction set-ups. (And there’s your “if you liked this, you should watch these” paragraph.)

But as the saying goes, I watched it so you don't have to. Seriously. Stay away.

It’s a gas…

Unlike Scorsese and Tarantino, however, there is no slick style or tongue-in-cheek humor here. Any jokes are more out of that school of ethnic-enclave street wisdom that made Tony Siragusa one of the more enjoyable parts of 25th Hour, or made MC Slaine look wicked “authenticious” in The Town.

The film begins by introducing us to Elvis Martini (Nickola Shreli), a bald, strapping Albanian-American dude who looks like the lovechild of John Turturro and Juice from Sons of Anarchy. Elvis is a slumlord and single-father. Elvis is also in debt to everyone on both sides of the law in his crooked Detroit hood. (Kudos to this flick for not hitting us over the head with Detroitisms—what’s more important to the film’s identity is that this slum and its grind could exist anywhere.)

Elvis is also dealing with the fact that while burning down his house for insurance money, he forgot to check if his wife was sleeping inside. Thus the single-father thing…

I think it would be a stretch to call Elvis morally ambiguous. He’s generally a good dude with a good heart who just happens to have fucked up his family’s life in an unimaginably horrible way. (Enter Mean Streets Christian morality play.) And now, while dealing with that horror, he’s hit with the double-whammy of having to scam cash out of delinquent tennants so that he can keep both his hide and a roof over his daughter’s head.

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Didn’t Mean Streets already warn us not to play with fire?


The first half of the film is more of a character set up, introducing us to Elvis’ colorful acquaintances. These include a dealer named Kush (played by director Bader) who operates a massive basement growhouse in one of Elvis’ properties. Then there’s his guy the mechanicanother man with one foot in the Old Country and the other still well outside the American Dream. Then there’s the Euro-trash buddy whose fiance Elvis is schtupping on the DL. And then there’s the crazy call girl who Elvis scams for a massive wad of cash after spying on her through these creepy cameras he sets up in his tennants’ homes.

I never said Elvis was on the level.

The second half of the film jumps from a week of these characters dancing around each other in cash grabs to a rapid, 24-hour search for Elvis to come up with 25 Large. Let’s just say that everything is at stake, and if the first half of the film seemed slow, the second pays off big time. There’s also a climax borne straight out of hell, but I’ll leave the particulars of that experience up to the viewer.

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Writer and lead actor Nickola Shreli (LR) channels an Eastern Promises Viggo Mortensen in Cash Only.

I know that comparing any film to Mean Streets is a major declaration, and I’m not saying Cash Only at all lives up to that standard. But in the same vein that Scorsese went into Harvey Keitel’s hellfire-laced existential battle with Christianity and showed you the world of his nitty gritty neighborhood through a cast of lovable fuck-ups, the young director Bader ventures into very much the same territoryand with quite an effect, thanks in large part to the standout, naturalistic work of his lead.

Remember though… I also compared this to the Pusher Trilogy and A Serbian Film. So yeah, don’t expect a doo-wop ride through the quaint streets of old Little Italy. Because shit gets downright medieval on that ass in Cash Only.

IMDb: 6.2
GRADE: B / B+

-Sam Adams