The Soaking Dead: Doom drops down in The Rain (Netflix streaming)

Alba August in The Rain on Netflix
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Netflix has been dropping some stink bombs of late, so I was a bit skeptical wading into The Rain, a Danish post-apocalyptic contagion series that smacks of 28 Days Later and The Walking Deadsans zombies. Actually, the reason I was truly skeptical was because of its 6.1 score on IMDb. For non-IMDb adherents, it’s probably worth mentioning that the best series out there tend to have significantly higher scores than the best movies out there.

Here’s a little amateur research to support that theory:

SERIES IMDb FILM IMDb
Mindhunter 8.6 Zodiac 7.7
The Walking Dead 8.4 28 Days Later 7.6
Fargo 9 Fargo 8.1
The Killing 8.2 Insomnia 7.2
Black Mirror 8.9 Ex Machina 7.7
The Americans 8.3 Eastern Promises 7.7
Stranger Things 8.9 It Follows 6.8
American Horror Story 8.1 The Witch 6.8
Hell on Wheels 8.3 Bone Tomahawk 7.1
Narcos 8.9 El Infierno (El Narco) 7.8

Of the 10 comparisons here, I think I have a strong argument that at least seven are significantly better than their comparative longform peersall of which scored .6 to 2.1 points higher on IMDb. (And I know the horror comparisons aren’t as astute as the others; I just wanted to bring two of the best recent horror movies into the discussion.) Point being, a 6.1 for a series (The Rain) is basically like a 4 for a horror film, or a 5.1 for a crime flicki.e., typically an automatic “don’t waste your fucking time” signifier. (Which reminds me that I need to develop that IMDb-score-by-genre model I’ve brought up beforebecause I actually think the site is much more informative than say, Rotten Tomatoes, if you indeed know how to navigate its inherent biases.)

But before hypothesizing on why The Rain is underappreciated by the IMDb hordesand before boring you to death with numberslet’s talk about The Rain (a solid 7.8 in my book).

The eight-part first season centers around sister and brother Simone and Rasmus, pulled from school by their scientist father as the first whispers of a doomsday event begin to circulate. Soon thereafter, the siblings are trapped in an underground bunker in the forest, taking shelter from killer raindrops. After a brief six years, they emerge.

Lucas Lynggaard Tønnesen and Alba August in The Rain

“Oh no, sis—I left meine groovy jumpsuit in zee bunkah.”

I don’t want to give too much away, so suffice it to say that they meet other doomsday survivors, and pretty much everything you’ve ever seen in an apocalyptic survivalist story plays out: battles with evil gangs, encounters with creepy cults, a search for a cure, ominous government forces at play, escapist sexall set to the grand existentialist query of “what the fuck is going on?”

If everything I’ve just outlined sounds completely unoriginal, that’s because, narratively speaking, it is. Apart from the fact that pathogenic precipitationnot the undeadis the enemy here, The Rain is pretty much a narrative rehashing of every doomsday road warrior screenplay ever written.

But this is not a series out to reinvent the wheel. It’s the details here that count. And a few of the most important details include a string of stellar performances (particularly that of Alba August) that bring emotional gravity to the series, as well as a soothingly bleak feel of placecaptured in perpetually gloomy and rainy skies, desolate cityscapes and verdant, mysterious forests.

therain_series_netflix_28dayslater

2,190 Days Later…

To this last point, The Rain is a perfect grim mood piece for those who find a calming effect in the brand of environmentally attentive cinematography used in other bleak offerings like The Killing, or the recent Nordic noir stuff I’ve been posting about, including Trapped, In Order of DisappearanceThe Oath, and Fortitude. (See my thoughts on bleak, thrilling cinema as ASMR for more.)

the_killing_trunk_holder_rain

The Killing, AKA “Visual Valium”

The Rain also maintains a strong pace throughout its eight 45-minute episodes. Brief flashbacks flesh out each of the main characters by giving a glimpse into who they were, and what happened to each on the day the world turned upside down. But these backstories don’t linger (ahem, Walking Dead). If anything, they bring intrigue to the plot line and a bit more humanity to a group of people living in an inhuman world.

the_rain_netflix_cast

With a tight ensemble, The Rain is far from… overcast.

And while certain elements of the show may be a bit predictable, the moral conundrums that normal people deal with in abnormal circumstances are handled attentively, with less of a formulaic good-vs.-evil approach than one might expect. To this point, when things aren’t exactly as they seem, they also aren’t exactly the opposite.

The setbacks here are minor, and mainly just require a bit of suspension of disbelief. (For example, why does Rasmus appear to have aged 10 years during the bunker hideout while Simone looks exactly the same age?) And yes, there’s a strong likelihood that this could go the route of The Walking Dead and get tiresome after a couple seasons simply because it doesn’t really have much of anything new to run with.
Rick Grimes The walking Dead

All said, this series is most likely getting that 6.1 IMDb hate due to the baseness of its plotline. But if you’re looking for a fast-paced, very well-acted, bleak post-apocalyptic mood piece that’s as paradoxically calming as looking out at cold rain showers from a warm window, The Rain is engrossingly bingeable.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.1

-Sam Adams

“I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters”
                            -Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”
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Revenge of the Nerd: The Gift on Netflix Instant

the_gift_edgerton
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It’s rare that a bleak film with a loud, direct and ominously bating title can deliver a satisfying reveal to its nominal mystery. The Box, for exampledespite an intriguing trailer featuring a sinister Frank Langellaended up just being an ultimately empty, scatterbrained mess that signaled the end of Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly’s career. For further examples of ticking-package duds, see It Comes at Night and the Season 1 finale of The Killing (a show I otherwise loved—#holderisms).

Collage courtesy of Dreg StudioOn the flip side, there are the other punchy, promising titles that deliver in spades. The Vanishing (AKA Spoorloosthe original Dutch version), The Guest, The Game and Sleep Tight come to mind. And then there’s Joel Edgerton’s crafty and warped 2015 directorial debut The Gifta complete package that unravels almost as loudly and chillingly as a young Brad Pitt staring into a cardboard box in a desolate field.

I’m not going to get too in-depth plot-wise, as this film relies on a maelstrom of twists and turns. But as to the bare bones, The Gift opens by introducing us to married couple Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), as they relocate from Chicago to the California area where Simon grew up. While the upwardly mobile pair are out doing a little Bed, Bath & Beyond-ing for their new luxury abode, they run into an old classmate of Simon’sa socially awkward fella named Gordo (Edgerton), who dresses and does his hair like he can’t decide whether he’s George Michael or a used car salesman.

Joel Egerton The Gift George Michael lookalike

“You gotta have… gifts, gifts, a-gifts!”

Needless to say, Gordo enters their life and starts bringing them… gifts. And herein lies the beginning of a very awkward and mysterious friendship.

One of the main things that makes this tension-riddled flick work is an unexpected turn from Jason Bateman. It’s not that he does anything mind-blowing here, but for once in his career, he doesn’t seem to be playing Jason Bateman. The familiarand, to be fair, reliably funnyMichael Bluth iteration that seemingly appears in every Bateman flick is cast aside for a guy who is less in Bateman’s go-to rational-smartass-good-guy mold. (I’d argue that he didn’t even veer far from this mold in the grimness of Ozark’s first season). Point being that in a film that depends on the unexpected, the casting of an actor we thought we knew playing a guy we clearly don’t is a strong touch.
keanu_bateman_batman

Then there’s Rebecca Hall, who, as a compassionate and conflicted recovering addict, reminds us that Rebecca Hall is just a classically good actress who will only enhance a tantalizingly bleak screenplay (see: The Town, The Awakening). And finally there’s Edgerton as Gordoa character I really want to talk about but really shouldn’t for the sake of your viewing experience. But hot shit does our man Gordo deliver one helluva sinister piece of dialogue in one of the film’s climactic scenes. Hell, it’s almost Cranston-esque!

There’s nothing special about Edgerton’s minimalist camerawork here, but there’s also nothing distracting about it. And sure, you can say you saw the ending coming five or ten minutes out. But the mystery certainly builds well leading up to that pointand the reveal is a gut punch you won’t soon forget.  While this is a mystery-suspense drama, it’s also one that should translate very well to fans of horror and dark thrillers. I’ll leave a large stamp of approval at that, and simply urge you to go in blind.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDB: 7.1

-Sam Adams

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

Sam Worthington Unabomber
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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.

manhunt-unabomber-cover

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.

manhunt-unabomber-worthington-mail

“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

“Word.”

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
GRADE: A-

-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
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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.

GRADE: B / B+
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.

GRADE: B+
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.

GRADE: B+
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.

GRADE: B / B+
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.

GRADE: B / B+
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.

GRADE: B+
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
GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.2
Department Q: The Absent One
GRADE: B+ / B
IMDb: 7.1
Department Q: A Conspiracy of Faith
GRADE: B+
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.

GRADE: B+
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.

GRADE: A-
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.

GRADE: B / B+
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.

GRADE: B+
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.

GRADE: B / B+
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.

GRADE: A / A-
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.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.5

-Sam Adams

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

the oath iceland movie kormakur
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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.

colin_farrell_baltasar_kormakur

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.

hera_hilmar_the_oath

“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