Horror is by far the strangest and most subjective type of film. Many dislike it, not enjoying the sensation it elicits or having trouble with the often cheap and exploitative nature of lesser entries in the genre. Yet, there are smaller but more devoted pockets of cinefiles that live for the scare-filled experience. Those that organise and attend horror festivals, re-issue and purchase old cult classics on Blu-Ray through Arrow Films, write for and read Fangoria magazine. If you are the type of terror fanatic I describe, the streaming service for you has arrived.
That site is Shudder, a platform (brought to the streaming world by TV network AMC) that fills the glaring gaps in Netflix’s horror sections. While it’s some way from rivaling the vast amount of films and TV and effective layout of the streaming giant – I do wish I could browse through directors and actors’ filmographies – it deserves a heap of praise for the way it arranges content for its niche audience. With content overseers like Samuel Zimmerman (former editor of Fangoria) and Colin Geddes (curator of TIFF’s Midnight Madness Program), Shudder handpicks the films available to the stream on the site. These range from newer works (Flying Lotus’ recent Kuso, Alice Lowe’s amazing Prevenge), movies in a foreign language (Jackie director Pablo Larrain’s The Club), older cult classics (Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre) and short films (Alan Moore’s Show Pieces).
Not only is this list constantly being added to and arranged by sub-genre, the content is also broken down into sub-sub genres – with streamers available to browse through categories such as “A-Horror”, “Winter’s Chill”, “Smart Slasher”, “Bites” – a feature horror enthusiasts will no doubt get a kick from. On top of this, Shudder provides a pretty nifty 24-hour TV-like stream of movies if one is in the mood to check out something at random whether it be an old obscure Giallo movie or a late entry in a franchise you’ve never found the time to watch.
Having used the site for a few weeks, here are some of the best films I’ve seen on Shudder, a list showcasing how diverse the content available truly is.
Always Shine (2014) – Dir. Sophia Takal
Actress Sophia Takal drew upon her personal negative experiences as a female performer – sexism, worries of being typecast, the pressure to constantly be projecting an image – when prepping her sophomore feature. Yet, instead of making a typical drama, she used horror as a means of tapping into her everyday fears. The result is a blend of Robert Altman’s avant-garde psychologial thriller 3 Women with shades of his satire The Player flecked in for good measure.
Always Shine focuses upon the relationship between friends and actresses Beth (Caitlin Fitzgerald) and Anna (the always excellent Mackenzie Davis – Halt and Catch Fire, Black Mirror’s San Junipero episode, Blade Runner 2049). The former – a polite, modest “wilting-flower type” – begins to achieve some minor success in her field – causing the latter – a more confrontational, prickly, strong person – to grow jealous. Tensions between the two reach a boiling point when they reconnect for a weekend together in Big Sur. The audience comes to realise that their personalities may be more fluid then originally perceived.
From its opening scene – an audition eerily shot like a porno (see below) – the film is very tense – tapping into relatable contemporary fears. Takal’s direction is terrific, creating a real sense of dread just through staging and camera movements as opposed to the dialogue being spoken. Plus, films in the “identity crisis” sub-genre require demanding multi-layered performances to portray a mental matamorphosis, something Davis and Fitzgerald bring in spades.
Baskin (2016) – Dir. Can Evrenol
This is only a partial recommendation as in its latter half this Turkish horror descends into messy, unsatisfying sub-Event Horizon depravity – something frustrating given how perfect the first forty-five minutes are. The film centres upon a group of police officers – the type of which give credence to the phrase ACAB – who are called to provide backup in a mysterious town on the edge of the woods. However, minor details about the situation begin to feel wrong and sinister, perhaps tying into the strange recurring dream the rookie of the group has been having.
The first half of Baskin is positively brimming with promise and portent. An early moment of interrogation I’d argue rivals the Joe Pesci “funny like a clown” scene in Goodfellas. There’s bold neon lighting, gliding camera work and creepy symbolism. The way events and scenes glide into each other captures better than probably any other movie I’ve seen the sense of dream logic. How time works differently in a dream and how things that seemed rational asleep seem fragmentary and nonsensical in waking hours. It’s these elements which demand Baskin being checked out despite a second half which plays up gore and shock at the expense of character and story.
Dead Ringers (1988) – Dir. David Cronenberg
As mentioned before, Shudder has a lot of cult classics available to stream and what could be more exemplary of that then Dead Ringers? Jeremy Irons stars in a dual-role as Beverley and Elliot Mantle, two identical twin gynecologists – one confident and outgoing, the other shy and withdrawn. Joint running a highly successful practice in Toronto, the two use their profession to seduce and bed famous women, passing their lovers between them without the female even realising it. However, when the shyer Mantle falls for actress Claire Niveau (Genevieve Bujold), it throws the twins’ symbiotic relationship out of whack.
Almost every Cronenberg film is about change, whether it be his early body-horrors centring upon physical alterations (The Brood, The Fly, Scanners) or his later dramas regarding psychological transformations (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, Maps to the Stars). Dead Ringers is the bridge between the two, functioning as both a disturbing horror about psychotic doctors designing body modifying gynecological instruments and a strange tragic thriller-drama with – as Cronenberg scholar Serge Grunberg notes – the “air of an opera”.
While these two elements could be tough to reconcile and I wish the movie spent more time with Bujold’s actress just because the character is so interesting, Irons’ performances keep the film together. Despite being identical, one can always tell Beverly and Elliot apart – a credit to the English actor. Plus, Irons’ somehow manages to make the viewer empathise with the morally reprehensible central duo. On a side-note, one must ask whether Dead Ringers’ opening scene is the best in cinema history?
Jordskott (2015-) – Created by Henrik Bjorn
Shudder also have a limited but ever growing TV section with shows like The Fades, The Valley and their own original series Primal Scream available to stream. Yet, the one I’ve taken a liking to the most is Swedish series Jordskott. It stars Moa Gammel as Eva Thornblad, a cop who returns to her home village in the wake of her father’s death. However, that’s not why she’s really there. A boy has gone missing and Eva believes it may be connected to her own daughter’s disappearance seven years prior. As she uncovers the tangled web, it comes to light that the abductions may have something to do with the ominous forest located within the town.
For fans of the cold, slow-burn but beautifully haunting atmosphere of Nordic Noirs – where horrible attrocities occur amidst icy picturesque landscapes – Jordskott is for you. Meanwhile, its fantasy elements help separate the series from shows of a similar ilk like The Killing (Forbryldelsen), Case and Trapped. A second series drops later in 2017.
Murder Party (2007) – Dir. Jeremy Saulnier
My favourite movie of 2016 was Green Room, directed by Jeremy Saulnier. So imagine my delight when the debut feature of the filmmaker was added to Shudder’s collection days into my trial. Murder Party revolves around a lonely man with nothing to do on Halloween night. He randomly stumbles into the company of of a rogue collective of Warhol wannabes intent on murdering him for the sake of their art. However, the group’s ineptness and need to make every detail perfect (“none of that green lighting David Fincher Euro trash bullshit”, one artist hilariously states) causes even more chaos.
Although shot with virtually no-budget, Saulnier still displays his directorial chops through some impressive long-takes and out-there, memorable kills. The cast is surprisingly solid too, particularly Macon Blair (Blue Ruin, Green Room) as one of the more unhinged killers. On top of this, Saulnier mines plenty of laughs poking fun at the pretentiousness of the art-scene. Overall, Murder Party is exemplary of the type of oddball, rare gems available to stream on Shudder.
Stephen Porzio (twitter@porzfolio) has recently written a series of articles reporting on this year’s Vancouver Lift-Off film festival, which he recently attended as an official critic. An Irish writer, Stephen also contributes to the sites Headstuff and Film Ireland and is an editor for Cold Coffee Press.