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 select-city 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.
For its first half-hour or so, director Daniel Robbins’ Pledge plays like an off-key riff on the conventional cinematic fantasy of fraternity life, in which the Greek system is a gateway to both libertine excess and class-coded prestige. When three misfit undergraduates (Zachery Byrd, Phillip Andrew Botello, and Zack Weiner) stumble onto a mysterious off-campus fraternity during rush week, the scenario is initially a vehicle for shrill cringe comedy and trust-fund lifestyle porn. The film’s bloody cold open, however, reveals that something else is afoot, and as the frat’s hazing rituals quickly become more outré and violent, the film itself gets nastier, stranger, and more unpredictable. Robbins never finds the satirical edge that might have counterbalanced all the mirthless sadism – American Psycho this isn’t – but Pledge at least has the restraint to remain satisfyingly cryptic and volatile, all the way to its cynical final swerve. Ultimately, the feature suggests, it’s not wealth or surnames that define the ruling class, but savagery. C+ [Now available to rent from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]