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The Poppies of Terra #25 - Stream and Stream Again

By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

2024-03-13 09:00:49

What’s left of 2024 promises to bring shovelfuls of theatrical thrills and chills, with Neon alone releasing Immaculate, Cuckoo, and Longlegs between March and July, A24 bringing us I Saw the TV Glow and MaXXXine in May and July respectively, major houses like 20th Century Studios and United International Pictures unleashing The First Omen and Abigail, respectively, in April, Lionsgate terrorizing us with The Strangers: Chapter 1 in May, and other distributors gearing up to melt our brains with fare like Late Night with the Devil. But these days plenty of shudders can be scared up at home as well, courtesy of VOD/streaming.

Case in point are two recent offerings that seem to be generally flying under the radar, both of which have the distinction of presently sitting at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes’ critics tomatometer. Caveats on that last note: audiences are coming in around 70% for these two titles, still respectable but not so exalted, the critic tomatometer results are based only on a handful of submitted reviews–another indication these films aren’t reaching a big audience–, and the average scores are around 6 out of 10. Still, with expectations suitably tempered, they’re worth pursuing. 

The first in our streaming double bill is, aptly enough, Double Blind (dir. Ian Hunt-Duffy), which sees a group of volunteers participating in a phase one clinical trial for a mysterious new drug. Needless to say, the group ends up suffering far more than inconvenient side effects. Blackwood Pharmaceuticals is this film’s stand-in for every ominous pharma/biotech company you love to despise, and the drug in question is Abexetine BRN14, which we’re told by Amir (Akshay Kumar), the only member of the group with medical bona fides, could one day lead to weight loss, relieve allergies, and maybe even help with motion sickness. For some in the group it will, let me confirm, most definitely lead to weight loss, of the complete and permanent variety. Claire (Millie Brady) is the archetypal tired, moody, infancy-traumatized young adult, down on her luck and downer still on her annoyingly bubbly roommate Alison (Abby Fitz), who plays the chatty Cathy to Claire’s negative Nancy. It’s quickly established that the others, despite a range of social skills and dispositions, generally don’t have robust support systems and are all highly motivated by the prospect of quick cash. Dr. Burke (Pollyanna McIntosh) brings an enjoyable no-nonsense demeanor to the proceedings, informing the test subjects that they’ll begin at 25 mgs and rise up to 85 mgs over the course of the five days, which was enough to make this viewer squeamish. Refreshingly, it is soon revealed that Burke is not in fact in league with the nefarious string-pullers at Blackwood Pharmaceuticals, and, if not for Amir’s understandable but catastrophic curiosity, might have in fact aborted the whole ordeal. But in a picture of this type we know that the trial will be, well, nightmarishly trying, and Double Blind delivers a memorable dose of claustrophobia, hallucinatory exhaustion, mistrust, and gore. The direction and editing are taut, the script is efficient, the location and production design almost become characters in their own right, and the synth-heavy score by Die Hexen pulses and oozes with dread.   

There is a scene near the end that reminded me of Cube (1997), another well-realized study of characters trapped in infernally close quarters, and the paranoid atmosphere brought to mind Exam (2009), which leans more heavily into its thrillerish twists. Some viewers may think of Das Experiment (2001) or a popular creepypasta I won’t name when they discover what these candidates must try to endure in order to survive, and of course there’s a famous horror franchise that rides the same conceptual wave. But Double Blind is a more spare, clinically precise construct, methodical in the unraveling of its characters and unsubtly critical of our medical research mega-corporations. I remember reading, back in 2013, a heartbreaking news story about a young intern in the banking sector who died because of overwork. Double Blind may be gauzed up as a medical horror, but it taps into deeper and more disturbing currents of exploitation and dehumanization in today's society.  

From this grim affair we ribbit our way to Frogman (dir. Anthony Cousins), a new entry in the rapidly growing cryptid-centric found-footage subgenre (Willow Creek, Exists, The Land of Blue Lakes, etc.). I decided to check this out because of my undying love for Futurama’s Hypnotoad–ALL GLORY TO THE HYPNOTOAD! Frogman does indeed consider the possibility that the human-sized creature under investigation might be an alien, a wizard, or some kind of interdimensional entity, all of which are enormously pleasing thoughts, and at one point the interference responsible for fritzing a camera is speculated to be caused by the beast’s psychokinetic abilities–which is a long way of saying that the movie doesn’t disappoint on the bonkers front. Unlike many of its shoddier brethren, what makes Frogman consistently engrossing is its control of pacing and tone, with early humor progressively giving way to disquietude, and a charming, believable ensemble performance by its three sympathetic leads (Nathan Tymoshuk, Chelsey Grant and Benny Barrett). From the start we understand Dallas’ motivation to prove that the footage he captured years before of the ridiculously named eponymous creature was indeed authentic; it’s hard to endure public shaming, particularly in the age of social media. Shortly after being introduced to our protagonist, who’s having breakfast at 2 pm, we pick up on the script’s slyness: naturally, his cereal of choice is Froggy Pebbles. This is a movie that can get away with the line “I have a good feeling about this,” because of the circumstances of its delivery, and because of who utters it. I was pleasantly surprised by the film’s committed and unrepentant third act.

Frogman’s offbeat mood made me think of several highpoints in The X-Files, which at its best could be equal measures poignant and disturbing. A late-series episode titled “Hungry,” penned by the incomparable Vince Gilligan, featured a kind of human-shaped shark-monster who simply couldn’t control his appetite for human brains. I thought of that episode during the first few minutes of Frogman, where in 1999 archival footage a child is asked what aquatic creature he’d like to be, and answers “a shark.” A title card phrase near the end of the movie cemented the connection with the legendary show. This low-budget found footage expedition is initially disarming, but proves far from inoffensive; it doesn’t take long to hop from am-phibian to am-phobian. Like the best of The X-Files, it knows when to cozy up to us, and when to pull off the mask and snap its jaws.


Alvaro Zinos-Amaro is a Hugo- and Locus-award finalist who has published over fifty stories and one hundred essays, reviews, and interviews in professional markets. These include Analog, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Galaxy's Edge, Nature, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Locus,, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, Cyber World, Nox Pareidolia, Multiverses: An Anthology of Alternate Realities, and many others. Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg was published in 2016. Alvaro’s debut novel, Equimedian, and his book of interviews, Being Michael Swanwick, are both forthcoming in 2023.

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