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Not Quite Horror: Cold In July (2014)

Cold in July

Horror is evolving as a genre. Although your local multiplex is still loaded with the usual contenders, look a bit closer and you’ll find the latest drama, thriller, or crime offering is closer to horror than you might expect. In this bi-weekly series, Joey Keogh presents a film not generally classified as horror and argues why it exhibits the qualities of a great flight flick, and therefore deserves the attention of fans as an example of Not Quite Horror. This week, it’s Jim Mickle’s Cold In July.

Most revenge movies follow a fairly simple formula. A life-altering event occurs, options are (momentarily) considered, revenge is decided upon and sought, and all hell, usually, breaks loose. Cold In July, the fourth feature from director Jim Mickle (Stake Land) is not your typical revenge movie. Actually, it’s not a typical movie in general.

Toying with elements of crime, revenge, buddy cop and horror movies, the flick features Dexter himself, Michael C. Hall, in the lead role, as a well-to-do family man living in rural Texas in the late eighties. After disturbing an intruder seemingly intent on robbing his home, Hall’s Richard accidentally shoots and kills the young man in cold blood, thereby incurring the wrath of his father, played by Sam Shepard.

Michael C. Hall and Sam Shepard in Cold In July

Richard soon finds himself looking over his shoulder as Shepard’s Russel stalks his own son, seemingly looking to even the score (in the film’s strongest, horror moment, he appears at the foot of the kid’s bed in a flash of lightning). A local police officer (Mickle regular Nick Damici) tries to help but, in the process, reveals something more sinister, leading the two men to form an unlikely alliance to find out the truth, picking up the colourful Jim Bob (Miami Vice legend Don Johnson) along the way.

If it all sounds a bit convoluted, well, it kind of is. Mickle has a great passion for, and understanding of, genre film-making, evident particularly in his superior take on We Are What We Are, which far outdid its predecessor. However, unlike that flick, or uneven vampire drama Stake Land, Cold In July attempts to mould several opposing elements together into a cohesive whole, to varying degrees of success.

Whether you find it irritating or interesting will depend on your propensity for gory, out-of-nowhere violence (the first scene sees Rich’s victim’s brains splattered across the wall) interspersed with splashes of buddy comedy specifically targeted at manly men (a road trip is embarked upon, involving the wearing of cowboy hats and lengthy discussions about loyalty and order).

The most shocking, borderline horror element of Cold In July–aside from a rough, blood-splattered standoff of a finale, is the introduction of a snuff video trade about midway through. Without giving too much away, it transpires that a related character has been creating the films for profit and, although Mickle cleverly doesn’t show us too much of the finished product, he gives us enough to connect the dots.

Sam Shepard, Don Johnson and Michael C. Hall in Cold In JulyThe violence is often explicit; bones crunching, a body being dug up, men shot left, right, and centre with blood spurting everywhere to alert the censors this is no PG-13 revenge thriller (if such a thing even exists–hopefully not). The final confrontation is bloody, intense and loaded with tension. This is a story about corruption in all its forms, and the final scenes detail how sometimes we cannot come back from the choices we make.

Cold In July was released around the same time as fellow Not Quite Horror alum, Blue Ruin, which has similar themes of revenge and regret. The mystery element is stronger here (though Blue Ruin also toyed with whom the real villains were), the film loading its relatively short run-time with plenty of fascinating twists and turns, while the sense of dread escalates slowly but surely the more secrets are revealed.

Mickle’s regular collaborator Jeff Grace’s spooky, Carpenter-esque score complements the atmosphere nicely, while fellow regular Ryan Samul’s cinematography is awash with moody reds and blues. The horror connection is nodded to, at one stage, also, with a trip to the drive-in to watch Night Of The Living Dead featuring as a major turning point in the investigation.

Cold In July starts off as straightforward revenge thriller but morphs into so much more. Proudly tough, strange and unyielding, one suspects its deepest, darkest pleasures will only be discovered upon repeat viewings.

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Written by Joey Keogh
Slasher fanatic Joey Keogh has been writing since she could hold a pen, and watching horror movies even longer. Aside from making a little home for herself at Wicked Horror, Joey also writes for Birth.Movies.Death, The List, and Vague Visages among others. Her actual home boasts Halloween decorations all year round. Hello to Jason Isaacs.
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