The Babadook on Netflix Instant: Revisiting the Best (and Most Overhyped) Horror Film of 2014

The Babadook, Essie Davis
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Every couple of years, there’s that indie-horror darling that gets critics horny to affix their names to movie posters via hyperbolic soundbites. Thus was the case with The Babadook, Australian director Jennifer Kent’s debut about a mom and son who are haunted by a scissor-handed, pop-up book character come to life.

OK, to be fair, the most hyperbolic of these critics wasn’t actually a critic. It was William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, who tweeted, “I’ve never seen a more terrifying film than THE BABADOOK.” That’s rather lofty praise from the guy who made what everyone and their mother seem to agree is the greatest horror flick of all time. (NOTE: I disagree with you and your mothers.)

Still, this seemed to unleash an avalanche of critical praise that built the flick up to near-Blair Witch levels of hype. So when I went to go see it in theaters last year, I knew a letdown was inevitable.

But wait.

The Babadook is actually a damn good horror movie. Let me illustrate this to you with my own superlatives. …  It’s the best horror movie of 2014 (not a great year for the genre, but still); it’s one of the most emotionally compelling horror films of the past decade; and it features one of the best female lead roles in the history of the genre.

Enough quotables for you? Let’s talk about the movie…

The Babadook
Essie Davis in The Babbadook
Amelia (Essie Davis) lives with her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) in a creaky, barren two-flat in Nowhere, Australia. She’s a lonesome, sex-deprived widow whose husband died six years ago when he was transporting her to the delivery room.

Samuelthe reward of that tragic nightis an amateur magician who shoots other kids with darts, is prone to fits of rage, believes in the bogeyman and regularly screams like a dying hyena. In short, he’s the type of problem child that makes one feel sympathetic toward the Chinese government’s stance on population control.

parenthood, The Babadook, Noah Wiseman, Norm MacDonald

Note to self: forget about fathering children…

Samuel is also the first of several shopworn genre motifs that Babadook introduces. He’s the prescient, mommy-coddled oddball plagued by demons (see: The Sixth Sense, Insidious,The Ring, etc.). I truly look forward to the day when the creepy-kid formula is thrown out the window of horror filmmaking. In the meantime—and to Wiseman’s credit—Samuel is more of a believably tortured soul than he is Child of the Corn. (It’s actually a very strong child-acting performance; I personally have just had enough children in my goddam horror movies.)

Anyway, one day Samuel stumbles on an ominous red book called “Mr. Babadook.” Amelia hesitantly reads it to himuntil she realizes it’s basically an Edward Gorey bedtime story from the depths of hell. And thus an unspeakable evil is released.
Edward Gorey the babadook

While all this may sound incredibly sinister, it should be noted that The Babadook is not the standard jump-out-your-seat horror thriller. It’s more slow-building, high-tension psychological horror with strong emotional overtones tied to the concept of grief. What makes this formula work so incredibly is, first and foremost, the transformative work of Essie Davis.

Her beautiful-but-disheveled Amelia wears an exhaustive home life on her face, and the weight of her hellish, grief-stricken burden is beyond just palpable. Davis’ acting is the kind of stuff Oscars are made for. Unfortunately, The Babadook is an indie horror movie, and therefore unpalatable to the mild-mannered octogenarian elite who bestow such honors. (I’d venture that the late Johnny Cochrane would find it humanly fucking impossible to make a compelling argument that Rosamund Pike’s performance in Gone Girl is on par with what Davis did here.)

essie davis the babadook

Heeere’s Mommy!

It should also be mentioned that this flick is the best tale of grief in horror since The Descent (a personal horror top-five). I can’t really go into the uncanny similarities between the two films without giving much away, but I think you’ll get the gist.

Another strong point of Babadook is that despite its tendency to rely on horror tropes, the narrative and emotional undercurrent of the film are anything but formulaic or stilted. The film is about the roots of a troubled child’s dark imagination as much as it is about a mother coming to terms with hell on Earth. Narrative analogies in the form of old cartoon and movie clips played in Amelia’s home bring both wit and ominous artistic flair to the mother and son’s predicament. (In particular, digging into the annals of Georges Jean Méliès’ work to provide imagery for the titular character is a stroke of cinematic brilliance.)

Georges Jean Méliès, The Babadook

You might recognize Georges Jean Méliès’ work from Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.

All said, while The Babadook is by no means one of “the most terrifying films of all time,” it is a beautifully imaginative horror flick, and one that relies more heavily on acting and psychological drama than the CGI, torture porn and “jump” factors that seem to dominate much of the genre’s modern-day output.

Sure, it’s slow and has its fair share of contrivances. But while you might want more monster out of something that masquerades as a monster movie, you couldn’t ask for more out of Essie Davis, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better allegory for the pitfalls of grief in any genre.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.9

-Sam Adams

 

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

Best movies of 2014 netflix instant
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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!

El Infierno on Netflix Instant: Narcocorridos, the Scarface effect and Hell on Earth

El Infierno
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El Infierno (2010, aka El Narco, aka Hell) is in equal parts one of the best and also most disturbing films on Netflix Instant. To be clear, it’s not the cinematic violence that’s so disturbing—although the brutality inflicted on screen is just as vicious as that of your average Tarantino flick (and many heads do roll, quite literally). What’s deeply unsettling about this film is the harsh realities it’s steeped in, and how gruesome they are when confronted.

Confrontation, as a matter of fact, is exactly what director Luis Estrada employs—only he does it in a way that’s as morbidly ironic as the “narcocorridos” (celebratory druglord ballads) that revel in the bloodlust of the film’s villainous protagonists.

But before we dive in to the not-so-subliminal politics of one of the greatest and most important Mexican movies ever made, let’s start with the premise.

Benny García (Damián Alcázar) returns home to Mexico after 20 years of working stateside. An early sequence—set comically to the tune of a ballad about Mexican-American pride—shows Benny deported and robbed blind by cops and criminals as he makes his way back to his mother’s house, where he set out from two decades ago. He greets his mother as a ragged man with nothing to show for himself, save his boyish smile.

el infierno

“Hi, mom. It’s me! I’m broke!”

Benny soon begins facing some hard truths. His hometown (the fictional San Miguel Arcángel) has become a haven of crime and murder, and his brother was killed as a byproduct of the drug violence that’s devastated the area. He views all this with the wide eyes of a man who seems to be setting foot in a foreign country.

While Benny makes a go at keeping on the straight and narrow by working at his godfather’s auto repair shop, it proves just as futile as everything else he’s done in his forgettable existence.  Then he takes up with the drop-dead gorgeous, prostitute ex-lover of his brother. To provide any sort of life for her and her son (Benny’s nephew), it becomes clear that a grease monkey’s paycheck simply doesn’t cut the mustard.

el infierno

It’s hard out there for a pimp…

That’s where one of El Infierno‘s best characters comes into play. Benny runs into a boyhood friend who’s become a mafioso known as “Cochiloco.” Cochi is played by the great Mexican character actor Joaquín Cosio (who you can also see on Netflix Instant in A Night in Old Mexico and Saving Private Perez—both of which are campy genre fun, but neither of which I can highly recommend).

Joaquín Cosio

Joaquín Cosio as Cochi—one badass narco.

With the aid of Cochi, Benny breaks bad and begins working as a cartel enforcer. Speaking of “breaking bad,” if you’re at all familiar with narcocorridos, it’s most likely through Vince Gilligan’s show:

Before we continue, I can’t help mentioning some interesting parallels between this movie and Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, a film which ranks firmly in my all-time top ten.

In the one movie where Peckinpah was given absolute creative control before he went batshit on tequila, the great Warren Oates plays a down-on-his-luck guy named Bennie. Bennie is in love with a beautiful Mexican prostitute. Bennie loves tequila blanco. Benny is searching for the head of a man named Garcia.

el infierno and bring me the head of alfredo garcia

“Nice dame, Bennie.”                               “You too, Benny.”

In El Infierno, a man named Benny Garcia drinks a lot of tequila blanco and is in love with a beautiful Mexican prostitute. His cartel boss, who looks and behaves like El Jefe in Alfredo Garcia, demands that heads be brought to him. And to avoid spoilers, the fate of Benny and Bennie play out in almost exactly the same fashion. Shit, Damián Alcázar and Warren Oates even look alike with their white suits, tinted shades and Western mustaches.

el infierno

“Lookin’ good, Bennie!”                            “You too, Benny!”

Moving on.

The story of El Infierno is epic, to say the least. It’s a grand-scale tragicomedy that comes off both as a fiendishly entertaining gangster movie and an indictment of the cyclical, epidemic violence that is currently devouring much of Mexico.

Perhaps this is where I should address why I find it hard to write about this film. Obviously, this here blog is about all the violent and twisted entertainment that us crime/thriller/horror adherents adore. El Infierno, conversely, is a masterfully horrific, violent thriller that might as well be a mirror held to the type of psyche that appreciates such forms of entertainment. Furthermore—and only if one bothers to think about it—the film shows how such an appreciation can actually perpetuate unspeakable evils in that place out there called “real life.”

Don’t get me wrong—this movie isn’t going to make me stop writing about violent movies or appreciating them. But I would be doing a disservice to a great piece of filmmaking if I simply said, “You have to see this! It’s the best cartel movie since Scarface!”

scarface

“Ask the Bennies, mang—joo cain’t argue wit a fuckin’ white suit!”

Which leads to another another admission: I’m not a fan of Scarface. And not because it’s a piece of ’80s schlock with a shallow script and far too many canned performances. The issue I have is a moral one (yes, El Infierno has driven me to address that taboo subject).

Essentially, Scarface took something a little too bad and made it look a little too good. Case in point: Just ask any shitty mainstream rapper who touts gun violence, female subjection and murder what their favorite film is. The ubiquitous answer is, of course, Scarface.

chief keef scarface

Ask Chief Keef if he sees Scarface as a “cautionary tale”…

Brian De Palma’s 1983 cult classic has unfortunately transcended what crime-film lovers like myself deem a guilty pleasure. It’s become a badge of honor, a gang tattoo—the theme song to a generation of violence, with a message that killing human beings will get you ahead in this world. A message that, without a doubt, has inspired many human beings to kill other human beings.

I’m not trying to get all Tipper Gore on your ass and say that kids are gonna go kill other kids if they listen to The Slim Shady LP. But I am of the opinion that when impressed upon weak minds, glorified depictions of cinematic violence have the distinct possibility of influencing acts of similar violence in the real world. James Holmes, the Aurora shooter, would have undoubtedly done some awful shit if he hadn’t seen the Dark Knight movies. Still, he probably wouldn’t have killed 12 people specifically at a Dark Knight movie while dressed like the Joker if he hadn’t been influenced by those movies.

And the argument that Scarface is a “cautionary tale” is just ridiculous. Before he died, Tony Montana got rich and powerful as hell, fucked Michelle Pfeiffer and essentially got everything there is to get out of the material world. If you have nothing, a mere glimpse of that is probably worth a pine box to a lot of people.

Michelle Pfeiffer

Young Michelle Pfeiffer: A Dame to Kill For

That’s not to say that I’m judging anyone for buying into the narco lifestyle. El Infierno makes it abundantly clear that in a broken system, the choices for the impoverished are either a long, fruitless life of piety or a life of flashy crime. When Benny asks Cochi if he’s worried he’ll go to hell for his sins, Cochi responds, “Hell, my ass. Hell is right here.” And the landscape of El Infierno is hell, for both citizens and violent narcos alike.

The film’s method of portraying this violence while also ridiculing the viewer for watching it can be most aptly summarized through its use of narcocorridos. These are, after all, hero anthems about people who kill both gangsters and innocents. And those innocents who’re being gunned down every day in places like Juárez? They’re very much the same audience who’ve made narcocorridos the most popular style of music in Mexico over the past several years.

In other words, this violence exists in the mainstream because we as consumers demand it. Nevermind that it only further fuels the fire of a culture of murder and destruction.

Does this all sound really fucking bleak and as if places like Juárez are eternally doomed because its victims support its killers? Good, that’s what Luis Estrada is going for. As the director said in an interview with the LA Times, “Mexicans have become the victims and the executioners, all at the same time.” (It should be noted that Hollywood and American consumers are equally to blame.)

El Infierno is as entertaining and hilarious of a gangster flick as I can think of in recent years. Underlying all that, however, is a deeply ingrained sociopolitical message that points a finger at those of us who tacitly support this violence by buying into the cinematic allure of it. “No one can see this picture as just entertainment,” Estrada told the Times. “There is no redeemable person in the film. There is no hero, no vision of hope. All the characters are bad or worse.”

El Infierno

A fool’s pride

Unfortunately, this message will no doubt  be ignored by many who see the life of a narco as a brief but worthwhile avenue to a level of power and respect that they could never accomplish as an ordinary citizen. So if you want a movie like Scarface and don’t need all this high-horse morality shit from me, I promise you’ll still love El Infierno. (However, it has subtitles, which you probably don’t fuck with if Scarface is your favorite movie.)

In all, El Infierno is a brilliant film in which Estrada accomplishes the unique feat of offering a desperate plea to the masses in the same breath that he appeases their bloodlust. It’s left to the audience which of these messages they’d like to take home.

-Sam Adams

Grade: A
IMDb: 8.0

NOTES: If you want a view into the subculture of narcocorridos and the destructive role of narco culture in Mexican society, check out the excellent documentary Narco Cultura (also available on Netflix Instant).

Other great Mexican movies on Netflix Instant include Amores Perros and Y tu mamá también.