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.
Thank you, cinema gods, for Video On-Demand. And pity you, casual genre film watchers, for still being far behind the VOD wave.
Throughout the first six months of 2014, it’s been a rough time at the local multiplex for folks who enjoy a good horror flick. Aside from the inventive and strong Oculus, in fact, it’s been a painful slog. The only horror options, for instance, have been exercises in banality. Kicking the year off was Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, a spinoff/sequel/prequel/confusing-franchise-extension that, despite being the all-around strongest PA entry thus far, has little in the way of innovation. Though, in its defense, The Marked Ones is a hotbed of fresh ideas when compared to Devil’s Due, that other January found-footage release even more harmfully marred by familiarity and Hollywood safeness. As for the other wide horror release, it’s Haunted House 2, an insulting comedy made with such contempt for the superior genre movies it spoofs that I’d rather not spend any more time writing about it here.
Fortunately, the following 11 films will have the opposite effect. Chances are, this will be your first time hearing about many of them, since none of these 2014 highlights played at the nearby AMC or Regal location. Limited theatrical engagements happened, but that’s not where Permanent-Midnight-worthy films truly thrive. No, VOD is where today’s most exciting and unique genre cinema lives, giving adventurous film lovers multiple new home-viewing options per week. Companies like IFC Midnight, Magnet Releasing, and Drafthouse Films keep left-of-center movies in vogue by picking up the strongest ones at festivals and ensuring that they’ll get a proper release, unlike power players like Harvey Weinstein. The movie magnate is notorious for abducting festival darlings, holding them captive so competitors can’t benefit from their quality, and either letting the films rot in waiting-for-release hell (see: the must-see French waking nightmare Livide) or opting to remake them/drain their figurative souls.
I’m thankful that these films avoided such an anticlimactic fate. The biggest takeaway from the year’s best indie genre movies so far? People really need to stop hating on the found-footage style. Four of the ten films included here land in that reviled category, and they’re proof that if the directors in question take risks and bring something new to the first-person approach, found-footage can still be an immersive blast of unsettling realism. Which, nope, you’ll never see firsthand if you stick to dropping $20 on soda and popcorn to labor through films like Devil’s Due and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones.
And now, onto the (not ranked) list.
Patience is a must while watching The Den, writer-director Zach Donahue's more-than-meets-the-eye exercise in found-footage horror. In its early sections, the film, about a grad student (an impressive Melanie Papalia) researching the user habits of a video-chat website, suffers from lazy online weirdo caricatures. Papalia's character gets bombarded by horny dudes looking to score, and it's all one-note and hindered by hammy performances. But The Den takes an unexpectedly dark and fucked-up turn for its third act, and that's when Donahue pulls off some of the creepiest first-person POV sequences in recent memory. The Den's bleakness and Internet-as-Hell theme accelerate as Papalia's situation worsens.
For its grand, unnerving finale alone, it's hugely deserving of a DVD/Blu-ray revival and a cult following of horror fans who like their scares aggressively unpleasant.
The Den will be available on DVD later this year.
Hardly findable even on VOD, British filmmaker Elliot Goldner's found-footage chiller The Borderlands slid under most genre movie fans' radars when it premiered in early April. Largely set inside an old Gothic-looking church, The Borderlands is a sneaky little surprise that's able to make you laugh—thanks to its winning performances and pervasive sense of humor—while also playing on your worst fears of religious iconography and occultism.
The premise is bare-bones: the Vatican sends two of its own, along with a tech-savvy wingman, to investigate paranormal activity inside an isolated church. Rather than the found-footage approach of cheap-o jump scares and minimal action, though, Goldner packs this lean, 85-minute creepshow with an eerie sound design, and cleverly doled out hints of malevolent Paganism and Lovecraftian mythology. And then comes the final 10 minutes, a knockout stretch of claustrophobic anarchy that culminates in the kind of nightmarish conclusion too few horror movies achieve.
The Borderlands is no longer in theaters and, as of now, is without a DVD/Blu-ray release date. Hopefully that changes soon, though.
Delivery: The Beast Within
Devil's Due did little to justify its Rosemary's Baby-esque conceit, relying on the usual found-footage tricks and wasting two strong performances from stars Allison Miller and Zach Gilford. The smaller, harder-to-find indie Delivery: The Beast Within rights all of Devil's Due's wrongs, handling a similar premise with more ingenuity, better scares, and one particular moment that, no joke, I've been unable to shake since seeing director Brian Netto's film two weeks ago. That image comes right before Delivery's end credits; it's a devastating shock that's heightened by everything preceding being so finely executed.
Presented as a reality show about first-time parents, Delivery follows married couple Rachel (Laurel Vail, who's magnificent throughout) and Kyle (Danny Barclay), who've had trouble successfully completing pregnancies in the past and are ecstatic about Rachel's latest conception heading towards happiness. But then, naturally, she begins displaying odd behavior, and Netto nicely keeps the reality show aesthetic intact even as the horror kicks into high gears before that last jolt. Which, by writing about it here, will now remain in my brain for at least another two weeks. Wonderful.
Delivery: The Beast Within is now in limited theaters and on VOD, via The Collective.
Imagine the worst date you've ever been on, multiply it by infinity, and cap it off with homicide and you'll have a handle on Jeremy Lovering's masterfully suspenseful In Fear. The superb one-two combo of Ian De Caestaecker and Alice Englert play Tom and Lucy, a young couple trapped within a maze of backwoods country roads late at night, where someone or something's tormenting them through increasingly mean-spirited and dangerous tricks, from making strange noises in the trees to physical assault.
The catch, though, is that Tom and Lucy don't know each other very well—it's only their second date, and Lovering uses their mutual unfamiliarity and underdeveloped affections to the film's advantage. The characters' lack of knowledge about their surroundings and travel mate reflects the actors' own ignorance. Giving In Fear an authentic paranoia, Lovering didn't tell his stars what was going to happen before filming, so their reactions are genuine. Experimental in its execution, In Fear is knife-to-the-gut forceful in its impact.
In Fear is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray, via Anchor Bay.
Speed with a piano? It's a concept that shouldn't work, yet it's one that's terrifically pulled off by director Eugenio Mira and screenwriter Damien Chazelle in Grand Piano, a first-class example of sustained single-location suspense. Elijah Wood, who's become a reliable genre movie leading man as of late, plays Tom Selznick, a concert pianist wunderkind stricken by disabling stage fright. Looking to avenge a disastrous performance years prior, Selznick mans up and gets ready to stroke the keys in front a packed opera house. But there's a note written in his music book: "Play one wrong note and you die."
From there, Grand Piano works overtime emulating old-school Brian De Palma thrillers and succeeds wholeheartedly, wringing maximum tension out of its seemingly goofy premise by continually finding ways to turn an enclosed venue into an expanding chamber of horrors. The cumulative result is B-movie absurdity skillfully elevated into grade-A fun.
Grand Piano is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray, via Magnolia Home Entertainment.
Forget that "year's best indie genre movies so far" tag—Cheap Thrills is one of 2014's best movies so far of any kind. The Academy Awards committee should introduce a "Sickest Satire" category in its honor.
Directed and co-written by rookie E.L. Katz, Cheap Thrills is cinematic cynicism at its finest. Indie film stalwart Pat Healy stars as Craig, a blue-collar guy facing eviction and suddenly jobless who's desperate to provide for his wife and their newborn son. One night, while drinking alone in a bar, he runs into an old friend, Vince (Ethan Embry), who's in a similar financial hole but who's also a criminal. Together, they succumb to the twisted and sadistic whims of a rich couple (David Koechner and Sara Paxton) who get off on watching have-nots degrade themselves for money.
Through a series of increasingly vile dares, Craig and Vince accumulate cash while sinking deeper into a reprehensible abyss, which Katz pitches as an everyman thriller of errors, mounting violence, and madcap unpredictability. Before you know it, Cheap Thrills locks you in its vice grip and never stops tightening its hold. You'll laugh, you'll cringe, and you'll want to shake E.L. Katz' hand once the film's final shot brilliantly encapsulates Cheap Thrills' overall theme.
Cheap Thrills is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray, via Drafthouse Films.
Almost Human writer-director Joe Begos wears his lifelong love for '80s horror and science fiction like a badge of honor. It's his feature film debut's strongest driving force, an endearing sense of anything-goes nostalgia that helps anyone who shares his affinities to forgive Almost Human's rough-around-the-edges nature.
It's a first film, no doubt, but it's also lovably batshit. Melding the plots of Fire in the Sky and The Terminator, Almost Human shows what happens when a UFO abductee, Mark (Josh Ethier, Begos' longtime friend and the film's editor), returns two years later as an inhuman killing machine hell-bent on reclaiming his marriage and punishing the buddy (Graham Skipper) who did nothing to help him. Begos turns Mark's tour of murder into a ridiculously gory slasher movie, with dismemberment, crushed skulls, and gallons of blood, and it's all too admirably bonkers to receive as anything other than the kitchen-sink filmmaking of horror movie obsessives unleashing multiple decades' worth of fandom onto the screen.
Almost Human will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on June 17.
All Cheerleaders Die
All Cheerleaders Die is a mainstream horror-comedy living in the independent horror movie world. With a cast of young actors who believably look and behave like actual high-schoolers, co-directors Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson's raucous film is a Mean Girls/Heathers/Evil Dead hybrid that's far more deserving of a wide release than, say, Vampire Academy, that Hollywood-minded box office catastrophe from earlier this year.
A revenge movie at its core, All Cheerleaders Die tweaks zombie movie tropes with black magic. A Wiccan teenager (tapping into The Craft's sensibilities as well) resurrects four gorgeous cheerleaders after a bunch of asshole football players run their car off a mountain road following a campfire party gone awry. They come back looking the same but now undead and harboring newfound supernatural abilities, like superhuman strength, misplaced souls, and, because this is one crazy f'n movie, shared orgasms.
Always aware of their film's camp factor, McKee and Sivertson treat the material with both a charming recklessness and a dedication to never turning All Cheerleaders Die into overly cutesy pap like Jennifer's Body.
All Cheerleaders Die is currently playing in limited theaters and is available on VOD, via RLJ/Image Entertainment.
Borgman, Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam's deconstruction of the "home invasion" horror/thriller sub-genre, defies categorization. All at once, it's a psychological horror film, a black comedy, a searing domestic drama, and mesmerizing fever dream. There's even an elaborate double-murder sequence that's up there with the most disturbing and confidently staged on-screen homicides. Van Warmerdam doesn't let you get a grasp on where Borgman's going or what in the cinema god's name his impenetrable film is; meaning, it's not for those who don't enjoy working their brains while watching movies.
Cinephiles who enter Borgman with an open mind, however, will be rewarded by an engrossing kind of disorientation and an exposure to one of the weirdest movies I've ever seen. That's a compliment of the highest order.
Borgman is currently playing in limited theaters, via Drafthouse Films.
Canadian filmmakers Derek Lee and Clif Prowse didn't do themselves any favors when they came up with Afflicted, their feature debut. Throwing fickle horror fans 60-mph fastballs down the middle, they've made a found-footage flick (Reason to Shrug at Unoriginality No.1) about vampirism (Reason to Shrug at Unoriginality No. 2) that's unavoidably comparable to Chronicle: an average guy falls victim to supernatural forces, gains superpowers, tests those new abilities out for a friend with a camera, and gradually lets those powers get the best of him.
But Afflicted isn't a lame pastiche. Benefiting from some excellent camerawork and action sequences, Lee and Prowse's first movie is at times the found-footage genre's answer to Gareth Evans' The Raid films, those beacons of awe-inspiring action and violence that prompt endless "How'd they do that?" reactions. Afflicted is a prime example of how even the most rudimentary material can be top-notch in the hands of talented directors.
Afflicted will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on July 1.
As the film opens, Coherence doesn’t seem like a movie you’d find on any “genre film” lists. It looks and feels more like one of those pretentious, talky, white-people-problems dramas you’d come across at the Tribeca Film Festival. A group of borderline smug friends get together for a fancy dinner party and talk through their various relationship woes and general feelings. They’re all likable enough, though, to keep you from abandoning ship, but then there’s chatter about a comet that’s supposed to pass overhead that night. And with that little wrinkle, Coherence becomes something extremely weird, but also rather fantastic.
Written and directed by James Ward Byrkit, Coherence is an avalanche of subtly revealed sci-fi twists, introducing alternate dimensions and what could be doppelgängers to the mostly contained-to-one-location story. That’s as far as I’ll go descriptively, however, because the magic of Coherence lies in its mystifying strangeness, which unfolds over a tightly compacted 90-minute span. It’s one of the best science fiction movies to come along in years, one that’ll make fans of Shane Carruth (Primer, Upstream Color) want to invite Byrkit over to their own dinner gatherings and pour him all the Merlot.
Coherence opens in limited theatrical release next Friday, June 20, via Oscilloscope Laboratories.
There's a scene more than halfway into the excellent Blue Ruin that includes my favorite line of dialogue in any 2014 movie so far. The film's main character, Dwight (Macon Blair) has just been saved for a lonely, helpless execution by his old friend, an ex-military grunt named Ben (Devin Ratray, the actor formerly known as "Buzz" from Home Alone—remember him?). Looking at the guy who's just had half of his face blown off, Dwight, both bewildered and morbidly curious, mutters, "His head?" To which Ben, who's killed before and knows too well how it looks and what it feels like, replies, simply, "That's what bullets do."
It's such a smart, precise, and multi-layered line, courtesy of Blue Ruin's writer and director, Jeremy Saulnier. A lean, mean film that has a classic revenge premise but is decidedly anti-revenge, Blue Ruin presents violence as a destroyer. Dwight, an aimless and grungy drifter coping with his life's fallout following his parents' murders, is out for blood, seeking fatal vengeance against the man who he believes offed his mom and dad and has just been released from prison. But Dwight is no badass—soft-spoken, not physically fit, and gentle in his movements, he's a one-time nice guy driven to despair and trying to survive his self-administered destitution and depression. Thus, when it's time for him to confront his parents' killer and return the favor, he doesn't have a plan. He's probably never even harmed a fly before the start of Blue Ruin's events.
Much of the credit for the character's impressiveness goes to Blair, for whom Saulnier wrote the part, and it shows. Blue Ruin thrives on their sharp chemistry as actor and director. Blair's practically in every scene—the film's emotional and visceral impact rest on his mostly slouched-down, non-threateningly hangdog shoulders. From start to finish, though, Blair exudes a tremendous amount of soulfulness and vulnerability, giving Blue Ruin's quieter moments a deep resonance and its many bursts of grisly carnage a devastating truthfulness not typically conveyed in out-for-blood revenge cinema.
Shortly after Dwight's startling lesson about what bullets do, Ben preps him for what's potentially a suicide mission, one Dwight feels he needs to do if he's to ever do right by his late mother and father. Ben hooks his buddy up with the necessary firepower. Then, before sending him on his way, Ben says, "No speeches, no talking—you point the gun, you shoot the gun."
As they say, revenge is a dish best served cold. In Blue Ruin, it tastes bittersweet.
Blue Ruin, currently available via Radius-TWC's VOD service, is scheduled for a July 22 DVD/Blu-ray release.
Cold in July
Fueled by a John-Carpenter-esque score, Cold in July is pure throwback bliss, channeling the man’s-man action films of the 1980s and twisting along with its unpredictable and corpse-riddled plot. Without giving anything away, here’s a brief set-up: Hall plays Richard Dane, a small-town East Texas husband and father who runs a rinky-dink picture frame shop; one night, an intruder breaks into his home, prompting the Richard to grab a handgun and, by accident, shoot the guy dead. He becomes a local hero, but his moment of glory doesn’t last long. The deceased intruder’s father, Ben Russell (Sam Shepard), is fresh out of prison and looking for bloody vengeance. From there, Cold in July’s narrative never goes where you expect it to, see-sawing between genres (from thriller to comedy, back to thriller again and touching upon horror, and so on) and giving Hall, Shepard, and a hilariously free-wheeling Don Johnson plenty of rich material.
Having been a Jim Mickle fan since Mulberry Street, I must say, I didn’t see Cold in July’s genre-subverting excellence coming. It’s nothing like his previous movies, but, at the same time, it’s of a similar breed, never shying away from its brutality and including one of the most horrific images I’ve seen in a long time (presented via a grainy VHS transfer, no less, which makes it all the more unsettling). It’s a remarkable piece of midnight-dark entertainment.
Cold in July is currently in limited IFC theaters and available via IFC Films' VOD service.
NOTE: Blue Ruin and Cold in July were added on 6/15.