4 Cool Sci-Fi/Horror Finds on Netflix
I love a good, obscure-ish movie with an interesting premise. It doesn't have to have a big budget, huge special effects, a notable director, or famous actors. In fact, the less of these, the better. Often, such movies are independent passion projects, the products of years of dreaming and effort. Back in the dark days before Netflix, I'd have to find these movies in dusty corners of a video store, the private collections of film school professors, three o'clock showings on Bravo (the channel was very different back then), or at the clove-cigarette-smelling indy theater an hour from my home. Now, though, it's almost too easy. Just browse Netflix for a while, and you'll find something that sounds so off-kilter and bizarre that you just have to give it a viewing. The following are four sci-fi/horror films I've found that way. (The term "speculative fiction" is more accurate than "sci-fi/horror," but also more douchey.) These aren't necessarily great films, and they are definitely not for everyone. Still, I found them at least interesting enough to recommend.
I almost didn't watch this one, because it seems a little stupid at first glace. The gimmick is three roommates discover a giant camera bolted to the floor in an abandoned apartment across the street, pointed directly at their living room window. They quickly discover that this camera takes pictures of the future, and before they can wrap their minds around the implications of such a thing, they get swept up in a series of increasingly disturbing events dictated by the images they see.
Don't let this silly premise and the movie's low production values fool you: what follows is a surprisingly sophisticated philosophical head-trip of a movie. I also urge you to watch the entire thing, because a lot of things that don't seem to make sense early on (and feel a lot like lazy writing) become totally explicable by the end. One character in particular is hard to sympathize with for most of the movie, but through Act Three surprises, every seemingly contradictory motivation snaps into place.
Time Lapse doesn't focus on the science--it doesn't even try to explain the technology that is the story's central conceit--and it would better be thought of as magical realism than science-fiction or horror. Instead, it's an intense character study and a meditation on hard metaphysical questions you won't get from your average Hollywood production.
It's hard to know where to even begin with this movie. On one hand, it's a character-driven, psychological bottle show carried almost entirely by the underappreciated talents of obscure character actor Stephen McHattie, whose voice is so staggeringly arresting and sultry that I would totally have sex with it if I could. On the other hand, it's a cheesy zombie flick with an oddball sense of humor and a premise that defies all explanation. Seriously, I've watched the movie three times, and I still don't really get it.
Put simply, radio shock jock Grant Mazzy (McHattie) goes to work early one morning, and as he does his schtick, he starts getting news reports about riots and a strange disease of some sort overtaking the small town of Pontypool, Ontario, where the movie is set. Eventually, it becomes apparent that this "disease" is transmitted through the English language itself, and after it worms its way into your brain, it turns you into a babbling mess of word salad before you become a violently homicidal zombie (the writer/director insists the victims aren't "zombies" but "conversationalists"). The people working at the station, naturally, start getting infected, and then Mazzy and his station manager must figure out what is happening before they lose their minds.
Like a word stuck on the tip of my tongue, this movie seems to have an obvious theme about the overwhelming power of language, but the more I try to pin it down, the less clear it all becomes. In what might be the greatest stroke of genius in the history of fiction, words totally fail to express what this movie is. For that reason alone, you should probably watch Pontypool. It's a little slow and really confusing, but it's definitely provocative.
The House at the End of Time
Maybe it's a little ethnocentric of me to call The House at the End of Time an obscure movie, since it's an incredibly successful thriller in its native Venezuela. For most of the movie, it feels like a fairly typical--albeit notably well-made--haunted house movie along the lines of The Others or Oculus. However, the title gives away what the movie doesn't reveal until roughly two-thirds of the way through, namely that time travel is central to everything.
I am a sucker for a good time travel yarn, where you get to watch how all the pieces fit together across different periods of time, but even if I weren't, I'd find plenty to love about this film. For one thing, it has incredibly strong characters and a main actress--Ruddy Rodriguez--who is simply amazing. Also, the horror aspects of the story are handled masterfully, with more reliance on suspense and subtle dread than on shock value and jump scares.
Getting back to the science-fiction, though, the time travel angle is absolutely perfect. As with Time Lapse, the film doesn't waste its time trying to explain the gimmick--it's just a given that you either accept or you don't--instead choosing to explore its ramifications. It's not as overly philosophical as the previous two entries, but the story succeeds by being deeply personal and emotionally poignant, with an ending that is jaw-dropping.
I don't believe Banshee Chapter is a very good movie, all things considered, but I'm glad I watched it. It's filled with good ideas and an interesting spin on certain urban legends, but its low budget and rushed production are ultimately huge downfalls that prevent it from reaching its fullest potential. I recommend it, but only if you keep your expectations in check.
The story follows Anne, a young journalist trying to find an old college friend, James, who went missing after taking an experimental, extremely powerful psychoactive substance called DMT-19. She finds a video tape of James taking the drug, reaching an extreme state of paranoia, and then apparently being carried off by a shadowy, inhuman figure. Anne tracks down James' source of the drug, a reclusive writer who is a too-on-the-nose copy of Hunter S. Thompson and who ultimately tricks her into taking some DMT-19 herself. She then discovers there is something menacing and unknowable that is attracted to users of the drug, and realizes that the only way she can survive is to track down the "Primary Source" and burn it.
If that all sounds a bit Lovecraftian, that's no coincidence. Banshee Chapter is loosely based on the Lovecraft story "From Beyond" (which is also the basis for the film From Beyond), with MKUltra conspiracy theories and LSD drug culture added to the mix. It's a bit on the amateurish side, but the film is worth watching because it bucks a lot of genre conventions and doesn't try to take itself too seriously. Give it a whirl, because if nothing else, it is certainly different.
So there you have it: four lesser-known films that sort-of qualify as "sci-fi/horror" and are available now on Netflix Instant Viewing. If you've seen any of them, tell us what you think in the comments below. I especially want to hear your thoughts on Pontypool, because it's a movie I desperately need to wrap my brain around.
-e. magill 5/25/2016