Netflix has been releasing a stunning series of original horror films for the past few years, making it a worthy competitor for Blumhouse, Ghost House, and Lions Gate. The democratization of horror distribution brought about by the explosion of streaming have led many talented indie directors to eschew the studio system and find a more flexible home with those who prefer to view first-run movies in their own homes rather than in a cinema.
As I grew up in the great ’70s era of drive-in features and grind house cinema, I have to say that the nostalgic part of me winces at the new trend, but as an avid consumer of pop culture horror, the bigger part of me is thrilled at the freedom given to young filmmakers who have found a new home at Netflix, which has been at the forefront of creative, quirky horror directors for some time now.
The impact has led to a new renaissance in horror, and the big studios have been racing to keep up. Even films with an indie feel like Jordan Peele’s Get Out and the upcoming Us are Universal Studio Productions. But for consistent quality productions, Netflix stands out.
Below are some of my favorite Netflix original horror films, movies that chilled me to the core in the quiet solitude of my own home.
Hush was a breakthrough film for the incredibly talented writer/director Mike Flannigan, who later went on to direct a stunning series of original films for Netflix and is currently helming the much anticipated Doctor Sleep, Steven King’s sequel to The Shining.
Hush was a stunning film, rejecting many of the horror film tropes to focus on a strong, deaf female character. Not since 1967’s Wait Until Dark, has a film effectively dealt so compassionately with a disabled main character in the worst of situations.
Kate Siegel’s Maddie, a deaf author living in a secluded house in the woods, finds herself terrorized by a masked psychopath who takes perverse interest in her disability. The cat-and-mouse game that ensues not only highlights the ignorant perceptions regarding the deaf community, but also provides for one one the most nail-biting climaxes in modern cinema.
Hush is terrifying, captivating, and extremely well-crafted.
The Ritual (2017)
David Bruckner’s The Ritual is one of those rare films that is considerably better than the novel upon which it is based. Adam Nevill’s novel left me a bit off-put. There were moments of excruciating tension that were undercut by a rather pedestrian subplot involving young death metal fans that just struck a wrong chord for me. Bruckner wisely dumped the death metal line and focused straight in on the horror in his filmic version, tightening the focus and bringing everything down to the bare roots.
And in doing so, he brings to the forefront the major themes of regret, guilt, and buried secrets that, once unearthed, bring the story to a shattering conclusion. This is a film in the people-out-of-their-element-finding-themselves-lost-in-the-primal-woods-genre that pulls no punches.
A group of four friends with a dark secret heads off for a hike through the dark Scandinavian woods to encounter a malevolent evil that hunts them relentlessly. Bruckner strips the film down to the bare, mythic elements of what happens when we stray off the path.
Bird Box (2018)
Susanne Bier’s new film Bird Box, based on the stunning novel by Josh Malerman, brings nail-biting horror to a new level. Jumping back and forth between the arrival of strange entities on Earth who drive any who see them to violent suicide and the post-apocalyptic world five years later, Bird Box is a harrowing tale of survival, family, and very, very hard choices.
The film opens in a moment of excruciating tension as Sandra Bullock bluntly explains to her young children that they must keep their eyes shut and covered once they venture outside or else they will die. It’s a jarring and brutal opening to a stark and relentless film. Th jump back to five years earlier is no less jarring, as the world teeters on the edge of collapse as the bizarre suicides reach pandemic proportions. Bird Box takes the familiar small group of people under siege theme and creates some surprising twists, brining a fresh perspective to a time-worn narrative.
The cast is stellar, the direction sharp and tense, and the creeping sense of paranoia absolutely infectious. Like many of the films in this list, this movie saturates viewers in paranoia and danger, but ultimately ends with a sense of sacrifice, family bonds and hope.
Hold the Dark (2017)
Jeremy Saulnier has been on my radar for some time now. His psychological revenge film Blue Ruin left me breathless and his follow-up Green Room completely blew me out of the water. Moving to Netfilix Originals, he expanded his filmic exploration of the impotent ritual of masculine revenge to a larger, mythic arena of cosmic forces and primal drives.
Set in a remote village in Northern Alaska, the film begins with the arrival of Russel Core (Jeffrey Wright), an expert on wolves who has been contacted by a young mother who claims that her son has been killed by a wolf pack haunting the village. The aptly-named Core has his own tragic history with his daughter, and agrees to hunt down the wolves, even though he has qualms about the whole endeavor.
What follows is a wintry tale as twisted as they come. Core soon discovers that the wolves aren’t responsible for the boy’s death. The father returns from active duty in the Middle East to exact his own revenge. Things escalate rapidly, and the body count rises.
What makes Saulnier such an amazing director is his exquisite detail in both intimate scenes of dialogue and long periods of silence that underscore the remote landscape of the film. When the violence erupts, it is all the more shocking. Not to give anything away, but an extended shoot-out in the middle of the film hits you like a sucker punch to the gut. Solnier doesn’t romanticize the violence… he shows the carnage, chaos, confusion, and raw pain for what it is.
To say any more about the film would be a travesty, as part of the joy of watching is being continually surprised by the twists and turns in the story, which can ultimately be summed up by Core’s explanation of “savaging” as a trait in pack animals. Watch the film to see his explanation and how it extends to the animal nature in humans as well.
The Haunting (2018)
I’ve saved my favorite for last. Yes, this is a one-shot series rather than a feature film, but Mike Flannigan’s ten episode thriller is as exquisitely-crafted as any horror film this year. Loosely based on Shirley Jackson’s famous novel, this series takes off in a different direction while remaining true to the core of the original story.
Flashing back and forth between the present and the past, Hill House lays out the story of one family whose lives are forever altered by the odd and terrifying events in the crumbling old house they move into, hoping to renovate and flip it.
I’ve never seen the long-standing effects of childhood trauma played out so effectively and so believably in a horror film. All ghost stories are about the past living on in the present, and Hill House locks its focus on the horrifying legacy of trauma throughout the lives of Crain family, who each find their own dysfunctional way to navigate the horrors of their childhood: drug addiction, morbid attractions to death, sex addiction, writing horror stories… all serve only to push the horror back into the corners where it lies in wait for moments of vulnerability.
By the time the series reached its conclusion, a conclusion that deviates from Jackson’s novel by the changing of a single word of voice-over, I was tearing up, emotionally wrought by the sense of hope in the most hopeless of situations. For a year as dark as 2018 has been, Flannigan’s emphatic emphasis on hope makes Hill House stand head and shoulders above other horror films this year for its bold and unapologetic courage.