The other day, my 16-month-old daughter started pulling DVDs off the shelf. She does this a lot, and besides indicating that her opposable thumbs work the way they were intended, it makes for good Instagram Story content. A video of your kid manhandling a Criterion Blu-Ray of A Hollis Frampton Odyssey shows that the avant-garde is alive and well in future generations. But as I was filing the discs back in alphabetical order (all under “K,” from Kagemusha through Kill List) I thought about how long it had been since anybody else in the house had physically grabbed something to watch.
Long story short: For a long time, I spent all my disposable income on DVDs, and then Blu-Rays, and now our living room is dominated by two Ikea bookcases that stand as a combined monument to my bad investment and supposedly good taste. The latter is the reason that I’m keeping the shelves up for now, because unless I want to leave my “Recently Watched on Netflix” screen on 24 hours a day, guests will have no way of knowing how wonderfully idiosyncratic my viewing habits are. (Of course, if I did leave the “Recently Watched on Netflix” screen on, they’d know that I mostly just play Role Models and They Came Together over and over again.)
The practical and philosophical contrasts between a carefully curated personal collection and the infinite content now available on various streaming platforms—from high-end, cinephile-focused startups like Mubi and FilmStruck to consumer-friendly behemoths like Amazon Prime and Netflix—make for one interesting subplot in the full-on digitization of what was for its first century an analog artform. The politics, economics, and aesthetics of home video are a fairly recent development dating back to the late 1970s, but the market has evolved, expanded, and diversified exponentially. Netflix started as a DVD mailing service in 1997; it now has nearly 120 million subscribers worldwide and doubles as an independent studio with enough money to write filmmakers like Bong Joon-ho and Martin Scorsese blank checks. And so on.
I think about these things a lot, and now that The Ringer is starting a streaming column, I can write about them too. The goal is to navigate an increasingly vast and populated landscape, which is as much about looking back as keeping up. I hope that it gives us an excuse to revisit a lot of older movies, as well as some genres and styles that don’t always get covered on the site—which is definitely the plan for next week. We’ll try to highlight crucial titles, offer suggestions for movies you can watch depending on your mood, and answer questions as they come up. To ease into things, though, with Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane coming out this weekend, we thought it would be fun to throw out a few recent underseen and worthwhile psychological thrillers (I cheated and threw in one Canadian horror movie; I’m writing from Toronto, get used to it).
Earlier this year, Joel Edgerton addressed the bad reviews of his Netflix original movie Bright, arguing that David Ayer’s L.A.-set racial allegory—in which he played a soulful Orc trying to retrieve a magic wand—needed to be “reviewed by public opinion rather than through the highbrow prism of film criticism.” I’m not sure what that “prism” looks like (maybe it’s a transparent tesseract, or the Shimmer from Annihilation) but Edgerton certainly didn’t mind when his 2015 directorial debut, The Gift, was showered with praise.
Edgerton wrote himself a fine, creepy role as Gordon Moseley, whose overly ingratiating manner dates back to his past as a high school outcast. He’s called “Gordo the Weirdo” by his old classmate Simon (Jason Bateman), who’s less than thrilled when a guy he hasn’t seen in 20 years starts dropping by his house unannounced in the hopes of catching up. Not that Simon’s wife, Robyn (Rebecca Hall), minds, at least not until she starts connecting strange and unsettling events—including the disappearance of their dog—with their guest’s frequent reappearances.
Gordon’s awkwardness is undeniable (and Edgerton leans into the character without a trace of movie-star vanity), but the most outstanding aspect of the film is Bateman’s performance, which subtly torques the put-upon-straight-man shtick he perfected on Arrested Development until it becomes a surprising study in villainy. Gordon is a weirdo, but Simon, all bourgie complacency, laced with impatience, is an asshole. Our sympathy recedes the more we get to know him. The film slowly shifts from a fairly conventional setup—a couple menaced by a malevolent figure envious of their domestic bliss—into a genuinely complex study of guilt and retribution.
The model for this sort of moral switcharoo is the 1991 remake of Cape Fear, except that Edgerton underplays the same sense of violation that Martin Scorsese made florid—at least until the end, which offers up some genuinely unsettling imagery over a well-prepared (but not telegraphed) narrative twist. Some critics found the finale vile, but it’s harder to shake than that. Because Edgerton has left plenty of space for interpretation about what has actually happened as well as what it means, The Gift stays on the right side of exploitation; it’s every bit as good as the highbrows said at the time.
There’s a good case to be made that Mike Flanagan is the most sneaky-good American horror filmmaker going at the moment. He’s skilful and prolific, and doesn’t treat genre as a form that needs to be elevated. At its best—the first half of the 2013 haunted-mirror thriller Oculus or the last third of 2016’s impressively intense for-hire sequel Ouija: Origin of Evil—his work has the same unpretentious propulsion as the young John Carpenter, including a belief in the power of composition and staging to generate scares (and meaning) even inside of predictable situations.
Premises don’t get much more hackneyed than 2016’s Hush, which strands a young woman in an isolated house at the mercy of a masked psychopath—it’s Halloween, it’s Scream, it’s The Strangers, it’s You’re Next. It’s also completely absorbing because of a few very specific, particular choices, beginning with how Maddie (cowriter Kate Siegel, Flanagan’s real-life wife) is deaf-mute; a condition that the film simultaneously exploits for maximum tension and suspense and refuses to trivialize into a gimmick. Flanagan isn’t an allusive horror director (he’s the anti–Rob Zombie), but there’s an implicit nod here to the great 1967 thriller Wait Until Dark, in which the blindness of Audrey Hepburn’s heroine puts her at a disadvantage against a gang of home invaders until the lights go out and she has the edge.
There’s a similar turnabout here, and John Gallagher Jr. is a truly hateful villain whose comeuppance can’t come fast enough. The real pleasure, though, is aesthetic: smooth, precise camera movements that map the space of Maddie’s house to familiarize us with its safe and dangerous zones; detailed, ambient sound design that works against the aural clichés of so many music-drenched slasher films; violence that looks like it hurts, deployed ruthlessly but without a grandstanding sense of sadism.
Flanagan also did decent work on the Netflix original adaptation of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game, which similarly mined the idea of a woman alone in a house for terror. There, he was trapped by the luridness and sentimentality of King’s source material. By contrast, Hush feels potent and stripped down. The director’s next project is an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House featuring Siegel and the excellent Elizabeth Reaser, who was great in … Origin of Evil. Hopefully the 10-part miniseries (again for Netflix) will continue Flanagan’s impressive streak of elegantly made, refreshingly female-centric horror.
They Look Like People
There’s a reason directors keep remaking Invasion of the Body Snatchers every 20 years or so. The idea that everybody around you—your friends, your family members, your lover, your boss—is being replaced by a carbon-copy doppelgänger is as perfect a distillation of individual and social paranoia as has ever been conceived. It’s not just you—the world really is against you.
Perry Blackshear’s 2015 directorial debut, They Look Like People, ditches the story’s science-fiction trappings, effectively swapping out an alien invasion for alienation, with impressive results. Professionally stagnant and newly dumped, Christian (Evan Dumouchel) is miserable; figuring that misery loves company, he invites his similarly wayward friend Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) to stay at his apartment in New York. It’s a subtle point of Blackshear’s script that Christian is simultaneously trying to help his pal and make himself feel better, because if he’s a mess, Wyatt is a disaster—a contrast that comes out during a hilariously bad double date with Christian’s boss Mara (Margaret Ying Drake) and her friend Sandy (Elena Greenlee).
These scenes are cringey-funny, and the script’s acutely humorous observations about beta-male loneliness and insecurity also serve to contextualize the story’s startling turn into genre territory. It’s not a coincidence that Christian’s attraction to Mara coincides with his roommate perceiving signs of demonic phenomena all around him. As his only friend explores a way of getting back to the world, Wyatt recedes further and further into his own head, having fantasies that position him as the last “real” person in the world. He becomes convinced that those around him are possessed by evil beings that “look like people,” and begins styling himself as a gun-toting survivalist, stockpiling weapons in his basement.
It’s all a bit They Live–minus-the-kicking-ass-and-chewing-bubble-gum, but in the absence of campiness or gore (neither of which were affordable on a tiny budget), They Look Like People settles for a surprising gravity and seriousness. Wyatt’s switch from suicidal depression to having a sense of purpose—even if that sense of purpose involves murder—is moving. “I don’t believe what you believe but I know you believe it,” says Christian at one point, and the way Blackshear has him put his money where his mouth is in the home stretch entwines the filmmaker’s daring with his character. Without spoiling the ending, it’s enough to say that They Look Like People reverses the terms of Invasion of the Body Snatchers; it’s about locating and accepting humanity instead of resisting its absence.
Canadians have always been at the vanguard of zombie movies, from Bob Clark’s Deathdream, an inspired variation on the “Monkey’s Paw” myth about a reanimated soldier returning to his family, to David Cronenberg’s still-amazing Rabid, which cross-bred George A. Romero’s gory social satire with soft-core titillation, to Bruce McDonald’s underseen, language-is-the-virus thriller Pontypool. (Throw in the fact that Romero’s Land of the Dead and Zack Snyder’s decent-enough Dawn of the Dead remake were shot in Toronto and it’s enough to give my homeland the edge over England despite the formidable double bill of 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead.)
Quebecois director Robin Aubert’s Ravenous, which won several Canadian film-festival prizes before Netflix bought it for international digital distribution, continues the tradition without necessarily owing any debts to its predecessors. It’s a fully original piece of work, starting with the filmmaker’s decision to give his eponymous flesh eaters something that no other cinematic living dead have really had—a sense of community.
The scenes of zombies hunting down survivors through French Canadian farmland are sufficiently suspenseful and bloody. However, it’s the scenes of “the ravenous” gathered around their apparently self-erected monuments—most indelibly, a stack of wooden chairs reaching up into the sky like the Tower of Babel—that stick in the memory and give the film its most iconic moments. In lieu of the usual theme of human beings trying to protect their fragile civilization from a horde of mindless monsters (the Romero model), The Ravenous plays out as a kind of allegorical culture clash, whether it’s the collision of religious and secular lifestyles or the encroachment of big-city consensus on isolated, idiosyncratic country types. Whether or not the distinctly French Canadian vibe of Aubert’s film will work for the American audience that Netflix is aiming it at is hard to say, but it’s nice to see a movie that adopts an outwardly recognizable shape only to cultivate a rich, suggestive specificity receive such wide exposure.