I don't want to oversell Cold in July, a satisfying small-budget thriller of a kind that Hollywood used to make with efficiency, verve and flair. But it's the sort of movie whose solid virtues are going to make it an instant favorite at Redbox, Netflix and video-on-demand, where the stakes of an evening's entertainment are far lower. The grotesque inflation of movie-industry scale cannot help but make that sound like damnation with faint praise, when I mean just the opposite. At its best, Cold in July is a taut, tightly knotted yarn that chugs along like a Dodge Challenger, unencumbered by pretention or needless production values.
Such a movie would once have played the bottom of double bills back in the 1950s, only to be held to the light and inspected by French cineastes in hazmat suits. Three decades later it would have played the back screen of a mall cinema for a week, to be sifted from the dross and passed along by sharp-eyed prospectors. But the eventual confinement of the modest, well-made thriller to a 99-cent direct-to-video wall at Blockbuster killed a lot of the vitality of moviegoing — the joy of discovering a feverish small wonder along the lines of the original The Hitcher or Near Dark and being caught completely unawares.
Cold in July isn't quite in the same league as those classics, but it's as close as you'll get at the movies right now to taking a long shot on an entertainment and getting exactly what you wanted and more. The movie dispenses briskly with formalities in the first scene, as a noise downstairs rouses family man Richard Dane (Dexter's Michael C. Hall, afflicted with a mullet) to load a little-used gun. No badass with a concrete grip — which instantly makes the movie more interesting — the frightened homeowner miraculously (or accidentally) blows the intruder's brains all over his living-room painting, his family photos and his couch.
In his Texas town, that puts all eyes on giant-killer Dane, who feels more remorseful than heroic. It also brings a visit from a grizzled stranger, Russel (Sam Shepard) — the dead man's father, just out on parole. He lets Dane know precisely how vulnerable his own family is; the movie tightens the screws as Russel starts materializing outside his son's playground, leaving hints of worse to come.
Up to this point, the director, Jim Mickle, whose horror movies Stake Land and We Are What We Are marked him as an emerging talent among fright-film aficionados, puts a dry, laconic spin on the swampy Southern gothic menace of Cape Fear. He downplays the sexual threat in favor of something more general: the dread of the id loosed from the bottle by an unsuspecting innocent. Then Dane sees something at the local police station that sets off warning sirens, and the plot takes the first of several sharp left turns — from noir to conspiracy thriller to something very close to a horror Western.
Cold in July is adapted by Mickle and Nick Damici (who has a juicy supporting part as a too-smooth-for-comfort lawman) from a novel by modern-day pulp master Joe R. Lansdale, and they capture the proximity of drawling unease to unfathomable cruelty in Lansdale's work. (Fans will get a grim chuckle out of a drive-in playing Night of the Living Dead — a nod to Lansdale's scarifying short story "The Night They Missed the Horror Show," which shows if you want to see real horror in the nation's hostile racist backwaters, you don't have to buy a ticket.) If the many curves in the plot dissipate some of the tension, they bring some needed incidental pleasures — chiefly Don Johnson's assured good-ol'-boy act as a Lone Star detective who gets the movie's snappiest lines (and has the whiskery cool to sock them across). They also ensure you won't see the movie's ultimate destination from too far away, which reminds me of perhaps the greatest thing about all those nifty, stealthy B-movies Cold in July resembles — the element of surprise.