Every now and then, there is nothing left and nowhere to turn. No, that’s not the title of Macon Blair’s next screenplay—it’s more the reason I created this blog.
I was fed up with half-assed Thrillist/Gawker/Paste click-bait lists pointing in the direction of the same 25 indie movies on rotation when all I wanted was a good, bleak diamond-in-the-rough after plowing through seemingly everything on Netflix.
And I was fixated on the fact that these movies align with just a few parameters—those being “grim” and “thrilling.” Horror, crime, Western, I don’t particularly care—just something fucked up enough to give me the vicarious thrill my strange brain needs to cozily drift into sleep. ASMR for the depraved, one might say.
Thus I decided to make a recommendation repository for folks of similar strokes.
In that spirit, the criteria for this list are simple: A.) Anything within the broad categorization of crime, thriller and horror I watched over the last year and deemed recommendation-worthy. B.) Movies and series must be streamable (as of press time) on Netflix or Amazon Prime. C.) I tried to keep it to “lesser-known,” but that means different things to different audiences, and I took a few liberties, mostly in cases where I really dug something. D.) All movies are modern, meaning made in the past couple years. I figure if I go beyond that loosely defined time period, either you’ve already seen it or I’ve already covered it.
If you’re interested in past iterations of these massive streaming bleak-cinema rundowns, check out this list of 26 worthwhile titles and this list of 18 great titles. Hell, some of those films are still kicking around on the Big Two streaming services.
Enough foreplay: Here’s 19 recommended and highly recommended titles for lovers of crime, thriller and horror cinema—alphabetized, graded, denominated by streaming service, and linked in title to my original longer-form posts (where applicable).
Bad Day for the Cut (Netflix)In the tradition of sardonically witted, bleak Irish murder films like John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard and Calvary and Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, Chris Baugh’s Bad Day for a Cut (meaning shitty farming weather) might as well be titled “Green Ruin.”
The story centers around oafish mama’s boy Donal (Nigel O’Neill), a mechanic living in the countryside somewhere not far from Belfast. Aging and mild-mannered, Donal is roused from his polite existence when dear old ma is bludgeoned to death in her living room while Donal sleeps off a drunk in his shed. Shortly after, he crosses paths with a thick-headed Polish lad and they drive around in Donal’s candy-paint camper van, exacting revenge on a crime syndicate.
Bad Day doesn’t quite stack up to the three films mentioned earlier—due largely to the Polish kid being a horrible actor and less of a character than an unnecessarily formulaic plot device. But O’Neill’s measured performance—equal parts dry wit, poignant stoicism and brutal avenger—is a dynamic spectacle to behold. He’s so perfect in this role that I begin to wonder even if the great Brendan Gleeson (who starred in those three McDonagh films) could have played it better.
In the end, a familiar brand of doomsday wit encapsulated in a story about a man as alive as he is dead makes for a distinctly Irish existential-thriller. And one well worth watching for anyone interested in this burgeoning subgenre.
GRADE: B / B+
Brawl in Cell Block 99 (Amazon)
The first thing to know about Brawl in Cell Block 99 is that it’s S. Craig Zahler’s follow-up to Bone Tomahawk, his magnificently brutal directorial debut. The second is that it showcases Vince Vaughn’s best “serious” work in a starring role. That’s not to say his portrayal of Bradley Thompson, an ex-boxer, ex-addict, drug-running manimal whose fury knows no bounds is anything revolutionary. But his presence throughout Cell Block‘s 132-minute runtime is positively commanding.
I should also add that Cell Block is only a “prison movie” insofar as much of it takes place in a prison. It’s really more of a hyperreal character study on psychopathy for entertainment’s sake; a film that despite it’s immaculate, bleak prison cinematography, is more an avenue for primal bloodlust than it is an adherent to any specific genre.
As was the case in Bone Tomahawk (also on Amazon Prime), Zahler delivers a restrained, slow-burn mood piece that perfectly sets the stage for an unbridled and unforgiving climax. Like Vaughn’s character, the action and resolution are larger than life, and purposely so.
With a familiar setup, the Belgian series La trêve (The Break) opens with a crestfallen ace investigator looking for refuge in a small town police department, only to have his broken psyche tested by an unexpected murder.
Our troubled hero here is Yoann Peeters, retreating from something bad that happened in Brussels to his small hometown with his teenage daughter for reassignment. Before Yoann can get settled, the corpse of a promising young African soccer star washes up in the river.
What unfolds is a slow-burn, carefully crafted whodunnit, with Peeters turning over every rotting log in the underbelly of his picturesque town to reveal the brutal truth. There’s also some well-scripted family drama here, as Peeters’ teenage daughter gets caught up in a world of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll—captured with a lens that is decidedly European about these things. For once, this brand of otherwise-ancillary plot devising is refreshingly honest.
While The Break’s eventual payoff rewards, I’d emphasize that this is of the slow-burn and atmospherically sublime variant of crime dramas—akin to all the Nordic Noir stuff I’ll be talking about later in this post. So proceed with a degree of patience.
Cash Only (Netflix)
Blending elements of Mean Streets, Boston gangster fare like Gone Baby Gone, every film in Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Pusher series, Eastern Promises, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour and even the notorious horror flick A Serbian Film, Cash Only is a dark foray into one man’s quest to find his own morality, save his family and walk through hell and back in order to do so.
Our main man is Elvis Martini, an Albanian-American Detroit slumlord and single-dad who’s watched his life go up in flames ever since he torched his house for insurance cash—before checking if his wife was sleeping inside.
The first half of the film slowly acquaints us with the conditions of Elvis’ slum world—filled with shady dealings, colorful characters and a daily struggle to survive. The second half flips the script with a turbo-charged 24-hour hell ride in which Elvis must come up with a cash grab or face consequences worse than death. The climax here is riveting, and actor Nickola Shreli does some damn-impressive work as Cash Only‘s morally conflicted lead. Strongly recommended for fans of brutal crime thrillers who don’t mind a low budget and some slow burn with a good payoff.
GRADE: B / B+
Creep 2 (Netflix)
While no genre in recent memory has reviled me as much as the self-indulgent emo charade that is mumblecore—a product of the Duplass brothers—it’s to Mark Duplass’ credit that he’s channeled his penchant for disturbingly awkward characters into the titular “creep” he plays in his horror series (he’s penned both installations, along with help from returning director Patrick Brice).
Following the story of attractive, goth-y video blogger Sara (Desiree Akhavan) who likes capturing “encounters” with weirdos for her failing documentary series, Creep 2 presents a found-footage-style look into a complex and depraved serial killer who has decided to confess his sins. But of course he’s doing it on his own terms—in his remote cabin in the middle of nowhere.
As Sara and her host’s relationship grows over the course of the interview, awkwardness and fear build an eerily intriguing tension that clearly has no good end in sight. Creep 2 is actually an improvement on its predecessor. The story is more thoughtfully constructed, the tension more palpable, and Akhavan is a welcome protagonist improvement from Brice, who starred in Creep. But the creepiest thing about this film might just be a lingering full-frontal shot of Duplass. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
GRADE: B / B+
Cheap Thrills (Netflix)
Imagine if Would You Rather, 13 Sins or Circle were still very entertaining but depended less on the cheap exploitation gimmicks we’ve come to associate with “torture porn.”
The protagonist of Cheap Thrills is Craig (Pat Healy from Ti West’s The Innkeepers), an average joe who walks into a bar after being fired and served an eviction notice on the same day. There, he runs into Vince (Ethan Embry on the career comeback train), a high-school pal and fellow dude in the dumps. This leads to a fateful meeting with a rich playboy (a show-stealing David Koechner) who invites them to entertain his young, model wife (Sara Paxton, also from The Innkeepers) on her birthday. Plying them with coke and primo tequila, he starts pitting the two against each other in games of mental and physical stamina. Of course the stakes get increasingly higher and, well, you can see where this is going…
What separates former-horror-journalist E.L. Katz’s directorial debut from the typical greed/selfishness for cash/survival play that’s come in the wake of Saw is a keen sense of subgenre self-awareness that allows it to double as black comedy—while still delivering all the vicarious thrills of a heightened stakes, blood-spatter shockfest. While I wouldn’t necessarily call this a horror flick, it will probably play best to fans of that genre—tapping a somewhat similar vein as meta-horror comedies like Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil and The Cabin in the Woods.
Department Q Trilogy (Netflix)
In my write-up of the three films (so far) that comprise Danish novelist Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series, I referred to it as “essentially a very good—albeit slightly slower and more formulaic—mashup of True Detective SE1, The Dragon Tattoo Trilogy and The Killing.”
The main players here are Carl Morck, a brooding, spiteful alcoholic who seems to be severely deficient in the department of fucks given, and his sidekick Assad—an upbeat, devout Muslim cop who blares bass-heavy rap and tells jokes.
Each installment in the grim, atmospheric slow-burn series presents the yin-and-yang pair with a new serial murder case. An impressive roster of recognizable Nordic Noir actors—including strong work by the leads—takes DQ beyond your run-of-the-mill detective series, and closer to the standard of the original Danish Dragon Tattoo film trilogy.
Two main things strike me about why the DQ series is so enjoyable. First, it fills a cinematic flat circle: It has much of the entertainment value of True Detective, but without making viewers feel like they need to write a thesis about the damn thing. Conversely, it’s heady enough to not leave that film of time-wasted disgust on my conscience that happens when I sit through two hours of SVU.
The other quality about these films that works to their favor is the same thing that often cheapens this brand of serial cinema: a formula. While that formula may not include meaningful character development, it does deliver the same admirable constants: Two entertaining movie detectives, great ensemble casts, memorable depictions of evil, and the same sublime cinematic lens that made The Killing’s bleak scenery and atmosphere one of its most memorable characters.
Department Q: The Keeper of Lost Causes
Department Q: The Absent One
GRADE: B+ / B
Department Q: A Conspiracy of Faith
I mentioned a few entries back in Cheap Thrills that ’90s high-school heartthrob Ethan Embry looked to be making a comeback. If that’s possible, his career-best performance in The Devil’s Candy might be the turning point.
Embry and Shiri Appleby play Jesse and Astrid Hellman—artsy, metalhead parents who buy a house with an adjoining studio for Jesse to work on his large-scale, death metal-inspired tableaus. Of course the dream home comes with a catch—its former inhabitant (a menacing Pruitt Taylor Vince) murdered his parents there. So there’s both demonic forces and a serial killer to contend with in Tasmanian writer/director Sean Byrne’s long-awaited follow-up to The Loved Ones.
In his portrayal of Jesse Hellman, Embry comes across as a Christlike figure touched with a little Rust Cohle. (Both he and Appleby are phenomenal here.) At the expense of sounding artsy fartsy, I personally loved Byrne’s commitment to not pigeonholing or satirizing an unconventional style of parenting. And I think that’s worth pointing out, as Embry’s transformative performance would not be nearly as effective without Byrne’s well-fleshed-out attention to character. At the very least, it grounds the film in a humanity that makes the terror even more palpable.
Devil’s Candy also features a full-throttle heavy-metal soundtrack that echoes Byrne’s bleak, moody cinematography like a primal howl. Many horror fans will appreciate it for that alone.
DISCLAIMER: At the expense of overhyping, I’m hesitant to say anything about this film. It’s better to go in blind, and just queue it up late at night in a quiet, pitch-black setting. Point being, if you haven’t seen this and you’re a horror fan, skip the next few paragraphs and make Hell House LLC your No. 1 priority.
If Hell House LLC could swap release dates with The Blair Witch Project, it would be one of the most widely referenced horror movies of the past 20 or 30 years. Sure, you could say that about a lot of today’s found-footage flicks, but there are two reasons I think the hypothetical comparison has merit: 1.) Like Blair Witch Project, and unlike the better found-footage offerings since its 1999 release (Affliction, V/H/S/2, Rec, The Taking of Deborah Logan—to name a few) Hell House LLC does not employ any noticeable CGI. 2.) Like BWP and unlike the aforementioned list (and also unlike box-office successes like Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, Chronicle, Quarantine), there is noticeably a next-to-nothing budget for Hell House.
The film starts by interspersing various media documentation of an unsolved tragedy that took place several years back, when a crew of haunted house entrepreneurs set up an installation in a small town 40 minutes from NYC. Then a staff member approaches a present-day documentary crew and hands over tapes of the fateful night and the events preceding it. From here, we get the meat of the film, which unfolds in edge-of-your-seat, terrifying chaos.
While this may sound like a dizzying amount of films within films, it’s actually one of Hell House LLC‘s strongest attributes. Especially for those like myself who rarely get into paranormal films due to their implausible nature. Here, the multilayered testimonials have the effect of making this all feel grounded in reality, which of course is what makes any good horror work.
Hell House LLC came out of nowhere to me—I simply stumbled on it in the ether of Amazon Prime, and I was worried that might have been why it blew my mind. But it holds up on a second view, and remains both one of the best low-budget and found-footage horror films I’ve ever seen.
In Order of Disappearance (Netflix)
If “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” doesn’t have a parallel adage about a father unleashing his wrath when his only son is murdered, the fiendishly bleak In Order of Disappearance by Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland (Department Q: A Conspiracy of Faith) will certainly do.
Stellan Skarsgaard, as brilliant as ever, stars as said father, a humble, understated man who’s just received a “Citizen of the the Year” award before his world is turned upside down by his son’s untimely death.
After a period of grief that leaves his life lonesome and meaningless, he decides to break bad by knocking off members of a crime family run by a volatile “bakery magnate” (Pal Sverre Hagen) who simultaneously is waging war with a Serbian drug gang led by the great Bruno Ganz.
What unfolds is an energetically stylized patchwork of Nordic Noir, black comedy and vigilante justice—all set to the score and structure of a Spaghetti Western. If the comedy—which mostly hits the right notes—were downplayed a bit and the film stuck the ending better, this could be a masterpiece. As is, it’s still the best Norwegian crime flick I’ve seen this side of Headhunters.
GRADE: B+ / A-
Landmine Goes Click (Amazon)
With a premise that might as well be an interwoven riff on Funny Games, Deliverance and I Spit on Your Grave, director Levan Bakhia’s Landmine Goes Click is probably the most disturbing thing I’ve watched since the notorious A Serbian Film.
The story starts with a guy leaving his fiance and best friend standing on a live landmine in the middle of the European Georgian wilderness after being trapped by a sadistic backwoods creep. What unfolds from here is a harrowing game of cat and mouse as evocative in its “revenge porn” as some of the most twisted major cinema to come out of the ’70s (I Spit on Your Grave, The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes). Watch at your own peril.
Message from the King (Netflix)If Taken were directed by David Ayer and spiked with a touch of noir, you’d essentially have the recipe for the Netflix Original film Message from the King.
Chadwick Boseman (AKA Black Panther) stars as Jacob King, a man from South Africa’s violent Cape Flats who arrives in L.A. with nothing but a wad of cash, in search of his missing sister. As he uncovers the truth—beginning with a sequence where he beats the shit out of Draco Malfoy with a bicycle chain—we begin to realize that this bloke did not cross continents to fuck around.
Message from the King squeaks by with barely enough substance—and some decent side roles from a cast of recognizable B-listers—to distract from the fact that, as with Taken, we are here purely for brutal, action-packed entertainment.
On that bloody front, it delivers by the gallon. Greasy Eastern European thugs? Check. Throat-punching and face-stomping? Check. Hyperbolically ominous one-liners? You betcha. (Soundbite: “Whoever you work for, tell them this was a message from the King.”)
To be clear, this is not highbrow shit—although it’s got a step on Taken in that department and is also significantly more grim. Message from the King is just some damn-good popcorn vigilante justice fare, and Boseman delivers the sweet badass revenge in spades.
The Oath (Netflix)
Baltasar Kormákur (creator of Trapped—see below) is the main man behind Iceland’s brilliant foray into the landscape of Nordic Noir cinema.
Here, Kormákur directs and stars as Finnur, a brain surgeon whose idyllic life is shattered when his teenage daughter gets mixed up with a scummy drug dealer.
The film’s title and moral conundrum stem from a transformation in Finnur from early-Walter White everyman to “what I do have are a very particular set of skills” Liam Neeson. While the titular wordplay conjuring the Hippocratic Oath is no stroke of genius, Kormákur’s transformative performance is brilliant, and the taut narrative he winds (he also co-wrote the film) is a thing of grim—albeit somewhat predictable—beauty. This is minimalist Nordic Noir at its thrilling best.
GRADE: B+ / A-
I had to get at least one dark Western onto this list, and it comes in the form of a revenge tale starring the great Mads Mikkelsen as a Danish homesteader whose life is torn to pieces in front of his eyes as his wife and young son are brutally attacked on a stagecoach.
Several bodies later, our hero is pitted in an all-stakes war against a vile outlaw (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, basically playing Negan from Walking Dead in Western wear) and a cavalry of corrupt townsfolk cowering under his reign. Eva Green also stars as a scar-faced mute with sharpened teeth.
A brutally bleak frontier vigilante justice tale, The Salvation is nothing revolutionary—the plot is as predictable as Morgan’s acting abilities are one-note—but Mikkelsen, Green and a strong side cast make this an enjoyable Western with themes redolent of High Plains Drifter and The Dark Valley.
GRADE: B / B+
Train to Busan (Netflix)If nothing else, Yeon Sang-Ho’s Train to Busan is proof of two things: That great zombie films can still be made, and that South Korean cinema can do little wrong.
As for its inclusion in this list, I doubt there’s a horror fan out there who hasn’t seen or heard of this. So I’m adding it here mainly for those outside the horror circle who may have slept on this simply due to an unawareness of subtitled, foreign horror. To thee, I say watch this—it’s as accessible a thriller-drama as anything new you’ll find on Netflix.
The story follows an emotionally absent workaholic fund manager who must take his young daughter on a train ride to the city of Busan where she’ll be reunited with her mother. Once aboard the train, a leak at a biotech lab signals the zombie apocalypse. Things go off the rails from there, with a head-splitting thrillride that never lets up.
It’s not that Busan pushes the zombie genre into earth-shattering realms, but everything here—from the zombie makeup/effects to thrilling gore to production quality is immaculate. Sure, there are the typical tropes you’ll find in any dark South Korean film—heart-wrenching drama between adult and child, a comedically overbearing mother, a mysterious crazy man, a cookie-cutter bad guy, classist warfare, and so on. But that’s all just backdrop to visually stunning, full-throttle zombie mania. And scenes like those with a hundred zombies being dragged by a freight car and a dull-eyed zombie deer reanimating are bound to stick with you long after the drama subsides.
GRADE: B+ / A-
Trapped (Amazon)Creator Baltasar Kormákur’s Trapped is the most expensive and ambitious project in the history of Icelandic cinema. It’s also arguably the gold standard for Nordic Noir filmmaking—up there with the Dragon Tattoo and Pusher trilogies, Headhunters and Season One of Fortitude.
Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (the grimy, prophetic meth dealer from True Detective Se1) leads the show as Andri, a detective with the look and softness of an oversized teddy bear, but also the fierce, hunting instincts of a polar bear.
The gist is that Andri must solve a series of murders that start with the discovery of a mutilated, frozen corpse when a freight ship comes to harbor off the coast of his small Northern Icelandic town. An intricately woven, expertly paced, beautifully acted and fully realized grim crime drama, Trapped is the best slept-on series I’ve watched since Happy Valley. Queue it up.
GRADE: A / A-
There were many points throughout The Wailing where I began to think that this just might be the best dark South Korean flick since the iconic I Saw the Devil. Then there were points throughout its 156 minutes where I wondered if this was really leading anywhere. And amidst these two feelings, there was also just a pure appreciation that something this bleak and well-crafted could go on for so long.
Eventually, of course, there was the inevitable unneccesarily meandering extended narrative and anticlimactic ending—all geo-genre-specific symptoms that plagued another would-be great South Korean horror film, The Host. (Sidenote: South Korean “han” cinema is perhaps my favorite current movement, but the extent to which these films often abandon central plotlines and just wallow in meaningless despair toward the last hour is a cinematic characteristic that almost seems lost in translation).
But what’s it all about, you ask? Well, a bumbling South Korean cop in a mountain village starts noticing a series of murders connected to a skin rash, which, of course, his daughter soon develops. A mysterious Japanese hill-person might have something to do with it, but then there’s other phantoms at play. And shamans. And crazy mother-in-laws. And lots and lots of han.
As a dark, bloody mood piece on that earlier note of “ASMR for the depraved,” The Wailing is some Grade-A shit. Those with less patient attention spans and a need for tidy plot resolution might be less inclined to wade through this one.