It’s the dawn of the streaming wars, and if you’re a Netflix subscriber like me, you’ve probably clicked on the “coming soon” icon on your homepage in recent days, innocently expecting a few notifications, only to be inundated by 40—count ‘em, 40– trailers for November offerings. This content dump is undoubtedly timed to remind you, with the impending arrival of Disney+, HBO Max and Apple TV+, that Netflix is still the premier smorgasbord of streaming entertainment.
But how can you forget the vast array of choices, given that this Halloween, for example, clicking on a title will lead you to “more like this” options, and clicking on those will lead you to more options and so on, until you’ve fallen down a rabbit hole of alternatives. With Netflix, the question is never "how can you forget," but "what will you binge?"
Fear not. We’ve surveyed Netflix’s most recent horror entries and done a rundown of which titles are worth your time and attention. And you might be surprised to find that one of its most nightmarish stories isn’t even a horror movie, but a documentary.
In the Tall Grass
Rating: * (out of 5 stars)
The father-and-son team of Stephen King and Joe Hill aren’t the first to pass by a field of tall grass and imagine something nasty residing in its green, bladed depths—in the Philippines, all you need is a grass-choked lot the size of a house, and visions of snakes and dumped bodies come into mind—but they’re certainly the first to write about it. Their resulting 2012 novella has long been an object of fixation for Cube director Vincenzo Natali. But in translating the story of a brother and sister (Avery Whitted and Laysla De Oliveira) who are drawn into a grassy, physics-defying Kansas field by the phantom shouts of a lost boy (Will Buie, Jr.) into a feature-length film, the writer-director inevitably loses what made his source material so punchy in the first place: It was short, and it offered explanations that were too flighty to fully grasp.
To fill 101 minutes of screen time, Natali pulls in not just a family gone insane (headed by patriarch Patrick Wilson, padding his filmography with another horror entry) and a mystical rock (granted, not King the horrormeister’s most compelling device), but a contrite boyfriend (Harrison Gilbertson) and a head-scratching time loop. By the last act, In the Tall Grass is stuck in its own incoherent wormhole—or should I say, stuck in the narrative weeds.
Rating: ** (out of 5 stars)
British-Iranian filmmaker Babak Anvari crafted a shivery little gem in 2016’s Under the Shadow, about a mother battling a djinn contained in an undetonated missile that drops into her rapidly emptying apartment complex at the height of the Iran-Iraq war. So it’s a bit of a surprise to find that his first bonafide excursion into the Hollywood mainstream is a bit of a slog.
Armie Hammer plays a New Orleans bartender who has strange, creepy things happen to him after he picks up a cellphone left by a group of college kids after a brawl. After his double-duty breakthrough as the entitled Winklevoss twins in David Fincher’s The Social Network, Hammer is perfect casting for the dissolute but arrogant Will, a man whose hollowed-out core makes him vulnerable to the nightmarish entities trying to infiltrate his life. But after setting things up with expertly mounted atmospherics, Anvari goes the route of too much subtlety, preferring to quote Joseph Conrad and leaving out too much by way of explanation, never fully committing to his story’s Lovecraftian monstrosity or Cronenbergian body horror. By Wounds’ frustrating climax, you’ll want to shake Anvari and say, “Hit me with your scariest! I can take it!”
Rating: *** (out of 5 stars)
Faring much better is Irish director Ciarán Foy with his straight-to-Netflix ghost opus Eli. Don’t let the idea that Paramount and MTV Films had no idea how to market this title fool you: This story of a boy (title roler Charlie Shotwell) who comes to believe that the isolated Gothic home where he has come with his parents (Kelly Reilly and Max Martini) for treatment of his autoimmune disorder isn’t as therapeutic as he thought has some pretty efficient scares. True, you’ve seen ghosts that only appear by flashlight beam in other scary movies before, but that doesn’t mean they don’t still work.
Add performances by a deliciously ambiguous Lili Taylor as Eli’s doctor, Stranger Things’ Sadie Sink as a playmate who suspiciously appears every time our hero needs a sounding board, and a jaw-dropping twist at the climax—one that I guarantee you will not see coming until the scene where it is revealed—and you will find Eli to be a properly diverting, well-spent 98 minutes.
Rating: **** (out of 5 stars)
If you have more time on your hands this long Halloween weekend, you might want to give this eight-episode French horror series a try. (Don’t worry: It’s subtitled and dubbed.) The French aren’t exactly known for their horror exports, but there are many reasons why Stephen King has endorsed Marianne. For one, it has a writer for a protagonist: Emma Larsimon (Call Me by Your Name’s Victoire Du Bois), an arrogant (again) horror novelist who has built her career transcribing her nightmares about a 17th-century witch that traumatized her adolescence, as well as her friends’.
After declaring an end to the books that made her rich, Emma is forced to return to her hometown to confront various townspeople—including her parents and, most creepily, a dead friend’s mother (the scarily effective Mireille Herbstmyer)—whom the witch possesses through her novels, coercing her to resuscitate the series.
Secondly, while King writes with such psychological acuity, his pop cultural tastes run to the gaudy, and Marianne has flashy scares to spare: There are pouches made of skin containing teeth sealed with hair, there are glowing eyes and floating bodies, there are dark doorways and wardrobes whose doors creak ominously open.
And thirdly, Marianne cribs from entries in the King canon as varied as The Dark Half and It, all to entertaining effect. If you’re going to copy from the master, make sure you know what elements to steal.
Tell Me Who I Am
Rating: ***** (out of 5 stars)
Amnesia is the hoariest of plot devices, but it’s surprising in real life, primarily because you never expect to encounter anyone who’s actually lost their memory. But retrograde amnesia is what befell Alex Lewis, who suffered a traumatic head injury in an accident and who, upon waking, only recognized his twin brother Marcus. Returning to their upscale British home, Alex relied on Marcus to brief him on the teenage life he had no idea of living, never once questioning why they were living in a shed at the rear of the property or why they weren’t allowed in certain parts of their home, never once questioning how these details didn’t jibe with the picture of a happy, privileged childhood that his twin brother painted for him. Alex never thought that Marcus could be lying to him, covering up a dark, dirty family secret—which is exactly what he was doing.
The surprises don’t stop coming in Tell Me Who I Am, the documentary by Ed Perkins that was first a harrowing first-person account in a 2013 book. Taking advantage of the detective-story nature of his material, Perkins surrounds the twins’ talking-head interviews with artfully staged recreations that resemble those of an atmospheric horror movie. There are vaguely disorienting flashbacks with misty edges, dark walls splashed with the sinister approach of headlights, bodies curled up in cold rooms—there is a modulated sense of dread throughout. Perkins is unapologetic about his heavy-handed manipulation, but what makes Tell Me Who I Am hard to shake is how many questions it leaves unanswered, the sense that it is a horrifying story yet to be finished. Disturbing, unsettling…and quite simply stunning.
Photographs from Netflix