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.
Before I Wake takes the mind-bending conceit of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven and compresses it into a ghoulish, small-bore psychological drama. Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane portray the Hobsons, grieving parents who take in a foster child in a questionable attempt to alleviate the loss of their son. Their new ward is Cody (Jacob Tremblay, pre-Room), a bright but troubled boy who, they discover, can manifest his dreams as physical reality. This power proves wondrous when the child’s mind conjures up incandescent butterflies, but less so when it unleashes his personal hobgoblin, the malevolent Canker Man. More of a blend of fantasy, sci-fi, and domestic drama than straight horror, Mike Flanagan’s film is clunkier and cheaper-looking than his other works, and the adult performances are markedly slack. However, the director’s treatment of the material is touching and commendably character-centered, while also providing space for Cody's abilities to elicit perverse urges and suggest disquieting implications. Rating: C+ [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]
Devil’s Gate plays something like a kludgy, aimless episode of The X-Files, one with too many half-baked ideas and the running time to indulge them all. Arriving in a desolate stretch of North Dakota to search for a missing local woman, a hard-nosed FBI agent (Amanda Schull) quickly zeroes in on the victim’s paranoid, abusive husband (Milo Ventimiglia). Said suspect is hunkered down in a dilapidated, boarded-up farmhouse surrounded by booby traps, and it's in this clichéd setting that Devil’s Gate stalls out for the remainder of its muddled and monotonous duration. The film gleans elements from several subgenres — police procedural, hick-sploitation, Lovecraftian horror, and alien conspiracy, to name just a few — and then mashes them together into an awkward, unsightly mass that it plainly (and incorrectly) regards as a bracingly original gestalt. It’s is too strange and ham-fisted to be a solid genre exercise, and yet too dull and derivative to be a future cult object. Rating: D [Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]
There’s enticing potential in the concept that undergirds Thierry Poirand’s Don’t Grow Up, which adds a wrinkle to the now-familiar apocalyptic horror convention of a “rage virus.” In this case, the epidemic only affects adults. The film starts out promisingly, centering its narrative on a colorful group of adolescents who have been left unsupervised over a long holiday break at their state-run home. Initially, Poirand’s decision to render this tale through the eyes of variously orphaned, delinquent, and mentally ill kids — all of them distrustful and prematurely self-reliant — seems like it’s going to pay thematic dividends. The film suggests that the contagion’s onset might be linked to emotional maturity rather than biological age, but then leaves this notion unexplored as it gets bogged down in a tired zombocalypse plot featuring a predictable pattern of lulls, attacks, and escapes. Even the film’s forlorn, faintly impressionistic cinematography can’t compensate for the disappointing sense of triteness that eventually settles over the story. Rating: C- [Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.]
Not since Evil Dead (2012) has there been a remake as pointless as Inside. At least Fede Alvarez’s re-imagining of Sam Raimi’s 1981 cult classic exuded a certain gorehound gleefulness. Miguel Ángel Vivas’ film, meanwhile, is a nothing but a glum slog through the rough plot of the original Inside (2007). It’s a crude tracing that fails to add a single worthwhile story twist or formal flourish. Recently widowed and nine months pregnant, Sarah (Rachel Nichols) has elected to spend Christmas Eve alone. Unfortunately, a disturbed woman (Laura Harring) infiltrates her home and make it clear that, one way or another, she’s leaving with Sarah’s unborn child. This version of Inside attempts to raise the stakes by re-conceiving Sarah as a deaf person — shades of Wait Until Dark (1967) — and then rather absurdly piling up corpses. Such excess can’t conceal the fact that the film trades the original’s aura of frantic, bloody peril for chintzy tedium. Rating: D (Now available to rent on Amazon and other platforms.
Mom and Dad starts with a premise that echoes Parents (1989) and the aforementioned Don’t Grow Up: One day, parents are suddenly consumed with a monomaniacal urge to murder their children. The specificity of this perverse conceit — adults only want to butcher their own kids, not all kids — allows writer-director Brian Taylor to maintain a giddily satirical atmosphere throughout the blood-spattered proceedings, even when the plot shades into jaw-dropping transgressive horror. (In one appalling scene, a woman gives birth and then attempts to suffocate her minutes-old infant.) Nicolas Cage’s unchained inclinations as an actor fit comfortably with the film’s deranged events, and also with Taylor’s occasionally over-cranked direction. At one point, Cage’s seething, resentful dad destroys a pool table with a sledgehammer while maniacally singing “The Hokey Pokey.” ’Nuff said. Mom and Dad’s secret weapon, however, is Selma Blair, whose comic talent for disbelieving eye-rolls and gooey faux-sincerity is on full display — as is her proficiency with a meat tenderizer. Rating: B [Now available to rent or purchase on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]
The Open House manages a dubious feat that that didn’t even seem possible: a home-invasion thriller that is somehow even duller than Farren Blackburn’s inexcusably torpid Shut In (2016). The latter film at least resolved its mysteries in semi-coherent, if ludicrous, fashion. In comparison, The Open House concludes with a strangled wheeze, offering absolutely nothing to justify its 90-plus minutes of red herrings and sheer, enervating monotony. After her husband’s accidental death, Naomi (Piercey Dalton) and teenage son Logan (Dylan Minnette) move into a friend’s on-the-market vacation home to put their lives back together. During one of the building’s weekly open houses, however, a visitor apparently lingers behind and then proceeds to terrorize the family. Or not. Who knows? Certainly not directors Matt Angle and Suzanne Coote. Mistaking inertness and vacuity for chilling ambiguity, they pack the film with repetitive, excruciating scenes of characters wandering around a poorly lit McMansion. It’s utterly insufferable and almost maliciously pointless. Rating: F [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]