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

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

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

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

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

they look like people

They Look like Williamsburg

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

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

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

eli cash custer meme

Speaking of great conspiracy theorists in film…

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

IMDb: 6.1
GRADE: B+

-Sam Adams

I Saw the Devil and The Man from Nowhere on Netflix Instant: Vengeance, Horror and “Han”

great korean thrillers
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Over the past decade or so, I’ve probably watched more movies from North and South Korea than any region outside the U.S. This is not on purpose. By no stretch am I a Koreaphile. After all, the only words I know in Korean are bulgogi, banchan and kimchi. “Bulgogi,” as defined by Merriam-Webster’s, is the kind of meat I like at the Korean joint. “Banchan” is all that delicious free shit that comes with the bulgogi. And kimchi, which gets served as part of the banchan before the bulgogi, is, of course, kimchi.

Oldboy octopus

Live-octopus eating in Oldboy—definitely not banchan.

Now that we’ve been through this history lesson, I’ll get to a new word that speaks more specifically to the films I’m about to recommend. That word is “Han.” The problem with discussing “Han,” in my limited research, is that it has no English equivalent.

han

American Han                                                                 Korean Han

The great theologian Suh Nam-dong, whose work is rivaled in my intellectual storehouse only by my knowledge of the Korean language, defines Han as a “feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined.” Wait, I think we do have a word for that: “Coldplay.”

I bring up Han because it speaks in many ways to every Korean film I’ve seen. And even if you’ve only seen a few Korean movies, you’ve probably been dosed with the Han as well.

If one Korean film comes to mind for people who like the film genres I discuss on this blog, chances are its Oldboy (2003 original—not the bland remake starring Brolin and the Olsen Twins’ hot younger sister. If that was a “Spike Lee joint,” then dude must be rolling oregano into his Rizlas).

Spike Lee Oldboy

Facing Jordan in the playoffs and the Oldboy remake: Two things Spike would like to forget.

I apologize if I’m misappropriating the term Han, but it would appear that many of the primary themes in Oldboy—vengeance, gut-wrenching pain and helplessness—are all part of it. And so it is with every other movie I’ve seen by the masterful South Korean director Park Chan-wook, whose Vengeance Trilogy was my gateway into Korean cinema.

These movies are pretty much as grim, savage and unapologetically violent as anything this side of a snuff film. Chan-wook summons narratives straight from hell and puzzles them together in maniacal symphonies. His photography and imagery are stunning, and his actors constantly deliver riveting performances. In short, these are magnificent films—they’re just completely fucking sick and twisted.

This brand of Han-inspired horror seems to be a prevailing theme in Korean thrillers. Directors such as Joon-ho Bong (The Host, Mother) and Kim-jee Woon (I Saw the Devil) have employed the same grotesque violence and soul-shattering bleakness to similar degrees of cinematic success. In all, this recent Korean horror-thriller-Han movement can perhaps be best described as the eloquent, sophisticated cousin of “torture porn” (or whatever you want to call that Saw and Hostel stuff.)

If you’ve got the stomach for it and aren’t scared away by subtitles, there is a treasure trove of evil to access via the lands of Kim Jong-il and Psy.

Let’s start with a few of my favorite South Korean flicks on Netflix Instant (consider this Part One in a series):

I Saw the Devil
i saw the devil
You might recognize the bloody visage above as that of Choi Min-sik, the South Korean A-lister who starred in Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. In I Saw the Devil, Min-sik plays Kyung-chul, a psychopathic murderer who berates his victims in a cavalier tone as he goes to town on them with all manner of blunt objects.

The film’s first sequence opens in true slasher form, as a beautiful woman sits in her car in a desolate rural area, waiting for roadside assistance to fix a flat tire. Before the tow truck can get there, a school bus driver stops by and offers to give a hand. Within a matter of minutes, we’re introduced a villain who gives Hannibal Lecter a run for his money.

After this grim opener, what follows is two-plus hours of the most diabolical, depraved Han. Kim Soo-hyeon, the fiancee of one of Kyung-chul’s victims, happens to be a trained special agent. He uses his investigative wiles to track down the killer, and engages in a carnage-riddled game of cat and mouse, wherein the hunter becomes the hunted. Soo-hyeon’s mission is to inflict as much pain on Kyung-chul as possible before killing him. But someone should have told him that its much safer to bludgeon the devil to death than to dance with him.

I saw the devil

Kim Soo-hyeon takes a long cigarette break…

I’ll leave any further details of the narrative to the viewer. But one scene that really stands out is an impromptu dinner party at the house of Kyung-chul’s cannibal buddy. The flesh-eater is one of those grimly goofy caricatures that these films tend to rely on for comic relief. He fiendishly chuckles and cries as he feasts on some raw, human bulgogi complemented by a mean banchan spread.

I saw the devil banchan

“You gotta try the liver with the pickled bean sprouts. It’s to die for!”

I Saw the Devil is most definitely not for the faint of heart. This is some bleak, sick shit that makes Silence of the Lambs look like CSI: Miami. The story is superbly woven and gets bleaker with each step (and Devil‘s narrative is also much less muddled than some of Chan-wook’s stuff). Director Kim-jee Woon’s film is also beautifully photographed, almost to the point where you wonder how something so unabashedly gruesome could be so aesthetically appeasing. The crowning achievement, however, is Choi Min-sik’s portrayal of the homicidal maniac. The man is simply a fantastic actor (no wonder Hollywood recently tapped him for the big-budget Luc Besson flick Lucy).

If you can stomach suspense with a hefty dose of ultra-violent horror, I Saw the Devil is one of the best thrillers you’ll find on Netflix Instant.

GRADE: A- / A
IMDb: 7.8

The Man from Nowhere
the man from nowhere
Despite featuring a main theme of child-organ harvesting, The Man from Nowhere is actually pretty tame when it comes to bleak, Korean thrillers. This relative tameness is mainly because when a guy is maimed with a hatchet or immolated via a jerry-rigged propane-to-gas-lamp device, we don’t get a prolonged shot of his head being split in half or his body burning as he wails in pain. Somewhere, Park Chan-wook is shaking his head.

The Man from Nowhere begins with a drug-bust sequence where the estranged Korean cousin of Game of Thrones‘ The Mountain is ambushed at a nightclub. Amidst the shattering of tables and bottles, a junkie prostitute manages to sneak off with a brick of heroin.

the man from nowhere

“Hey, you’d be pissed too if Spike Lee was replacing you with Tony Siragusa in the remake.”

Fast forward to an apartment building where the junkie lives with her young daughter. Here we meet our protagonist, a brooding man who lives in the building and runs some sort of pawnshop. He doesn’t say much at first. He mostly just mopes around, looking like a K-Pop heartthrob who can’t bear the weight of the world.

the man from nowhere

It’s unclear whether our man is about to go on a hell-raising killing spree or join the Alkaline Trio.

Much to the chagrin of junkie mom, the man strikes up a friendship with the daughter, a bullied loner nicknamed Garbage. “Pawnshop Ghost and Garbage,” she says to him of their monikers. “Sounds like a rock band, doesn’t it?”

The close tie between the two becomes the reason Pawnshop Ghost breaks out of his gloomy shell and emerges as the Korean Jason Bourne. To keep spoilers to a minimum, Garbage gets in trouble, and Pawnshop Ghost is the only man who can save her (think Taken, but with much prettier male hair).

What ensues is a grim, fast-paced action-thriller that toes the line between mayhem and melodrama. And our man proves that he will go to any length to exact revenge. He eventually goes so far as cutting his hair, which defeated my theory that the final twist to this film was gonna be that Pawnshop Ghost is actually a modern-day Samson.

Man from Nowhere Hair

 “Not the hair bro, not the hair!”

As in most dark Korean films, there’s an array of oddball villains and inept cops who often serve as comic relief. One of the most effective of these is the devilish Jong-seok, an androgynous crime boss who deals in kidnapping and organ harvesting. He’s really fucking creepy, and like our protagonist, doesn’t seem to realize that bangs covering his eyes might be a hinderance to his ability to fight or operate a vehicle.

the man from nowhere

“Yes, my parents are Tilda Swinton and Cousin It. Have you heard Ziggy Stardust? Fantastic album.”

The Man from Nowhere excels as both an action-packed thriller and a dark drama that has a little more heart than what Park Chan-wook fans might be accustomed to (or at least a little more still-beating heart). This movie is also a lot more accessible to your casual American viewer than other Korean organ-harvesting gems like Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.

My only reservation with this film is that while the relationship between Pawnshop Ghost and Garbage is certainly moving (and the child actress is fantastic), this connection is also used as a platform for a level of melodrama that verges on sappy. I understand that this smarmy, emo shit is a trait inherent to many forms of Korean entertainment, but personally I prefer my Han served a little less soap opera. Still, bolstered by a compelling narrative and incredible fight scenes, The Man from Nowhere emerges as one of the stronger films in this genre of dark, Korean thrillers.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 7.9

-Sam Adams

Note: All three films in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy are available on Netflix Instant. If you’re interested in this post and haven’t seen Oldboy, check that out before you watch either of the films I’ve recommended. It’s the gold standard—I just assume that most folks reading this blog have seen it.

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

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For many Americans, 24-hour marathons of It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story are the holiest of holiday traditions. That’s all fine and good, but some of us are more partial to the non-stop gore fests that populate channels like AMC and FX in the days leading up to Halloween. It’s a perfect time to kick back on the couch, inhale candy corn, and get bleary-eyed on pumpkin beer as you reacquaint yourself with the innumerable Michael Myers sequels and offshoots.

Alas, my days of paying for cable have ceased. And honestly, there are much better things to watch out there than the Busta-Rhymes-Tyra-Banks vehicle Halloween: Resurrection. Freddy Krueger brought nightmares to life. Halloween: Resurrection was a fucking nightmare in my life.

I got my fix this Halloween through some great Netflix Instant titles. And through this service, the soul-crushing depression that sets in when the 24-hour horror bloodbaths end on Nov. 1 can easily be bypassed.

Whether you be a fan of slashers or ghouls, there’s a bevy of great options to stream via Netflix. Here are a few recent personal favorites.

You’re Next

You're next

Requisite bloody-faced protagonist shot

For fans of modern horror, calling You’re Next a hidden gem is tantamount to saying, “They made a Texas Chainsaw movie before the Jessica Biel one?” If you’ve seen it, go ahead and skip to the next title (which you probably haven’t seen). However, if you haven’t seen this—or are just a fan of my wayward rants—keep reading, and consider it one of the top slasher films of the past decade, as well as a must-see for anyone with any interest in the genre.

You’re Next is a good, old-fashioned home-invasion gore fest. “Old-fashioned” is key here, because the film pays homage to a lot of ’80s and ’90s tropes (and yeah, that was a long fucking time ago in my book). The brilliant opening sequence starts in typical Scream fashion. A really hot chick (the underused Kate Lynn Sheil from House of Cards) and her scumbag boyfriend have a knifey, little run in with a masked man.

Kate Lyn Sheil

Kate Lyn Sheil, aka the indie fanboy’s new Zooey Deschanel

But before we get to the meat of the plot, something more needs to be said about this opening sequence. In particular, that Dwight Twilley song. My last post in this series included Blue Ruin, a film that paired a song and a scene in a way that I’d call among the year’s best audiovisual sequences.

Likewise, that opening sequence of You’re Next pulls an obscure pop hit and transforms it into one of the most tantalizing aspects of a great narrative. The song in question is Dwight Twilley’s “Looking for the Magic.” No, I had no idea who Dwight Twilley was before this movie. Yes, I’ve been getting weird looks the past few months while driving around town with this song playing on repeat. It’s infectious. It’s haunting. It’s usage embodies the mystique and grim humor that make You’re Next  a brilliantly chilling and morbidly comic slasher flick.

If you geek out on “The Magic,” check out this article about its origins in the film. I love the part where Twilley’s wife tells the director, “You want ‘Looking for the Magic,’ but you can’t afford the fuckin’ magic!”

It’s also priceless that the album it came off of was called Twilley Don’t Mind. If I recorded a coked-up, Donovan-meets-classic-pop-rock album it would certainly be called Adams Don’t Mind. Anyway, here’s an old recording of Jim Morrison lookalike Dwight Twilley (and yes, that’s a young Tom Petty rocking out on backup guitar).

But back to the murder at hand. A rich kid and his Aussie girlfriend (Sharni Vinson) road trip to spend a weekend with his family at their secluded mansion in the woods. It turns out that the beau’s family are a bunch of psychotic WASPs who generally hate each other. Then there’s a bloodbath wreaked by killers in cute animal masks.

Watching uppity WASPs get axed to bits by cutesy lamb-masked villains is holiday fun for the whole family—and the type you won’t find in It’s a Wonderful Life. Speaking of Jimmy Stewart, they should do a You’re Next-style remake of Harvey where the imaginary friend is a bunny who fucks shit up. Oh yeah, Donnie Darko…

Coming soon to a theater near you...

Coming soon to a theater near you…

We find out that the Aussie protagonist (and only likable person in the movie—outside of Kate Lyn Sheil, of course, who can do no wrong), also has a background as an Outback survivalist. This comes in handy.

You’re Next‘s only fault is that it enlists some noted mumblecore directors as actors. What is mumblecore, you ask? Unfortunately, it’s not the drunken cousin of a Harry Potter wizard. In my limited research, it seems to be a cinematic platform for hipsters to wallow in their hipsterishly hipster despair (see: previous scathing rant on Drinking Buddies, et al). Put bluntly, it’s one of the worst things since Cinema Verité and the French New Wave movement. As the great Werner Herzog put it, “By dint of declaration, the so-called Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.” In the same vein, mumblecore reaches a merely superficial truth—the truth that self-important, coffee shop filmmakers project as the truth.

Anyway, perhaps this isn’t much of a fault, because we get to see said mumblecore whiners brutally massacred. When the masks are off and the final axe is swung,You’re Next is a movie about a lot more than Dwight Twilley’s career revival and killing the shit out of hipsters and WASPs. But those reasons alone are good enough for me.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 6.5

The Taking of Deborah Logan
Full disclosure: Despite my love of horror films, I tend to steer clear of anything involving ghosts, exorcisms or paranormal activities. The reason being that these tales involve a suspension of disbelief tied to the plausibility of a supernatural realm. I do not believe in that realm. So asking me to sit through such a flick is kind of like taking an atheist to mass. Sure, the message will be conveyed loud and clear, but an inherent disbelief in the underpinnings of such a message will make every word ring hollow.

the descent

An army of blind, albino cave-dwelling evolutionary anomalies? Plausible. Ghosts? Not so much.

Point being, it takes a lot to get me interested in any of the 5,000 Exorcist rehashings that Hollywood spews forth every year. So essentially, me telling horror fans that they have to watch The Taking of Deborah Logan is like our atheist friend saying to his atheist bros, “You gotta check out that mass—it was unbelievable!”

The film begins with a camera crew attempting to document the mental decline of an Alzheimer’s patient. As the patient weakens, eerie shit starts happening. As we all know, demons from the depths of hell are prone to preying on the weak and old, so it’s only natural that they’d possess our titular character.

the taking of deborah logan

“Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.”

The Taking relies heavily on the found-footage / hidden camera blueprint of Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity. I’d argue that it supersedes both of these. For one, unlike Blair Witch, this film actually has an ending. It also has camerawork not done by someone with a bad case of the DTs. Furthermore, there’s a palatable depth to this story, thanks to some fine acting by Jill Larson and Anne Ramsay as the mother and daughter caught between a fatal disease and another form of hell on Earth.

And even for someone who’s all but sworn off supernatural flicks, this movie is downright, jump-out-your-seat scary as hell. In terms of this genre, I’d rank The Taking right alongside James Wan’s more mature efforts, like The Conjuring and Insidious (no, not Insidious: Chapter 2—that sucked. Bring me Insidious 3 and the return of the Darth Maul demon!).

insidious

The way Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” shall be remembered henceforth

Jill Larson’s transformation from Miss Daisy to a vessel of the eternally damned is pulled off with a subtly mounting air of terror, climaxing in a terrifying finish that includes one of the most magnificently unsettling images in recent cinema. This is probably one of the most underrated new titles on Netflix Instant. Don’t sleep on it, and once you’ve seen it, don’t expect any decent form of sleep.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 6.5

Other must-watch BONUS PICKS to keep the Netflix Instant horror marathon raging: Stake Land, Trollhunter, Let The Right One In

Note on IMDb scores: For whatever reason, horror films typically rank much lower on IMDb than their equally good, non-horror counterparts. Consider anything above a 6.2 probably worth your time. (I’ll unveil my foolproof “IMDb credibility system” at a later date.)

-Sam Adams