This October, I waded through scads of streamable Netflix horror flicks—sometimes watching two or three per day—in an effort to weed out some true gems. Most of these are indie films I’d never seen before, and some were re-appreciations of recent gems I’d already weeded out. This blog post is the result of these efforts: my top 10 horror gems streaming on Netflix.
Eli Craig’s Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is one of those movies you start watching, thinking it might be a mild diversion on a popcorn-fueled Friday night, but then it slowly dawns on you that you’re beholding the work of a genius. The movie follows a group of preppy college students on the usual trip to a cabin in the woods. They encounter a couple of dangerous-looking backwoods types in an ominous gas-station encounter—except wait! It’s actually these two country bumpkins who find themselves under attack. Prepare to have the rug pulled out from under you, because Tucker and Dale defies genre archetypes and ends up being a horror-comedy classic.
Grabbers is a terrific little Irish horror sleeper from John Wright. This one is not only weird and gory and mildly scary but also downright hilarious. It’s the story of a police officer, Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley), who travels to Erin Island, Ireland, just as blood-thirsty, sea-dwelling aliens start attacking the town. The key to defending themselves? Get drunk! (The aliens can’t abide high blood-alcohol levels.) Only an open bar can thwart this particular alien invasion. Smart, snappy dialog and quirky characters, along with kick-ass low-budget effects work, make Grabbers a film that will likely grow in cult status over time. I admit I have a little crush on Ruth Bradley now. She has a drunken scene in the middle of this film that absolutely slayed me. Grabbers rocks!
Nicholas McCarthy’s The Pact is a surprisingly effective scare-fest, very unnerving at spots, featuring a tough, likable female lead. It’s the story of a young woman, Annie (Caity Lotz), forced to come to grips with a disturbing, seemingly ghostly presence that has taken root in her childhood home. Is this a truly supernatural force, or is something else at play here? This is the kind of movie that’s not afraid to do long, dreadful Lynchian zooms on blackened, open doorways—and with great payoffs. Shiver time! The Pact even leaves you thinking, wondering if the horrors were even worse than you thought. I particularly like the way this movie finds horror in modern technology such as GPS street views!
My next gem is the French supernatural series The Returned (Les Revenants). Dead people are returning to life in this quiet, eerie horror tale, but they’re not your typical zombies. No, there’s great mystery surrounding these resurrections: Some of them died a year ago, some of them died decades ago, but they look just as healthy as they did in life. And they don’t know why they’ve come back. There are elements of Lost and Twin Peaks to this 8-episode production, and although I’m a little wary that the show will commit the Lost sin of heaping mysteries upon wacky questions with no answers in sight, this is an enthralling show that’s not afraid to find horror in quiet scenes and character moments. It’s also not shy about nudity! I can’t wait for season 2, which is filming now.
Funny Games comes in two varieties: the 1997 Austrian original and the 2007 American remake. Both are by Michael Haneke, and the remake is essentially a shot-for-shot retooling. You might think it’s a pointless effort, but I find them both effective, the latter thanks to a terrific performance by Naomi Watts. But it’s the original that packs raw power. About a coldly irrational home invasion, Funny Games is a brutal, stark commentary on violence that’s tough to look away from. There’s a single, masterful 10-minute shot near the middle that’s just you empathizing with ruined characters—and then it gets worse. This movie also breaks the fourth wall in brilliant ways.
Matthew Parkhill’s The Caller is an unsettling little thriller involving an unexplained wormhole in time that allows a woman, Mary Kee (Rachel Lefevre), to start receiving sinister phone calls from the past. And when things start getting dark, we find that the caller has the uniquely horrifying power to change Mary’s history. The horror has a nice, tense buildup, and the ways the past starts intruding on the present are increasingly terrifying. And it’s got a great lead performance by the fetching Lefevre. It’s not flawless—the ending is a bit over-the-top and requires some strong suspension of disbelief—but it’s pretty strong.
Gareth Edwards, who directed the recent Godzilla remake, started out with a small 2010 indie flick called Monsters. Six years after Earth is invaded by aliens, a cynical journalist agrees to escort a shaken American tourist through an infected zone in Mexico to the safety of the US border. Edwards manages to make the most of a very small budget and create a film with a fascinating concept and some very strong effects work. Get a load of those giant, Lovecraftian, tentacled monsters! Incidentally, Edwards also served as cinematographer, production designer, and visual effects artist for Monsters—quite a first-time feat. This strange monster flick has good atmosphere, portraying a unique apocalyptic landscape. It’s a thing of awe and dark beauty, and it never fails to take its eye off the human relationship at its center.
I’m combining the two V/H/S films in order to include them on this list. Between them, they contain some walloping horror. I’ve been a fan of anthology horror since Creepshow, and although these two collections have some clunker chapters, if you take the best installments from both, you have some excellent, freaky found-footage horror. So, in this case, my “gems” are 4 of the 8 chapters that make up the two V/H/S films. Stream the first film, skip the terrible framing device, and go straight to “Amateur Night” (a drunken night on the town leads to an eerily erotic confrontation with a she-beast named Lily), then skip to the final chapter, “10/31/98” (a Halloween party turns deadly inside a very weird haunted house, where a human sacrifice is taking place). Next, stream the second film, skip the framing device again, and go straight to “A Ride in the Park” (a wonderfully gory Go-Pro filmed first-person zombie adventure, directed by Eduardo Sanchez of Blair Witch fame), then to “Safe Haven” (a terrific Gareth Edwards-directed tale of an Indonesian devil cult). The final chapter of V/H/S/2, called “Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” is worth sticking around for, too.
Troll Hunter is a movie I avoided just because of its inane-sounding title. I mean, come on—Troll Hunter? But this movie is inventive and fun as hell! Taking the “found footage” format into a kind of mockumentary dark-fantasy land, Troll Hunter follows a group of fearless students investigating a series of mysterious bear killings happening out in the countryside. They soon learn that a much stranger force is behind the mayhem, and they’re suddenly in league with a man who actually hunts giant trolls. The movie is full of cool Norwegian cultural/mythological detail and surprisingly effective creature work. And it’s hilarious. Troll Hunter is a nice, exotic departure from the usual fare.
Miguel Angel Vivas’s Kidnapped is a brutal, sadistic tale of a home invasion that turns murderous. What makes Kidnapped rather incredible is its technical feats. Filmed in 12 single takes, the film expertly uses split-screen and long hand-held shots to capture the brutality in real-time. If you can get past some unquestionably sick, shocking scenes, this is a fascinating film, and it provides further evidence that Spanish and Mexican filmmakers are making some of the most technically amazing films these days (see also Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro). Recommended, but not for the squeamish! (And PLEASE make sure to watch the subtitled disc version, not the horribly dubbed version on Netflix streaming. ALL DUBS SUCK. This has been a public service announcement.)
That’s the full list of top-recommended titles. Now I want to provide some runners-up that came close—in one case, oh so close—to making the list. These were pretty good horror films with a lot to boast about, but in each case there was a frustrating element (an annoying character, a ridiculous plot point, amateurish acting or directing, and so on) that broke the deal.
Zack Parker’s Proxy skirts greatness but ultimately fails—and it’s so frustrating! Because it could have been exquisite. Proxy tells the story of a pregnant woman who is brutally attacked and loses her baby. But it’s not really about that at all. It becomes an intriguing psychological mindf**k with touches of Fight Club and Hitchcock. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite hold together in the end, and it’s just amateurish enough to make you grit your teeth. But oh man this could have been great. As it is, it’s just fascinating enough to be worth a watch.
House of the Devil
I can’t say either of the Ti West movies will stay with me, although I appreciate the efforts. West is not bad at building mood and tension, but he’s right at the edge of merely making boring films. Both of these movies take a looooong while to get things going. In the case of the ’80s style Devil, the payoff is gonzo insane (goes too far for me), and in the case of Innkeepers, I never felt immersed in the narrative; it just felt like actors and makeup and a bad script.
Here’s a pretty good serial-killing roadtrip comedy with a very strange central romantic relationship. It reminds me of Natural Born Killers, in a way, but without the strong focus.
This is a not-bad entry in the deviltry genre, but the details don’t add up. And the protracted ending is an exercise in yelling at the screen, begging the surviving character to not be so damn stupid.
I quite enjoyed long stretches of this obscenely dark and fun clown-horror movie. It’s pretty twisted. But it actually didn’t go far enough for me, or felt just too amateurish to take seriously.
Now, in the interest of keeping me honest and seeing which titles straight-out didn’t merit inclusion on my list, I offer this run-down of horror failures (in my opinion)…
- Absentia didn’t involve me at all (although the premise is interesting)
- Contracted boasts some creepy Cronenbergian body horror until it all dissolves into silliness
- Dead Snow is a pretty good but very derivative take on the teenagers-dying-in-a-cabin subgenre
- Devil is a not-bad confined-space thriller that becomes increasingly absurd
- Resolution is … yawn
- Pontypool starts of as an interesting, low-budget variation on the zombie genre but turns idiotic
- The Possession is a blah Exorcist wannabe for the Jewish faith that never escapes cliché
- Insidious 2 … why did I bother with this one? Oh yeah, Rose Byrne
- Citadel is an original concept that spirals out of
- Kill List is an Irish mumblefest with a despicable male lead, and a story that intrigues but goes insane
- Wake Wood is a preposterous resurrection tale with a too-long ending
- Haunter is loud and shrill and overacted
- The ABCs of Death is an anthology flick with a few good entries but too much drivel
- Grave Encounters is a silly found-footage experiment
- House Hunting is just eye-rollingly bad
- Plus One is an ADD-edited Triangle-inspired teen-horror flick
- Sinister, the Ethan Hawke frightfest, is another movie featuring an annoying number of CG-enhanced jump shocks
- Dead End is a weird Twilight Zone-ish flick that has fun humor but is too flimsy
- The Woman in Black has good atmosphere and performances, but too many jump scares, and a questionable ending
- The Awakening offers a good buildup to a completely ridiculous ending
- Jug Face lost me about a half hour in