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

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

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

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

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

Charlie’s Demons (Charlie Brooker horror)
black mirror playtest and charlie brooker's dead set on netflix

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

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

Dead Set
IMDb: 7.8
GRADE: B+

Playtest
IMDb: 8.4
GRADE: B+

Presence in the Precinct House
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Channeling the cult-classic Session 9, Last Shift brings us into the world of Jessica (Juliana Harkavy), a cop working her first shift. Of course she just happens to look like the half-sister of Jessica Alba and Hope Solo. Of course the shift is run alone. At night. In a precinct house that’s haunted by the spirit of a mass murder clan! Last Shift is one of those low-budget, sleeper Netflix horror titles that more than does the trick in terms of delivering continuous suspense and some good visual and psychological thrills. In fact, I’d go so far as to place it in the top ten horror movies of 2015. As a horror buff who is typically bored by paranormal films, this one easily kept my attention throughout. An impressive flick from up-and-coming horror director Anthony DiBlasi.

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

Last Shift
GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 5.7

Baskin
GRADE: B-
IMDb: 5.7

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

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

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

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

The Den
GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.1

Hush
GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.6

50 Shades of Gangrene (Irish horror)
thecanalthehallow
When I put together a list of some of best lesser-known modern horror flicks on Netflix, The Canal was my glaring omission. Perhaps I held off on watching it due to the corny cover art on Netflix that makes it look like a generic, direct-to-DVD snoozefest. In fact, this film is so good that I’m doubling back on my claim that The Babadook was the best horror film of 2014 (granted, it was a pretty shitty year for horror).

So what’s the deal with The Canal? Premise: An Irish film archivist moves his wife and son into a creepy old house located on a… canal, of all things. With a heavy tip o’ the cap to The Shining, our man starts losing his mind a wee bit, especially when he finds some films at work that reveal his house to be the scene of a century-old murder wherein a man killed his wife and kids.

This familiar narrative just described is pretty much where The Canal stops adhering to any genre conventions. I’ve stated on this blog that haunting movies generally don’t do the trick for me (just leave the fucking house, already!). But this one is more refreshing and palpable, if only because the majority of the film doesn’t take place in the house, and we don’t have to wade through an hour of creaking doors and power outages to get to the real meat. Moreover, The Canal operates on a heady, multilayered plain of psychological dementia that enters into a possessed mind in one of the most convincingand therefore terrifyingways I’ve encountered. Trippy, manic and skillfully crafted, the lack of recognition for director Ivan Kavanagh’s indie masterpiece is criminal. Queue it up without further delay.

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

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

The Hallow
GRADE: B
IMDb: 5.7

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

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

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

The Sacrament
GRADE: B+ / B
IMDb: 6.1

The Invitation
GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.7

-Sam Adams

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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.

cannibal holocaust found footage

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.

rec movie zombie

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

Reanimating Kevin Smith: Tusk furthers a new wave of bizarre, innovative horror

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I am not a Kevin Smith fan. Around the age of 11, I thought Clerks, Mallrats and Chasing Amy were among the funniest films in the world. Shortly after, my testicles dropped. Along with them, the geeky, pothead sex humor that was Smith’s schtick also dropped from my perception of what constituted a watchable movie.

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This was hilarious… back when the word “poop” made me giggle

To this day I cannot watch those movies without grimacing, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Dogma only made a tired, pre-pubescent joke worse. Like many folks, I then completely gave up on Smith. That is, until Red State—his self-distirbuted horror / shoot ’em up tale inspired by the evils of the Westboro Baptist Churchcame along.

Red state John Goodman

John Goodman has some great lines in Red State.

It’s hard to write anything about Smith without bringing up the idea of maturity (or lack thereof). I mention this because while Smith hasn’t exactly reinvented himself through Red State (2011) and Tusk (2014)—his signature campy, dick-joke humor runs rampant throughout both—he has brought some fresh ideas to the horror genre at a time when every other movie is either an Exorcist rehashing or a remake.

Is this innovation a sign of maturity? Maybe, maybe not. But both films are undeniable measures of progress for a director whose dog and pony show had all but bit the dust.

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Kevin Smith reveals how he got famous…

It’s also worth mentioning that these movies come at a time when Smith is making a major career turn in the direction of horror (Tusk is the first in his slated Great White North trilogy; I can’t wait for 2016’s Moose Jaws). So here’s my two cents on Tusk, which I recommend to anyone who has ever been a fan of the director, or simply to fans of campy horror who may have been just as turned off by him in the past as I was.

Tusk (on DVD)
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Tusk is a very odd movie, so I’ll give it an odd comparison: It’s essentially one part Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and two parts The Human Centipede. Unfortunately, I can’t get too far into the particulars of this description. Even though the underlying premise is hinted at largely both in the title and in the film’s trailer, its climax relies on an underlying conceit that makes it of the “just go in blind and watch it” variety.

Here’s what I can tell you in order to see if this is your cup of tea:

Tusk introduces us to podcaster Wallace Bryton (Justin Long, in his most memorable performance since Drag Me to Hell). Wallace runs a show called “The Not-See Party” along with his bud Teddy (Haley-Joel Osment, 15 years removed from The Sixth Sense and looking like a plump, diminutive Hobbit extra).

Tusk Haley Joel Osment

Insert “I see dead people” pun here…

Wallace and Ted capitalize on the shame and misfortune of others. They’re exactly the kind of opportunistic media savages whom Joel Murray’s character Frank would have mowed down with an assault rifle in the brilliant black comedy God Bless America.

When the duo see a viral video of a dullard who mistakenly chopped off his leg with a samurai sword, Wallace travels to Canada, looking for a great freakshow interview. But things don’t quite pan out.

Stranded in Winnipeg, he’s about to call it quits and come home empty handed when he sees an ad in a bar bathroom that reads like a dinner invitation from The Most Interesting Man in the World.

He drives into the icy depths of Manitoba and eventually arrives at the house of the mysterious Howard Howe (Michael Parks, easily recognizable from a slew of Tarantino flicks). Shortly after, things go completely apeshit.

most interestin man, michael parks tusk

“I don’t usually star in Kevin Smith movies, but when I do, they’re surprisingly good.”

I know that I deviate from popular critical sentiment when I say that I thoroughly enjoyed the shit out of Tusk. And to Smith’s credit, I’m pretty sure I enjoyed it for all the same reasons that he had a blast making it, and for all the same reasons he knew a small niche of viewers would love it. As Smith said in an interview, “I just wanted to showcase Michael Parks in a fucked up story, where he could recite some Lewis Carroll and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to some poor motherfucker.”

That synopsis underlines the central gem in an imperfect film that is comprised of several great pieces, as well as a few scenes and ideas that would have been much better off left on the cutting-room floor. (Or simply written and directed by someone less self-indulgent than Smith.)

Michael Parks is phenomenal as Howe, the psychopathic wheelchair philosopher. A long scene in which Howe regales Wallace with stories of drinking with Hemingway in Normandy is easily the best sequence of dialogue Smith has ever written. Wallace’s every word is that of a noble, worldly seaman—if only that seaman were the lovechild of Hannibal Lecter and Dr. Moreau.

brando island of dr. moreau

The 1996 remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau, which posed the weighty, primordial question, “What the fuck was Marlon Brando thinking?”

Furthermore, Kevin Smith writes a character in Howard Howe that is completely fleshed out. Even the greatest horror films too often leave us with questions as to who the villain really was, and from whence his darkest motives were borne. (In the case of Texas Chainsaw and Halloween, perhaps this was so we could get hit over the head with a never-ending shower of sequels). But in Tusk, everything is laid on the tableand the story of our villain is brilliantly constructed with thoughtfully researched and historically creative flair.

Michale Parks in Kevin Smith's Tusk

“I Think the real savage animals are the humans.”

Other strong points in Tusk include special effects makeup that is both hilarious and also some of the most wonderfully gruesome creature-feature imagery since Slither. And Justin Long’s performance proves that after Drag Me to Hell and Jeepers Creepers, this guy was put on Earth to do one thing: play a hyperbolically snide, scared-shitless version of himself in horror movies.

Justin Long Jeepers Creepers Darry

Dear Justin Long: You will always be Darry from Jeepers Creepers.

As for drawbacks from this otherwise refreshingly innovative horror-comedy, Kevin Smith just kind of overdid it with his Kevin Smith-ness. There’s a 13-minute-long scene in which an A-lister makes a cameo as a stereotypically Canadian murder detective that adds absolutely nothing to the film other than the information that Kevin Smith is still able to hook an A-lister.

Not only is this character unnecessary, but his caricature-esque persona brings a level of over-the-top absurdity to the film that is too goofy even for Smith’s batshit premise. Another drawback would be that there’s a bunch of dick jokes and geeky humor that will most likely appeal to no one but diehard Kevin Smith fans.

All said, however, when you weigh the bilge versus the really great bits (the acting, Parks’ brilliant dialogue, a fresh horror story and great special effects), Tusk emerges as one of 2014’s best horror flicks.

Oh, and the usage of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” in a climactic scene? Brilliant.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 5.6

-Sam Adams

The best of Netflix Instant if bleak, thrilling cinema is your ASMR: Part I

BBC crime shows
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Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) has quickly become the Internet’s answer to Klonopin. Unfortunately, I don’t happen to be among those lulled into a happy place by videos of 15-year-old girls whispering about how it feels to wash their hands with a bar of texturized chamomile soap. No, my go-to for bedtime relaxation comes more in the form of films and shows that rely heavily on, say, depictions and existential conversations predicated upon bodily dismemberment.

Buffalo Bill

The title of an ASMR video I would watch

Why? I have no clue. And for the moment, this isn’t about why (although I’m sure I’ll have to tackle that at some point). The underlying crux of this blog series is to foster a space for recommending and discussing some of the best and most gruesomely soothing films/shows out there. If you consider Winter’s Bone, True Detective and The Descent to be among the past decade’s seminal moving-picture achievements—and are simply craving more, but don’t where to turn—then welcome.

If you’re as obsessed with these genres as I am, you likely know that spending half an hour on Google attempting to find something that fits within their parameters is, nine times out of ten, an exercise in futility.

To that point, I’m simply sick and tired of every “Best on Netflix you might not have seen” list trying to convince me that Drinking Buddies, Don Jon and Prince Avalanche aren’t somehow going to make me head to Hollywood and craft a Buffalo Bill-style human-skin coat out of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the Duplass Brothers and Diablo Cody.

Seriously, I will wear that shit in public to boycott the premiere of Greta Gerwig and John Kransinki’s newest project about a couple of upper-middle class white people who wear flannel and resolve emotional issues to the tune of ten Kimya Dawson songs and then learn something about themselves. (It’s still in the works, but I believe they’ve tentatively titled it We Are Here Now and Were There.)

Indie trash

Yeah, yeah, go fuck yourself.

I digress. What we’re talking about here is your dark minds benefiting from the rotten fruits of my labor. Said “labor” being perhaps an unhealthy amount of man-hours browsing reddit subpages over the past year to provide you with some of the sickest, most brilliant diamonds in the rough that you can access through Netflix Instant. Why this specific portal, you ask? Because everyone and their grandmother’s fuckin’ cousin has it, I respond.

So, without further ado, I think it’s time we talk about Kevin… er, shows and movies. Let’s talk about shows and movies. Here’s our genre for the first installment:

BBC (BADASS BASTARDS AND COPPERS):

Peaky Blinders
Fuck, I thought at first. Cillian Murphy as the leader of a Birmingham street gang that slashes peoples’ eyes via razor-embedded scally caps? It all sounded good outside of Cillian Murphy. While he was great in The 28th Hour (and sure, he was Scarecrow in the Dark Knight films), the guy is prettier than the love child of a young Rob Lowe and Kiera Knightley donning a powder blue bunny suit. So, me asks, how the fuck is Cillian gonna pull this off?

No worries, mate. By the end of the first season, I’d rather cross paths with Bane in a dark alley than serve the menacing Thomas Shelby with an improper shoeshine. Oh, and speaking of Bane, Tom Hardy enters in the forthcoming Season 2. My knickers are already wet.

cillian murphy

The baddest pretty boy since Gosling in Drive !

About that title: Yeah, it sounded pretty goofy to me at first—as it might to many Yank viewers. Rest assured, Peaky Blinders is not about a middle-school boy with a hot neighbor and a pair of binoculars.

So how would I sum it all up? It’s essentially a hybrid of Sons of Anarchy and Boardwalk Empire, with a little splash of Gangs of New York. Thomas Shelby is Jax Teller, if Jax Teller operated out of Birmingham in the early 20th Century. He’s a young, dashing, masterfully calculating gang leader who couldn’t tell you what fear was if it bit him in the ass. But along with the calculation, there’s some stoicism, which is why I also see a bit of Nucky Thompson in him. And if this show catches on, a whole new wave of Jimmy Doherty-esque haircuts will be lurking around a hipster cocktail lounge near you.

peaky blinders

Party like it’s 1919…

As for drawbacks, it’s completely overstylized—almost to the point of camp—but that’s also what makes it kind of fun. Why not play a Nick Cave ditty as a smartly-dressed chap walks through the streets with flames billowing at his back while obsequious townfolk quiver in his wake? This is exactly what Hell on Wheels was trying to pull off (and “Red Right Hand” is one of the best intro songs since The Wire tapped Tom Waits). Perhaps Peaky Blinders ain’t as highbrow as the first two seasons of Boardwalk (let’s be realistic, that show went to shit), but it is some bloody and fiendishly good fun.

SEASON ONE GRADE: A-
IMDb: 8.5

Happy Valley
Many bemoan the downfall of the American version of The Killing after that horrible cliffhanger in the first season. Fair enough, but I stuck with the show simply because, well, it was gloriously dark. And I have yet to encounter better cinematographic use of a geographical environment this side of Breaking Bad or Twin Peaks. Oh, and Holder was just one hilarious, bad-ass honky. 

The man, the myth, the Holder

The man, the myth, the Holder

The reason I bring up The Killing is because of how strikingly similar it is in theme and general aura to Happy Valley. Detective Catherine Cawood is a slightly mentally off-kilter, divorced female cop with a dark past and a son who intermittently hates her. She also lives in a town that is perpetually gray, is constantly trying to quit smoking, likes sleeping with married men and is, despite her uncontrollable moodswings, highly efficient and always right when everyone else doubts her. Sarah Linden, anyone? (Speaking of striking similarities to other shows, there’s this turtley little weasel of an accountant who looks like Wormtail from Harry Potter and is the embodiment of Walter White back in his Mr. Chips days. Great character.)

Unlike The Killing, the six-episode-long Season One of Valley delivers. I mean, it fucking delivers. And between involuntary smack injections, basement rape (yeah, that stuff’s hard even for me to watch) and dousing children with gasoline, grimness is Happy Valley’s oh-so-sunny calling card.

"Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?"

It ain’t exactly, “Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?”

While we’re on the subject of female-detective BBC shows, if you’re choosing between this and Top of the Lake, take the advice of the great Bob Dylan, babe, and don’t think twice. Apart from one great character, Top of the Lake is pretty much the bottom of the well when it comes to BBC cop series.

Final note on why you should watch Happy Valley: The fella that plays the pseudo-psycopathic Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) is the second-coming of Tom Hardy. Guy has serious acting chops, and he’s certainly the sexiest sexual deviant psychokiller since Jamie Dornan in The Fall. Speaking of which…

SEASON ONE GRADE: A
IMDb: 8.5

The Fall
Perhaps the hardest thing to get past in the first episode of The Fall is just how flawlessly fucking fair Gillian Anderson’s skin is. That skin is fairer than a cup of tea sipped quietly by Monet in a field of wheat on a fine spring day. I mean c’mon, she was Scully before Vince Gilligan was out of his screenwriting diapers. … But yeah, after that Duplass Brothers skin-coat thing, maybe I’ve been talking about skin too much. Fun fact: Did you know that Ed Gein lived 30 minutes from where I’m writing this? (Don’t worry, I don’t have an epidermal fixation or any skeletons in my closet. I’m just being tongue-in… whatever-you-call-that-space-beside-the-teeth-where-there-used-to-be-flesh.)

The Fall

“Why yes, I believe that is me in The Birth of Venus.”

Moving on, The Fall is yet another grim, tension-riddled cop-thriller with a bad-ass female lead investigating a spate of killings. (For whatever reason, feminism seems to be alive and well in the cop-vs.-serial killer genre.) While there are any number of comparisons that could be made between The Fall, The Killing and Happy Valley (the mood-setting bleakness of Belfast, say), this show does women coppers the service of a portrayal that’s the exact opposite of that “off-kilter and mentally distressed” blueprint.

Gillian Anderson is brilliant, and her icy depiction of investigator Stella Gibson leaves little room for sentiment, nonsense or anything other than heady police work. That’s good. Because the sadist she’s tracking (Jamie Dornan) is a perverted family man who gets off on choking his victims to death and then scrapbooking about them with artwork that is unsettlingly exquisite.

As the body count piles and the investigation deepens, the tension rises to a pitch that makes The Fall arguably as engrossing as True Detective. Of the three shows I’ve discussed, this one is probably the best. The only disappointment is that Season One is criminally brief (5 episodes) and ends with an asshole of a cliffhanger.

And by the way, John Oliver can shove it. Jamie Dornan is so my Christian.

SEASON ONE GRADE: A-
IMDb: 8.2


Final note:
Consider all three of the aforementioned shows as far superior to BBC-via-Netflix Instant alternatives like Luther, Sherlock and Top of the Lake. British Stringer Bell, er, Idris Elba is great in Luther, but the show lacks the depth of Happy Valley and The Fall, and the entertainment value of Peaky Blinders. And by “depth,” I’m talking about that intangible quality that distinguishes a great cable show like Breaking Bad or The Wire from, say, a regular-channel favorite like Law & Order (again, another topic I’ll save for a rainy day). As for Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch exudes a particular brand of smug that just pisses me off, and his Holmes offends my boyhood notions of a beloved literary character. The show is also completely overstylized—just not in a good way, like the way Peaky Blinders makes me eager to sew razor blades into my cap.

-Sam Adams