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)
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
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

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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

Streaming Bleak This Week, #4: The Invitation on Netflix

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While this blog is a recommendation site and I do believe I’ve done my due diligence in that regard over the past few years, my last three picks in this series were, admittedly, an attempt to come up with worthwhile suggestions that I knew the vast majority of you readers wouldn’t have seen. As such, they weren’t all necessarily as savagely palatable as the typical fodder promoted herein.

They Look Like People, Bob and the Trees and We Are Still Here are all indie movies made on a shoestring budget. I think the most famous actor among all three was Barbara Cramptona name only dedicated horror fans would recognize. That’s not to say I think I fucked upI actually really liked all threebut this weekly pick series is an experiment, and your feedback has been hit or miss on said titles. Which means it’s time to recalibrate the meat grinder.

Back to the ol' drawing board...

Back to the ol’ drawing board…

Moving forward, I’m still going to err on the side of lesser-known titles, but I’ll try to keep in mind that I’m one of the few fuckers who’s exhausted the near entirety of everything bleak and horrific worth watching on Netflix. Point being that a hidden gem to me might justifiably be viewed as nothing more than a shiny pebble to you folks out there who have, ya know, lives.

That is why this week I’m going to offer up a really fucking awesome flick that any suspense-horror fan should be able to get behind. So without further adieu…

The Invitation
Michael Huisman (AKA Daario Naharis) hosts a dinner party from hell in The Invitation
Yep, that’s Daario Naharis from Game of Thrones (played in real life by Michael Huisman). See? This movie is already more relatable and less obscure!

The Invitation starts with a grieving father and his new lady going to a dinner party at the house of his ex-wife and her new feller (Daario Naharas, played by Daario Naharas). Actually you might also recognize the lead dude. It took me awhile to place him. At first I thought it was Tom Hardy from The Revenant reincarnated, but then I realized I knew him from … The O.C.

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Apparently I’m not the first to notice that Bane has a doppelgänger…

That was another life. Moving on.

Anyway, a big group of folks who were tight two years ago get together. It’s an awkward reunion of sorts as no one’s really seen anyone else since the son of O.C. guy and Liv Tyler-lookalike ex-wifey tragically died in a freak pinata accident. (If there are truly 6 million ways to die, that sure is a motherfucker…)

It’s important to note that this is all taking place at a swank and secluded pad in L.A., which becomes a recurring excuse as to why everyone keeps acting so fucking weird. At one point a character even says of the freaky, culty, hippie-dippy hosts, “Yeah, they’re a little weird. But this is L.A. They’re harmless.” Famous last words, punto. Go ask Sharon Tate.

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“No More Parties in L.A.” The one time Kanye gave good life advice…

One thing I love about The Invitation is how its first half is such a meticulous play between ebbing macabre suspense and one man’s struggles with grief, paranoia and anger. It’s like a delicately wired stage play that could easily go the route of heady psychological flick. Actually, unless you’d seen the previews (I hadn’t), this thing could have unfolded down several genre pathways at that midway markall with complete plausability. I even found myself thinking, Shit, I might be in for one of those moody indie dramas about coming to terms with loss and emotions and stuff.

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Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body: Never was self-immolation so hot.

With that in mind, director Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Bodystarring Megan Fox and little else) deserves major credit for wielding such multi-layered sleight of hand in such deft fashion. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out exactly what type of film it is, but apropos of my earlier comments, let’s just say that there is nothing unresolved or left to the imagination here.

For comparison’s sake, think of something in the vein of Would Your Rather, Knock Knock and Kidnapped (Secuestrados). Then imagine the grown-folks’ version of Would You Rather, what some elements of Knock Knock would have been like if that movie had a pulse, and what Kidnapped would have been with better direction, a more fully evolved narrative and less torture porn.

All in all, The Invitation serves up the oft-visited “dinner party from hell” subgenre in delectable, ornate and satiating fashion. Look also for a brutally chilling monologue from the great character-actor John Carroll Lynch (who you may remember as Eastman from one of the greatest music videos Walking Dead episodes of all time!).

IMDb: 6.7
GRADE: B+

-Sam Adams

LAST WEEK IN THIS SERIES: They Are Still Here

Streaming Bleak This Week, #3: We Are Still Here on Netflix Instant

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If you’re in the mood for a low budget haunting-possession flick that doesn’t suffer from said low budget, Ted Gheoghegan’s We Are Still Here is one of the better recent additions to the Netflix canon. It’s also phenomenally cast, with scream queen Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, From Beyond) and Andrew Sensenig (the weird fucker from Upstream Color) playing a husband and wife who’ve relocated to a rural fixer-upper to start fresh after a family tragedy.

we are still here cast featuring Andrew Sensing, Lisa Marie, Larry Fessenden, Barbara Crampton

Marie, Fessenden, Sensenig and Crampton (L to R): a hellishly haunted reunion of b-horror behemoths

Then there’s Lisa Marie as a psychic, hippie friend who comes to visit the couple with her Dude Lebowski-esque husband (Larry Fessenden from Jugfacereuniting with Crampton after he played the sleazy college professor in You’re Next). Add in a creepy local priest and several bumps in the frigid New England night, and a very enjoyable homage to ’70s and ’80s horror ensues. This flick also gets major bonus points for going more the route of old-school special effects in situations where bigger budget films would have lazily turned to CGI.

IMBb: 5.7
GRADE: B

-Sam Adams

LAST WEEK IN THIS SERIES: Bob and the Trees

Streaming Bleak This Week, #2: Bob and the Trees on Netflix Instant

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Forewarning: This film requires a severely generous attention span. The basic premise is that a guy named Bob runs a farm and logging business in rural Massachusetts, and everything in Bob’s life is going to shit. He makes bad business gambles involving said trees, and attempts with futility to nurse his prize cow back to health as it succumbs to some parasitic flesh disease.

Meanwhile, Bobwho looks like a more grizzled Ted Lavine from that Hills Have Eyes remakecurses, spits, drinks and jams the fuck out to hardcore underground rap. Sometimes he drives to the village on his moped and yells at people. Sometimes he drinks and practices his golf swing in the snow. The film is really about Bob and his downward spiral, and what a breaking man can salvage from a broken situation.

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Bob and the Beers…

It’s also just a cinema vérité-ish exploration of a wonderfully strange dude (Bob Tarasuk, who plays Boba guy who’s probably a lot like Bob Tarasuk). It almost feels like a lesser follow-up to the great Werner Herzog’s Stroszekthe latter of which Roger Ebert deemed “one of the oddest films ever made.” Or perhaps if they made a toned-down sequel to David Gordon Green’s Joe on a $5,000 budget. 

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Bruno Schleinstein takes on Wisconsin trailer park life in Werner Herzog’s classic Stroszek (1977)

To first-time feature director Diego Ongaro’s credit, there’s no smarmy melodrama involving the aforementioned plot points. Apart from Tarasuk’s performance, much of Bob and the Trees feels like awkward improv community theater. That last point will probably stand out too much for some viewers, as will some tediously long scenes.

But if you truly can stand a slow-paced, grim and “meditative” film with questionable resolution, Bob and the Trees is worth it if only for the subtle but fucking hardcore way it cuts to black. Come to think of it, the last scene in this movie is probably the main reason I’m writing about it. The story behind it is also worth a read.

IMDb: 7.0
GRADE: B

-Sam Adams

LAST WEEK IN THIS SERIES: They Look Like People

Streaming Bleak This Week, #1: They Look Like People on Netflix Instant

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Loyal Readers, I have been unfaithful to ye. I must confess that it’s been two months since my last blog post. This sort of slovenly scribing behavior shall not stand. For all you innumerable plebs picketing countless hours outside the gates of Monster at the End of a Dream HQ, your voices have been heard.

The solution? Offer you at least one concise post a week on mostly lesser-known flicks of the darker nature that you can catch via interweb streaming. Between the laundry lists that take me countless man hours to compile, this should at least ease the suffering a bit. Maybe I’ll even rake in more massive contributions like the one I’m still waiting on from that Sudanese prince… Anyway, on to the first edition in this series. But wait, speaking of Sudanese royalty and cinema, how about an intermission before we continue:

Yes, I got the popcorn and I know what else you like. So let me take you to the movies…

They Look Like People
Perry Blackshear’s feature debut They Look Like People is essentially the Millennial’s indie-film answer to John Carpenter’s They Live. Actually, I challenge you to look for a legitimate review of this film that doesn’t use They Live as a parallel. If it weren’t for copyright issues, I bet TLLP would be called They Live 2: When Hipsters Attack.

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They Look like Williamsburg

I digress. This is where I tell you that They Look Like People isin terms of movies I just randomly stumbled onone of my favorite things I’ve watched on Netflix in the last year.

Premise: A paranoid scraggly loner shows up at the doorstep of his cubicle-working high school buddy who has major inferiority complex issues and listens to self-help tapes. Scraggly dude starts getting ominous phone calls from a man telling him things like, “If we do not stop them, they will enslave and butcher every good person left on Earth. You must prepare for the war.” Then self-help tape guy starts dating his really cute boss, and scraggly guy brings everybody in on his secret that an an evil, alien force is overtaking ordinary people.

It’s apparent from the outset that the film’s premise revolves around whether our main man Wyatt is preparing to fight demons or just battling the ones in his head; schizo or undercover doomsday warrior?

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Speaking of great conspiracy theorists in film…

Over the course of the film’s 79 short minutes, this question builds to a massive, swarming crescendo. Some very strong newcomer performances (MacLeod Andrews, Evan Dumouchel, Margaret Ying Drake), a subtle-yet feverishly taut narrative and ace sound-mixing are the key ingredients in a very impressive psychological-suspense debut by Blackshear. If you don’t expect horror or thriller (or much of anything, like myself) and can handle a slow-burn indie psychological-suspense flick, it doesn’t get much better for a shoe-string budget than They Look Like People. You should also check out The Battery (Amazon Prime) if you liked this, and vice versa.

IMDb: 6.1
GRADE: B+

-Sam Adams

The Ruins: A Great Horror Novel and Its Adaptation

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

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This novel has been approved by Stephen King.

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

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

Ryan Lochte Jeah

Ruins, bro… ruins.

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

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

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

I'm having sex in a tent!

“Jeah?”

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

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

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Beware the wrath of Papa, Scott Smith!

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

haunted mask R.L. Stine

Required reading for my future offspring.

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

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

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

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

laura-ramsey-the-ruins

“Jeah!”

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

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

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

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


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

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

90s horror vs. 2000s horror

What a difference a decade makes…

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

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

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

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

-Sam Adams