Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.
Scrolling through Netflix’s streaming horror movie page isn’t just daunting, it makes you hilariously vulnerable to ridiculous cinematic fails. As you move downward, you’ll pass familiar titles like World War Z, Carrie, and various Halloween sequels, which will prompt you to mutter, “You know what? Let’s take a risk here.” Then, you’ll seek out something that instantly grabs your attention, through the only way that’s possible: by looking for the movies with either the craziest titles or most outlandish DVD covers, or both at the same time. An enjoyable experience, for sure, but here’s what it’ll lead to: 2-Headed Shark Attack. Pinocchio’s Revenge. To Catch a Virgin Ghost. Bong of the Dead. And, that's right, Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead.
Unsurprisingly, all of those movies are terrible.
It’s not easy preventing a casual Friday night excursion into Netflix’s streaming abyss from devolving into a complete waste of time. Granted, genre heads will always have our list of the site’s best streaming horror options to spare them from any such disappointment, there are only 25 movies in that. What if you’ve seen all of its inclusions already, or you’re looking for something that’s way off the beaten path?
Allow me to help you avoid doing what I did a few weeks ago, when I idiotically spent 96 minutes seeing if The Moleman of Belmont Avenue is as bad as its title and cover art suggest. (It’s worse.) When scrolling through Netflix, one’s eyes generally respond to the bigger, more notable Hollywood releases or silly dreck like Bong of the Dead, which leaves countless other horror films overlooked. But more often than not, those seemingly middling films are the best ones.
Here, you’ll find a collection of The Best Horror Sleepers Streaming on Netflix, all of which represent the indie movie scene at its finest but were mostly anonymous during their official theatrical and/or VOD releases.
All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006)
Where have all the good slasher movies gone? With present-day horror’s concentration on the supernatural and found-footage, there’s a large void where the fun stalk-and-kill films of old used to thrive. You know the formula: a group of attractive twenty-somethings playing teenage characters; a mysterious homicidal maniac offing them one by one; the big reveal at the end, usually easily predictable, that one of their own is the killer, or, if the filmmaker's feeling ambitious, it’s someone they once wronged and who’s out for revenge.
If you paid close attention to the genre scene last year, then you’re well aware of the fact that one such slasher flick did quietly hit VOD and limited theaters in October: All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, a throwback-minded film originally made in 2006 by Jonathan Levine, who’d go on to direct The Wackness, 50/50, and Warm Bodies. Internal struggles with its distributors kept Mandy Lane in timeout for seven years.
As it stands, though, it’s a minor blip in new millennium horror, and it’s time for a revival. Amber Heard plays the titular character, a high school outcast who suddenly becomes drop-dead gorgeous and deals with a personal tragedy. Almost a year later, a popular kid invites Mandy to a party at his family’s cattle ranch, where, in entertaining slasher form, someone starts eliminating the guests. And fortunately, Mandy Lane plays its darkness straight, never going for Scream-like laughs and earning its wild but plausible and drawn-out final revelation.
Jug Face (2013)
In the mood for some quiet folk-tale horror? You can’t do much better than writer-director Chad Crawford Kinkle’s lo-fi Jug Face, a bleak little chamber piece with its roots in occultism and toned-down H.P. Lovecraft influences.
Impressive newcomer Lauren Ashley Carter is the film’s anchor, playing a pregnant teenager living in a rural community whose members’ lives are fearfully dictated by a pit in the woods. Their belief is simple: As long as they keep offering sacrifices to whatever supernatural entity’s inside the pit, their way of life will remain intact, and if they neglect to feed the enigmatic beast, they’re all doomed. Adding to the film’s unique mythology is how the townsfolk preserves their sacrificial victims. They craft the person’s face onto ceramic jugs, leaving behind anonymous-looking but morbidly personalized masks.
Kinkle takes his time with Jug Face, immediately setting a macabre tone, stretching the dread out close to its breaking point, and then paying things off with a satisfying, albeit cruel, ending. This is no-bullshit horror, but made with the confidence to know that the most devastating gut-punches come from prolonging the knockout blow.
Alyce Kills (2013)
Despite its gruesomeness, Alyce Kills is actually more of a dark comedy than a horror flick. It's also the movie for you if you loathe smugness, particularly when it’s the defining quality of people who haven’t earned the right to be holier-than-thou.
In an excellent, deserves-to-be-seen performance, the mesmerizing Jade Dornfeld gives the title character enough layers to justify writer-director Jay Lee’s decision to hinge his film on such an inherently unlikable person. Alyce works for a hedge-fund company, and, although she’s a low-level employee, she walks around after hours with an unwarranted entitlement. Even when a freak accident befalls her equally arrogant BFF, Alyce’s assholeness doesn’t relent.
The underlying joke in Lee’s sneakily clever character study is that Alyce’s entitled peers have been too self-absorbed to realize she’s always been a budding psychopath; as Alyce Kills begins living up to its simple title, you watch Dornfeld’s murderous actions with a curious satisfaction.
If you’ve seen one teenage house party movie, you’ve seen them all, right? Well, director Dennis Iliadis (the The Last House on the Left remake) clearly understood that sentiment before signing on to make +1. On its surface, this humorous, weird sci-fi film isn’t much different than everything Not Another Teen Movie once spoofed, with its variety of teen archetypes (the hot blonde, the virginal nerd, the nice guy looking for love, etc.) and gleeful suburban debauchery. And Iliadis lets +1 play out with that familiarity up to a point, lulling you into a sense of “Why am I watching the same old tired shit again?”
But then something happens outside of the party house, the kids starting seeing themselves around the property, and +1 turns into The Twilight Zone meets American Pie. Thankfully, it’s nowhere near as hokey as that sounds, either. Iliadis’ ambitious oddity is the strangest yet also strongest teen movie in recent years, one that’s more accessible than its indie limitations imply.
Dream Home (2010)
Earlier, I wrote about how slasher movies are seemingly a forgotten horror pastime. As All the Boys Love Mandy Lane shows, though, they’re not extinct, and China’s Dream Home is definitely the modern-day slasher movie to beat.
Written and directed with an admirable nastiness by Ho-Cheung Pang, Dream Home is a homicide smorgasbord peppered with wry social commentary. The film’s anti-heroine is Cheng Lai-Sheung (Josie Ho), works two jobs in order to someday turn a lifelong fantasy into a reality: Cheng wants to live in the luxurious building she’s been obsessed with since she was a little girl. The rent’s too high, though, making her dream seem more unlikely by the day. But she has a sick plan to change that: She’ll kill as many of the building’s tenants as possible to lower the landlord’s asking price. After all, you can’t charge a sky-high price for apartment in which a pregnant woman was recently asphyxiated to death after aborting her unborn child in the process. That’s bad mojo.
And, yes, that does actually happen in Dream Home, a body-count film with the unflinching brutality of Alexandre Aja’s High Tension and the kinds of creative kills one used to see in ‘80s slasher cinema.
The Awakening (2011)
Now for a good, old-fashioned ghost story, one that’s not unlike the Nicole Kidman-starring The Others. Here, the leading woman is the underrated Rebecca Hall, so great in films like The Town and Vicky Cristina Barcelona but recently stricken by a stock part in Iron Man 3 and the misfortune of simply being in Johnny Depp’s Transcendence. Given center-stage in British writer-director Nick Murphy’s The Awakening, Hall demonstrates why she’s one of the game’s best actresses.
Set in post-World War I London, The Awakening finds Hall in all her elegance as Florence Cathcart, a famous author who specializes in debunking all things paranormal. For her latest assignment, Florence heads to an all-boys boarding school to investigate reports of a deceased student who’s been haunting the campus grounds. While there, Florence runs into the usual array of supernatural movie tropes: creaky noises, faculty members who are strangely hostile towards her, nighttime terrors. Because of its striking cinematography and Murphy’s handle on dread-heavy atmosphere, though, The Awakening is several cuts above other classically minded ghost stories of its kind.
And, of course, Murphy also has Rebecca Hall, whose performance remains terrific even as the film veers into convoluted hysterics during its finale.
The aspect of Eric England’s Contracted I appreciate the most comes in its final scene, so explaining that would ruin the movie as a whole. But I’ll say this: Contracted attempts to reinvent one of horror’s oldest and most popular sub-genres as an origin story of sorts. And if you’re like me, the sub-genre in question is a personal favorite but is rarely approached with any originality. When something like Contracted comes along, it’s worthy of praise for that alone.
It’s a good thing, then, that England employs numerous other horror sub-genres along the way, from David Cronenberg’s kind of body deterioration (see: The Fly) to early Roman Polanski’s focus on one woman descending into madness (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby). Rookie actress Najarra Townsend is England’s Mia Farrow, playing Samantha, a lesbian who gets slipped a micky at a friend’s party, has unprotected sex in a car, and then gradually transforms into something inhuman. England slowly builds up to Contracted’s endgame, putting Townsend through a physical ringer as Samantha’s hair falls out, her eyes become darkly bloodshot, and hideous lesions grow on her lips.
She also develops a lust for blood, though not in the Martin or Ganja & Hess way you might be thinking. Seeing just how for yourself is highly recommend.
The Pact (2012)
Similar to Contracted filmmaker Eric England, The Pact’s writer-director Nicholas McCarthy isn’t afraid to take a standard horror set-up and shake things up. In this case, it’s haunted houses.
Starring Arrow’s Caity Lotz, The Pact starts off fairly garden-variety. Lotz’s character, Annie, returns to her childhood home after numerous phone calls to her sister, Nicole (Agnes Bruckner), go unanswered. Annie is concerned mainly because Nicole, on top of being a single mother, is a recovering drug addict with a history of relapses. But Annie doesn’t find Nicole at their old crib; she does, however, meet a violent poltergeist, a bland cop played by Hollywood non-entity Casper Van Dien, and something else that’s far more crucial than those other two components. It shows up in The Pact’s third act and alters McCarthy’s film into a different horror sub-genre, and McCarthy is just as skilled at maneuvering around its scares as he is elevating routine haunted-house tricks.
Ultimately, The Pact transcends its apparition-in-the-home conceit. It’s a worthy watch for those able to recognize ingenuity amidst commonality.
Vincenzo Natali does what every filmmaker should do: He always takes big creative risks. In his 1997 debut, Cube, the American-Canadian director brought a little Franz Kafka into violent science fiction; 12 years later, he reinvented the Frankenstein mythos with the perverse creature feature Splice. For Natali, genre movies provide a platform for rich, intelligent, and ambitious ideas, and he applies that philosophy to Haunter. This time, he's left the science behind in favor of a supernatural backdrop: the haunted house.
Written by Brian King, Haunter is a twisty take on domesticated ghosts from the point-of-view of an actual spirit. In that way, it has a lot in common with The Others, except here the viewer knows from the first frame that the protagonist, Lisa (Abigail Breslin), is already dead, as are her parents and little brother. Thing is, they don't realize that, a la Groundhog Day, they've been endlessly repeating the exact same day—more specifically, the day before Lisa's 16th birthday. There's always macaroni and cheese for lunch, meatloaf for dinner, Murder She Wrote to watch before bedtime, and some clarinet practice for Lisa. But then, one day, little details about the routine changes, and as Lisa slowly figures out why, Haunter quickly enters a rabbit hole of nightmarish horror, dreamlike visuals, and time-leaps.
It's not a spoiler to say that Natali's unnerving film deals with some very challenging material, both of the thematic (be warned, little ones die just as graphically as adults) and narrative varieties. King's script demands a great deal from viewers, and those watching Haunter casually will probably feel bewildered as the film enters its no-holds-barred finale, triggered by a standout sequence in which Natali frames the house as a cigarette-burned reel come to life, complete with jerky character motions, as if they're walking on a jumping turntable.
Haunter thrives on an inventive narrative that, most impressive of all, holds up as the film ends and you start piecing everything together that happened in an effort to find any possible holes. This house is built on a sturdy foundation, its bricks comprised of original ideas, repurposed elements from classics like The Shining, and startling imagery.
The Conspiracy (2013)
There's nothing better than when adventurous young filmmakers see an excellent yet tricky idea through to a satisfying end. That's one way to describe the viewing experience of watching Christopher MacBride's first-rate The Conspiracy, an engrossing faux documentary about a couple of filmmakers descending deeper and deeper into the world occupied by those who nervously believe in the Illuminati, 9/11 conspiracies, and other New World Order paranoias.
MacBride and company intriguingly use real-life theories and sources of investigation, namely The Tarsus Club and the Bohemian Grove rituals, to construct an airtight thriller that starts off as an investigative mystery before a third act where first-person horror takes over. In that final section, The Conspiracy pulls off that always complicated trick known as "the ambiguous ending," leaving viewers with plenty to think about and, depending on your tolerance for bizarro horse-face masks, even more to lose sleep over.