Unsung Gory: 26 lesser-known crime, thriller and horror movies on netflix instant worth watching

26 netflix crime thriller and horror movies
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If you dig dark cinema and/or frequent this blog, odds are you’ve already seen such Netflix-sponsored classics as I Saw the Devil, Tell No One, Headhunters, Blue Ruin and Stake Land. If not, refer back to this list, which contains arguably 18 of the best films and series that run in that vein of bleak, thrilling morbidity.

What’s compiled below is a list of slightly inferior (in some cases—not all) modern flicks that took a lot more digging to find than the aforementioned titles. In other words, they’re mostly lower-budget, less hyped in critical and social media forums, or simply just overlooked. And if you feel this list is slightly short on horror, just refer back to this post.

If you’re new to the blog and the list seems a little thematically erratic, I’ll just reiterate that the focus of this site is to recommend movies not from one particular genre, but rather a series (horror, crime, thriller) which are all connected by an undercurrent of grim suspense. (See: my first post where I equate bleak cinema with ASMR.) This 26-part novella is also my attempt to repent for blogging infrequently of late, and thus offering you a laundry list of some of the better stuff I’ve watched over the past half year.

And the nominees are…

Almost Mercy
danielle golden bloody sexy in almost mercy

The main reason I held off from writing a longform post on this is because it’s a little smarmy for my tastes. Essentially, depressed, bullied loner boy meets insanely hot badass outsider chick (Danielle Guldin). Friendship ensues, and so does mass killing. Think White Rabbit (farther down the list), but with more of a Heathers / Ginger Snaps / Horns vibe. My other comparison would be an amalgam of We Need to Talk About Kevin, Gus Van Sant’s Columbine-inspired Elephant and Jennifer’s Body, with a tone and sardonic wit more in line with that Diablo Cody flick than the serious nature of Kevin and Elephant. Almost Mercy is definitely a lot of fun as 90s throwback black comedyjust be prepared for more tongue-in-cheek gore than actual horror or substance.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.2

Big Bad Wolves
Tzahi-Grad-Big-Bad-Wolves
It makes absolute sense why, in 2013, Quentin Tarantino called Big Bad Wolvesan Israeli murder-torture revenge thriller“the best film of the year.” I don’t say that because Wolves is a profound and overlooked piece of filmmaking. I say it because people with big egos generally tend to like what they see in the mirror, and Wolves is essentially a reflection of everything QT’s worked to stylistically cultivate over the past few decades. If you are a die-hard Tarantino fan, you might very well agree with him. If, like me, you think he’s gone into hammy, self-parody ever since his last great film (Jackie Brown), you might be of a couple minds.

Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown

Before the Gosling meme, there was this bad muthafucka…

 That’s not to say that I don’t think Wolves is a very clever and entertaining thriller with some wonderful style and plot twists. It’s just that QT’s character-as-caricature formulawherein corny jokes play substitute for human emotionseems just a little incongruent with a film predicated on child rape, child murder and agonizing revenge torture.

I guess I should briefly sum up the main premise here, which entails the father of said beheaded child and a vigilante cop using all means necessary to force a confession out of a potential perp in a secluded farmhouse basement. Directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado even give a wink to Pulp Fiction as the man is interrogated, using one of QT’s favorite tools for going “medieval on his ass.” I know fans of this blog might have a gripe with me calling this film insensitive, but it just seems that at the very least, the gravity of such vulgar material becomes rather implausible and divorced from reality in such slapstick kid gloves. In all, it feels like this film was created for the exact cine-sadist audience Michael Haneke was confronting and condemning in Funny Games.

OK, OK, I’ve cleared my conscience. If you can somehow cast aside the flippantly portrayed depravity this film addresses (not a small task), it then becomes a perfectly paced suspense-revenge flick, full of black humor, strong camerawork, memorable performances and some fantastic twists. It also gets points for the best use of Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” this side of We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Quite simply, Big Bad Wolves is a love it or loathe it movie, and I find myself caught somewhere between the two poles. But I can’t deny that it’s an impressive piece of filmmaking.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.8 

The Canal
the canal irish movie
When I put together a list of some of best lesser-known modern horror flicks on Netflix (see link in intro), 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. Or maybe it was the 5.9 score on IMDb (Reminder to self: IMDb scores are good signifiers for a film’s caliber in some genres, but they are to be distrusted like a back-alley three-card monte dealer when it comes to horror).

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.

the canal the shining here's johnny

“I think my dad’s gone craaazy!”



This familiar narrative I 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.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 5.9

Blue Capriceblue caprice isaiah washington
Based on a wave of seemingly motiveless sniper killings that went down near Washington D.C. in 2002, Blue Caprice is carried by an air of unnerving tension as well as a sense of unavoidable dread. It brings to mind several sources, most notably Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968), loosely inspired by Andrew Clark’s 1965 freeway killings. In both films, random “targets” are sniped by a psychopathic killer who seems to have little more incentive for the murders than his own psychopathy.

Blue Caprice also employs a father-and-son-like power dynamic, as an embittered man brings a homeless youth into his care, only to brainwash him into being a cold-blooded killer. In this sense, the film evokes both Beasts of No Nation and the character of Chris, the trigger-happy corner boy from The Wire. The senselessness of the entire drama is conveyed as the killing spree unfolds almost nonchalantlymore as a brief footnote to the inexplicable psychopathy of these killings than as a crescendo or climax. The strongest feature of this film is without a doubt the maniacally icy and dynamic performance of Isaiah Washington. In all, Blue Caprice’s characters are fleshed out, but their criminal psyche and murderous underpinnings beg more exploration. Perhaps that makes sense, however, given the utter senselessness of their actions.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.0

Cartel Land
Jose Manuel Mireles cartel land
One of my favorite films on Netflix streaming is El Infierno, a Sam Peckinpah-tinged tragicomedy dealing with the societal horrors of Mexican narco culture. In my post on that film, I also recommended Narco Cultura, a good documentary on the subject in its own right. Surpassing that, however, is Cartel Landa doc that brings a retrospective “how the fuck did they get that footage” type feel to a war playing out between druglords and an army of ordinary citizens fighting back against tyranny. Makes sense why this was just up for Best Documentary Oscar.

GRADE: A-
IMDb: 7.4

A Company Man
Ji-seob So in a company man

Netflix’s most impressive foreign subgenre catalogue is arguably that of South Korean revenge thrillers. Oldboy and I Saw the Devil are the best of these, but they’re just part of a film movement that churns out great products at a breakneck clip, and A Company Man is a damn fine addition to the canon. Drawing a parallel between the corporate servitude of the Asian “salaryman” and the rigorously structured life of a hitman, Company Man excels as a bleak and action-packed, murder-revenge tale. There are a few other South Korean flicks on this list I’d check out before it (namely, A Hard Day), but if you’ve enjoyed the genre’s more popular offerings, you should be pleasantly surprised by this low-budget and high-grade counterpoint to Assault on Wall Street.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.7

Darkness on the Edge of Town
Emma-Eliza-Regan-darkness-on-the-edge-of-town

This one’s a bit like that moody, bleak and cinematographically impressive country noir stuff that’s been coming out in droves of recent (Joe, Blue Ruin, Shotgun Stories, The Living, Winter’s Bone), but with more of a distinctly Irish feel. And not just in gorgeous shots of the 40 shades of green that canvass the hills of North Kerry. There’s a contemplative, almost mystical and dreamlike quality to the film, especially at its outset. The story revolves around Cleo, a fiery-tempered juvenile delinquent (Emma Eliza Regan) looking to avenge her sister’s death by going door to seedy door to find sis’ killer. Cleo is handy with a hunting rifle, and her house calls to shifty tinker drug dealers makes her character seem rather like a brogue-bearing mashup of Jennifer Lawrence’s character from Winter’s Bone and Katniss Everdeen. The film, also about friendship and duplicitousness, is nothing groundbreaking, but at the very least it’s a nice, little anti-Thelma and Louise b-movie with slick camerawork and an impressive performance from Regan.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.1

Dark Was the Night
kevin durand in dark was the night

In all honesty, this is probably the worst film on this list (OK, maybe with the exception of The Shrine). It starts with a hammy scene of mysterious terror that you’ve seen open any number of horror movies. But wait! From there, the next hour or so of Dark Was the Night ventures into a suspenseful and ominous creature feature that elicits a genuine fear of the unknown through a rather original premise and a lot more showing than telling.

Kevin Durandeasily recognizable from being typecast as the brawny asshole in just about every recent Hollywood action flickdelivers a complex performance that shows he’s more than just a b-movie Arnold. Sure, the main themes are trite and have been done ad nauseum, but the vast majority of the film delivers on good, old school suspense-horror (consider it a worthwhile M. Night Shyamalan flick, if there is such a thing). As for the payoffwell, that’s probably why you haven’t heard much about this movie. But sandwiched between two short and shitty bookends is a very compelling b-horror flick. I won’t say more other than that with a budget of about a million more and a few kinks worked out, this could have been a classic. And it’s always fun to see the great Nick Damici pop up in a horror flick, no matter how small the role.

Grade: B-
IMDb: 5.6

A Hard Day
A_Hard_Day
Combine the suspense and breakneck pace of Headhunters with the corrupt cop cat-and-mouse game of Infernal Affairs. Package it inside the South Korean murder-revenge template. Throw in a dash of Walter White-level maniacal crisis and a Michael Myers-esque killer and, well, you essentially have the recipe for A Hard Day. I’m actually surprised this movie doesn’t get mentioned more when the topic of South Korean “han” films arises and the ingenious, usual suspects are named (I Saw the Devil, Oldboy, The Chaser, The Man from Nowhere, etc.). If not up to those high standards, Hard Day is at least in the same ballpark. One of my highest-recommended flicks on this list.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 6.7

Jack Strong
jack strong patrick wilson Marcin Dorocinski
Wait, I’m fucking serious: Despite being marketed with a poster that looks like some lowbrow Tom Clancy political conspiracy schlock and having a title that only furthers this notion, Jack Strong is actually a very intelligent and compelling spy thriller. And that’s because it’s the exact opposite of everything its Netflix thumbnail connotes. For starters, Patrick Wilson (whose face takes up most of the Jack Strong promo poster) actually has very little screen time in the film. Jack Strong is also largely in Polish and Russian, with English subtitles. While it may look like a low-budget rip-off of The Sum of All Fears, it’s really more in the tradition of heady espionage flicks like The Debt, Citizen X and Munich (I’m not gonna mention Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy because I still have no idea what the fuck transpired in that movie). Thrilling, suspenseful and very well acted, one need simply ignore its awful marketing, and a very good film lies beneath.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.2

Kidnapped (Secuestrados)
secuestrados-Manuela-Vellés

Fuck, this one is bleak and grotesque. I mean, while not exactly A Serbian Film, it makes the Liv Tyler flick Strangers look like Home Alone. And it’s not even a horror film. Just a home invasion movie that takes us into the inner recesses of a horrific real-life situation, and then begs the question, “How much fucking worse could it get.” The thing is, it’s all very convincing, believable and well-acted. And I think calling Kidnapped “torture porn” would be a disservice to its vivid realism. I just don’t know why the hell anyone would be compelled to make this film. But it’s certainly better than Eli Roth’s Knock Knock, and if you liked Funny Games and are a cinematic sadist, you’ll most likely eat this shit up.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.5

Last Shift
last-shift-Juliana-Harkavy-bloody-sexy

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.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 5.7

The Living
Jocelin Donahue in The Living
If we can consider Blue Ruin, Joe, Winter’s Bone, Cold in July and Shotgun Stories as cousins related by the blood of country noir, than consider The Living their slightly jaundiced offspring. Director Jack Bryan takes the age-old formula of drinking, heartbreak, mayhem and embittered rednecks killin’ on other nearby rednecks for fuckin’ with their kinfolk. He then hands it over to a talented cast of horror and outlaw movie vets (including a few faces from Justified and House of the Devil’s Jocelin Donahue) and basically lets them shoot it out. While there’s a lot of good bleak-as-fuck hilljackery commencing here, veteran character actor Chris Mulkey absolutely steals the show as a two-bit philosopher hitman who’s just a few screws short of being a white trash Anton Chigurh. If you want bleak and backwoodsy, look no further.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.3

Man from Reno
Ayako-Fujitani-scary-sexy-in-man-from-reno

Man from Reno is, without a doubt, the best film ever made about the treacherous Japanese-British-San Francisco rare turtle smuggling syndicate. That absurd premise is what our heroine, popular detective novelist Aki, finds herself in as she struggles with a personal crisis and the task of cranking out her last opus. Then there’s the dark and handsome gentleman lover Akira (Kazuki Kitamura from Kill Bill and Killerswe need more of this guy), who’s got something to do with the whole shebang. Piecing it all together is a local detective working a murder casethe great character actor Pepe Serna (Scarface), stealing the show as a humble, aging version of Walt Longmire. 

pepe serna chainsaw scarface

Pepe Serna on the wrong side of a chainsaw in Scarface

So yeah, there’s a lot going on here, almost distractingly so (and sometimes the puzzle pieces collide a bit too quickly). But it’s all worth the slow grind. In the end, Man from Reno is a bizarre, multinational cinematic anomaly; equal parts Hitchcock and The Killing. And speaking of the latter, Man from Reno’s bleak Pacific Northwest cinematography brings a mood and visual flair that are as much a character in the film as any player. If you liked the Al Pacino and Christopher Nolan flick Insomnia, definitely check this out.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.9

Mea Culpa
mea culpa movie Vincent Lindon
Mea Culpaor as I like to call it, A Walk Among les Tombstonesis the type of gritty cop thriller that could easily rake in box office bucks with a Liam Neeson remake. The film opens with an older man in short shorts on the beach with his beautiful, much younger wife. The message here, I believe, is that it’s just another day in France.

Such sunny overtones quickly fade. A drunk-driving accident leads to a career and marriage flushed down the drain. It also leads to buddy-cop partners who were once thick as thieves now distanced by worlds of misery. But when a child is witness to a gangland murder, our fallen anti-hero must pick up the pieces in order to save his familyand perhaps even regain his sanity.

There are heavy undertones of Taken, including seedy Eastern European thugs and impromptu death-match boxing in dark warehouses with knives and towel-wrapped hands. I will say Mea Culpa suffers a bit from the old not-killing-the-bad-guy-when-you-have-the-chance syndrome, but it does the trick for a tense and action-packed thriller. Consider it the poor man’s Tell No One.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.1

Mystery Road
mystery road jason mask
Apart from what’s going on in South Korea and the slew of “country noir” films I can’t stop talking about, Australia has one of the stronger bleak, murderous film movements at the moment. Mystery Roada slow-burn detective thriller about an Outback sheriff trying to both solve a murder and navigate systemic and race-fueled corruptionfollows in the rich tradition of The Rover, The Horseman, The Proposition and Animal Kingdom, to name a few. Its existentially bleak, ponderous view of the Outback as expressed through vivid cinematography and minimalist dialogue is part of what makes this film compelling, and creates for a bit of an odd hybrid between Spaghetti Westerns, Samuel Beckett plays and the gonzo Ozploitation movement of the 1970s. It needs to be said that Mystery Road certainly puts the “slow” in “slow-burn,” but if you can dig a crime movie that’s predicated as much upon mood as it is upon plot, this one is certainly worth checking out. Bonus points: It also has a great side role from Hugo Weaving, as well a finale that makes up for the turtle’s pace of the whole affair.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.4

No Tears for the Dead
no tears for the dead bloody

As I said in my original post on the South Korean revenge-murder thriller No Tears for the Dead, “ It might not have the depravity or sophistication of some han classics, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more exhilarating foreign popcorn flick made in the past few years.” Seriously, this one gives the first three installments of the Die Hard series a run for their money. There’s nothing all that heady here (it’s more explosion-enhanced, shoot-’em-up blockbuster fodder than the grim glory of South Korean classics like I Saw the Devil and Oldboy). Still, director Jeong-beom Lee’s folllow-up to The Man from Nowhere impresses as a non-stop visual spectacle, and is buoyed by an all-star cast from South Korean revenge cinema. If you’re a fan of the Vengeance Trilogy but are simply in the mood for sheer entertainment on a more brainless level, No Tears is a whole helluva lot of fun.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.7

On the Job
on the job movie on netflix with Joel Torre

Probably among my top five within this list, On the Job is a Philippine prison-gangster flick that toes the line between drama and thriller. That doesn’t mean it’s by any means slowit’s just a more artful (and well-acted) affair than some of the other stuff on here. If you want some context, combine the coming-of-age and coming-to-power story of Un Prophete (man, that was one of the best films on Netflix), the interwoven, seedy fabric of Amores Perros, and the bleak Philippine crimescape of Metro Manila. And seeing as On the Job details the dynamic of two generations of assassins and their worldly troubles, perhaps a non-comedic take on In Bruges. All the rest you need to know about this film is that it’s about hitmen who have a deal with a political mob to be secretely released every now and then in order to pull of high-profile murders. Oh, and that it’s a damn good piece of modern crime cinema.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.0

The Seasoning House
the-seasoning-house-rosie-day

This is one of those weird and really good gems that just got buried in the ether of Netflix; the kind that never popped up in any “because you liked” lists and took me half an hour of mindlessly browsing to happen upon. Perhaps that’s because it’s a pretty damn difficult film to market. Premise: A deaf-mute girl in The Balkans is abducted into a military sex-slave house after watching her family brutally murdered by soldiers. She uses her wiles to avoid death at the hands of her captors, while simultaneously coming to the aid of her heroin-fed sex-slave counterparts. Doesn’t exactly scream date-night, does it? And it also isn’t really horror, so you can’t just slap a ghoulish image on the front and get traffic that way (see: The Canal).

OK, now consider that extremely fucked-up premise being executed to near-perfection; no torture porn, no exploitative thrills at the expense of of a very serious and evil situation. Simply an engaging thriller with undertones of bloody revenge on par with what you’d expect out of a South Korean “han” film. For those who can stomach it, Seasoning Houseactually a British filmis suspense and terror at its finest. Rest assured, you will never want to visit The Balkans.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.1

Scenic Route
scenic route josh duhamel

Wait, Josh Douchehamel made a good movie? I thought he was only supposed to star in Katherine Heigl flicks in which Katherine Heigl realizes her life sucks and then she meets Josh and realizes her life doesn’t suck, and then they go through a period that sucks, and then things don’t suck again. But no, Scenic Route is actually a pretty damn-entertaining flick, thanks in part to an ambitious and humorous script from Kyle Killen. Premise: a cleaned-up, dumbed-down ex-musician shackled by a white-picket-fence existence meets with an old stoner buddy, who’s the same lout he was when they used to hang. Road trip commences. Car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Bros are stretched to the limits of their friendship and sanity.  It’s kind of like that movie Gerry with Matt Damon, except that I didn’t feel like I swallowed a handful of Ambien ten minutes into watching it (fuckin’ a, Gus Van Sant, fuckin’ a…). I’m not saying Scenic Route is anything existentially groundbreaking, but it’s just really surprisingly good for a movie starring Josh Duhamel, and you could do a lot worse in terms of survival flicks.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.5

The Shrine
cindy-sampson-in-the-shrine

As I’ve said before, good horror flicks are few and far between. And I can’t highly recommend this one until you’ve gone through the 30 or so other modern horror films I’ve suggested on this blog. But worth your time if you’re a horror fan? Yeah, it at least holds that standard.

The premise is even a bit more creative and new than a lot of the stuff popping up these days: An American journalist, her photographer boyfriend and her intern travel to a remote Polish village to investigate a series of odd tourist disappearances. Combining elements of Devil’s Pass (watch that on Netflix over this if you haven’t seen it), Hostel and any number of possession films, Shrine at least creates an interesting and multilayered narrative. There’s even some cinematographically intriguing segments shot in the eerie mist of Polish hill country. Why many of these are clearly shot in front of a green screen is a mystery, and adds an unnecessary element of b-movie laziness. And as a former journalist, I’d rather not even get into the financial implausability of a small-time journo living in a high-end condo and flippantly buying three last-minute transcontinental flight tickets on her own dime simply because she has a story hunch. But there’s some decent special effects here and enough ambitious thrills and chills to at least merit a gander. I’ll just reiterate that this one’s low on the list and I’m mainly just throwing it in here for hard-up horror fans.

GRADE: B- / C+
IMDb: 5.6

Suburra
subarra movie Greta Scarano Alessandro Borghi

Damn, this is a great movieprobably the best on this list. I love how the opening scene cuts from a boring Italian legislative session to a neon-lit mansion bumping M83’s club-classic “Midnight City” (arguably the most MDMA-conducive song ever created). From there, the tone for Suburra is set, and it’s one of a cross-section of corrupt humanity overlapping into one another’s seedy, carnal and ultimately deadly worlds. The idea of intersecting narratives tied together by some intrinsically morose fate certainly brings to mind the early work of Alejandro G. Iñárritu (see: Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), now probably the most lauded director on the planet.

And as the scandalous lives of a corrupt politician, a gung-ho mobster, a nightclub promoter, a beautiful prostitute and the old guard of gangsterism clash in and around modern-day Rome, the movie also delves into some of the bleak Christian themes Iñárritu explored, especially in Amores Perros. Suburra is divided into daily chapters, with each one being prefaced by text signaling a countdown to “the apocalypse.” The true nature of this apocalypse is more existential and character-related than it is literal, but it would be hard to argue that the movie is, on some levels, not a story about the descent and end of mankind.

Pierfrancesco Favino and Greta Scarano sexy in Suburra

“It’s the end of the world… might as well double up!”

Fans of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher series will most likely love this as well, as it delves into the same neon-lit, trance-music soundtracked netherworld that brought a surreal mix of doom and glory to those movies. It’s worth noting that this is somewhat of a companion piece to the great Italian slum-gangster flick Gomorrah, made a few years prior, as Suburra’s director went on to turn that movie into a TV series. From a cinematographic standpoint, however, Suburra is an improvement on its predecessor. Oh, and a final note: There’s a climactic scene here that rivals the horsehead scene in Godfather. Just sayin!

GRADE: A-
IMDb: 7.5

Uncle John
Uncle John Ronnie Gene Blevins John Ashton
I know nothing about the fresh-faced, first-time filmmaker Steven Piet, but if I had to guess one thing about him I’d say he’s has seen a little film called Blue Ruin. My second guess on Mr. Piet would be that he’s seen a film called The Living. I’d also venture that he’s probably seen David Gordon Green’s Joe and Jim Mickle’s Cold in July. Whether Piet saw any or all of these films before creating Uncle John? I’d also guess in the affirmative, but that in no way means that Piet’s feature debut isn’t a damn good foray into country noir-ish territory in its own right. It’s also arguably the most “Midwestern Nice” movie since Fargo.

A split narrative follows both the budding workplace romance of two typical city millennials and the boy’s titular uncle and father-figure, a farmer living a few hours (and a few worlds) away from them. John is a good, plainspoken Midwesterner who works hard and meets a group of similarly Midwestern chatty-Cathy buddies for coffee every morning at the local diner. But of course, he’s hiding a dark secret. The performances of John Ashton as Uncle John and Ronnie Gene Blevins as essentially the same character he played in the movie Joe are much more compelling than what’s going on with nephew and his office hottie. Still, Piet’s use of a split narrative to contrast the safeness and sterilization of one generation with the cruder, hands-on know-how of a bygone era isdespite being a bit heavy handedan effective tool for conveying how dull and sheepishly naive your average Millennial is.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.3

When Animals Dream
sonia-suhl-in-when-animals-dream

To avoid spoilers, I’m not gonna classify the subgenre of this slow-paced and thoughtful Danish horror flick. That said, when its main character, Marie (Sonia Suhl), starts growing weird patches of hair on her body, the gist becomes clear rather quick. I want to re-emphasive that “slow-paced and thoughtful” aspectit’s not in an artsy fartsy way that people will either love or hate, as was the case with A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. It’s more about combating demons and conspiratorily safeguarding evils within a family dynamic. It’s also about female sexuality and love, but it’s really a lot more grim than that. So the main comparison would be Let the Right One In, a standard few films can live up to (including this one). Still, Suhl’s performance is understatedly compelling and complex. And the bleak cinematography of an isolated European fishing town provides the perfect setting and mood to complement one of the more introspective horror flicks of the past few years.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 5.9

White Rabbit
Nick-Krause-in-White-Rabbit

Harlan is an angsty loner who grew up with an alcoholic dad whose lasting legacy to his son was an appreciation for guns. Then a neurotic pixie dream girl arrives at his high school, and their relationship plays out a lot like what went down in the Daniel Radcliffe movie Horns. White Rabbit is also very similar to Almost Mercy (see top of list), albeit darker and more bleakly homicidal. Basically, it’s like Columbine meets Donnie Darko, as seen through the eyes of rapper Cage (specifically his “I Never Knew You” music video). Matter of fact, actor Nick Krause looks a hell of a lot like Cage here. Shia LaBouef should cast him if he’s still working on that Cage biopic. Anyway, if you want some really good, really bleak and bloody teen angst, check this one out.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.2

A Wolf at the Door
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I’ll quote from my original post here: “If Prisoners met Little Children and were lured into a back alley by Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, you might have a rough idea of what the Brazilian abduction film A Wolf at the Door is about. But even such a miasma of grim, adulterous, child-snatching malevolence would fall short of matching the depravity that exists in director Fernando Coimbra’s 2013 suspense tale.” Yeah, that pretty much sums up this slow-burn story of psycopathic lust, adultery, betrayal and murder. This is another one hidden deep in the Netflix archives that deserves much more attention.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.5

-Sam Adams

The Living on Netflix Instant: A country-noir thriller for fans of Blue Ruin and Joe

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If it wasn’t abundantly clear in my posts on Blue Ruin and Joe, one of my favorite emerging subgenres is that of the bleak-as-fuck country noir thriller/drama. For prime examples of this movement, one can look to the literary works of Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone, Tomato Red, The Outlaw Album) or the cinematic ones of Jeff Nichols (Mud, Shotgun Stories) and other recent standouts like Jim Mickle’s Cold in July.

A recurring pattern of revenge and vigilante justice can be found in all these titles. There’s also a lot of drinking, heartbreak, mayhem and embittered rednecks killin’ on other nearby rednecks for fuckin’ with their kinfolk. Does the genre rely a bit heavily on our pleasure in viewing an exploited archetype? Perhaps. (If you want to go down that road, here’s a great article on the genesis of country noir.)

If you’ve made it through all the movies I’ve mentioned, however, and aren’t too offended by a little yokel-on-yokel bloodlettin’, let me recommend another one that recently hit Netflix…

The Living
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Before I get your hopes up, let me state off the bat that The Living is simply not as strong a country noir showing as Blue Ruin or Joe. It’s a film that operates in the very particular, bleak vein of those films and executes well in at least a few of the areas they did.

I was hooked immediately by the film’s opening credits. Sublime photography of desolate Pennsylavania farmlandcoupled with a forlorn Michael Hurley ballad that sounds like something Townes Van Zandt and Hank Williams would have played together in purgatoryevoke an ominous air of doom. While not exactly as audiovisually brilliant as the use of Little Willie John’s “No Regrets” in Blue Ruin, it still set the stage for some very eerie, fucked up hilljackery to commence.

And then we meet Teddy, an alcoholic who wakes up bloodied on the rug one morning and finds both his wedding ring and his wife missing. Teddy soon finds out that in a drunken furor, he beat his Molly into a bloody pulp. Contrition brings wifey back home, despite the warnings of her tough, chain-smoking mammy (Joelle Carter, looking less like her character Ava from Justified and more like Dale Dickey from Winter’s Bone and the Breaking Bad “ATM episode”).

Joelle Carter as Ava and Dale Dickey in Winter's Bone look like Joelle Carter in The Living

Even Ava Crowder has her bad days…

Then there’s Molly’s brother Gordon, a weak simpleton who wants revenge on Teddy but doesn’t have the cojones to get his hands dirty. That is until a shady friend says he knows a guy who takes care of people. “You sure he’s good,” Teddy asks. “I’m sure he’s cheap,” homey replies. And fortunately for us, mystery hitman ends up being the the strongest element of the entire film.

You probably don’t know Chris Mulkey’s name, but you’ll know his face (and I’ll omit it here so as not to play spoiler). His depiction of a weathered, barstool-philosophizing ex-con assassin echoes a rube-ish hybrid of Anton Chigurh and Rust Cohle (in his beer can origami days).

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“I quit my detectivin’ job but I been sellin’ these cute little fuckers on Etsy for $12 a pop. It’s all about shapin’ a flat circle, amigo…”

As a fount of deadpan psycopathic wisdom, Mulkey delivers some of the film’s most memorable scenes, including a parable about a dying mountain lion cub that’s equal parts Cormac McCarthy and Bret Easton Ellis. This bit solidifies the film’s otherwise generically vague title, and also accomplishes that rare feat of bringing palpable humanity to a monster.

The Living also excels in its casting, predicated on a who’s-who of B-actors from both terrific horror and hillbilly cinema. For starters, you’ve got two leads from two of the more memorable horror movies of the past decade (Jocelin Donahue from House of the Devil and and Fran Kranz from Cabin in the Woods). Then there’s vets of bleak, country shows like Carter and Mulkey (both of whom did stints on Justified).

An area where the film falters, as is often the case, is in the character of the young, virgin-eyed protagonist (Kenny Wormald’s Gordon). He plays the criminally green, simpleton card just a little too heavy, and seeing as the majority of his scenes are with Mulkey, the awkward effort is even more pronounced. (In lieu of the otherwise-strong and genre-specific casting, I’m assuming this film simply didn’t have the budget for Tye Sheridan.)
Tye Sheridan better call saul

In all, The Living certainly does not have that raw, improvisational edge that made Joe so fantastic, nor the attention to atmospheric detail that lifted both that film and Blue Ruin to new heights of country noir-dom. But Mulkey’s deranged performance is worth the brisk 89-minute run time alone. And for anyone as smitten as myself with this wave of menacingly bleak hill-folk flicks (again—Winter’s Bone, Shotgun Stories, Joe, Cold in July, Blue Ruin, etc.), it’s a welcome addition to the canon.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.3

-Sam Adams

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

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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.

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“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…

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“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.

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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.

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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.

Stake Land on Netflix Instant: Vampocalypse, Now!

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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.).

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“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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.