The summer of 2018 in pop culture has been scary, but don’t take my word for it: Miles Surrey’s inventory has covered the bases, even if he somehow didn’t find room for Unfriended: Dark Web and both of its endings or Marilyn Manson covering “Cry Little Sister”—a.k.a. “Love Theme From The Lost Boys”—or Allie Quigley’s WNBA 3-point-shootout video, which, depending on how you look at it, is either horror-movie terrifying (because it means she’s an alien) or action-movie exhilarating (Tom Cruise can fly a helicopter, but he can’t do this).
Of course, the summer isn’t over yet. August has, historically, been a sneakily significant month for horror-movie releases. In 1999, The Sixth Sense snuck into theaters on the back of the Blair Witch hype and became an even bigger word-of-mouth hit, and last year Annabelle: Creation took in $35 million over an otherwise dog-day-dead weekend, cementing the franchise’s status as the industry leader in possessed-marionette cinema (at least until that Child’s Play reboot that nobody besides Liv Tyler’s agent is looking forward to).
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be getting The Meg and Slender Man in theaters. The former looks more silly than scary ($10 says Jason Statham punches the shark in the face) and the latter could very easily suck (not sure whether the guy who made Stomp the Yard is the best candidate to serve up some properly al dente creepypasta). So it might be worth investing in some lesser-seen genre fare to hold you over to Halloween (or at least until the September 7 release of The Nun, Or: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Valak?). Fortunately, there are several perfectly decent, newish horror (or horror-adjacent) movies available for free streaming as we speak.
The Ritual (Netflix)
Or: Boys in the Woodz. This steely British import examines the cost of male-bonding rituals, via the story of four 30-something British buddies’ journey to Sweden’s Sarek National Park for a group hike that’s meant as a cathartic tribute to a fallen pal but swiftly takes on more sinister dimensions. There’s more than a bit of Blair Witch–craft in The Ritual’s occult-tinged outdoorsiness and narrative device of cynical but helpless city mice being stalked as prey on holiday. David Bruckner’s film is also very much its own thing, however, starting with its willingness to penetrate the fragile headspaces of its characters, particularly Rafe Spall’s guilt-stricken alpha, Luke, whose traumatic memories of a friend’s death are staged with surreal brio. And for all the familiarity of certain situations and images (again, at times the production design verges on Blair Witch cosplay), it’s nice to see a horror movie really go for it in the home stretch, swapping out the fashionable ambiguity of most low-budget genre movies for some definitive, FX-heavy, creature-feature sequences. I suppose that’s a spoiler, but it’s also hopefully an enticement, since even knowing in advance more or less where The Ritual is going doesn’t quite ruin the fun of getting there.
Or: Boyz in the Woodz II. Critics have already given props to Matt Palmer’s debut, direct-to-Netflix feature, and they’re well-deserved. Much like Jeremy Saulnier’s excellent rookie effort, Blue Ruin, Calibre suggests the emergence of a talent larger than his small-scale production values. It’s a bit of a stretch to call Calibre a scary movie, although its inciting event—an accidental shooting deep in the Scottish highlands—is legitimately startling, catching the characters off guard along with the audience. Working in a lean, tight style that keeps us close to the people on screen at all times, Palmer makes it unsettlingly easy to identify with the panic of amateur out-of-town huntsmen Marcus (Martin McCann) and Vaughn (Jack Lowden) after they get non-deer blood on their hands. And that sense of complicity complicates things as the townspeople—suspecting murderers in their midst—start to turn on them. There are pleasing echoes of Deliverance and An American Werewolf in London, as well as some striking and original touches, like setting the action against the backdrop of the spring equinox, when day and night are of equal length ( thus bringing some creepy old Druid traditions into the mix, Wicker Man–style). Excellently shot and acted, and gutsy enough to not cop out when it counts (no spoilers here, I promise), Calibre is one of the year’s best genre efforts.
They Remain (Kanopy)
What are the odds that two new independent American horror movies would open with H.P. Lovecraft quotes? Or that they’d both be about characters returning to desert locations once occupied by the members of bizarre cults? Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s 2017 festival hit, The Endless, available now on iTunes, is the more well-known of this strangely coincidental pair, and it’s not bad at all. But I was more intrigued—and unnerved—by Philip Gelatt’s lo-fi, weird tale They Remain, which ambitiously attempts to adapt Laird Barron’s chilling short story “-30”- and gets better than expected results.
The aforementioned Lovecraft quote, “Wise men have interpreted dreams, and the Gods have laughed,” serves as an ideal introduction for a film in which situation-specific tension is overrun by primal, subconscious terror. Tasked with examining the remnants of a Mansonish cult compound overrun by unnatural animal activities, biologist Jessica (Rebecca Henderson) and surveillance expert Keith (William Jackson Harper) grow fractious, angry, suspicious and—in Keith’s case—increasingly suggestible to vibes. Showing impressive trust both in the audience’s patience and his own directorial abilities, Gelatt doubles down on the pair’s irritation, confusion, and boredom, deferring to the uncanny power of the pastoral setting and spiking the flatlined pace at irregular intervals with jagged, unexpected jump cuts. “You know how this is going to end,” says one character early on, and what They Remain lacks in novelty it more than makes up for in poisonously paranoid atmosphere.
The next time that somebody plays with a Ouija board in a movie and it goes well will also be the first: Ever since Linda Blair made Captain Howdy her new best friend, it’s been a bad idea to play around with the devil’s favorite game. Spanish director Paco Plaza’s acclaimed, apparently fact-based horror movie is set in 1991 Madrid. Fifteen-year-old Veronica (Sandra Escacena) inadvisedly participates in a seance to contact her dead father and ends up possessed (maybe) by a demon. Jaw-dropping chaos ensues. While there’s no way that Ari Aster saw Veronica while he was making Hereditary (which makes it maybe the only film that isn’t alluded to in the most allusive horror movie in years), there are some uncanny similarities between the two, including family trauma, ancient hieroglyphs, spontaneous combustion, and a bravura female lead performance.
If Plaza’s pileup of post-Exorcist tropes works, it’s because Escacena creates a fully inhabited (in both senses of the word) character who we want to see escape her deadly circumstances. Plaza was one of the cocreators of [REC], which got an American remake, and my guess is the same thing will happen for Veronica, which doesn’t quite live up to the “scariest film ever” social media buzz it got last year, but is worth a look all the same.