The cream of contemporary feature-length cinema isn’t always found in theaters. These days, smaller and more niche films often implement a same-day launch, simultaneously premiering in a limited theatrical run and on video-on-demand (VOD) services. Moreover, streaming services are now offering original films of their own. Given the dire and disposable state of the horror genre at the multiplex, these release strategies are particularly suited to reaching a wider, more appreciative audience for cinematic chills. For horror fans in a mid- to small-sized movie market such as St. Louis, online streaming and digital rental/purchase are increasingly vital means of accessing noteworthy features. What follows is a brief assessment of the major new horror (and horror-adjacent) films that have premiered on VOD within the past month.
While the film’s no-warning Super Bowl Sunday release seems to have succeeded in generating a couple of days of Internet buzz, it’s apparent from the final product why Netflix elected not to hype Julius Onah’s The Cloverfield Paradox for months in advance: It’s a baffling shambles of a film. Setting aside the dubious attempt to retroactively apply the Cloverfield branding – which takes the form of some dreary, ill-fitting scenes set on Earth and one final, gratuitous effects shot – the film’s inexplicable decision to turn a particle-collider doomsday scenario into an Event Horizon (1997) knockoff is utterly misguided. (If there’s one sci-fi horror feature that should never be emulated, it’s Event Horizon.) The cast is ridiculously over-qualified, and there’s a germ of potential in the notion of tangent universes as a source of existential terror, but Paradox feels like a random assortment of indifferently mounted space-thriller and body-horror sequences that have been pulverized into an unintelligible narrative slurry. Rating: D [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]
The Wicker Man (1973), The Blair Witch Project (1999), and The Descent (2005) are worthy genre touchstones from which to draw, but what makes David Bruckner’s The Ritual so effective has less to do with the way it syncretizes its forerunners than with its moody, harrowing execution of a straightforward premise. During a backpacking trip through the Swedish wilds, four British men lose their way, eventually realizing that they are being stalked by a horrific entity out of pagan legend. Bruckner and Joe Barton’s screenplay provide craven, guilt-wracked protagonist Luke (Rafe Spall) with just enough backstory to lend anguished resonance to the film’s muddling of personal and literal demons. This touch of characterization adds a surreal element to what is essentially a primal monster-in-the-woods scenario. The Ritual adeptly establishes an oppressively doom-rich atmosphere, and then proceeds to pitilessly slash into the viewer’s subconscious with some genuinely chilling, uncanny horror imagery – a particularly estimable feat given the film’s modest effects budget. Rating: B [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]
The primary flaws that bedevil Peter Ricq’s Dead Shack are those that have afflicted many an indie horror-comedy: a reliance on obvious, juvenile humor; shrill, unlikeable characters whose stupidity is played (unsuccessfully) for laughs; and a plot that depends on excessive back-and-forth scrambling between a handful of locations. Despite such problems, a distinctly Canadian sensibility of dopey, gross-out fun manages to rise to the surface of this teens vs. zombies curio. Dead Shack works in part due to the frank pity it exhibits towards its villain – a mentally broken woman who keeps her walking-dead family supplied with the fresh brains of rural neighbors. However, the film’s modest success as a low-budget, late-night diversion is attributable foremost to the cunning approach it employs to turn boring, dim-witted adolescent characters into sympathetic heroes. Namely, portray the self-centered, oblivious adults as the real children – hapless losers who need to be saved from both the zombies and their own regrettable life choices. Rating: C [Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.]
It’s possible that the right filmmaker could to turn a metaphorical interrogation of French colonial abuses in Vietnam into a creepy and absorbing ghost story, but The Housemaid illustrates that first-time director Derek Nguyen is not that person. Exhibiting a suitably cynical, pitiless view of romantic colonial myths, the director has good intentions, but that just makes the film’s more fundamental storytelling failures even more acute. The only redeeming aspect of this 105-minute waste of time is Kate Nhung’s persuasive portrayal of heroine Linh, who becomes ensnared in the household of a failing rubber plantation, which may or may not be stalked by a vengeful undead spirit. The Housemaid is the sort of derivative, charm-free haunted-house feature that gives the subgenre a bad name. An aimless exercise in dismal, scattershot PG-13 theatrics, the film builds clunkily towards a climactic reveal that is much more likely to elicit an indifferent grunt than a gasp. Rating: D+ [Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]
Bryan O’Malley’s The Lodgers has all the hallmarks that one expects in a respectable gothic chiller. Filmed partly on location at Loftus Hall, a real-world haunted mansion in Ireland, the feature boasts a properly forbidding setting, enhanced by Joe Fallover’s splendidly moldering production design. The film offers up a veritable checklist of Poe- and Brontë-tinged motifs: a raven in a cage, a locked cellar door, creepy family secrets, and some genuinely nightmarish paranormal tableaus. Atmosphere notwithstanding, however, The Lodgers engages in far too much narrative throat-clearing. The redolent threatens to become monotonous as characters shuffle around in circles and O’Malley takes his sweet time portentously spelling out motives and plot points that the viewer can easily deduce for themselves. Most of the film’s characters are drearily shallow, and even the protagonists – doomed fraternal twins Rachel (Charlotte Vega) and Edward (Bill Milner) – often seem more like twee storybook personalities than flesh-and-blood victims of a tragic curse. Rating: C+ [Now available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]