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

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

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

american han korean han I Saw the Devil

American Han                                Korean Han

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

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

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

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

a hard day Sun-kyun Lee

“I’m sorry mama!”

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

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

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

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 6.7

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

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

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

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Gon’s girl…

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

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

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

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.7

A Company Man
Ji-seob So in A Company Man

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

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

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

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

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

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.7

-Sam Adams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stake Land
IMDb: 6.5
GRADE: A-

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

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

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

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

Devil’s Pass
IMDb: 5.7
GRADE: B

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

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

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

Day of the Dead 
IMDb: 7.2

The Horde
IMDb: 5.9
GRADE: B

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

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

Silence of the Lambs
IMDb: 8.6
GRADE: A

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

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

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

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

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

Zombeavers
IMDb: 4.8
GRADE: B / B-

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

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

You’re Next
IMDb: 6.5
GRADE: B+ / A-

Scream
IMDb: 7.2

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

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

The Canal
IMDb: 5.9
GRADE: B+

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

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

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

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

Rosemary’s Baby
IMDb: 8.0

Starry Eyes
IMDb: 6.0
GRADE: B / B-

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

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

Ravenous
IMDb: 7.1
GRADE: B+

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

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

American Psycho
IMDb: 7.6
GRADE: A

American Mary
IMDb: 6.3
GRADE: B / B+

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

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

Open Water
IMDb: 5.7

The Host
IMDb: 7.0

-Sam Adams

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

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

Brazilian Bleak: Wolf at the Door on Netflix Instant

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

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

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

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

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

john turturro Milhem Cortaz lookalike

“Ladies love the creepy teeth, bro.”

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

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

landra leal sexy wolf at the door

Hell hath no fury like a psychopathic mistress scorned…

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

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.5

-Sam Adams

The Exorcist on Netflix Instant: Rewatching the Best Horror Movie of All Time

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BY ADAM FOX

1973’s The Exorcist is the furthest thing from underrated when it comes to the scary-flick canon. Every new release that’s even slightly in contention for “best horror film of the year” is inevitably compared to William Friedkin’s masterful tale of demonic dread. Trailers like to flash ballsy quotes in an effort to earn your hard-earned cash like, “Scarier than The Exorcist!” (this is always bullshit) and “The best horror movie since The Exorcist” (this is usually bullshit).

evil dead the most terrifying film poster

Not a bad remake at all, but yeah… bullshit!

I don’t mean to come across as some disgruntled and jaded codger when it comes to the genre. After all, horror film (and my fascination with all things macabre) have stood as the cover photos in my catalog of interests for as long as I can remember. It’s not that I even think that The Exorcist is such an untouchable feat in filmmaking that no director from our generation should  bother to recapture its magic.

clint eastwood gran torino angry old man

Adam Fox: resident disgruntled and jaded codger.

The main problem lies in the fact that movie studios have taken a liking to financing projects that skip through the boring stuff (character development and solid individual acting performances) and jump straight to the good stuff (computer-generated ghosts, jump scares, excessive gore). The issue is that my idea of what constitutes as “good” and “boring” are viewed inversely by Hollywood, and as a result, I’m left feeling incredibly underwhelmed when I trek to a theater to catch the latest spooky offering.

clint eastwood gran torino angry old man

“They sure don’t make ’em like they used to…”

…And I don’t really know what the hell the reason for this phenomenon is, either. Do studios think that horror movies are attended exclusively by teens who lack the attention span to make it through a healthy dose of backstory prior to seat-jumping? Is it strictly a budgetary thing? Has the genre evolved so dramatically throughout the years to the point where a horror film can’t just be a great stand-alone movie anymore?

clint eastwood gran torino angry old man

“You draft-dodgin’ sons of bitches wouldn’t know a good horror movie if you were sittin’ in the theater and it gave you a reacharound!”

The reason The Exorcist is so brilliant has actually very little to do with little Regan’s entanglement with the demon Pazuzu and more to do with how the movie unfolds. The message conveyed throughout that the presence of disharmony (or evil) brings out the worst in humankind is far from subtle, but far more clever than a film like The Babadooks metaphorical head-beating.

And even the uninitiated know that no ghost, demon or monster has anything over a human being and their capacity to inflict pain on one another. It doesn’t even take stomaching the latest ISIS video leaked on the Internet to realize that humans are responsible for a metric ton of horrifying, fucked up things. This is where a handful of horror films really hit a home run and where so many others fail; when the novelty of seeing a terrifying monster in the bathroom mirror wears off, you’re left looking at your own reflection staring back at you.

The Exorcist also straddles that fine line between reality and fantasy so expertly that it evokes the most terrifying two words imaginable after watching a horror film – “It’s possible.” Perhaps it was years spent in the American Southwest that made me particularly vulnerable to Catholic mumbo-jumbo, but there’s a reason why the topic of exorcism is such a meat-and-potatoes staple for horror films. After all, The Exorcist was based on the 1949 real-life exorcism of Roland Doe which has long since been the Roman Catholic Church’s Rule 1…

Brad Pitt First rule Fight Club exorcist shutter island

First rule of exorcisms: You do not talk about exorcisms.

Exorcisms are grounded enough in reality that, combined with Catholicism’s constant fixation on sadness, despair and good old-fashioned title fights of good versus evil, they create for some plausibly terrifying results on a big screen.

The Exorcist also succeeds at being a solid movie against the backdrop of a ghost story, without being “just” a ghost story. The moral dilemmas of Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) are vast as he struggles with pledging fealty to the Catholic Church and his guilt in committing his elderly mother to a mental institution. We easily recall the memorable scenes like the head-spinning, the pea soup and the spider-walk, but the story was ever only really about an embattled Jesuit priest in over his head who commits one final, selfless act to save a little girl. It’s nothing especially heady, but it certainly rises above the ranks of its colleagues whose characters show up to shuttered houses to, you know, find out why doors are closing and the furniture is moving.
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I feel like I’ve created an unintentional ranking system whenever I watch a horror movie that scales from “one” to “Exorcist,” with most modern horror releases failing to reach even a five. I’d like to think of this less as elitism and more as being so affected by the film the first time I watched it that I now have impossibly high hopes for the genre, knowing full well what it’s capable of. The Exorcist is far from perfect and even starts to show its age a little these days, but it will forever remain king of the genre until someone successfully unseats it from a four decades-long reign. You come at Linda Blair, you best not miss.

GRADE: A
IMDb: 8.0

NOTE: Creator of this blog Sam Adams does not endorse Adam Fox’s assertion that The Exorcist is the greatest horror film of all time. Mr. Adams does, however, endorse Mr. Fox.

Beasts of Western Europe: Bullhead and Wolf on Netflix Instant

wolf and bullhead on netflix streaming
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“Man is a rope, tied between beast and Superman—a rope over an abyss.” —Nietzsche

When you think of beefed-up Euros going apeshit on the silver screen, Van Damme and Schwarzenegger probably come to mind before heady art house flicks. Rather than glorify alpha-male violence, Bullhead (2011, Belgium) and Wolf (2013, Netherlands) are films that delve into its psychological underpinnings and criminal repercussions with stunning visceral and emotional results.

Both stories pit their protagonist as a man walking the tightrope between brutish beast and conscientious being. Both even go so far as to flesh this paradox out with a sort of reverse anthropomorphism (man becomes bull, man becomes lupine predator).

Matthias Schoenaerts in Bullhead drinking vodka

Matthias Schoenaerts in Bullhead: GOT VODKA?

I know I may come off as a bit of a horse’s ass (reverse-anthropomorphic pun intended) for opening with a Nietzsche quote, but I think it’s relevant here. The maniacal German philosopher’s notion of the “he-man”—or Übermensch—is probed bluntly and bleakly in both Wolf and Bullhead. Sure, we see the aesthetic glory and brutal splendor that Nietzsche lusted after (and that Hollywood loves to commodify), but we also see these notions deflated and emasculated in the most devastating ways.

If you want two great crime movies with similar themes, here they are. If you want two great crime movies that make you go off on Nietzschean existential tangents, here they are as well.

Bullhead
bullhead movie belgium netflix instant

Much like Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah, director Michaël R. Roskam’s Bullhead is a devastatingly bleak European gangster flick that ventures into the more obscure areas of criminal enterprise. It also deals with the dynamic of a juvenile friendship, beginning in adulthood and flashing back to a horrific juncture that created a shameful rift between the boyhood mates.

In this sense, Bullhead plays a bit like a minimalist, apolitical version of The Kite Runner—if only Khaled Hosseini’s story had been put in the hands of Nicolas Winding Refn (a particular, neon-lit club scene could have been seamlessly woven into any of the Pusher films).

Bullhead sets its ominous tone from the opening frame, with a monologue played over a shot of a misty field. The not-so-upbeat narration ends this way: “No matter how long ago it was, there will always be someone to bring it all back. Because no matter what you do or think, one thing is for sure, you’re always fucked. Now, tomorrow, next week or next year, until the end of time, fucked.”

Bullhead movie fucked

Bullhead expresses the natural sentiment associated with sublime Belgian pastures: We’re all fucked.

The film’s tortured, brooding protagonist is Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts). Jacky has taken over his family’s corrupt livestock business, and for reasons I can’t disclose without playing spoiler, has an escalating habit of shooting himself in the ass with bovine growth hormones.

The film pushes this notion of the intermingled similarities between beast and man to the point that you almost expect Jacky to morph into a minotaur. But this isn’t necessarily a setback if you can dig a film based on slow, foreboding character study.

I also can’t emphasize the word “brooding” highly enough in regard to Schoenaerts’ magnificent portrayal of a gloomy beefcake who trudges through life with a menacing chip on his shoulder. And like any prodded bull, Jacky is prone to fits of severe, blind rage.

The film’s narrative unfolds around Jacky reuniting with his former bestie (Jeroen Perceval of Borgman) as the  Vanmarsenille farm is linked to a mafia hit. As Jacky meets with a gang boss and tries to keep his family business in check, a lost love from his past also enters the picture. With the pressure on, Jacky eventually breaks out of the pen. And what ensues is a bit like watching a bull in a China shop.

Jeroen Perceval Bullhead Borgman

Jeroen Perceval, most recognizable from Borgman—that creepy Dutch movie about the devil doing home invasions.

Bullhead excels as a disturbing character study of an alpha male in mental anguish and turmoil. It’s a refreshing departure from Hollywood, where a guy like Matthias Schoenaerts would be designated to mindless roles in movies where a bunch of shit blows up. In other words, it’s kind of like watching Requiem for a Dream… starring Vin Diesel.

The film’s conclusion isn’t exactly satisfying, but hey, it’s a movie about a guy who injects bull testosterone into his ass. What did you really expect?

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 7.4

Wolf
wolf movie Marwan Kenzari gun

If Drake were to make a biopic about Drake, he would probably want  his inflated ego to come across much like Marwan Kenzari’s character of Majid in director Jim Taihuttu’s Wolf. Drake, of course, likes portraying himself in gritty black-and-white videos as a version of himself that isn’t softer than a tumble-dryed down pillow. And like Drake’s vision of himself, Majid is a muscle-bound, culturally conflicted badass who started from the bottom and… well, you get the gist.

drake meme catch a body

Aubrey “Drake” Graham: the menacing figurehead behind albums like Take Care, and tours like Would You Like a Tour?

I digress. We meet Majid—a Muslim of Moroccan heritage—as he and his sketchy buddy Amil (Chemseddine Amar) casually discuss speed bikes on a vacant street while window-shopping. Next thing we know, they’re bashing in a storefront and going full-fledged GTA.

The laid-back dialogue of this scene contrasted with its ensuing criminal violence brings to mind Pulp Fiction. It’s a bit like watching very small-time versions of Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega chop it up about foot massages and Le Big Mac before unleashing their vengeance.
Jules Winnfield Vincent Vega Pulp Fiction foot massage

This scene isn’t the only one in which Wolf borrows from the sleek badassery of American crime classics. There’s also as much Tony Montana shit going on here as the next rags-to-riches gangster flick. And in terms of that reverse-anthropomorphic thing, there’s a moment where Majid confronts his spirit animal and director Taihuttu essentially plagiarizes one of the most poetic scenes from Deerhunter.

But perhaps the most relevant comparison for Wolf would be Mathieu Kassovitz’s brilliant La Haine (1995)—another black-and-white flick depicting petty crook life in Euro slums and backdropped by a hip-hop aesthetic and soundtrack. (There’s a fantastic—albeit hyperbolic—montage in Wolf that shows Majid and Amil making their crime comeuppance set to hilarious Euro thug rap that name drops Keyser Soze and Julius Caesar. An American remake could definitely use this 2 Chainz song…)

Like La Haine, Wolf gets into the sociopolitical nature of racism and systemic corruption in what outsiders might typically think of as idyllic European cities (La Haine‘s Paris and Wolf‘s Utrecht). The inner struggle that Majid faces as a brutish kick boxer and criminal mixed with his family’s strict Islamic heritage is particularly engaging, and points to the film’s highlight—a remarkable and dynamic performance from Kenzari (who is starting to get some Hollywood play in the film’s wake).

Wolf movie Bo Maerten Tessa

Majid’s two-timing girlfriend Tessa: the Dutch Alexandra Daddario

Wolf is certainly a more entertaining and more rapidly paced film than Bullhead. That said, it can easily be criticized of being influenced by American films like Raging Bull, Pulp Fiction and Deerhunter almost to the point of copyright infringement. Still, Kenzari’s breakout performance as a conflicted he-man struggling between family, pride, honor and infamy is worth the 122-minute runtime alone. Add in some fantastic cinematography and gripping fight scenes, and Wolf makes for one of the more impressive recent additions to Netflix Instant’s strong cache of foreign crime cinema.

GRADE: B+ / A- 
IMDb: 7.3

-Sam Adams

The Dark Valley on Netflix Instant: Sam Riley Takes Control in Spaetzle Western

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If I had to pick my top contributors to the Western movie genre, the name John would not be among them. I would forego Wayne, Ford and Huston for the likes of Sam (Peckinpah), Sergio (Leone), Larry (McMurtry) and Cormac (McCarthy). Now I know that the work of these later auteurs stands on the shoulders of classic Westerns of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Films like The Treasure of Sierra Madre and The Searchers at one time defined the face of American pop culture.

John Wayne Camel cigarette ad

The Duke: as American as apple pie, Don Draper and lung cancer.

But in the same way that it’s a ridiculously antiquated, sentimentalist notion to call Citizen Kane the greatest movie ever made, it should be acknowledged that Western filmmaking and its underlying ideologies have changed and, lord forbid, evolved since the era of neckerchief-clad, lassoo-twirling dandies roundin’ up Injuns.

More to the point: I like my Westerns weird, bleak and bloody. I love the heightened style and sparse dialogue that Leone and Eastwood pioneered. And while The Wild Bunch isn’t my favorite Peckinpah movie, it introduced concepts to the genre that had been missing—namely blood, the vulgarity of humans killing humans, and an outlaw’s sense of humor about these things.

Sam Peckinpah Isela Vega NSFW

Sam Peckinpah had his head in the right place (pictured with Isela Vega on the set of 1974’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia).

But one thing hasn’t changed. From Ford to Leone and Peckinpah to modern classics like No Country for Old Men, Hollywood—and the world at large—seems as smitten with the genre as it was back in the days of Hopalong Cassidy.

The past few decades have seen some sterling additions, including Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, what an asshole of a title) and John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005).

Guy Pearce The Proposition

Guy Pearce in Australia’s The Proposition—one of the best Westerns of the past few decades.

Those last two films come from a Kiwi and an Aussie director, respectively. I mention this because the genre has become so widespread that the lore of the American West has perhaps been best expressed over the past decade via foreign manifestations.

Which brings us to Germany, where in the 1960s, a Western film movement based on Karl May’s Winnetou books brought cowboys and Indians to the Krauts. But times have changed, and the German-Austrian film The Dark Valley is to Winnetou what No Country was to those “John” classics.

It’s a Western that draws from several corners of the Earth to shape its familiar yet refreshingly stylized narrative. While the title of “Best German Western Ever” might not impress, I’ll further that by saying that Dark Valley is one of this millennium’s stronger additions to one of the most beloved and badass genres of all-time.

The Dark Valley
sam riley the dark valley

The first time I watched The Dark Valley, I couldn’t stop thinking about Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973). Like Drifter, Valley introduces us to an ominous and silent figure who enters a small town on horseback. In both films, it’s hinted at early on that our mysterious protagonist has arrived to avenge horrific sins of the past. And in both films, it is a dark, torturous secret in the town’s history that is the calling card for bloody retribution.

But High Plains Drifter isn’t the only film that seems to have heavily influenced director Andreas Prochaska’s suspense tale set in the 19th Century Austrian Alps. There’s an undercurrent of fear and unease among the townsfolk perpetrated by some dark secret that’s reminiscent of what was going on in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village.

And then there’s the snowy, ramshackle lumber town itself—and one particular climactic scene involving this setting—that brings to mind Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (a film that’s in or near my all-time top ten). Finally, there’s some wonderfully stylistic audiovisual sequences that evoke that eerie theme from Ravenous, the score from There Will Be Blood, or really just about any moment in Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Drive.

So there’s your laundry list of comparisons. I mention them mainly because The Dark Valley is a film of patchwork style and influence. This eclectic range extends to its superb lead, Sam Riley—the lone British actor cast in a German film with German dialogue (Important note: Netflix defaults to a dubbed version for U.S. audiences—switch to German with English subtitles).

Control: phenomenal movie.

Riley in Control: phenomenal movie.

Which raises the question, Where the fuck has Sam Riley been? He broke through with his incredible depiction of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007)—a film I’d put alongside Ida (also on Netflix Instant) as having the most stunning black-and-white cinematography of the 21st Century. Since, he’s had forgettable roles in big-budget flicks (Maleficent) and a few big roles in forgettable indie flicks (On the Road, Brighton Rock).

Anyway, old Sam returns to form in The Dark Valley as Greider, a Yank who’s travelled to an isolated Austrian mountain town under the guise of an Ansel Adams-inspired photographic mission.

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Portrait of the gunman as a young artist…

The town is run by Old Brenner, an iron-fisted tyrant who, along with his six sons, upholds a decades-old tradition of shame that keeps the villagers in perpetual fear. Tensions begin to mount as a girl whose family Greider is staying with finds herself in line for the sadistic ritual.

Like Riley’s performance, The Dark Valley builds with a slow burn that might detract viewers looking for a 3:10 to Yuma-style shoot ’em up. Valley is an atmospheric Western. Part of that means Sam Riley spending quite a bit of time brooding while he looks at himself in a mirror, backdropped by eerie noise music. It also means plenty of gorgeous camera work around the sublime snow-covered valley where the film is set.

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Ah, the Alps: Home to Sound of Music, frolicking goats and inbred psycopaths.

When the chips begin to fall, however, the film is as suspenseful and stylistically glorious as any of the recent Western triumphs I’ve mentioned. In particular, the brilliant cinematography mixed with Riley’s escalating emotional range bring us to one of the most phenomenal climactic shootout scenes the genre has seen in the past few decades. Director Prochaska embellishes all of this with a murderous montage set to the tune of a song by indie band Steaming Satellites (although I’m sure some purists may hate this scene for its hyperreal blending of new and old).

the dark valley netflix instant

Rooster Cogburn wants his eyepatch back…

Due to its initially tedious pace and rather conventional narrative, The Dark Valley isn’t exactly on the same level as modern classics like The Three Burials, The Proposition and No Country. Still, when pitted against the slew of simply above-average Western flicks of the past few years that Netflix Instant has to offer (Sweetwater and Blackthorn come to mind), Valley is a damn fine piece of filmmaking, aided particularly by Prochaska’s style, Thomas Kienast’s cinematography and Riley’s controlled performance.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.2

-Sam Adams

V/H/S and V/H/S/2 on Netflix Instant: Found footage not to be frowned upon

V/H/S and V/H/S/2 on Netflix Instant
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“Found footage” has grown to carry a rather negative connotation amongst horror fans. Much of this is for good reason, what with the innumerable low-budget, low-quality and utterly braindead derivatives of Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity (including several of the half-assed Paranormal sequels themselves). But recent strides have shown that there’s still sustenance waiting to be milked from this zombie-cow of a sub-genre.

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Cannibal Holocaust (1980): The grandaddy of found footage and one of the most gruesomely warped movies of all time.

Highlights among these modern additions include REC, the great George Romero’s Diary of the Dead, Trollhunter and 2014’s The Taking of Deborah Logan (the last two of which are available on Netflix Instant). Bigger-budget films like Chronicle and Cloverfield were also impressive, although I’d file them more under sci-fi-suspense than horror.

The psychology—not economics—behind why found footage films have become so successful is rather simple. On one level, we live in a culture that is unhealthily obsessed with voyeurism. On another, I would argue that this sub-genre caters to horror fans who, like myself, have trouble suspending their disbelief (e.g., I don’t believe in ghosts, so it’s hard for me to take exorcism or haunting stories seriously unless they get really damn creative.)

Watching a horrific tale unfold in what appears to be a more organic way works—at the very least—as a device that heightens the plausibility of such stories for viewers. Or put more plainly, the lifelike stylization of a movie within a movie overwhelms my ape brain, enabling it to quickly succumb to ideas I might have previously scoffed at. … At least that’s my two cents.

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Zombie rabies: somehow much more believable when shot with a shaky handcam on night vision.

So as a horror lover who believes found footage is by no means an exhausted fad, one might ask what took me so long to get toV/H/S and V/H/S/2. The answer, quite simply, is that they have absolute shit scores on IMDb. The first installment carries a lousy 5.8, and the second is just slightly higher with a 6.1.

I’ve warned readers several times that horror scores on IMDb are usually at least a point below what a non-horror movie of equal caliber would draw. Still… I can only think of a handful of movies that ever ranked at a 6 or below that were worth my while (Here’s to you, Beer League). So why did these two really good horror flicks score so low? Chalk it up to moral outrage from non-horror fans translating into IMDb lowballing. Which is a good segue for a more specific look at our first recommended film in this post:

V/H/S
Hannah Fierman V/H/S Amateur Night

V/H/S opens through the lens of a group of hipster jackasses going around and filming themselves in acts of torment and destruction. Their first “prank” is a pseudo-rapey act in which they attack a couple in a parking garage.

I’m fairly sure quite a few of those negative scores on IMDb came from viewers who couldn’t make it through the first 20 minutes of the movie. While the actions of these small-time goons is certainly morally reprehensible, the shoddy, shaky, handheld recording quality of the film in the opening sequences is even more of an affront to the general public. It makes Blair Witch look like it was shot by the great Emmanuel Lubezki.

Emmanuel Lubezki Children of Men six minute shot

The brains behind Children of Men‘s famous uninterrupted six-minute action shot, Emmanuel Lubezki also killed it with Birdman and Gravity. Too bad he wasn’t available for V/H/S

For those who can exercise a bit of patience, V/H/S quickly takes a turn for the better as the criminals get a cash offer to break into a house and recover a video tape of unknown origin. As the baddies start popping movies into VHS players, they realize they’ve stumbled on a treasure trove of what are mainly supernatural snuff flicks.

Here, V/H/S begins its anthology format, diving into five shorts by five different directors. Thankfully, the earlier narrative goes largely by the wayside, and we’re treated to a series of immensely harrowing found footage tales, all shot in at least slightly superior quality to that barely watchable intro.

V/H/S isn’t the first horror movie to embrace the anthology format (Creepshow and Three… Extremes immediately come to mind), but it is a novel idea for the found footage genre. It’s particularly refreshing when pitted against all that Paranormal Activity jive in which we typically have to wait through about an hour of cabinets banging, chandeliers rattling and lights going on and off before we actually get to see the shit hit the fan.

paranormal activity

Paranormal Activity: Proof that you can make hundreds of millions by screening footage of people sleeping.

If you’ve ever been irked by comedies that are hilarious for the first 45 minutes and then fizzle out due to that whole “narrative thing,” V/H/S is exactly the antidote, except in horror form. The first short, “Amateur Night,” introduces us to more rapey dudes who go bar hopping and bring some drunk girls back to their hotel. Of course, said bros are looking for love in all the wrong places, and date rape quickly turns into a date with destiny.

“Amateur Night” is the strongest of the five shorts in V/H/S, but the other stories—about a couple being stalked on a honeymoon in the Grand Canyon; a demonic backwoods retreat; a Skype chat gone wrong; and a Halloween party from hell—are all intensely creepy shorts.

V/H/S may not be reinventing the wheel, but outside of come choppy camerawork, it’s about as entertaining throughout as a horror film could be. And it also gets some kudos for being the predecessor to one of the best found footage movies ever…

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 5.8

V/H/S/2
V/H/S/2 Hannah Hughes

The recipe for V/H/S/2 is essentially that of its prequel: gallons of blood, lots of boobs and an ever-present nobody-walks theme. However, it’s as if the directors came back and fixed every kink. For one, the main narrative—a dickhead private dick and his sexy sidekick looking for a lost kid and stumbling on more VHS tapes—actually weaves through the films shorts in a way that makes it more than just a castaway excuse for an anthology film.

V/H/S/2 would also probably be more aptly titled H/D/CAMCORDER, as all of its sequences are shot in much higher definition than the original—lending some strong visual appeal to the horrific bleakness of each. And the second installation is a bit more concise than the first, with four shorts instead of five, and 22 minutes less of run time. (Note to indie filmmakers: Editing is not your enemy!)

V/H/S/2 a ride in the park

I see dead people… in HD.

V/H/S/2 also has the crowning achievement of creating what’s at least debatably the best half hour of found footage work ever made. Directed by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Evans, the third sequence in the film, “Safe Haven,” is far and away the pinnacle of both V/H/S films.

The (comparably longer) short begins with a documentary crew filming a notorious Indonesian cult leader. Eventually, they persuade the sinister guru to let them bring cameras into his lockdown camp to expose the truth. Seeing as Ti West and Joe Swanberg have a heavy hand in both V/H/S films, it’s worth noting that this initial set up is eerily similar to that of The Sacrament, West’s 2013 found footage riff on the Jonestown Massacre, which stars Swanberg. (The Sacrament is on Netflix Instant, and is a totally worthwhile horror flick.)

safe haven

“Drink the Kool-Aid, motherfuckers.”

But where The Sacrament leaves your typical doomsday cult scenario, “Safe Haven” takes it a giant, cloven-footed step further. The end result is simply one of the most gloriously gory and innovative executions that modern horror has to show for itself.

The other three segments in this blood-red mosaic don’t disappoint either—both in terms of execution and innovation. Adam Wingard’s “Phase I Clinical Trials” is viewed literally through the eye of a guy with an ocular implant that records his surroundings and allows him a closer connection to the paranormal; “A Ride in the Park,” by Blair Witch alums Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sánchez uses a GoPro to capture a carnival of carnage in a quiet forest; and arguably the second-best short in this film, Jason Eisener’s “Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” well, the title is kinda self explanatory.

Slumber Party Alien Invasion

A PSA from “Slumber Party Alien Abduction”: Dear Signs, you sucked.

In all, V/H/S/2 delivers more shocks and excitement over its 96-minute run time than the entire Paranormal Activity saga combined. It’s not only one of the best found footage movies of all time, but also arguably one of the best and most creative horror flicks of the past decade.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 6.1

-Sam Adams