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

the dark valley sam riley
Standard

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.

greider sam riley dark valley

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.

the dark valley netflix

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

Advertisements

Joe on Netflix Instant or: The Beautiful Insanity of Letting Nicolas Cage Be Nicolas Cage

joe movie nicolas cage
Standard

If you filled a speedball with a dose of Winter’s Bone, a dash of Eastbound & Down and a hefty pour of old-school Nicolas Cage, the result—once injected into celluloid—would be director David Gordon Green’s Joe.

In many ways, it’s the kind of film that Scorsese and Bob Rafelson and Sam Peckinpah were making in their heyday. I’m not saying that Joe is as good as Taxi Driver or Five Easy Pieces or Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, but for the most part, it’s got the type of filmmaking balls that those flicks had.

And much in the same way that badass character actors like De Niro, Nicholson and Warren Oates were given free reign to go apeshit in those flicks, Nicolas Cage gets the opportunity to show why there are still those among us with faith in a guy whose recent filmography has redefined Hollywood’s Mendoza Line.

Nicolas Cage Warren Oates Jack Nicholson Robert De Niro

What’s not to love about morally conflicted men with the weight of the world on their shoulders and a vicious mean streak?

But before I get too much into Cage, let’s get back to that idea of why Joe, for the most part, feels like a fitting accompaniment to that period of unbridled, freeform filmmaking that was so excellently captured in the nostalgic documentary A Decade Under the Influence.

On the surface, Joe opens as a film about a volatile but goodhearted ex-con who’s gone semi-straight and now runs a work crew that poisons trees at the behest of a big lumber company. Joe hires on a 15-year-old boy (Tye Sheridan, Mud) to help out, and the two develop a close bond. Problem is, boy has a drunken, money-grubbing pappy who’s meaner than the day is long. A scarfaced nemesis of Joe’s also helps set the stage for the film’s storyline.

But the storyline is by no means why I’m gushing about this film. Joe excels much more as a series of  dark, improvisational backwoods vignettes than it does as a traditional narrative. It’s got that raw edge of ’70s classics like Deliverance, wherein much of the film’s wit, hilarity and unease comes from real folks (and a few trained actors) engaging in loosely directed, improvisational scenes composed of regional dialect.

joe movie gary pouter brian mays

“You betta get yo ass up out my mothafuckin’ jaw… Ya country mothafucka!”

Essentially, Joe is a mood piece set to the tune of barking dogs, rain, booze, skid row slumming and cigarette smoke. But the film’s mood is also just a backdrop, or a platform for two of the most unforgettable performances from 2013.

One of these comes through the off-the-cuff acting of Gary Poulter, a real-life homeless drunken drifter who was tapped to play Tye Sheridan’s dad. Regardless of whether you decide to watch Joe, I highly recommend reading his tragic story.

In one of the most equally unsettling and poignant cinematic scenes I can think of, Poulter’s character Wade (AKA G-Daawg), stalks a man over a bottle of cheap wine. Without giving anything away, what plays out in this scene is what makes Poulter’s character mesmerizing throughout: the depiction of a man hellbent on ruin and greed who, at the same time, hangs on to the most utterly minuscule shred of humanity that could possibly exist within a person.

In that same scene, Poulter also delivers a line that could easily serve as an epitaph for the actor, who died by drunkenly drowning in a puddle of water before Joe was released…

g-daawg gary poulter

“A person just don’t know from one day to the next which one is going to be their last.” -Gary Poulter, 1959-2013

You can’t write a character like Wade, who goes on a lengthy diatribe about “popping and locking” and shows off his own dance moves in a scene that’s kind of like Napoleon Dynamite meets the knee-slapping redneck gas station attendant from Deliverance. The only way you can get a performance like his is to drag a quasi-genius hobo like Gary Poulter off the street, stick him into your movie, and see what happens. In Joe—as in those films of yore—the gamble pays off with an almost hyperreal effect.

deliverance You don't know nothin

“You don’t know nothin’.”

And now I think it’s about time we discuss Nicolas Cage.

Perhaps you watched Ghost Rider and its sequel and wanted to swallow a cyanide capsule. Perhaps you watched Bangkok Dangerous, Drive Angry or The Wicker Man remake (truly one of the worst movies ever made). Perhaps you’re just so let down that an actor with so much promise decided to go the De Niro route, spending the last 20 years involved mainly in a series of disastrous money grabs. Or maybe you’ve just had enough of this:

(I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did.) Moving on…

I will admit that what I’m writing about Joe is by far the most biased recommendation I’ve given on this blog. There was a point in my adolescence when I idolized Cage the way Johnny Depp did Hunter S. Thompson. I didn’t merely admire the man—I wanted to be him. I took this obsession so far as choosing Nicolas as my Christian name when I was confirmed at age 13.

After all, three of the greatest action movies ever made had just come out: Face/Off, The Rock and Con Air (yeah, Con Air is a classic in my book… hate all ya want). There was not a man in Hollywood with the swagger or ability to deliver a line like Cage.

Then came duds like Snake Eyes, 8MM and Bringing Out the Dead, and all of a sudden, the Michael Jordan of acting was gone in sixty seconds.

At that age, I was unaware of a little flick—sandwiched between those epic blockbusters—called Leaving Las Vegas (also on Netflix Instant). Cage proved there his acting chops were both something extraordinary and something of a uniquely inimitable brand that only one man possessed.

Since Joe‘s release, it’s been billed as Cage’s return to form, and his strongest work since Leaving Las Vegas. The latter is true, but for every 10 Season of the Witch’s, Cage has managed to slip a few great, overlooked performances into his repertoire. Chief among these was his work in the great Werner Herzog’s miserably titled Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. A lot of folks also liked Adaptation. (personally I could give two shits about the pretension of Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, but Cage was good in it). And Lord of War was a thoroughly enjoyable machismo rip-off of Goodfellas.

So what is so damn special about Cage’s performance in Joe? Well, not only is he given free reign to be himself, but he’s given free reign to be a vile, hilarious psychopath, which if we’re being honest, is exactly where Cage excels:

Cage goes rogue-Cage in this movie, and for anyone who’s ever been a fan of his, it’s one of the most glorious damn things in years. This said, I think it would be a mistake to heap all the praise solely on the man himself. Which is where David Gordon Green comes in.

Green has a resume that makes very little sense. In the early 2000s, he was doing touchy-feely indie flicks. Then he joined the Seth Rogen-Jonah Hill bandwagon and directed Your Highness and Pineapple Express. And then he made that pandering piece of indie laxative that you’ll see on every Gawker-y Netflix list called Prince Avalanche. However, he also directed 12 episodes of the sensational John Rocker-themed HBO series Eastbound & Down, starring Danny McBride as Kenny “La Flama Blanca” Powers.

Kenny Powers David Gordon Green Joe

Eastbound & Down: one of the best comedy series ever made. Period.

EB&D merits mention in this growing novella of a post for a few reasons. Namely, co-creators Jody Hill and Danny McBride were executive producers on Joe (and also because of Green’s connection)For those who can detect it, Joe is full of the exact same brand of black humor that EB&D made a killing on. And that—combined with the improvisational acting and bleakness of Winter’s Bone—is what makes Joe such a fascinating, eclectic anomaly of a film.

joe that dog is an asshole

Cage’s fixation with referring to canines as “assholes” provides for some of Joe‘s better laughs.

Not everyone is going to love this movie. And since its much more scattered and unhinged than your traditional Hollywood narrative, I’m sure a lot of folks will just wonder what the fuck is going on. Which is fair, because Joe has its share of flaws. (For example, the constant shrouded-in-menacing-mystery dialogue about who Joe really is is played up more than just a little heavy handedly.)

But if we’re calling Joe a flawed movie, I’d add that it’s hands-down one of the best flawed movies made in the last 40 years. Joe is country noir at its finest, and a prime example of a national treasure getting back to what he does best.

GRADE: A-
IMDb: 6.9

-Sam Adams

NOTE: I particularly recommend this flick to folks who liked Blue Ruin; Jeff Nichols movies like Shotgun Stories and Mud; and anyone who’s ever read a Daniel Woodrell novel.

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
Standard

“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

Best of the Bleak: Eighteen Top Lesser-Known Crime, Thriller and Horror Netflix Instant Titles from 2014

Best movies of 2014 netflix instant
Standard

Consider this post a witches’ brew. The contents started as a liquid composed of every crime, thriller and horror feature on Netflix Instant. Then I cranked up the heat and gave it a year-long simmer, meticulously skimming away the fat and nasty bits. After that, I spent the next three months tasting and testing till I finally had a small saucepan of the darkest, most delectable demi-glace. I then took that shit and poured it over the finest unicorn liver and paired it with a nice barrel of chianti. And now… Dinner is served, cabrones!

hannibal lecter drinking

Bon appétit!

Wait. Did you catch all that?

Essentially what I’m saying is that I spent a year combing through Reddit subthreads, countless hours watching every imaginable film and series on Netflix Instant, and three months writing about my favorite lesser-known titles (along with the help of my partner-in-crime, Adam Fox). I’ve now condensed all this research into a list of 18 of the best horror, crime and thriller features that you may have not seen on Netflix Instant.

Are a few things missing? Sure. No list is definitive, and that’s what next year is for. But consider this a damn good menu, with every item coming highly recommended by the chef himself.

Here’s the list, graded and alphabetically ordered, with titles linking back to our initial long-form posts:

MOVIES
headhunters

Blue Ruin
blue ruinBittersweet revenge. That’s what Dwight (Macon Blair), a dumpster-diving hobo, is after when he hears the man who killed his parents is getting out of prison. Blue Ruin delivers as one of the most beautifully shot, darkly comical and poignant films of 2013. If you liked Shotgun Stories or are simply a fan of revenge and vigilante justice flicks, look no further. B+/A-

Fish Tank
fish tankA charming Irishman enters the life of a teenage breakdancer who lives with her drunk mom and foul-mouthed sister in the slums of East London. Michael Fassbender (pre-Magneto fame) provides one of his best ever performances as a boozy savior who seems too good to be true. This film creates a riveting wave of suspense, despite being the only title on this list devoid of much action or overt violence. A-

God Bless America
God Bless AmericaIdiocracy and the 1970 hippie-slaughter-fest Joe meet Network in Bobact Goldthwait’s blacker-than-black satire on American media culture and narcissism. Bill Murray’s brother, Joel, is phenomenal as an everyman who finally hits his breaking point and goes on a monstrous killing spree… inspired by human compassion. B+/A-

Gomorrah
gomorrahFucking hell, this is a bleak one. Director Matteo Garrone takes a page from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s book and intertwines four slum tales, using the gang-ridden streets of Naples as his canvas. Ranked by A.O. Scott as the sixth-best film of 2008, I’d highly recommend this to fans of Amores Perros and City of GodB+

Headhunters
Nikolaj Coster-WaldauThis fast-paced Norwegian thriller tells the story of an art thief who gets in over his head by stealing from a special ops manhunter. Said manhunter is Game of Thrones‘  Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who brings all his kingslaying charm to what is perhaps the most throughly entertaining movie I watched all year. A-

In Bruges
in brugesLike I said, “mostly lesser-known” titles. If you haven’t seen Martin McDonagh’s brilliantly wry flick about a pair of hitmen (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) holidaying in the “fucking fairytale” town of Bruges, consider this a must-watch. For those who have seen it, I cannot urge you strongly enough to seek out The Guard, starring Brendan Gleeson as a Bad Lieutenant-esque Irish cop. (I’m quite eagerly anticipating director John Michael McDonagh’s follow-up, Calvary, which hits Netflix DVD queues on Jan. 6). A-

El Infierno
Joaquín CosioThe best lesser-known movie on Netflix Instant. Period. A Mexican man is deported back home from the States, only to find his nation in ruinous drug violence. So what does he do? Break bad and become a narco hitman, of course. Rarely is sociopolitical commentary as entertaining to watch as in director Luis Estrada’s masterpiece. My top recommendation on this list—which would explain why I wrote a fucking novella on it (see link). A

I Saw the Devil
i saw the devilI didn’t write about Oldboy because if you’re reading this, chances are you’ve seen it thirteen times. I Saw the Devil continues in the tradition of Park Chan-Wook’s gut-wrenchingly violent Vengeance Trilogy and is, with perhaps the exception of Oldboy, the best film made in the landscape of prolific gore-horror that is South Korean cinema. Alongside El Infierno and Tell No One, this rounds out my top three recommendations within this list. A-/A

Let the Right One In
let the right one inThis Swedish kiddie vampire tale makes Twilight look like Sesame Street. If for some reason you haven’t seen this, please do—it’s arguably one of the best horror movies ever made. A

The Man from Nowhere
the man from nowhere
At what what point do I just give up and dedicate my entire blog to South Korean revenge movies? That’s a question this grim story of a mysterious Asian Jason Bourne putting his life on the line to save a young girl brings to mind. While not quite as devastatingly sinister as The Vengeance Trilogy, director Lee Jeong-beom’s 2010 flick is every bit as good—and much more action-packed. B+/A-

Stake Land
stake landAside from Let the Right One In, it could be argued that this devilish, little vampire road movie is the best bloodsucker flick since Dusk Till Dawn. It’s basically a much smarter, more artfully crafted and fully realized version of The Walking Dead. Oh, and while we’re on the subject of vamps, do me a fucking favor and skip that hipster trash that hipster critics are raving about, Only Lovers Left Alive. I consider Jim Jarmusch a god among directors, but that was his most pretentious bit of bullshit ever. On a more upbeat note, keep an eye out for the Iranian flick A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which I nominate for best horror-film title of 2014. As for Stake Land… A-

Tell No One
tell-no-oneMichael Caine named this 2006 French mystery thriller as one of the top ten movies ever made. While I don’t fully agree, I also wouldn’t call that hyperbole. This story—about a doctor who uncovers a secret about his dead wife—somehow manages the task of being both one of the most beautiful love stories and most action-packed thrillers in recent memory. One of my top three picks on this list. A

The Taking of Deborah Logan
the taking of deborah loganThe found-footage genre finds new life in this jump-out-your-seat scary flick about a lady with Alzheimer’s who becomes possessed by demonic forces. While my smug, Masshole co-writer Adam Fox may disagree, I’d easily call this one of the best horror movies of 2014. B+/A-

You’re Next
You're nextAn Australian survivalist chick winds up at the dinner party from hell as a cast and crew of mumblecore jag-offs redeem themselves by creating one of the best slasher films in years. If there was any justice in this world, Dwight Twilley would win an Oscar for “Looking for the Magic”—which director Adam Wingard uses immaculately here.  B+/A-

SERIES
peaky blinders

Black Mirror
jessica brown findlay sings in black mirrorDid I just give a shout-out to Adam Fox? He’s the guy who’s been writing up Black Mirror for this here site. Charlie Brooker’s series of seven (so far) unrelated stories is a menacingly bleak futuristic take on technology, dystopia and human fallibility. So far we’ve posted on Fifteen Million Merits (B+), a glimpse of what happens when The Running Man meets American Idol in hell; and The National Anthem (A-), which deals with a British prime minister deciding whether he should follow through on a terrorist threat to fuck a pig.

Happy Valley
blogIf you haven’t watched Happy Valley yet, perhaps it’s for some of the same reasons that it took me so long to get around to it: The marquee image on Netflix displays an unknown, middle-aged actress in a British cop uniform. Meanwhile, there are several other British series plastered on the same page containing well-known actors in their prime, like Idris Elba, Cillian Murphy and Benedict Cumbertwat. So why should you choose Happy Valley, a show about a small-town detective who gets involved in a high-stakes kidnapping case? Let the record state that I am not comparing it to Breaking Bad… but it is the best show I’ve seen since the best show ever made ended. That’s why. A

The Fall: Season One
The FallThe Fall is perhaps one of the most intelligent cop shows on TV this side of True Detective, and now that Rust and Marty are out of the picture, Gillian Anderson’s lead as icy investigator Stella Gibson is perhaps the best character in the genre. The only downfall of this first season—which trails a sadistic Belfast serial killer—is that it left us with an asshole of a cliffhanger. Quit dicking around, BBC—deliver the goods! A-

Peaky Blinders: Season One
peaky blinders“When you walk through the garden…”. That was the line that Tom Waits opened episodes of The Wire with. “Take a little walk to the other side of the tracks” is the line Nick Cave opens Peaky Blinders with, and his “Red Right Hand” is the best intro song to any show since David Simon’s deservedly heralded series. There’s also a lot of other awesome shit happening here, like Cillian Murphy—as the leader of a Birmingham street gang—slashing people’s faces with razor-embedded scally caps. Blinders isn’t the most highbrow fare, but its first season is one of the most entertaining pieces of television I’ve seen in years. The second season falls a little short, but that’s another story for another time. A-

-Sam Adams

NOTE: A big year-end thanks to everyone who’s patronized this site, commented on it and given their support over the past three months. It means the fucking world. Also, a huge thanks to my man Adam Fox for helping me keep the ship afloat. We’ve got much more in store for 2015!

Outback Invasion: Mystery Road and the Need for Neo-Ozploitation on Netflix Instant

outback invasion
Standard

Australia is the new South Korea. No, that’s not the title of Jenji Kohan’s latest project about a ragtag Outback family that practices cutesy incest and quirky torture-porn revenge killings. It’s a realization I’ve come to after watching Animal Kingdom, The Snowtown Murders, The Rover, Wolf Creek and a handful of other extremely bleak, atmospheric and depraved Aussie films.

the rover

“Time to grow up and act, Pattinson. Fuck Team Edward!”

The common threads among these titles? They’re all good—some of them really good. They all also attract the same type of viewer that took pleasure in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, I Saw the Devil, The Chaser, The Man from Nowhere… again, the list goes on.

The bottom line: If you like cinematic savagery, revenge tales, serial killer flicks and moody, thought-provoking horror mysteries that make Saw look like the slasher genre’s village idiot, then look no further than eastward (South Korea) and Down Under.

the man from nowhere

The Man from Nowhere introduces us to the increasingly popular South Korean sport of bowling with human eyes.

While I’ve already chronicled a few of the great South Korean titles on Netflix Instant, I must admit that I’ve had trouble coming up with a comparable streaming list for what some have dubbed “neo-Ozploitation“—the current wave of flicks that harken back to the blood, sex and existential bleakness that was low-budget Australian cinema in the ’70s and ’80s. One reason for this is that, at least in terms of modern-era comparisons, the South Korean flicks are, generally, slightly superior. The other is that Netflix Instant has a strong reservoir of dark South Korean titles, but a less impressive one for the Aussies.

bush whacked

Dear Netflix: I humbly submit my pitch…

The Snowtown Murders, for example, is a more-than-decent, gruesome true-crime flick. And I’d say The Horseman, a bloody revenge tale, is even stronger than Snowtown. Both are on Netflix Instant. But neither of these stack up to heavyweights like I Saw the Devil or the Vengeance Trilogy (also on Instant). Chief among the best dark films to come out of Australia in the past decade would be Animal Kingdom, The Proposition (a Western), The Rover and Chopper. Unfortunately, none of these are available streaming. (Note: I have yet to see The Babadook or The Loved Ones, but… they aren’t on Instant either. And Wake in Fright, which would have been a great intro to this movement, just got removed.)

Wake in Fright

Wake in Fright (1971): a boozy, Ozploitation classic.

Which begs the question: What’s a poor guy who blogs about great, dark Netflix Instant movies to do when he wants to focus on Australian murder cinema?

I guess I’ll dive into a flick that was just released which, while not great, is a solid-enough addition to the canon of Australian crime cinema—as well as something that’s far less likely to be known than Snowtown or The Horseman. Then I’ll leave it up to the Redditing hordes to point and chastise me in the direction of a follow-up piece.

Oh, and as for Wolf Creek, it’s not available either. Wolf Creek 2, however, is. Now personally, I loved both of these. But there’s a certain level of campy horror you have to be into to like the Wolf Creeks. Still, if you dug the first one, Wolf Creek 2 is just as good, if not more outrageously enjoyable (and its best scene is a hilariously gory homage to Wake in Fright.)

Anyway, on to our feature presentation, and in the words of Mick Taylor…
Wolf Creek 2


 ….

Mystery Road
mystery road
Like many a recent Aussie crime flick, a mood of grim, existential pondering looms heavy throughout director Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road. This is achieved largely through lingering shots of sublime Outback landscapes and the depiction of one man’s quest for justice in a lawless and corrupt culture. For the majority of the film, the seeming futility of our hero’s endeavor only adds to this bleak aura.

This recipe has been done over and again in Aussie films as of late. Why? Probably because there’s a certain intrigue to the isolated creepiness of the Outback, as well as the question of which forces will emerge victorious in situational throwbacks to the uncivilized, badlands of Spaghetti Westerns.

mystery road, clint eastwood

Clint as The Man with No Name and Aaron Pederson as Det. Jay Swan: a pair of badass, cowboy-hat-wearing loners who don’t say much.

Set in rural Queensland, Mystery Road introduces the stoic Det. Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson) as he investigates the murder of a teenage prostitute. Foul play is at hand, but because the deceased was Aboriginal, no one in “Jay-boy’s” white-bread department seems to give two shits. As Jay slowly (and I mean languorously fucking slowly) connects the dots between his family, trucker Johns, drug dealers and possible “wild super dogs,” he begins to realize that his department’s neglect of the murder goes much deeper than mere racism.

A strong supporting cast includes Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith from The Matrix) as a duplicitous narc, and an uncle of Jay’s (Jack Charles) who bears a striking resemblance to traditional Western depictions of that “Jesus’ dad” guy.

jack charles

Jack Charles: Australian for God.

But back to that “grim, existential crime drama” recipe. Just because it’s an intriguing one, that doesn’t mean its inclusion automatically creates an intelligent thriller. I’m sure many would use the terms “contemplative” or “meditative” to express what’s going on in Mystery Road and films like it. Of course, to others, such terms are pretentious euphemisms for “really fucking long and boring.” Personally, I’d say Mystery Road falls somewhere in between those two realms of an artfully crafted mood piece and a film that, quite honestly, doesn’t have enough to say to justify its run time of 121 minutes.

mystery road

This Stephen Shore-esque still pretty much sums up the amount of action Mystery Road delivers for the bulk of its two hours.

That said, here’s why Mystery Road works for me: When this blog first started, I talked about the idea of grim, existentialist thrillers working as a sort of relaxant for certain cinematic brains—just like the fad of ASMR. Mystery Road is exactly the kind of movie I was talking about. The pacing is slower than a crippled echidna, but I found the entire ride very satisfying. Essentially, it’s just 100 minutes of high-tension, low-action crime trance, followed by a refreshingly loud and bloody payoff. In other words, I’d argue that the climax of Mystery Road not only justifies the prolonged lull that precedes it, but that the lull itself is intriguing in its own right. Then again, it’s really only worthwhile if you’re the kind of person that gets off on that sort of trance piece…

So let’s do a quick litmus test: Did you enjoy Nicolas Winding Refn’s highly divisive Only God Forgives? If so, you’ll be just fine with Mystery Road. If you didn’t like that as a mood piece (forget the narrative), you should probably steer clear of this flick—although, to its credit, the climactic scene is much more rewarding in Mystery Road. And while it doesn’t completely resolve itself, there is certainly more of a discernible story line than in Winding Refn’s feature-length karaoke video.

only god forgives

“Wanna fight? … Or would you prefer mood-lighting and an open mic?”

For another comparison’s sake, perhaps it’s best to view Mystery Road as a slightly better, artier, longform Outback rendition of an episode of Longmire. (Aaron Pederson could definitely hold his own in a cop series.)

Mystery Road doesn’t reach the heights of Animal Kingdom or The Proposition, but its certainly no disservice to the “neo-Ozploitation” fad. The only issue I have with the current state of this genre? We need more of it.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.4

-Sam Adams

NOTES: If you get on an Australian film kick and want to get back to some classics via DVD, also check out Picnic at Hanging Rock and Walkabout. And here’s a fantastic list of some classic Ozploitation flicks.
-Also, Noise on on Netflix Instant is a strange-but-worthwhile modern Aussie cop thriller (its big-city setting, among other factors, rendered it unrelatable to other titles in this post.)
-And lastly, I made it through this entire piece without a “shrimp on the barbie” joke. You’re welcome.

The Slum Kids Aren’t Alright: Fish Tank and Gomorrah on Netflix Instant

Gomorrah
Standard

On one hand, Americans are usually complete prudes when it comes to addressing vulgar adolescent behavior in film (Larry Clark movies not withstanding). On the other, Europeans seem to have no issue depicting teenagers in all manner of lude acts. When Blue Is the Warmest Color wasn’t busy being a great film, it was essentially a lesbian scissor-porno. And Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac saga, Alfonso Cuarón’sY tu mamá también and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers had enough teenage fucking to rival a sleepover party at R. Kelly’s house.

Foreign filmmakers also don’t shy away from adolescent violence. For every We Need to Talk About Kevin, one can easily counter with a handful of fantastic subtitled flicks. Amores Perros, La Haine and City of God immediately come to mind.

Most of these films take place in gritty, urban slums. So if Finding Forrester doesn’t really cut it for you as a coming-of-age classic, allow me to recommend two unfiltered and unforgettable Netflix Instant titles that make Spring Breakers look like High School Musical.

Fish Tank
Fish Tank kids smoking
Like the brilliant 1995 French indie hit La Haine, Fish Tank depicts European slum life set to the beat of bass-heavy American hip-hop. I must admit it’s a bit comical to see a bunch of anglo Brits with their Britty tea-and-crumpets accents vicariously living life to the tune of Nas, Gang Starr and Yung Joc (not to mention some great non-hip-hop in the form of Gregory Isaacs and Bobby Womack).

Of course there’s nothing new about this—white Brits (like most whites) have a long tradition of appropriating black music and culture. Perhaps I just think Amy Winehouse came from a more sincere place than, say, a corner kid in Marc Ecko who looks like Eminem but talks like Harry Potter.

kip napoleon dynamite

This about sums up how seriously I can take white British gangstas

To be fair, our 15-year-old protagonist Mia (Katie Jarvis in a breakthrough performance) in no way comes across as a poser. In terms of being street-tough, she makes Drake look like Oliver Twist. (The film opens with a great scene where, in true British fashion, Mia breaks another girl’s nose with a football-hooligan-inspired headbutt.)

Fish Tank head butt

“Oi!”

Mia is a b-girl who plays classic hip-hop on her cassette player and break dances in vacant tower apartments as a way to escape her shitty existence. She’s a loner and a bit of a tough cookie—or as her foul-mouthed, chain-smoking younger sister, Tyler, would describe her, a “cuntface.” As for Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), she’s terrific as the anti-Abigal Breslin—consider her “Little Miss Moonshine.”

fish tank

Mia: Drinkin’ beer and smokin’ dope and fightin’ round the world!

If 10-year-olds dropping “C bombs” and drinking and smoking seem unnerving, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Mia and her sister live in a beatdown East London flat with their hot mess of a mom (Kierston Wareing). Mommy’s chief concerns seem to be nursing her hangovers, drinking, men and throwing white-trash reggae parties. The kids can pretty much fuck off.

fish tank

Bad, bad mommy…

One morning while gyrating in the kitchen to a Ja Rule video, Mia is walked in on by a handsome, shirtless Irishman. Mommy’s new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), is charming as all get out. “You dance like a black. that’s a compliment,” he says in his jovial brogue.

Fassbender Fish Tank

“Top ‘o the mornin’.”

Connor takes the family on fishing trips. He introduces them to soul music (see an amazing use of Bobby Womack’s “California Dreamin'”). He’s essentially the first decent thing to walk into their life in a longtime. Or so it would seem.

But wait. Let’s talk about Fassbender for a minute. Fish Tank was made before he was Magneto; before he got an Oscar nod for 12 Years a Slave. It’s fun watching a great actor at work in the days before he hit the big-time, and Fassbender’s work here is right on par with what I’d consider his two best performances: a hunger-striking IRA man in Hunger and a sex-addict in Shame. Speaking of Shame (which I highly recommend), if you found that bleak, just wait till you get toward the end of Fish Tank

sleazy fassbender fish tank

Does it get any sleazier?

As for the film’s drawbacks, there’s this slightly annoying, blunt metaphor in the form a sick horse that Mia finds in a desolate parking lot. I won’t even get into the heavy-handed symbolism—just consider it that magical fucking plastic bag that was flying around in American Beauty. Yeah, yeah, you’re artsy—we get it.

When it comes to strange scenarios involving horses in gritty, urban landscapes, personally I prefer whatever the fuck this music video has going on:

Fish Tank isn’t a perfect movie (the coming-of-age stuff gets a little sappy), but its view into slum life in East London is incredible in the most unsettling of ways. It’s also driven by two unforgettable performances (Jarvis, Fassbender), not to mention some strong side roles. And it’s a testament to the fact that a killer suspense flick can be made without much of anything in the way of action or bloodshed. Simply put, it’s just a brilliantly disturbing little film.

GRADE: A-
IMDb: 7.3

Gomorrah
gommorah

It’s not the bloodshed. The thing that makes Gomorrah (2008)—a nonfiction-based tale about the disastrous societal effects of feuding Neapolitan gangs—most difficult to watch is the undercurrent of doom that pervades the entire film. If there is a moment in Gomorrah where it looks like things are trending toward uplifting, I must have missed it.

The film opens with a page straight out of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher Trilogy. A group of gold-adorned, Speedo-clad gangsters bask in the neon glow of tanning beds as atmospheric Euro-pop thumps in the background. Then a bloodbath ensues.

Gomorrah

“GTL, baby.”

Winding Refn’s work isn’t the only thing that comes to mind throughout the course of this deathfest. To say that director Matteo Garrone borrows heavily from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s pre-Birdman works (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) would be an understatement. Like much of Iñárritu’s résumé, Gomorrah is harrowingly bleak, and consists of a series of interwoven narratives following a cast of characters all playing out different roles in the same hellscape.

gomorrah slum

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…

Perhaps the most poignant of these stories is the one of Marco and Sweet Pea, a pair of teenage gangster-wannabes. Deluded by what I referred to in a previous post as the “Scarface Effect,” Marco struts around in Hawaiian shirts yelling, “I’m number one.  Tony Montana! … Shit Colombians. They’re everywhere!” Of course, all of this is taking place in the slums of Naples, where the closest Marco and Sweetpea come to Colombia is through the diluted cocaine they pilfer off a group of petty drug dealers.

scarface gomorrah

Tony Montana                                     Bony Montana 

As Marco and Sweetpea score a big bag of blow and stumble on a cache of machine guns and grenade launchers, their delusions of grandeur only become wilder. They have the tools of their fictional heroes, but they’re still just kids acting out a fantasy—and a very dangerous one at that. The most memorable scene in Gomorrah shows the pair blasting AKs and heavy artillery on the banks of a river, clad in tight, Euro underwear.

gomorrah

Walter White would be proud.

Other story lines in the film follow a masterful tailor who attempts to profit from covertly working for Chinese competitors; a grocery boy who gets caught in a blood war and must choose allegiances; a young man who works for a morally reprehensible businessman who disposes of toxic waste in deadly fashion; and a skittish, gangland accountant who distributes payoff cash to the slum-living families of incarcerated gangsters.

gomorrah

Don Ciro, the sketchy payoff guy

The prevailing theme is that each character in Gomorrah has a shot at monetary gain, but said monetary gain is always at the expense of bloodletting. For those who choose to profit, death is right around the corner. For those who don’t, hopeless poverty is the reward.

With all this bleak, unrewarding depression in mind, one might ask why in the hell I’m recommending this film. Fair enough.

Like Iñárritu’s Biutiful, Gomorrah isn’t exactly “fun” to watch. (Although, unlike Biutiful, viewing it does not induce one to seek out a Prozac prescription.) In the same vein as Amores Perros and City of God, Gomorrah portrays a brutally graphic and honest depiction of a drug-driven, gangland culture and its inherent casualties. Like those aforementioned gems, Gomorrah is the kind of cautionary tale that is realistic enough—and so unsettlingly bleak—that it reminds viewers why, just maybe, aspiring to be the next Scarface is a pretty stupid fucking idea.

Would this have been the same movie without the inspiration of Alejandro González Iñárritu and Nicolas Winding Refn? Probably not. But if you like the stark depravity those two directors seem bent on, Gomorrah is a welcome addition to the canon.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.0

-Sam Adams

NOTE: Of the laundry list of titles referenced in this post, City of God, Amores Perros, Y tu mamá también, Blue Is the Warmest Color and Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II are all on Netflix Instant.

Stake Land on Netflix Instant: Vampocalypse, Now!

stake land
Standard

An original narrative is roughly as valueless to a post-apocalyptic film as a stack of Benjamins is to its characters. Need proof? Indulge me for a moment:

  • In Zombieland, a young, skittish boy is saved and turned into a man after being trained by a grizzled, hard-drinking reaper of the undead.
  • In Season 4 of The Walking Dead, the gang (including a boy who’s become a man through zombie-killing) goes in search of a reputed safe haven where a thriving society is promised.

Zombieland is, of course, a parodied recapitulation of every zombie movie ever (wherein boozing pretty much goes hand-in-hand with walker-slaying). And that Walking Dead premise of searching for the sanctum away from the undead hordes has been done ad nauseam (28 Days Later, I Am Legend, etc.).

harrelson zombieland

“Just ask my guy Rust Cohle—it takes whiskey to fight monsters.”

In 2010’s Stake Land, a young, skittish boy is saved and turned into a man by a grizzled, hard-drinking reaper of the undead, with whom he takes off for a reputed safe haven. Yes, the concept is about as fresh as a decomposing corpse in a farm house off a shady dirt road. But, as in all matters of postapocalyptic survival and success, its the execution that counts. And for a low-budget, devilish little vampire road-movie, Stake Land hits the wooden pike on the head.

stake land drinking

“Didn’t you see Zombieland, kid? We ain’t gettin’ nowhere without some car drinkin’.”

The acting is formidable enough, and the vamps—while nothing special—are far superior to the CGI bastardization that occurred in the aforementioned “meh”-inducing adaption of Richard Matheson’s brilliant novel I Am Legend.

i am legend bad cgi

I Am Legend: CGI that made South Park look like photorealism.

So if I’m pointing to one reason why Stake Land is among the best postapocalyptic films of the past decade, it comes down to one man: Jim Mickle.

Mickle is one of two up-and-coming, grim-bent directors whose every project I eagerly await (the same way I did for Neil Marshall after Dog Soliders and The Descent… Let’s just pretend Centurion and Doomsday never happened). The other would be Jeff Nichols, who’s basically the Daniel Woodrell of cinema. Nichols’ Take Shelter and Mud (on Netflix Instant) are both of the must-watch caliber. And his 2007 project, Shotgun Stories (also on Instant), is a great companion piece for anyone who liked Blue Ruin. I also love that Nichols has chosen to make the great Michael Shannon the Dicaprio to his Scorsese.

michael shannon

Michael Shannon delivering one of Take Shelter‘s more memorable lines.

But back to Mickle. He’s got a deft hand for filming the bleakest and moodiest of landscapes and imbuing his pared-down tales with an unrelenting current of suspense. After knocking it out the park with Stake Land, he did We Are What We Are (also on Netflix Instant—wouldn’t highly recommend it, but again, great cinematography and totally worth your while). His most recent project was Cold In July, which just so happens to be my favorite movie released this year (rent it if ye can).

OK, let’s get into the meat and bones of Stake Land—the best vampire flick since Let the Right One In. Our aforementioned boy-and-man duo are Martin (Connor Paolo) and  his mentor, known simply as “Mister.” After a crash-course in vamp killing played over title credits, Martin becomes the Karate Kid to Mister’s Mr. Miyagi (you obviously can’t go wrong with a good Mister.)

What also makes Mister cool is that he’s a dead-ringer for Jimmy Smits’ Nero character on Sons of Anarchy.

smits damici

“Let’s kill some vamps, mano!”

An opening montage of stark countryscapes is narrated by Martin, who lets us know that D.C. has fallen and with it, the nation as we know it. Major cities are to be avoided, and religious zealots run the show, capturing and unleashing vamps upon their enemies in the form of bipedal biological weapons. To avoid this shitstorm, Martin and Mister decide they better make their way to a purported sanctuary known as “New Eden.”

On the way, we’re introduced to several interesting vamp mutations. There are “beserkers” (the oldest of the vamps, and hard to kill), “scamps” (kiddie vampires who are still in the teething stages), and a more evolved brand of vamp that harkens the character of Robert Neville from I Am Legend. There’s also some great George Romero camp thrown in by the way of an undead Santa.

santa-vampire-stake-land

All I want for Christmas is my two front fangs...

Stake Land borrows across genres, tropes and oft-explored notions (Does garlic work? Maybe, maybe not, but it can’t hurt.) In no way is this film reinventing the wheel, but for a beautifully shot, low-budget vampire thriller, it really couldn’t get much better. Fans of The Walking Dead, particularly, should watch this without hesitation. After all, it does in 98 minutes what that show’s been grinding at for five years.

GRADE: A-
IMDb: 6.6*

*Remember: IMDb grades for horror movies run much lower than for dramatic fare of equal caliber.