Streaming Bleak This Week, #4: The Invitation on Netflix

the invitation movie
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While this blog is a recommendation site and I do believe I’ve done my due diligence in that regard over the past few years, my last three picks in this series were, admittedly, an attempt to come up with worthwhile suggestions that I knew the vast majority of you readers wouldn’t have seen. As such, they weren’t all necessarily as savagely palatable as the typical fodder promoted herein.

They Look Like People, Bob and the Trees and We Are Still Here are all indie movies made on a shoestring budget. I think the most famous actor among all three was Barbara Cramptona name only dedicated horror fans would recognize. That’s not to say I think I fucked upI actually really liked all threebut this weekly pick series is an experiment, and your feedback has been hit or miss on said titles. Which means it’s time to recalibrate the meat grinder.

Back to the ol' drawing board...

Back to the ol’ drawing board…

Moving forward, I’m still going to err on the side of lesser-known titles, but I’ll try to keep in mind that I’m one of the few fuckers who’s exhausted the near entirety of everything bleak and horrific worth watching on Netflix. Point being that a hidden gem to me might justifiably be viewed as nothing more than a shiny pebble to you folks out there who have, ya know, lives.

That is why this week I’m going to offer up a really fucking awesome flick that any suspense-horror fan should be able to get behind. So without further adieu…

The Invitation
Michael Huisman (AKA Daario Naharis) hosts a dinner party from hell in The Invitation
Yep, that’s Daario Naharis from Game of Thrones (played in real life by Michael Huisman). See? This movie is already more relatable and less obscure!

The Invitation starts with a grieving father and his new lady going to a dinner party at the house of his ex-wife and her new feller (Daario Naharas, played by Daario Naharas). Actually you might also recognize the lead dude. It took me awhile to place him. At first I thought it was Tom Hardy from The Revenant reincarnated, but then I realized I knew him from … The O.C.

tom-hardy-logan-marshall-green-invitation-revenant

Apparently I’m not the first to notice that Bane has a doppelgänger…

That was another life. Moving on.

Anyway, a big group of folks who were tight two years ago get together. It’s an awkward reunion of sorts as no one’s really seen anyone else since the son of O.C. guy and Liv Tyler-lookalike ex-wifey tragically died in a freak pinata accident. (If there are truly 6 million ways to die, that sure is a motherfucker…)

It’s important to note that this is all taking place at a swank and secluded pad in L.A., which becomes a recurring excuse as to why everyone keeps acting so fucking weird. At one point a character even says of the freaky, culty, hippie-dippy hosts, “Yeah, they’re a little weird. But this is L.A. They’re harmless.” Famous last words, punto. Go ask Sharon Tate.

no more parties in la kanye

“No More Parties in L.A.” The one time Kanye gave good life advice…

One thing I love about The Invitation is how its first half is such a meticulous play between ebbing macabre suspense and one man’s struggles with grief, paranoia and anger. It’s like a delicately wired stage play that could easily go the route of heady psychological flick. Actually, unless you’d seen the previews (I hadn’t), this thing could have unfolded down several genre pathways at that midway markall with complete plausability. I even found myself thinking, Shit, I might be in for one of those moody indie dramas about coming to terms with loss and emotions and stuff.

megan fox tongue on fire jennifer's body

Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body: Never was self-immolation so hot.

With that in mind, director Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Bodystarring Megan Fox and little else) deserves major credit for wielding such multi-layered sleight of hand in such deft fashion. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out exactly what type of film it is, but apropos of my earlier comments, let’s just say that there is nothing unresolved or left to the imagination here.

For comparison’s sake, think of something in the vein of Would Your Rather, Knock Knock and Kidnapped (Secuestrados). Then imagine the grown-folks’ version of Would You Rather, what some elements of Knock Knock would have been like if that movie had a pulse, and what Kidnapped would have been with better direction, a more fully evolved narrative and less torture porn.

All in all, The Invitation serves up the oft-visited “dinner party from hell” subgenre in delectable, ornate and satiating fashion. Look also for a brutally chilling monologue from the great character-actor John Carroll Lynch (who you may remember as Eastman from one of the greatest music videos Walking Dead episodes of all time!).

IMDb: 6.7
GRADE: B+

-Sam Adams

LAST WEEK IN THIS SERIES: They Are Still Here

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

BBC crime shows
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Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) has quickly become the Internet’s answer to Klonopin. Unfortunately, I don’t happen to be among those lulled into a happy place by videos of 15-year-old girls whispering about how it feels to wash their hands with a bar of texturized chamomile soap. No, my go-to for bedtime relaxation comes more in the form of films and shows that rely heavily on, say, depictions and existential conversations predicated upon bodily dismemberment.

Buffalo Bill

The title of an ASMR video I would watch

Why? I have no clue. And for the moment, this isn’t about why (although I’m sure I’ll have to tackle that at some point). The underlying crux of this blog series is to foster a space for recommending and discussing some of the best and most gruesomely soothing films/shows out there. If you consider Winter’s Bone, True Detective and The Descent to be among the past decade’s seminal moving-picture achievements—and are simply craving more, but don’t where to turn—then welcome.

If you’re as obsessed with these genres as I am, you likely know that spending half an hour on Google attempting to find something that fits within their parameters is, nine times out of ten, an exercise in futility.

To that point, I’m simply sick and tired of every “Best on Netflix you might not have seen” list trying to convince me that Drinking Buddies, Don Jon and Prince Avalanche aren’t somehow going to make me head to Hollywood and craft a Buffalo Bill-style human-skin coat out of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the Duplass Brothers and Diablo Cody.

Seriously, I will wear that shit in public to boycott the premiere of Greta Gerwig and John Kransinki’s newest project about a couple of upper-middle class white people who wear flannel and resolve emotional issues to the tune of ten Kimya Dawson songs and then learn something about themselves. (It’s still in the works, but I believe they’ve tentatively titled it We Are Here Now and Were There.)

Indie trash

Yeah, yeah, go fuck yourself.

I digress. What we’re talking about here is your dark minds benefiting from the rotten fruits of my labor. Said “labor” being perhaps an unhealthy amount of man-hours browsing reddit subpages over the past year to provide you with some of the sickest, most brilliant diamonds in the rough that you can access through Netflix Instant. Why this specific portal, you ask? Because everyone and their grandmother’s fuckin’ cousin has it, I respond.

So, without further ado, I think it’s time we talk about Kevin… er, shows and movies. Let’s talk about shows and movies. Here’s our genre for the first installment:

BBC (BADASS BASTARDS AND COPPERS):

Peaky Blinders
Fuck, I thought at first. Cillian Murphy as the leader of a Birmingham street gang that slashes peoples’ eyes via razor-embedded scally caps? It all sounded good outside of Cillian Murphy. While he was great in The 28th Hour (and sure, he was Scarecrow in the Dark Knight films), the guy is prettier than the love child of a young Rob Lowe and Kiera Knightley donning a powder blue bunny suit. So, me asks, how the fuck is Cillian gonna pull this off?

No worries, mate. By the end of the first season, I’d rather cross paths with Bane in a dark alley than serve the menacing Thomas Shelby with an improper shoeshine. Oh, and speaking of Bane, Tom Hardy enters in the forthcoming Season 2. My knickers are already wet.

cillian murphy

The baddest pretty boy since Gosling in Drive !

About that title: Yeah, it sounded pretty goofy to me at first—as it might to many Yank viewers. Rest assured, Peaky Blinders is not about a middle-school boy with a hot neighbor and a pair of binoculars.

So how would I sum it all up? It’s essentially a hybrid of Sons of Anarchy and Boardwalk Empire, with a little splash of Gangs of New York. Thomas Shelby is Jax Teller, if Jax Teller operated out of Birmingham in the early 20th Century. He’s a young, dashing, masterfully calculating gang leader who couldn’t tell you what fear was if it bit him in the ass. But along with the calculation, there’s some stoicism, which is why I also see a bit of Nucky Thompson in him. And if this show catches on, a whole new wave of Jimmy Doherty-esque haircuts will be lurking around a hipster cocktail lounge near you.

peaky blinders

Party like it’s 1919…

As for drawbacks, it’s completely overstylized—almost to the point of camp—but that’s also what makes it kind of fun. Why not play a Nick Cave ditty as a smartly-dressed chap walks through the streets with flames billowing at his back while obsequious townfolk quiver in his wake? This is exactly what Hell on Wheels was trying to pull off (and “Red Right Hand” is one of the best intro songs since The Wire tapped Tom Waits). Perhaps Peaky Blinders ain’t as highbrow as the first two seasons of Boardwalk (let’s be realistic, that show went to shit), but it is some bloody and fiendishly good fun.

SEASON ONE GRADE: A-
IMDb: 8.5

Happy Valley
Many bemoan the downfall of the American version of The Killing after that horrible cliffhanger in the first season. Fair enough, but I stuck with the show simply because, well, it was gloriously dark. And I have yet to encounter better cinematographic use of a geographical environment this side of Breaking Bad or Twin Peaks. Oh, and Holder was just one hilarious, bad-ass honky. 

The man, the myth, the Holder

The man, the myth, the Holder

The reason I bring up The Killing is because of how strikingly similar it is in theme and general aura to Happy Valley. Detective Catherine Cawood is a slightly mentally off-kilter, divorced female cop with a dark past and a son who intermittently hates her. She also lives in a town that is perpetually gray, is constantly trying to quit smoking, likes sleeping with married men and is, despite her uncontrollable moodswings, highly efficient and always right when everyone else doubts her. Sarah Linden, anyone? (Speaking of striking similarities to other shows, there’s this turtley little weasel of an accountant who looks like Wormtail from Harry Potter and is the embodiment of Walter White back in his Mr. Chips days. Great character.)

Unlike The Killing, the six-episode-long Season One of Valley delivers. I mean, it fucking delivers. And between involuntary smack injections, basement rape (yeah, that stuff’s hard even for me to watch) and dousing children with gasoline, grimness is Happy Valley’s oh-so-sunny calling card.

"Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?"

It ain’t exactly, “Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?”

While we’re on the subject of female-detective BBC shows, if you’re choosing between this and Top of the Lake, take the advice of the great Bob Dylan, babe, and don’t think twice. Apart from one great character, Top of the Lake is pretty much the bottom of the well when it comes to BBC cop series.

Final note on why you should watch Happy Valley: The fella that plays the pseudo-psycopathic Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) is the second-coming of Tom Hardy. Guy has serious acting chops, and he’s certainly the sexiest sexual deviant psychokiller since Jamie Dornan in The Fall. Speaking of which…

SEASON ONE GRADE: A
IMDb: 8.5

The Fall
Perhaps the hardest thing to get past in the first episode of The Fall is just how flawlessly fucking fair Gillian Anderson’s skin is. That skin is fairer than a cup of tea sipped quietly by Monet in a field of wheat on a fine spring day. I mean c’mon, she was Scully before Vince Gilligan was out of his screenwriting diapers. … But yeah, after that Duplass Brothers skin-coat thing, maybe I’ve been talking about skin too much. Fun fact: Did you know that Ed Gein lived 30 minutes from where I’m writing this? (Don’t worry, I don’t have an epidermal fixation or any skeletons in my closet. I’m just being tongue-in… whatever-you-call-that-space-beside-the-teeth-where-there-used-to-be-flesh.)

The Fall

“Why yes, I believe that is me in The Birth of Venus.”

Moving on, The Fall is yet another grim, tension-riddled cop-thriller with a bad-ass female lead investigating a spate of killings. (For whatever reason, feminism seems to be alive and well in the cop-vs.-serial killer genre.) While there are any number of comparisons that could be made between The Fall, The Killing and Happy Valley (the mood-setting bleakness of Belfast, say), this show does women coppers the service of a portrayal that’s the exact opposite of that “off-kilter and mentally distressed” blueprint.

Gillian Anderson is brilliant, and her icy depiction of investigator Stella Gibson leaves little room for sentiment, nonsense or anything other than heady police work. That’s good. Because the sadist she’s tracking (Jamie Dornan) is a perverted family man who gets off on choking his victims to death and then scrapbooking about them with artwork that is unsettlingly exquisite.

As the body count piles and the investigation deepens, the tension rises to a pitch that makes The Fall arguably as engrossing as True Detective. Of the three shows I’ve discussed, this one is probably the best. The only disappointment is that Season One is criminally brief (5 episodes) and ends with an asshole of a cliffhanger.

And by the way, John Oliver can shove it. Jamie Dornan is so my Christian.

SEASON ONE GRADE: A-
IMDb: 8.2


Final note:
Consider all three of the aforementioned shows as far superior to BBC-via-Netflix Instant alternatives like Luther, Sherlock and Top of the Lake. British Stringer Bell, er, Idris Elba is great in Luther, but the show lacks the depth of Happy Valley and The Fall, and the entertainment value of Peaky Blinders. And by “depth,” I’m talking about that intangible quality that distinguishes a great cable show like Breaking Bad or The Wire from, say, a regular-channel favorite like Law & Order (again, another topic I’ll save for a rainy day). As for Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch exudes a particular brand of smug that just pisses me off, and his Holmes offends my boyhood notions of a beloved literary character. The show is also completely overstylized—just not in a good way, like the way Peaky Blinders makes me eager to sew razor blades into my cap.

-Sam Adams