Comedy may be every moviegoer’s best friend, but fear is the unsung hero film. Fear of loss, loneliness, death, or worse, propel characters through the climax of their respective pictures. Fear is a pit. Fear, or terror, is the promise suspense threatens to fulfill—and audiences love it. Few genres abuse fear more than horror and thriller. With the success of shows like Squid Game, Stranger Things, and The Haunting of Hill House, Netflix is aware of audiences’ love affair with fright and thrill. A cursory glance at their thriller or horror movie subsections reveals a plethora of tense titles to titillate and distress subscribers. But suspense isn’t a genre, it’s a tool. It’s a manipulation of fear to create tension. The genre and artist determine the extremity of terror the characters, and thus the audience, face on the journey to the credits. But there’s a fine line between being held in suspense, and being dangled in dread. Sometimes a title and cover aren’t enough to discern an experience. Below is a selection of Netflix titles that excel at delivering suspense through stress and fear.
Director: Zak Hilditch
Writer: Zak Hilditch
Cast: Thomas Jane, Molly Parker, Dylan Schmid, Kaitlyn Bernard, Neal McDonough
In 1922, a man’s pride is his will and ability to exact control. Thomas Jane (The Mist), Molly Parker (Deadwood), and Dylan Schmid (Horns) scheme and sulk as the James family. The divided family lives off the land Arlette (Parker), received from her father. Her intention to sell the plot and move to the city to open a dress shop disrupts the hopes of her husband and son. Wilfred, played by Jane, and Henry, played by Schmid, aim to stop her by any means necessary. Their short-sighted cruelty breeds tragedy and consequence they failed to consider, as they’re tormented by the guilt and trauma of their actions. The film’s as heavy as a water-logged weighted blanket. The unsettling tension is held in contrast with stunning scenery. The rich coloring and warm lighting coalesce into scenic skylines and dynamic photography. For all of its darkness, it’s beautiful. Writer and director Zak Hilditch’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novella is among the best King adaptations Netflix produced thus far.
Apocalypse Now: Redux
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Writers: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Herr
Cast: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms
Apocalypse Now is a perfect film. It’s one of several immaculate adaptations by Francis Ford Coppola, who crafted The Godfather, The Outsiders, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) for the screen. The soundtrack is killer, the narration is intimate, and the scale is remarkable. It’s as dark, vibrant, and inscrutable as Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, with character work that would influence greats to come, like Platoon. Loosely based on Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now puts the audience alongside Captain Benjamin L. Willard (Martin Sheen) on his mission up the Nung River in Cambodia. His mission is to terminate, with extreme prejudice, a former Green Beret Colonel, Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz is said to have slipped the slope of sanity and assembled a group of guerilla fighters loyal beyond fanaticism. Captain Willard must forsake his own inner conflict if he hopes to execute the mission tasked unto him by his country or risk becoming the man he’s been sent to kill. The Academy Award-winning film received an extended cut in 2001, 22 years after its initial release, that’s currently streaming on Netflix. While Apocalypse Now: Redux slows the pace and cuts the tension, it’s still a version of one of the most technically proficient and suspenseful films of all time.
Director: Patrick Brice
Writers: Patrick Brice, Mark Duplass
Cast: Mark Duplass, Patrick Brice
There’s an ever-present awkward intimacy undercut with a throughline of tension in Creep. The movie is as weird as it is uncomfortable. The co-writer and director, Patrick Brice, plays a freelance cinematographer responding to a craigslist ad that links him with the sick and dying subject of his newest job, Joseph (Mark Duplass.) Both men are vulnerable in their own way. They share stories of shame and pain that accentuate the overbearing atmosphere. It’s not even clear who is the dog and who is the duck in this hunt until one man takes a call regarding the other. The eerie discomfort between strangers builds the tension constantly in this tight thriller. It’s a short, sweet, strange, and suspenseful found-footage film with a sequel that’s just as succinct and complex as the original.
The Clovehitch Killer
Director: Duncan Skiles
Writer: Christopher Ford
Cast: Dylan McDermott, Charlie Pummer. Samantha Mathis, Madisen Beaty, Breanna Sherman
Where many movies about murderers delight in blood and death, The Clovehitch Killer opts for suspicion and suspense. Dylan McDermott stars as Don Burnside, a small-town family man, and community leader. Don’s son, Tyler (Charlie Plummer) begins investigating his father after discovering an odd box of illustrative pictures and pornography hidden below the family shed. He enlists the help of the smalltown sleuth, Kassie (Madisen Beaty), who skeptically assists in the investigation. Guilty or innocent, McDermott is unpredictable and exciting as the prime suspect. The audience watches and analyzes dad’s every word, every move, along with Tyler and co., trying to see behind the parental facade of this patriarch. There’s a strong emphasis on identity and public persona that almost every character struggles with throughout the movie, making it as relatable as it is scary.
Director: Mike Flanagan
Writers: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard
Cast: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Chiara Aurelia, Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel
Before The Hauntings of both Hillhouse and Bly Manor, Carla Gugino and Mike Flanagan teamed up to adapt Steven King’s Gerald’s Game for Netflix. Gugino plays Jessie, a demure, distant wife dreaming that a weekend away with her husband will be the beginning of the rehabilitation of their marriage. Kink and conversation lead to her being handcuffed helplessly to a bed while her husband suffers a cardiac event. Gugino writhes and trembles as she relives confrontations and trauma from her past courtesy of the most important men in her life. It’s as suspenseful as it is disheartening (and then ultimately, empowering) watching her struggle to stave off dehydration, hungry animals, and haunting visitors. She argues with specters and herself as time slips away and she’s left fighting for her life instead of her marriage.
Directors: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie
Writers: Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Benny Safdie, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Buddy Duress, Taliah Webster
Maybe Robert Pattinson’s best performance yet, Good Time is an awful time. It’s a window into selfishness, and self-destruction illuminated under the neon fluorescents of New York City. Out of this world performances, colorful lighting, and a blistering soundtrack elevate this grainy crime tale. Pattinson and Benny Safdie, one-half of the directing duo the Safdie Brothers, are two men on their own. Connie (Pattinson) attempts to keep his mentally underdeveloped younger brother Nick (Benny Safdie) under his supervision and control as he schemes and steals his way through life. It’s heartbreaking and tense watching his selfish manipulation of anyone who dares to trust him. It’s a similar cycle of self-destruction and stress on display in Uncut Gems, and it’s just as dirty too. For stress, sadness, and suspense, get ready for Good Time.
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writers: Nic Pizzolatto
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Riley Keough, Peter Sarsgaard, Christina Vidal, Eli Goree, Ethan Hawke
Jake Gyllenhaal re-teamed with his Southpaw director Antoine Fuqua for the American remake of the Danish film by the same name, The Guilty. Written by Nic Pizzolatto, the scribe behind True Detective, The Guilty takes place entirely inside a 911 call center. It expertly optimizes color, lines, and lighting in its minimal setting. Its actors must similarly utilize little more than their voices to establish their characters, save for Gyllenhaal. He plays Joe Bayor, who the audience meets gasping for air in a whitewashed bathroom. Joe’s self-righteous judgments rain down unsolicited upon panicked callers seeking assistance. Familiar voices buzz between rings as Joe works to provide the necessary services each person requires. His own judgments and bias shape the narrative until the final minute. There’s a strong commentary on accountability and the character of law enforcement that Fuqua has demonstrated in previous projects like Training Day and Brooklyn’s Finest, but it does it all from the chair of a call center.
The Hateful Eight
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demian Bichir
The Hateful Eight is without a doubt Quentin Tarantino’s most underrated movie. The western set, cabin fever, whodunit features pin-sharp writing, memorable characters, and gruesome special effects all dusted in snow and blood. The paranoia seeds are planted early by the bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell). His distrust for the acquaintances he encounters on his way to Minnie’s Haberdashery establishes the dangers and tone of his mission. Once Ruth, his target, and a couple of strays arrive at the Haberdashery, the cabin fever portion sets in. Strangers become enemies after people start dying of poison. The who and why is saved for a grand reveal rolled out through the magic of nonlinear editing. The editing, cast, and script are textbook Tarantino. Narration, nonlinear editing, and obscenities by the fistful, it’s packed with all his trademarks, save for bare feet—which the frigid setting simply wouldn’t abide.
Director: Mike Flanagan
Writers: Mike Flanagan, Kate Siegel
Cast: Kate Siegel, John Gallagher Jr., Michael Trucco, Samantha Sloyan, Emma Graves
Hush is one of the few nonparanormal Blumhouse movies made so far. The script is lean and the story is simple—a writer, named Maddie (Kate Siegel), who lives remotely in the woods is attacked by a sadistic murderer. Maddie, who is deaf and mute since she was 13 as the result of a battle with meningitis and surgical complications, must outwit her stalker if she hopes to survive the night. Siegel is phenomenal in her second pairing with Mike Flanagan. Her facial expressions illuminate the screen with feeling. The viewer is brought in and out of her silent world via stellar acting, directing, and sound design. Scenes depicting the possible outcomes, like precognition, play out and fade away as Maddie decerns the best option for surviving the night. Folks hoping for some thrills without some kills might seek their suspense elsewhere as Hush is a blood and bones horror movie. It just basks in the tense game of cat and mouse Kate Siegel and John Gallagher Jr. are locked in throughout the 82-minute runtime.
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Writer: David Robert Mitchell
Cast: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe, Bailey Spry
In It Follows, a young woman named Jay (Maika Monroe) is given a paranormal sexually transmitted infection. She’s then informed that an entity, disguised as any random human, is now seeking her. Only previously infected people can see the being as it walks like Michael Meyers towards its terrified prey. Like 2018’s Possessor, It Follows feels like it exists out of time. The world feels modern, but there’s not a cellphone in sight. The peaceful small-town midwest vibe is accented by color and fluorescent light. It’s as colorful as it is creepy. Slow pans give the viewer time to scan the screen, flagging every droning body as a potential predator. It’s like a game of Where’s Waldo but Waldo keeps swapping bodies and clothes as he marches to murder you.
Directors: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie
Writers: Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
Cast: Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Idina Menzel, Kenneth William Richards, Lakeith Stanfield
The Safdie brothers can pack a helluva lot of stress into a New York minute. The nail-biting anxiety brought about by Adam Sandler’s spree of breathtakingly bad decisions is so overwhelming, it’s comical. The Sandman is literally at his best as Howard, a jewelry dealer with a gambling obsession. He struts around Manhattan to rolling waves of synth and percussion as he tries stretching a few thousand dollars into a whole lot more. He hustles, hocks, and hedges his bets around the 2012 NBA finals series. Endlessly harassed by people he owes, Howard is constantly begging and bargaining for more leeway before the bill comes due. Still, It’s hard not to root for him despite the habitual obvious blunders, and his infidelity. Howie’s humanity is always on display thanks to emotive writing and a legendary performance by Adam Sandler. The audience feels his exhaustion, his anxiety, and his pain. He’s relatable, and In that way, the film divorces itself from the other Safdie picture on this list, because Pattinson’s Connie is irredeemable garbage.
‘Uncut Gems’ will now come out the same day as Criterion’s 4K releases of ‘Citizen Kane’ and ‘Menace II Society.’
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