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
a-wolf-at-the-door
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

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Vengeance for Mr. Sympathy: Killer South Korean Thrillers on Netflix, Revisited

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Four film movements over the past several years have kept me optimistic about the direction of bleak cinema. In no particular order, there’s the new-wave of oft-’80s-inspired horror pioneered by Ti West and the like (see: You’re Next, V/H/S/2, House of the Devil, It Follows). Then there’s the existentially bleak bloodbaths on the Outback frontier of Neo-Ozploitation (see: The Rover, Animal Kingdom, The Proposition, Son of a Gun). I’ve also waxed gushy about my fondness for the “country noir” subgenre, highlighted by films like Winter’s Bone, Joe, Mud and Cold in July.

Last but not least, of course, is the most profilic of these movements, and coincidentally the one that Netflix sources most constantly for its streaming catalogue. I’m talking about South Korean revenge-murder thrillers, all recognizable through their dependence on the cultural notion of “han”perhaps one of the most brutal concepts to ever spawn a cinematic revolution.

american han korean han I Saw the Devil

American Han                                Korean Han

Eventually I’ll need to make a comprehensive list of the top films in this subgenre, but for now, suffice it to say that all the following should be watched: I Saw the Devil, The Man from Nowhere, Oldboy, Memories of Murder, The Chaser, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, The Host, Bedeviled.

If you’re a budding South Korean cinephile like myself, chances are you’ve seen most of the aforementioned titles. Or you’ve read about them on previous posts here. So let me offer forth three lesser-known South Korean flicks I just watched and thoroughly enjoyed. I’m not going to say they’re on the level of I Saw the Devil or Oldboy. They’re also all more fast-paced action-thrillers than what you might expect out of a Park Chan-wook film (i.e., they might be more accessible to those with weaker stomachs and shorter attention spans). Either way, if you have any interest in this movement, here’s a trifecta of very good titles that Netflix streaming currently offers:

A Hard Day
Sun-kyun Lee in A Hard DayFalling thematically somewhere between Infernal Affairs and Headhunters is director Seong-hoon Kim’s A Hard Day. The Infernal Affairs comparison comes from Hard Day being about a deadly game of cat-and-mouse involving crooked cops. The Headhunters one is mainly because Hard Day is the most nerve-wracking, tension-riddled thriller I’ve seen since that incredible piece of Norwegian cinema.

On the way to his mother’s funeral, homicide detective Go Geon-soo (Sun-kyun Lee) is involved in a deadly hit-and-run. He goes to excruciating levels to cover his tracks, with each of his deceitful moves testing the clock in James Bondian fashion.

a hard day Sun-kyun Lee

“I’m sorry mama!”

As his nightmarish evening continues, internal affairs exposes him and some colleagues for taking bribe money. And so it is that we begin our journey in rooting for a crooked, murderous cop, who somehow ends up being one of the film’s more endearing characters (that’s South Korean cinema for you).

As a multilayered web of duplicitous corruption unravels, our hero finds himself in an all-stakes deathmatch with a cunning psychopath who is essentially the South Korean Michael Myers (I’ll leave it at that to avoid spoilers).

Taking a page from common horror tropes, fast-action thrillers, and even Breaking BadA Hard Day is not a film for those suffering from heart problems, onychophagy or trichotillomania (although it may give your cinematic brain an erection lasting longer than four hours). Does it go beyond suspension of disbelief at times? Perhaps. But it’s also one of the most action-packed and entertaining South Korean thrillers I’ve ever seen.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 6.7

No Tears for the Dead
Dong-gun Jang no tears for the dead bloody
So about the title of this post: A main commonality between No Tears for the Dead and A Company Man is that they both follow world-weary assassins who are beginning to give in to a softer side when they’re roused out of bliss/apathy by a very personal offense. (It should be noted that this is a very common theme in “han” films.)

No Tears for the Dead is, after all, director Jeong-beom Lee’s folllow-up to The Man from Nowherea slightly superior film about… a world-weary assassin who is beginning to give in to his softer side when he’s roused out of bliss/apathy by a very personal offense. Often these offenses take place in the form of wives or young girls being kidnapped or murdered (happy holidays, by the way!).

Our lead here is Gon, a hitman who has a change of heart after an assignment goes south. As his comically evil bosses press him to take care of a woman he’s beginning to fall for, he decides to go rogue and flip the script on them. What ensues is one of the most action-packed, high-budget thrillers this genre has spawned. Die Hard is channeled in bloody, explosive tower scenes. Flashy, well-choreographed action comes straight from the Jason Bourne playbook. Taken is also an obvious thematic influence.

Min-hee Kim no tears for the dead bloody

Gon’s girl…

No Tears also has some nice side roles from recognizable han-thriller regulars, including the creepy fucker who likes to bowl with human eyes from Man from Nowhere (Hee-won Kim), and the ever-sinister Dana Lee (OK, you might know him more as  Mr. Takahashi from Curb Your Enthusiasm)…
kyoko black swan curb your enthusiasm

As for drawbacks, Jeong-beom Lee lays the melodrama on a little heavy here just as he did in The Man from Nowhere, but I guess that goes with the geo-cinematic territory. Also, as the film attempts to emulate some of the aforementioned American action-thriller classics, there are some hammy performances that unnecessarily rely on actors attempting to say hard-ass things in English when they clearly have no grasp of the language. (As opposed to, say, my immaculate mastery of the Korean tongue.)

Still, production and action-wise, this film accomplishes as much as any American action-thriller blockbuster in recent memory. 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.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.7

A Company Man
Ji-seob So in A Company Man

While A Company Man is predicated on the not-so-subtle parallel between the dehumanizing realities of Asian corporate servitude and the commitments of a hitman, I’m more interested in recommending it based on it being one helluva bitchin’, kickass action-thriller.

In this installment of world-weary South Korean assassins and their moral awakenings, our man Hyeong-Do (So Ji-Sub) works for a company that does ruthless contract killings. Of course, he meets a beautiful lady with a kid and he decides it’s time to hang up his cleats. Of course, this doesn’t work. I honestly have no reason to give you more of a premise, because it’s the exact same thing that was done in No Tears, Man from Nowhere, etc. The thing is, it’s a formula that works, and Hyeong-Do is just as brooding, handsome and homicidally superhuman as any of his cinematic forebears.

The action is especially strong here, including a wall-scaling, bullet-eluding opening sequence that would make both Jackie Chan and Neo from The Matrix proud. And then there’s that Office Space on PCP moment where our man goes to town on a knife-wielding foe with a rolled up office calendar.

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“If you could get me those TPS reports, that’d be greeeat…”

The production value and cinematography here are certainly not on par with No Tears or Hard Day, which is why I’d say try one of those first (Hard Day is the best of these three, in my opinion). That said, the action is first-rate, the thrills and kills come a mile a minute, and there’s at least a semblance of something to chew on intellectually hereas opposed to No Tears. If, per chance, you viewed Assault on Wall Street (it was bannered on Netflix for awhile) and deemed it at least somewhat worthwhile, Company Man is basically the same movie. But with much better figurative and literal execution.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.7

-Sam Adams

Scream n’ Stream: 11 Netflix Double-Features for Halloween

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It’s that time of the year againa time when Mother Nature sheds her stillborn august growth and icy rains rattle windows in the coal-black night. Swirling winds snake about the skeletal limbs of decaying trees and crunchy auburn leaves turn to pulpy slop underfoot. Mist steals from the quivering forest bracken like an army of tattered ghouls, seeking predatory respite in the warmth of human flesh, and the forlorn laments of the howling departed cast a gray hell across the heavens.

Or perhaps living in Wisconsin and reading too much Cormac McCarthy has finally gotten to me.

The point is that the autumnal hour is nigh to binge on horror flicks (and depraved cinema in general), so I’ve scoured the bowels of Netflix’s streaming catalogue to come up with a gnarly little menu of back-to-back features. Sure, some of them are bigger-name titles you’ve already seen, but if you’re having a horror-a-thon with some folks less acquainted with the genre, a film like Silence of the Lambs is a perfect thematic gateway to something a bit more foreign and bleak, like the Korean revenge-torture fest I Saw the Devil.

So just as you pair your imperial pumpkin ale with a hearty stew, pair these 22 flicks together for one hell of a ravenous All Hallows Eve binge.

Bloodsuckers and the Badasses Who Bludgeon Them
stake land from dusk till dawn damici drinkingWhen George Clooney starred alongside Quentin Tarantino and Harvey Keitel in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), he was nothing more than a hunky TV actor (having spent the three years prior in residence on Friends, Sisters and Bodies of Evidence). Then Seth Gecko came along and fucked shit up with a full-scale vamp massacre at the Titty Twister bar just south of the Texas border. You’ve all seen it, so no need to divulge further. But when TMC and AMC are revisting Halloween 1-7, why not queue up the best action vampire movie ever made? Oh yeah, and Salma Hayek as Santánico Pandemónium… Nuff said.

As an encore, Stake Land is a killer treat for any of your movie-night friends who aren’t as well-versed in indie horror. The great Jim Mickle’s vampire road story plays out like a longer and more fully realized Walking Dead episode. That parallel should make it extremely accessible for any viewer with even the faintest interest in horror, and Nick Damici is just one mean muthafuckin’ vamp slayer. (See him also on Netflix in the werewolf tale Late Phasesnot as good as Stake Land, but totally worthwhile.)

Stake Land
IMDb: 6.5
GRADE: A-

From Dusk Till Dawn
IMDb: 7.3
GRADE: A / A-

Candid Camera Carnage
vhs2 devils pass found footageI think it’s fair to say at this point that “found footage” has undergone a renaissance over the past several years, moving it from schticky, attention-grabbing, Blair Witch piggybacker to a subgenre with considerable merit and at least a few more avenues to explore. A prime example of this is the “Safe Haven” segment in V/H/S/2, arguably the best 40 minutes of “found footage” ever shot. V/H/S/2‘s other four shorts also hold up admirably, and the visual upgrade to HD from the original V/H/S’ shoddy handheld format creates for a much more fully realizedand less nauseatinghorror fest.

I had zero expectations for Devil’s Pass, a film about a documentary crew looking to unearth deathly secrets in Russia’s Ural Mountains. So I was surprisingly pleased with what amounted to essentially the poor-man’s found-footage version of The Descent. Sure, there have been better efforts in the subgenre recently (see: Contracted, Rec, Quarantine), but in terms of what Netflix has to offer, this is a nice diamond in the roughreplete with a healthy mix of gore, “jump scares” and ambitious CGI. (Side note: The Last Podcast on the Left covered the Dylatov Pass Incident rather hilariously, if ye ask me.)

V/H/S/2
IMDb: 6.1
GRADE: B+ / A-

Devil’s Pass
IMDb: 5.7
GRADE: B

Zombie Lockdown
day of the dead la horde zombie moviesIf it weren’t for George Romero, The Walking Deadand cinematic zombie culture as we know itwould probably be operating out of some cutesy, Twilight-style Christian chastity parable, with Selena Gomez and Zac Efron chewing at one another’s undead lips.

Thanks to Romero, we have unadulterated goreand the prototype for the haggard, flesh-hungry walker that gave birth to iterations such as 28 Days Later’s rabid, running walker and Dead Snow‘s militaristic Nazi walkers. While Day of the Dead isn’t Romero’s masterpiece (unfortunately Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead aren’t on Netflix, nor is 2007’s much-slept-on Diary of the Dead), it showcases the type of zombie makeup and special effects that infected the entire genre to present day. Sure, the dialogue and acting can be a bit stilted, but when the gates bust loose and the zombie bunker turns into an all-out war zone, Day of the Dead is just as entertaining as its modern-day counterparts.

If you want more of a no-nonsense zombie thriller full of gore and action that’s less of a nostalgic history lesson, the 2009 French film The Horde hits all the right notes. As I wrote in my original post on The Horde, it’s “basically the perfect film for Walking Dead fans who enjoy that show for the zombie-body-count factor.” (Last Walking Dead comparison today, I promise.) The tale of two warring factions—French cops and French thugs—joining forces to plow down zombies in a high-rise is a simple backdrop for an insane amount of lecherously good carnage. This movie isn’t heady. But never is there a dull moment as the body count piles in ways that makes World War Z look yawn-inducing.

Day of the Dead 
IMDb: 7.2

The Horde
IMDb: 5.9
GRADE: B

Serial Psychos
hannibal silence of the lambs i saw the devilSilence of the Lambs isn’t a horror movie, so why am I recommending it around Halloween, ye ask? For starters, it’s the most fucked up movie ever to win an Oscar for Best Picture (and at its time, arguably the best movie to win the award since The Deer Hunter 13 years prior). But more importantly, Anthony Hopkins’ iconic character of Hannibal Lecter (first introduced on celluloid via Brian Cox in Brian DePalma’s gloriously 1980s-as-fuck Manhunter) is one of the best portrayals of a homicidal psycopath in big-screen history (thus the avalanche of sequels). Further, watching Lecter in all his demonic genius for two hours sets the perfect stage for the chianti I’m pairing with these blood-red fava beans: South Korean director Jee-woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil.

In Devil, we meet Kyung-chul (played by Min-sik Choi of Oldboy fame). Choi, it should be noted, is basically the poster child for the bleak and magnificent South Korean torture-revenge thriller movement that includes such classics as Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy (all on Netflix), The Man from Nowhere (also on Netflix) and The Chaser. As the homicidal Kyung-chul tormentsand is tormented bya young cop to whom the mission is quite personal, Devil unfolds as one of the best dark thrillers from any land made in the past few decades. Psycopaths, cannnibalism and mesmerizing, blood-spattered cinematography—they’re all here. The nonstop madness of this film should also quell the complaints of those who “don’t do subtitles.”

Silence of the Lambs
IMDb: 8.6
GRADE: A

I Saw the Devil
IMDb: 7.8
GRADE: A- / A

Campy Carnage Camp
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If we’re going the campy, comedic route, options abound on Netflix. Both Dead Snow and Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead are damn fun genre flicks, with the former leaning a little more toward horror and the latter a little heavier on self-parody. Housebound and Grabbers are also totally worth a ride, but for a perfect concoction of gore and guffaws, I’m gonna start with  Tucker and Dale vs. Evil and Zombeavers.

Tucker and Dale is pretty much a cult classic at this point. Its tale of two amiable rednecks unwittingly engaging in war with some “dumb college kids” camping in the backwoods is akin to Deliverance and Evil Dead meeting Joe Dirt. I personally liked Tucker and Dale even better than Cabin in the Woods (another film that pokes fun at what happens when dumb college kids go camping), meaning its easily one of my favorite horror comedies of all-time.

As for Zombeavers (also about wilderness-vacationing college kids)… I mean, it’s a movie called fucking Zombeavers. And that’s about as seriously as you should take it. If you come looking for nothing more than redneck jokes, t & a, bad puppet gore and an overload of “beaver” puns, you won’t be let down. This is definitely a movie to watch with a big group of people. My advice: the more booze, the better.

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil
IMDb: 7.6
GRADE: A- / B+

Zombeavers
IMDb: 4.8
GRADE: B / B-

Slashers and Home Invaders
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You’re Next is arguably the coolest movie on this list. It’s got just about everyone in the Ti West crew: West, Joe Swanberg, Adam Wingard (directing), Simon Barrett, Amy Seimetz, Kate Lyn Sheil, etc. Basically, it’s a cast of creatives who could walk into a coffee shop in Paris in the 1920s and fit in like a black-and-white striped shirt. What I’m getting at is that while I used to despise these hipsters for their mumblecore pretention, West and his counterparts are actually at the forefront of making good, modern horror movies that pay stylish homage to the genre’s past. And You’re Next—A home invasion thriller about an Australian survivalist girl who meets her boyfriend’s parents at the dinner party from hell—is arguably the collective’s best piece of work. (The Sacrament, V/H/S/2 and The Guest are all awesome, all from these folks, and all on Netflix, by the way.)

While there are movies from the late, great Wes Craven I much prefer to Scream (namely The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes and The People Under the Stairs), Scream was his biggest commercial success, far outgrossing A Nightmare on Elm Street. It was also one of those things when I was in junior high where if you were the last kid in class who hadn’t seen Scream, someone was bound to shit in your gym shoes. The movie has obviously spawned a host of horrible parodies and lesser sequels, but at least from the vantage point of a ’90s kid, its a slasher OG, and well, I just can’t really think of any slasher movie on Netflix that pairs as nicely with You’re Next. (Heads up: Scream leaves Netflix streaming on 11/1/15.)

You’re Next
IMDb: 6.5
GRADE: B+ / A-

Scream
IMDb: 7.2

People Said His Brain Was Infected by Devils (Possessed)
taking of deborah logan scream
When I posted my rather comprehensive list of the horror movies to watch on Netflix if you’ve already watched all the best ones, I can say in hindsight that there was one glaring omission: The Canal. Redditors (props) pointed me toward this slow-burn Irish chiller about a film archivist dealing with paranormal home events, and it turned out to be one of the eeriest damn movies I’d seen all year. Like I said, slow, but probably one of the most genuinely frightening movies on this list.

Also full of “jump scares” and a litany of mysterious chills, I was immensely impressed with the found-footage flick The Taking of Deborah Logan, about an Alzheimer’s patient who falls prey to demonic forces. Definitely in my top five as far as found footage goes, and also worth watching simply for one of the most awesome pieces of CGI imagery in any recent horror film.

The Canal
IMDb: 5.9
GRADE: B+

The Taking of Deborah Logan
IMDb: 6.5
GRADE: B+ / A-

Spawn of Satan
rosemary's baby mia farrow starry eyes
If Roman Polanski and R. Kelly have one thing in common, it’s that… they make great art! (Pedo-what? I said “art”…. Art I said!) Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and Frantic were to thrilling and chilling cinema what, say, 12 Play, Double Up and Black Panties were to landscape of modern gangster R&B.

In all seriousness, I’m throwing Rosemary’s Baby on here because a lot of people see it as one of the greatest horror films of all time, and I ain’t arguin’. Even nearly half a century and a few Swedish extraditions later, Polanski’s classic about the seeds sown by a demonic cult still measures up to the genre’s heavyweights.

As for Starry Eyes, I’m including it here mainly because Netflix just stripped us of House of the Devil (shame on you, Netflix). Still, if you’re in the mood for a little bit of Ol’ Beezlebub getting up your knickers, Starry Eyes is a grotesquely creepy flick about a would-be Hollywood starlet and her quest for fame. The parallel drawn between everyone in Hollywood being a fame whore and devil worship is perhaps a little heavy-handed, but give credit to Alex Essoe for one of the best horror performances this side of Essie Davis in Babadook. Put bluntly, this is some sick, twisted shit—and a pretty fun ride for those who can stomach it.

Rosemary’s Baby
IMDb: 8.0

Starry Eyes
IMDb: 6.0
GRADE: B / B-

Tastes Like Chicken (Cannibals)
Robert Carlyle in Ravenous
My favorite thing about Ravenous is the film’s fever-dream atmosphere, created in large part by Daniel Lindholm’s haunting melody that plays as a bloodied Guy Pearce trudges through the snowy Sierra Nevada wilderness. Part Jack London, part Cormac McCarthy and part Cannibal! the Musical, Ravenous’ admixture of existentialist pioneering, survivalist bloodbaths and tongue-in-cheek historical-fiction comedy create for an extremely fun, weird piece of cannibal folklore. And Guy Pearce (The Proposition, Memento), Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting), Neal McDonough (Band of Brothers) and Jeffrey Jones (The Pest) simply could not have been cast better.

If you want to go back-to-back cannibal (coincidentally Jeffrey Dahmer’s favorite coital position) and all you have is Netflix, you’re gonna have to run with We Are What We Are. I say that somewhat disparagingly because yeah, it’s my least favorite movie on this list. The tale of flesh-eating hilljacks preserving an old way of life is as predictable as can be, but… But! It’s directed by the great Jim Mickle (Stake Land, Cold in July), who uses an atmosphere of permanent torrential downpour to tremendous cinematographic effect here. It’s also got side roles from Michael Parks (Tusk, Red State) and Nick Damici (Stake Land, Late Phases), which should pique the interests of any modern horror fan worth their salt.

Ravenous
IMDb: 7.1
GRADE: B+

We Are What We Are
IMDb: 5.8
GRADE: B- / C+

Party in the USA!
american psycho american mary movies
Where so many attempt to carve a cult-classic novel with a maniacal protagonist into a a serviceable film, so few succeed. There are exceptions however, such as Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There’s also Mary Harron’s brilliant adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ apathetically savage tale about vapid consumerism and narcissism. Like Fear and Loathing, American Psycho, the movie, can be watched and quoted ad infinitum without it ever growing tired. And Christian Bale simply embodies Ellis’ character of Patrick Bateman in one of the finest antihero performances of all time. (I’ll let the reader judge if Kevin Spacey really deserved that Oscar for American Beauty in 2000).
American Psycho Patrick Bateman business card gifWhile reveling in an old favorite is always fun, if you’re a horror fan and haven’t seen American Mary, tripping you are. Katherine Isabelle’s role as a med student who turns to the blackmarket of body modification (all while taking out her vengeance on a seedy underworld of the upper-crust) is arguably the sexiest lead horror performance since… I’m gonna go with Eliza Dushku in Wrong Turn (great movie, by the way). Like American Psycho, Mary is also savagely and stylistically delightful, finding humor in the bleakest blood-spattered corners of our human fabric.

American Psycho
IMDb: 7.6
GRADE: A

American Mary
IMDb: 6.3
GRADE: B / B+

Creature Features
open water movie sharks blanchard ryan
I include Open Water on this list not because it’s horror, but because I’ve never been more genuinely terrified watching a movie on the big screen than I was when I saw this in theaters a decade ago. Through the guerilla lens of shooting at night in actual shark-infested Bahamian waters, director Chris Kentis creates serves up arguably the most viscerally infectious shark movie ever made. It’s not about big fins knifing a b-line through the water at unsuspecting maidens; Open Water‘s dread lies in nibbles on the feet, hazy outlines on an eye-level horizon of eternally foreign sea, and small splashes and flickering tails that all signal the most mindfuckingly awful death this side of what went down in George Sluizer’s 1988 Dutch thriller Spoorloos. This deserves a big screen, pitch black and utter silence.

Want more creature? The Host is another one I was lucky enough to catch on the big screen. I remember this vividly (despite being stoned out of my mind) simply because it had the best creature CGI I’d ever seen. As a mutant river monster wreaks havoc on Seoul, a family struggles with all the hallmarks of South Korean cinema—bitter anguish, bowel-churning pain and a quest for revenge. The story meanders a little toward the end, but it’s worth it for the creature effects alone (which hold up very nicely 15 years later, stoned or not).

Open Water
IMDb: 5.7

The Host
IMDb: 7.0

-Sam Adams

NOTE: I left several films ungraded simply because they weren’t fresh enough in my memory to be subject to such biased scrutiny.

NOTE 2: IMDb ratings for horror movies are criminally low. If it’s above a 6 and isn’t a critical darling (Babadook, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) or a blockbuster (Oculus), it will most likely be better than 90 percent of the movies nominated for an Oscar this year.

A Walk Among the Tombstones: Action-Neeson Strikes Back

A Walk Among the Tombstones Liam Neeson gun
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Seemingly out of the blue, Taken rebranded Liam Neeson as the most badass plainspoken vigilante since Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name. Ever since, Neeson’s become the go-to guy for brooding, fearless middle-aged shitckicking heroes with very particular skill sets.

For the most part, it’s worked. Non-Stop (2014, and currently on HBO GO) was a thoroughly entertaining flick about a drunken, remorseful air marshall who goes ape during a hostage situation. It basically played out like a game of transatlantic Clue, while simultaneously mishmashing the plots of Flightplan, Con Air and Snakes On a Plane. If anything, it was further proof that like Segal in his prime, if you give the man a gun and a leather jacket, he can make just about anything entertaining.

snakes on a boat liam neeson non-stop taken

Coming soon from visionary director Luc Besson…

The Grey (currently on Netflix Instant), was another enjoyable brooding Neeson role, and a solid existential survivalist rip-off of Jack London for folks who don’t like readin’ much.

But there was also the forgettable Taken 2, which was basically Taken sans one of the best pieces of action dialogue ever and a criminal lack of throat-punching. Piggybacking that was Taken 3, or Tak3n, most memorable for Forest Whitaker officially throwing in the towel on his acting career as a DMX-channeling police chief who likes playing with rubber bands. (Really, there’s no need to watch either Taken sequel.)

Forest Whitaker Ghost Dog Taken 3

Forest Whitaker in the classic Ghost Dog—back when he still gave a shit.

So look, I know I write about a lot of well-received, artsy European thrillers on here—movies that are far more intelligent and creative than anything in the “Action-Neeson” repertoire—but if you don’t have a soft spot for a grizzled drunken Irishman who plays throat-punching, American super agents without even bothering to forego his brogue, I think you might just be taking things a bit too seriously.

For fans of Action-Neeson, A Walk Among the Tombstones (out on DVD and available through nefarious interweb means) is easily the best thing since Taken—especially if you like the dark, hellbent vein I tend to tap on this here blog.

The film introduces us to Matt Scudder (Neeson as a grisly bearded, racist drunken detective) amidst a whisky-fueled shootout. Predictably, things go awry, and the next thing we know it’s eight years later and Matt is clean-shaven and holding the podium at an AA meeting.

Liam neeson drunk beard a walk among the tombstones

“We admitted that we were powerless over our accent, and that our beard had become unmanageable.”

If this premise already sounds contrived, that’s because much of this movie’s narrative—based on a book by Lawrence Block—is. You’ve got your prematurely retired, solitary cop/agent who gets to make things right with the ghosts of his past (see: The Equalizer, The Man from Nowhere, Man on Fire). You’ve got the savvy inner-city kid who gives the loner’s life meaning and gets him to awkwardly repeat street slang (Magnolia, Finding Forrester, Half Nelson). And in terms of contrivances, it’s beyond schlocky when a great final shootout scene is tainted by a solemn voiceover of the 12 Steps.

But I don’t think anyone really came to this movie looking to watch the next Chinatown (overrated in my book, anyway… I know, I know, blasphemy).

What we do get is a stormy, Neeson thriller that’s as bleak and unsettling as anything he’s done to date. As Scudder tracks a duo of sadists who kidnap drug dealers’ wives/girlfriends/daughters for ransom money that usually ends in torturous death, Tombstones only builds in its grim hellishness. Aided by pretty much the entire movie being shot at night or in overcast skies, the end product is something like a hybrid of Kiss the Girls and Mystic River.

Drunk Sean Penn Mystic River

“I will find you, I’ll get wicked fahkin’ hammahd, and I’ll throw you in the fahkin rivah.”

Speaking of which, the main thing that sets Tombstones apart from the rest of the Action-Neeson repertoire—and the Bourne Identity blueprint of Taken—is that it bears an uncanny mood and narrative to just about every Dennis Lehane adaptation ever (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, The Drop, etc.). It’s not exactly of the quality of any of the aforementioned films, but it’s also not far from it. And yeah, none of those movies star Liam motherfeckin’ Neeson.

Also, Neeson tries to do something he rarely does—pull off an American accent (and a New York one at that). Or at least I think that’s what he’s going for. It’s unclear. Either way, it provides a few good chuckles, and eventually he just gives up and goes back to fucking people up and delivering sinister threats in his signature brogue. Choice quote: “The girl’s gotta be alive and all in one piece for the deal to happen. Are you listening, motherfucker?”
Liam Neeson authenticious The Town

So is this movie anything more than popcorn? No, not really. But if we’re gonna call it popcorn, this ain’t no microwave Orville Redenbacher shit. This is some primo, truffle-butter kernels popped at one of them leather seat theaters with the $10 beers. In other words, A Walk Among the Tombstones is absolutely everything you could ask for out of a dark, violent, kick-ass Neeson thriller. Look for it, find it, and kill watch it.

IMDb: 6.5
GRADE: B+ 

-Sam Adams

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

Best movies of 2014 netflix instant
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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!

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

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

the rover

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

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

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

the man from nowhere

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

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

bush whacked

Dear Netflix: I humbly submit my pitch…

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

Wake in Fright

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

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

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

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

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


 ….

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

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

mystery road, clint eastwood

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

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

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

jack charles

Jack Charles: Australian for God.

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

mystery road

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

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

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

only god forgives

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

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

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

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.4

-Sam Adams

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

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

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

Oldboy octopus

Live-octopus eating in Oldboy—definitely not banchan.

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

han

American Han                                                                 Korean Han

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

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

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

Spike Lee Oldboy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I saw the devil

Kim Soo-hyeon takes a long cigarette break…

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

I saw the devil banchan

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

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

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

GRADE: A- / A
IMDb: 7.8

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

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

the man from nowhere

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

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

the man from nowhere

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

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

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

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

Man from Nowhere Hair

 “Not the hair bro, not the hair!”

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

the man from nowhere

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

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

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

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 7.9

-Sam Adams

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