True-ish detective: Unpacking “Manhunt: Unabomber” on Netflix streaming

Sam Worthington Unabomber

The eight-part Discovery Channel series Manhunt: Unabomber is one of the most thoroughly captivating, entertaining pieces of bullshit in the entire canon of true-crime TV.

Bullshit because Manhunt takes narrative liberties that are extreme even for Hollywood. The fabrication starts with a focus more on the FBI Unabomb investigation than on Ted Kacyznski. Nothing wrong with this approach, of course. But when a minor player in the real case (profiler Jim Fitzgerald, here Sam Worthington in the lead role) is turned into a modern-day Sherlock Holmesand his near-omniscience is only exaggerated by pitting him as a stereotypical underdog geniusthe formula might be hard to swallow for true-crime die-hards looking for the level of point-by-point attention to historical detail that, say, Zodiac obsessed over.

On the flip side, if you view this thing merely as an exercise in historical fiction (rather than the true-crime retelling it poses as), you’d be hard-pressed to find a more engrossing piece of detective TV over the past couple years.


Not exactly selling itself…

While we’re on the subject of missteps by an otherwise-
phenomenal series, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the reason it took me a year to get around to watching this: piss-poor marketing. Take the reason half the world has seen
Mindhunter (a series incredibly similar, and no more compelling) and not this: With the dubious Discovery Channel stamp on a bland, gray canvas featuring an unrecognizable actor posing as the Unabomber, the cover art here suggests a hammy, low-budget direct-to-DVD thriller. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Again, A-lister Sam Worthington stars (Netflix has increased his facial presence on its streaming page since they picked this up in late-2017). Manhunt also spares no expense on its strong cinematography, recreation of period and place, and reputable side cast (Jane Lynch as Janet Reno, Mark Duplass as Kaczynski’s brother). It actually feels a lot closer to the high-quality cinematographic and suspense work of Fincher in Mindhunter and Zodiac than it does, say, Lifetime’s Jodi Arias story.

UNABROTHER: Mark Duplass as David Kaczynski

UNABROTHER: Mark Duplass as David Kaczynski

And where Worthington does a fine job in a hyperbolized role, one of the greatest accomplishments of Manhunt is Paul Bettany’s dynamic portrayal of Kazcynski. Rarely do serial killer stories so impactfully display the humanity of their… serial killers.

And that’s probably a good segue to get into the narrative meat of the show.

The first episode opens with a calm-yet-sinister voiceover imploring: “I want you to think about the mail, for a minute. Stop taking it for granted like some complacent, sleepwalking sheep. And really think about it. I promise you, you will find the U.S. mail a worthy object of your contemplation.” This device (Bettany reading from the Unabomber letters and manifesto) is employed periodically throughout the series, both as a tool to get into Kaczynski’s mind and also as an empathic ploy that begins to explain why our protagonist (Worthington) becomes dangerously smitten with Kaczynski’s theories.


“Mind. Blown.”

As Fitzgerald ascends from average-Joe Philly beat cop to he-man detective, he’s brought in by the FBI to build a profile on the elusive Unabomber. With the help of a faithful assistant (Keisha Castle-Hughes), Fitzgerald probes the case from new angles, identifying patterns in the Unabomber’s letters that lead to what he dubs “forensic linguistics.”

As bosses second-guess him at every turn, Fitzgerald continually saves face with last-moment revelations. This is not a spoiler, as Fitz and Ted face-off early onpart of Manhunt‘s effective nonlinear narrative. (They never met in real life, if you were wondering.)

While Worthington’s Fitzgerald is clearly a fabricated hero-character constructed for the sake of thrilling cinema, that construction is quite effective. Perhaps part of what makes Manhunt so intriguing is that as Fitz’s Kaczynski obsession begins to manifest in his personal behavior and ideologies (down to living in an isolated cabin in the woods and growing a laughably fake beard), we are confronted with a dark and ugly truth: Ted Kaczynski, the man responsible for the brutal murder and disfiguration of so many innocents, was in fact a sane, brilliant ideologist whose theories were, by and large, very relatable to good people. Like Fitz. Or you. Or me. “He just has the courage to live according to his ideals,” Fitz says at one point when refuting the popular notion that Kaczynski, was insane. “I respect that.”

Sam Worthington unabomber fake beard as Justin Timberlake Man of the Woods


There’s no denying that Kaczynski is painted with a very sympathetic brush in this seriesone that might understably offend families of the innocent people who Kaczynski maimed and killed. But again, part of what makes the Unabomber case so interesting is that Ted Kaczynski wasn’t a psychopath or lunatic, but rather a passionate human who did some horribly misguided shit to get his desperate plea about the state of humanity across to the rest of humanity.

One particularly poignant and haunting scene shows Bettany frolicking in the woods to a classical symphony played on an old gramophone. Here, he looks like some ethereal pan creaturea hybrid of Thoreau and Baryshnikovenchanted by the sublime beauty of nature, and an inextricable part of it. It’s this side of Kaczynski that’s relatable.

Bettany brings a disturbing level of gravity to his portrayal of Kaczynski, showing his many sides: the idealistic naturalist who cares for and is enchanted by the world; the creepy, angsty social outcast; the egomaniacal tortured genius who decided to play god.

In all, this is an expertly crafted detective series with an incredible turn by its antagonist. I’d be playing spoiler if I were to get into my views about why this series is both Grade-A cinema and Grade-A bullshit. Suffice it to say that you’ll probably see what I’m talking about as it unfolds.

IMDb: 8.2

-Sam Adams


Best of the Bleak 2018: 19 killer crime, horror and thriller titles on Netflix streaming and Amazon Prime

best of the bleak 2018 monster at the end of the dream

Every now and then, there is nothing left and nowhere to turn. No, that’s not the title of Macon Blair’s next screenplayit’s more the reason I created this blog.

I don't feel at home in this world anymore movie with elijah wood and

RE: source material for lame joke in first paragraph.

I was fed up with half-assed Thrillist/Gawker/Paste click-bait lists pointing in the direction of the same 25 indie movies on rotation when all I wanted was a good, bleak diamond-in-the-rough after plowing through seemingly everything on Netflix.

And I was fixated on the fact that these movies align with just a few parametersthose being “grim” and “thrilling.” Horror, crime, Western, I don’t particularly carejust something fucked up enough to give me the vicarious thrill my strange brain needs to cozily drift into sleep. ASMR for the depraved, one might say.

Thus I decided to make a recommendation repository for folks of similar strokes.

In that spirit, the criteria for this list are simple: A.) Anything within the broad categorization of crime, thriller and horror I watched over the last year and deemed recommendation-worthy. B.) Movies and series must be streamable (as of press time) on Netflix or Amazon Prime. C.) I tried to keep it to “lesser-known,” but that means different things to different audiences, and I took a few liberties, mostly in cases where I really dug something. D.) All movies are modern, meaning made in the past couple years. I figure if I go beyond that loosely defined time period, either you’ve already seen it or I’ve already covered it.

If you’re interested in past iterations of these massive streaming bleak-cinema rundowns, check out this list of 26 worthwhile titles and this list of 18 great titles. Hell, some of those films are still kicking around on the Big Two streaming services.

Enough foreplay: Here’s 19 recommended and highly recommended titles for lovers of crime, thriller and horror cinemaalphabetized, graded, denominated by streaming service, and linked in title to my original longer-form posts (where applicable).

Bon appétit.

Bad Day for the Cut (Netflix)In the tradition of sardonically witted, bleak Irish murder films like John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard and Calvary and Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, Chris Baugh’s Bad Day for a Cut (meaning shitty farming weather) might as well be titled “Green Ruin.”

The story centers around oafish mama’s boy Donal (Nigel O’Neill), a mechanic living in the countryside somewhere not far from Belfast. Aging and mild-mannered, Donal is roused from his polite existence when dear old ma is bludgeoned to death in her living room while Donal sleeps off a drunk in his shed. Shortly after, he crosses paths with a thick-headed Polish lad and they drive around in Donal’s candy-paint camper van, exacting revenge on a crime syndicate.

Bad Day doesn’t quite stack up to the three films mentioned earlierdue largely to the Polish kid being a horrible actor and less of a character than an unnecessarily formulaic plot device. But O’Neill’s measured performanceequal parts dry wit, poignant stoicism and brutal avengeris a dynamic spectacle to behold. He’s so perfect in this role that I begin to wonder even if the great Brendan Gleeson (who starred in those three McDonagh films) could have played it better.

In the end, a familiar brand of doomsday wit encapsulated in a story about a man as alive as he is dead makes for a distinctly Irish existential-thriller. And one well worth watching for anyone interested in this burgeoning subgenre.

IMDb: 6.3

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (Amazon)
Vince Vaughn goes full psycho in Brawl in Cellblock 99
The first thing to know about Brawl in Cell Block 99 is that it’s S. Craig Zahler’s follow-up to Bone Tomahawkhis magnificently brutal directorial debut. The second is that it showcases Vince Vaughn’s best “serious” work in a starring role. That’s not to say his portrayal of Bradley Thompson, an ex-boxer, ex-addict, drug-running manimal whose fury knows no bounds is anything revolutionary. But his presence throughout Cell Block‘s 132-minute runtime is positively commanding.

I should also add that Cell Block is only a “prison movie” insofar as much of it takes place in a prison. It’s really more of a hyperreal character study on psychopathy for entertainment’s sake; a film that despite it’s immaculate, bleak prison cinematography, is more an avenue for primal bloodlust than it is an adherent to any specific genre.

As was the case in Bone Tomahawk (also on Amazon Prime), Zahler delivers a restrained, slow-burn mood piece that perfectly sets the stage for an unbridled and unforgiving climax. Like Vaughn’s character, the action and resolution are larger than life, and purposely so.

IMDb: 7.2

The Break (Netflix)Yoann Peeters in La Treve, The Break

With a familiar setup, the Belgian series La trêve (The Break) opens with a crestfallen ace investigator looking for refuge in a small town police department, only to have his broken psyche tested by an unexpected murder.

Our troubled hero here is Yoann Peeters, retreating from something bad that happened in Brussels to his small hometown with his teenage daughter for reassignment. Before Yoann can get settled, the corpse of a promising young African soccer star washes up in the river.

What unfolds is a slow-burn, carefully crafted whodunnit, with Peeters turning over every rotting log in the underbelly of his picturesque town to reveal the brutal truth. There’s also some well-scripted family drama here, as Peeters’ teenage daughter gets caught up in a world of sex, drugs and rock n’ rollcaptured with a lens that is decidedly European about these things. For once, this brand of otherwise-ancillary plot devising is refreshingly honest.

While The Break’s eventual payoff rewards, I’d emphasize that this is of the slow-burn and atmospherically sublime variant of crime dramasakin to all the Nordic Noir stuff I’ll be talking about later in this post. So proceed with a degree of patience.

IMDb: 7.8

Cash Only (Netflix)cash only nickola shreli

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 FilmCash 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.

Our main man is Elvis Martini, an Albanian-American Detroit slumlord and single-dad who’s watched his life go up in flames ever since he torched his house for insurance cashbefore checking if his wife was sleeping inside.

The first half of the film slowly acquaints us with the conditions of Elvis’ slum worldfilled with shady dealings, colorful characters and a daily struggle to survive. The second half flips the script with a turbo-charged 24-hour hell ride in which Elvis must come up with a cash grab or face consequences worse than death. The climax here is riveting, and actor Nickola Shreli does some damn-impressive work as Cash Only‘s morally conflicted lead. Strongly recommended for fans of brutal crime thrillers who don’t mind a low budget and some slow burn with a good payoff.

IMDb: 6.2

Creep 2 (Netflix)
Mark Duplass in Creep 2While no genre in recent memory has reviled me as much as the  self-indulgent emo charade that is mumblecorea product of the Duplass brothersit’s to Mark Duplass’ credit that he’s channeled his penchant for disturbingly awkward characters into the titular “creep” he plays in his horror series (he’s penned both installations, along with help from returning director Patrick Brice).

Following the story of attractive, goth-y video blogger Sara (Desiree Akhavan) who likes capturing “encounters” with weirdos for her failing documentary series, Creep 2 presents a found-footage-style look into a complex and depraved serial killer who has decided to confess his sins. But of course he’s doing it on his own termsin his remote cabin in the middle of nowhere.

As Sara and her host’s relationship grows over the course of the interview, awkwardness and fear build an eerily intriguing tension that clearly has no good end in sight. Creep 2 is actually an improvement on its predecessor. The story is more thoughtfully constructed, the tension more palpable, and Akhavan is a welcome protagonist improvement from Brice, who starred in Creep. But the creepiest thing about this film might just be a lingering full-frontal shot of Duplass. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

IMDb: 6.4

Cheap Thrills (Netflix)
Pat Healy in Cheap Thrills bloodyImagine if Would You Rather, 13 Sins or Circle were still very entertaining but depended less on the cheap exploitation gimmicks we’ve come to associate with “torture porn.”

The protagonist of Cheap Thrills is Craig (Pat Healy from Ti West’s The Innkeepers), an average joe who walks into a bar after being fired and served an eviction notice on the same day. There, he runs into Vince (Ethan Embry on the career comeback train), a high-school pal and fellow dude in the dumps. This leads to a fateful meeting with a rich playboy (a show-stealing David Koechner) who invites them to entertain his young, model wife (Sara Paxton, also from The Innkeepers) on her birthday. Plying them with coke and primo tequila, he starts pitting the two against each other in games of mental and physical stamina. Of course the stakes get increasingly higher and, well, you can see where this is going…

What separates former-horror-journalist E.L. Katz’s directorial debut from the typical greed/selfishness for cash/survival play that’s come in the wake of Saw is a keen sense of subgenre self-awareness that allows it to double as black comedywhile still delivering all the vicarious thrills of a heightened stakes, blood-spatter shockfest. While I wouldn’t necessarily call this a horror flick, it will probably play best to fans of that genretapping a somewhat similar vein as meta-horror comedies like Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil and The Cabin in the Woods.

IMDb: 6.8

Department Q Trilogy (Netflix)
Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Carl Morck in Department Q

In my write-up of the three films (so far) that comprise Danish novelist Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series, I referred to it as  “essentially a very good—albeit slightly slower and more formulaic—mashup of True Detective SE1, The Dragon Tattoo Trilogy and The Killing.”

The main players here are  Carl Morck, a brooding, spiteful alcoholic who seems to be severely deficient in the department of fucks given, and his sidekick Assadan upbeat, devout Muslim cop who blares bass-heavy rap and tells jokes.

Each installment in the grim, atmospheric slow-burn series presents the yin-and-yang pair with a new serial murder case. An impressive roster of recognizable Nordic Noir actorsincluding strong work by the leadstakes DQ beyond your run-of-the-mill detective series, and closer to the standard of the original Danish Dragon Tattoo film trilogy.

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 the same thing that often cheapens this brand of serial cinema: 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.

Department Q: The Keeper of Lost Causes
IMDb: 7.2
Department Q: The Absent One
IMDb: 7.1
Department Q: A Conspiracy of Faith
IMDb: 7.0

The Devil’s Candy (Netflix)ethan_embry_devils_candy_bloody

I mentioned a few entries back in Cheap Thrills that ’90s high-school heartthrob Ethan Embry looked to be making a comeback. If that’s possible, his career-best performance in The Devil’s Candy might be the turning point.

Embry and Shiri Appleby play Jesse and Astrid Hellmanartsy, metalhead parents who buy a house with an adjoining studio for Jesse to work on his large-scale, death metal-inspired tableaus. Of course the dream home comes with a catchits former inhabitant (a menacing Pruitt Taylor Vince) murdered his parents there. So there’s both demonic forces and a serial killer to contend with in Tasmanian writer/director Sean Byrne’s long-awaited follow-up to The Loved Ones.

In his portrayal of Jesse Hellman, Embry comes across as a Christlike figure touched with a little Rust Cohle. (Both he and Appleby are phenomenal here.) At the expense of sounding artsy fartsy, I personally loved Byrne’s commitment to not pigeonholing or satirizing an unconventional style of parenting. And I think that’s worth pointing out, as Embry’s transformative performance would not be nearly as effective without Byrne’s well-fleshed-out attention to character. At the very least, it grounds the film in a humanity that makes the terror even more palpable.

Devil’s Candy also features a full-throttle heavy-metal soundtrack that echoes Byrne’s bleak, moody cinematography like a primal howl. Many horror fans will appreciate it for that alone.

IMDb: 6.5

Hell House LLC (Amazon)hell house llc clown

DISCLAIMER: At the expense of overhyping, I’m hesitant to say anything about this film. It’s better to go in blind, and just queue it up late at night in a quiet, pitch-black setting. Point being, if you haven’t seen this and you’re a horror fan, skip the next few paragraphs and make Hell House LLC your No. 1 priority. 

Moving on…

If Hell House LLC could swap release dates with The Blair Witch Project, it would be one of the most widely referenced horror movies of the past 20 or 30 years. Sure, you could say that about a lot of today’s found-footage flicks, but there are two reasons I think the hypothetical comparison has merit: 1.) Like Blair Witch Project, and unlike the better found-footage offerings since its 1999 release (Affliction, V/H/S/2, Rec, The Taking of Deborah Loganto name a few) Hell House LLC does not employ any noticeable CGI. 2.) Like BWP and unlike the aforementioned list (and also unlike box-office successes like Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, Chronicle, Quarantine), there is noticeably a next-to-nothing budget for Hell House.

The film starts by interspersing various media documentation of an unsolved tragedy that took place several years back, when a crew of haunted house entrepreneurs set up an installation in a small town 40 minutes from NYC. Then a staff member approaches a present-day documentary crew and hands over tapes of the fateful night and the events preceding it. From here, we get the meat of the film, which unfolds in edge-of-your-seat, terrifying chaos.

While this may sound like a dizzying amount of films within films, it’s actually one of Hell House LLC‘s strongest attributes. Especially for those like myself who rarely get into paranormal films due to their implausible nature. Here, the multilayered testimonials have the effect of making this all feel grounded in reality, which of course is what makes any good horror work.

Hell House LLC came out of nowhere to meI simply stumbled on it in the ether of Amazon Prime, and I was worried that might have been why it blew my mind. But it holds up on a second view, and remains both one of the best low-budget and found-footage horror films I’ve ever seen.

IMDb: 6.4

In Order of Disappearance (Netflix)Kristofer Hivju bloody

If “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” doesn’t have a parallel adage about a father unleashing his wrath when his only son is murdered, the  fiendishly bleak In Order of Disappearance by Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland (Department Q: A Conspiracy of Faith) will certainly do.

Stellan Skarsgaard, as brilliant as ever, stars as said father, a humble, understated man who’s just received a “Citizen of the the Year” award before his world is turned upside down by his son’s untimely death.

After a period of grief that leaves his life lonesome and meaningless, he decides to break bad by knocking off members of a crime family run by a volatile “bakery magnate” (Pal Sverre Hagen) who simultaneously is waging war with a Serbian drug gang led by the great Bruno Ganz.

What unfolds is an energetically stylized patchwork of Nordic Noir, black comedy and vigilante justiceall set to the score and structure of a Spaghetti Western. If the comedywhich mostly hits the right noteswere downplayed a bit and the film stuck the ending better, this could be a masterpiece. As is, it’s still the best Norwegian crime flick I’ve seen this side of Headhunters.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 7.2

Landmine Goes Click (Amazon)
kote tolordova land mine goes clickWith 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 with a guy leaving his fiance and best friend standing on a live landmine in the middle of the European Georgian wilderness after being trapped by a sadistic backwoods creep. What unfolds from here is a harrowing game of cat and mouse 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). Watch at your own peril.

IMDb: 6.2

Message from the King (Netflix)message-from-the-king-teresa-palmer-chadwick-bosemanIf Taken were directed by David Ayer and spiked with a touch of noir, you’d essentially have the recipe for the Netflix Original film Message from the King.

Chadwick Boseman (AKA Black Panther) stars as Jacob King, a man from South Africa’s violent Cape Flats who arrives in L.A. with nothing but a wad of cash, in search of his missing sister. As he uncovers the truthbeginning with a sequence where he beats the shit out of Draco Malfoy with a bicycle chainwe begin to realize that this bloke did not cross continents to fuck around.

Message from the King squeaks by with barely enough substanceand some decent side roles from a cast of recognizable B-listersto distract from the fact that, as with Taken, we are here purely for brutal, action-packed entertainment.

On that bloody front, it delivers by the gallon. Greasy Eastern European thugs? Check. Throat-punching and face-stomping? Check. Hyperbolically ominous one-liners? You betcha. (Soundbite: “Whoever you work for, tell them this was a message from the King.”)

To be clear, this is not highbrow shitalthough it’s got a step on Taken in that department and is also significantly more grim. Message from the King is just some damn-good popcorn vigilante justice fare, and Boseman delivers the sweet badass revenge in spades.

IMDb: 6.3

The Oath (Netflix)
Baltasar Kormakur in The Oath

Baltasar Kormákur (creator of Trappedsee below) is the main man behind Iceland’s brilliant foray into the landscape of Nordic Noir cinema.

Here, Kormákur directs and stars as Finnur, a brain surgeon whose idyllic life is shattered when his teenage daughter gets mixed up with a scummy drug dealer.

The film’s title and moral conundrum stem from a transformation in Finnur from early-Walter White everyman to “what I do have are a very particular set of skills” Liam Neeson. While the titular wordplay conjuring the Hippocratic Oath is no stroke of genius, Kormákur’s transformative performance is brilliant, and the taut narrative he winds (he also co-wrote the film) is a thing of grimalbeit somewhat predictablebeauty. This is minimalist Nordic Noir at its thrilling best.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 6.7

The Salvation (Netflix)mads-mikkelsen-the-salvation-bloody

I had to get at least one dark Western onto this list, and it comes in the form of a revenge tale starring the great Mads Mikkelsen as a Danish homesteader whose life is torn to pieces in front of his eyes as his wife and young son are brutally attacked on a stagecoach.

Several bodies later, our hero is pitted in an all-stakes war against a vile outlaw (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, basically playing Negan from Walking Dead in Western wear) and a cavalry of corrupt townsfolk cowering under his reign. Eva Green also stars as a scar-faced mute with sharpened teeth.

A brutally bleak frontier vigilante justice tale, The Salvation is nothing revolutionarythe plot is as predictable as Morgan’s acting abilities are one-notebut Mikkelsen, Green and a strong side cast make this an enjoyable Western with themes redolent of High Plains Drifter and The Dark Valley.

IMDb: 6.8

Train to Busan (Netflix)train to busan on netflix streamingIf nothing else, Yeon Sang-Ho’s Train to Busan is proof of two things: That great zombie films can still be made, and that South Korean cinema can do little wrong.

As for its inclusion in this list, I doubt there’s a horror fan out there who hasn’t seen or heard of this. So I’m adding it here mainly for those outside the horror circle who may have slept on this simply due to an unawareness of subtitled, foreign horror. To thee, I say watch thisit’s as accessible a thriller-drama as anything new you’ll find on Netflix.

The story follows an emotionally absent workaholic fund manager who must take his young daughter on a train ride to the city of Busan where she’ll be reunited with her mother. Once aboard the train, a leak at a biotech lab signals the zombie apocalypse. Things go off the rails from there, with a head-splitting thrillride that never lets up.

It’s not that Busan pushes the zombie genre into earth-shattering realms, but everything herefrom the zombie makeup/effects to thrilling gore to production quality is immaculate. Sure, there are the typical tropes you’ll find in any dark South Korean filmheart-wrenching drama between adult and child, a comedically overbearing mother, a mysterious crazy man, a cookie-cutter bad guy, classist warfare, and so on. But that’s all just backdrop to visually stunning, full-throttle zombie mania. And scenes like those with a hundred zombies being dragged by a freight car and a dull-eyed zombie deer reanimating are bound to stick with you long after the drama subsides.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 7.5

Trapped (Amazon)Ólafur Darri Ólafssonn in TrappedCreator Baltasar Kormákur’s Trapped is the most expensive and ambitious project in the history of Icelandic cinema. It’s also arguably the gold standard for Nordic Noir filmmakingup there with the Dragon Tattoo and Pusher trilogies, Headhunters and Season One of Fortitude.

Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (the grimy, prophetic meth dealer from True Detective Se1) leads the show as Andri, a detective with the look and softness of an oversized teddy bear, but also the fierce, hunting instincts of a polar bear.

The gist is that Andri must solve a series of murders that start with the discovery of a mutilated, frozen corpse when a freight ship comes to harbor off the coast of his small Northern Icelandic town. An intricately woven, expertly paced, beautifully acted and fully realized grim crime drama, Trapped is the best slept-on series I’ve watched since Happy Valley. Queue it up.

IMDb: 8.2

The Wailing (Netflix)
Do-won Kwak in the Wailing

There were many points throughout The Wailing where I began to think that this just might be the best dark South Korean flick since the iconic I Saw the Devil. Then there were points throughout its 156 minutes where I wondered if this was really leading anywhere. And amidst these two feelings, there was also just a pure appreciation that something this bleak and well-crafted could go on for so long.

Eventually, of course, there was the inevitable unneccesarily meandering extended narrative and anticlimactic ending—all geo-genre-specific symptoms that plagued another would-be great South Korean horror film, The Host. (Sidenote: South Korean “han” cinema is perhaps my favorite current movement, but the extent to which these films often abandon central plotlines and just wallow in meaningless despair toward the last hour is a cinematic characteristic that almost seems lost in translation).

But what’s it all about, you ask? Well, a bumbling South Korean cop in a mountain village starts noticing a series of murders connected to a skin rash, which, of course, his daughter soon develops. A mysterious Japanese hill-person might have something to do with it, but then there’s other phantoms at play. And shamans. And crazy mother-in-laws. And lots and lots of han.

As a dark, bloody mood piece on that earlier note of “ASMR for the depraved,” The Wailing is some Grade-A shit. Those with less patient attention spans and a need for tidy plot resolution might be less inclined to wade through this one.

IMDb: 7.5

-Sam Adams

Something Nordic this way Comes: The Oath (on Netflix)

the oath iceland movie kormakur

As Iceland continues to break ground in the terrain of bleak crime cinemamuch like South Korea, Australia and American Country Noir have over the past decadea clear figurehead has emerged. His name is Baltasar Kormákur. He has a penchant for winding bloody yarns of despair, revenge and redemption into the frigid tapestries of his homeland. He also looks a helluva lot like the Scandinavian older brother of Colin Farrell.


Kormákur and Farrell: Separated at brood.

What’s interesting about Kormákur is that, before creating his two best pieces of cinemaboth filmed in Iceland with Icelandic casts and in the native tonguehe was already doing big-budget Hollywood flicks, directing Denzel, Marky Mark and Jake G in completely decent and also completely unremarkable blockbusters like 2 Guns, Contraband and Everest.

Fortunately for lovers of Nordic Noir and grim crime cinema, he went back to his native roots and filmed both The Oath and Trapped in Iceland between 2015 and 2016. Trapped, as I detailed in a previous post, is one of the better Nordic Noir series out there. And The Oath, as I’ll soon detail, is one of the better foreign crime thrillersat least this side of South KoreaI’ve seen since Headhunters and Tell No One.

headhunters aksel hennie

Aksel Hennie in Headhunters, one of the best foreign thrillers of the century—filmed across the pond in Norway.

But before diving further into Kormákur’s circuitously serendipitous career moves, let’s get toThe Oath.

It starts in typical Icelandic fashion, with some bearded dudes in knitted sweaters wrangling horses outside a quaint farmhouse. We soon find that one of these men is Finnur (Kormákur as the lead in his own film), a heart surgeon tending to the last affairs of his father’s estate after the old man has kicked the bucket. A funeral follows, where we’re introduced to Finnur’s family and, most noticeably, his goth-y teenage daughter Anna (Hera Hilmar) who’s clearly in some sort of drug-induced, angsty downward spiral.


“Ugh, dad—Iceland, like, totally blows. Speaking of blow…”

A scene later, we meet Anna’s tatted-up badboy drug dealer boyfriend, Óttar, who looks 20 years older than her and is constantly accompanied by his pitbull. He also drives a fancy car and hosts rapey drug parties in his posh penthouse. (Boyfriend material, clearly.) From here, shit goes south, as Finnur sees that ol’ Óttar is driving Anna toward an early grave.

In true viking vigilante form, Finnur decides to take matters into his own hands. This leads to a confrontation that pit father and boyfriend as foes. It also leads to shotgun shells filled with nails, kidnapping and torture, and our hero heart surgeon having a less familiar brand of blood on his hands. From the admixture of Finnur’s initial innocence and subsequent hellbent revenge, a character somewhere between Walter White in the first few episodes of Breaking Bad and Liam Neeson in Taken emerges.

Gísli Örn Garðarsson and Baltasar Kormákur in The Oath

“I eat pieces of hákarl like you for breakfast!”

The film’s title and moral conundrum stem from this transformation in Finnur. While the titular wordplay conjuring the Hippocratic Oath is no stroke of genius, Kormákur’s transformative performance is brilliant, and the taut narrative he winds (he also co-wrote the film) is a thing of grimalbeit somewhat predictablebeauty.

This is not to say that I’m heralding Kormákur as a great or even innovative director. While slightly more visually compelling than the understated Trapped, the cinematography here rarely does much to incorporate Iceland’s sublime landscapesa feature that could easily give his crime cinema an added undercurrent of bone-chilling grimness. 

But where the camerawork here is fine yet unremarkablemuch like the fruits of Kormákur’s Hollywood careerthe director is simply much more effective when given full reign over his projects. Where his creation Trapped was a meticulously plotted, slow-burn thriller more adherent to the Nordic Noir stamp, The Oath is a fast-paced thriller that thrives on its unrelenting tension. Both are covered in Kormákur’s printsincluding a running ensemble of Iceland’s finest acting talentand both prove that this guy is a force to be reckoned with when he brings the fight to his own turf.

Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson

Speaking of Icelandic ultraviolence, I was in Reykjavík earlier this year and snapped a photo of Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, AKA “The Mountain” from Game of Thrones. He grunted at me.

Netflix acquired The Oath in the wake of Trapped‘s success. Here’s hoping the service takes the same cue on Kormákur’s earlier Icelandic crime flicks, namely The Deep and Jar City.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 6.7

-Sam Adams

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


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.

gregory crewdson photograph

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.

Michael Rooker henry lee lucas serial killer true crime movies

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).

the road movie cormac mccarthy viggo mortensen

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.

MIndhunter holt mccallany and jonathan groff

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.


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?

groff mind hunter out

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

-Sam Adams

Dane Killers: The Department Q Saga on Netflix Instant

patrick wilson jack strong

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.”)

big sleep movie poster with bogart and bacall

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.)
holder joel kinnaman robocop

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.

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.

turturro night of cat

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.

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.
rust kohl pessimist true detective
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).

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

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

netflix halloween 2016

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)
black mirror playtest and charlie brooker's dead set on netflix

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

IMDb: 8.4

Presence in the Precinct House
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
IMDb: 5.7

IMDb: 5.7

Damsels in Digital Distress

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
IMDb: 6.1

IMDb: 6.6

50 Shades of Gangrene (Irish horror)
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
IMDb: 5.7

Don’t Drink the Kool-Aid!
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
IMDb: 6.1

The Invitation
IMDb: 6.7

-Sam Adams

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

cash only movie

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.

kettle mean streets play with fire

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.

cash only nickola shreli

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

-Sam Adams