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.
Julius Ramsay’s chilling survival thriller Midnighters centers on a “24 hours in hell” scenario: A pair of callow suburbanites becomes entangled with some ruthless killers on New Year’s Eve, leading to an escalating fiasco of deception and bloodshed. Tipsy and distracted, Jeff (Dylan McTee) hits a pedestrian with his car on a lonely country road, and due to a cascade of crappy luck and awful choices, he and wife Lindsey (Alex Essoe) end up smuggling the body back to their home. Things get much crazier from there, but this isn’t the blackly comic territory of the Coens: It’s a remorseless, deadly serious thriller with slatherings of gorehound horror and caustic noir cynicism. Midnighters doesn’t do anything that hasn’t been done before, but it executes its formulae with a kind of cold-blooded focus that’s consistently impressive and often downright unnerving. The principals are all in fine form, but Ward Horton is the standout as a cheerily sadistic criminal with a million-dollar grin. Rating: B- [Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]
Admittedly, Mohawk sounds both unclassifiable and utterly ridiculous based on its nickel summary. An interracial, polyamorous romantic tragedy set during the War of 1812, it starts out like Last of the Mohicans and ends up closer to The Crow (1994) and Ravenous (1999). The low-budget seams are apparent in the cheap production design and some really unfortunate acting, but the film is more of a modest success than a noble failure. That’s partly due to the lean, evocative premise, which is smartly realized by Geohegan’s direction. A Mohawk warrior woman (Kaniehtiio Horn), her Mohawk lover (Justin Rain), and her British other lover (Eamon Farren) are caught in a run-and-gun guerilla battle with a squad of merciless American soldiers in the wilds of New York. Eventually the lovers’ situation turns bloody and heartbreaking, before veering off into the realm of supernatural revenge horror. The film ultimately rests overwhelmingly on Horn’s shoulders, as she sells every jot of this bizarre tale with little more than her chilling glower. Rating: B- [Now available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]
Plot-wise, writer-director Robin Aubert’s French-Canadian zombocalypse chiller is not particularly original. Sometime after the outbreak of a cannibalistic rage virus, a motley assortment of survivors is thrust together in the forests and fields of rural Quebec. Nominally centered on the awkward but gutsy Bonin (Marc-André Grondin), The Ravenous is broadly equitable towards its sizable cast of characters, although none of them is fleshed out much before the bodies start piling up. Aubert’s film adds an unnerving twist to the sub-genre’s usual conventions by intimating that the living dead have their own nascent, unfathomable culture, one infatuated with the material detritus of human civilization. What truly makes The Ravenous stand out in the overstuffed zombie landscape, however, is the film’s formal artfulness. Between Francis Cloutier’s eerie, unconventional approach to editing — which elides many of the story’s more violent and gruesome moments — and Steeve Desrosiers’ fantastic, misty photography, it’s one of the better-looking walking dead features to come along in some time. Rating: B- [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]
Formally striking but too scattered and sluggish to function as a truly crackerjack serial-killer thriller, Cold Hell is a film that plainly wants to say something about multicultural European society in the 2010s. However, Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky (The Counterfeiters) can’t seem to juggle the film’s muddled political subtext with the visceral needs of a horror-crime epic. The film has a compelling lead in the form of Özge (Violetta Schurawlow), a Turkish cab driver in Vienna whose traumatic past and wary, explosive demeanor have cruelly isolated her. The character’s biographical particulars and Schurawlow’s haunted performance elevate her cat-and-mouse conflict with an otherwise bog-standard psychopath — a religiously motivated prostitute-killer whom Özge unwittingly spies from her apartment window. Some plot implausibilities notwithstanding, Cold Hell is familiar but gripping stuff, boasting grisly violence, white-knuckle set pieces, and a forlorn nocturnal cityscape. Still, the film’s bloated running time and ultimately unproductive engagement with matters of gender, ethnicity, and religion in modern Austria detract from such gratifying fundamentals. Rating: C+ [Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.]
To describe Demon House as a pseudo-documentary would be too generous to director Zak Bagans, host of the Travel Channel’s paranormal series Ghost Adventures. Combining the sensational tackiness of most spirit-hunting hucksters with a wearisome dude-bro schtick, Bagans is not someone who could have ever plumbed the story of the 2011 Ammons haunting in Gary, Ind., with sobriety. His feature-length “investigation” into the incident, Demon House, is the expected slurry of chintzy re-creations, leading interview questions, and endless, tedious footage that doesn’t reveal much of anything. Some of the visual and sound effects in Demon House are legitimately unnerving, but even the film’s value as a cheesy campfire story is undercut by Bagans’ breathless yet droning pronouncements about a Satanic presence. It’s remarkable how stark the discrepancy is between, on the one hand, the feature’s air of doomsaying self-importance and, on the other, the puerile over-acting from the director and his crew while they are allegedly under “demonic influence” (i.e., Monster Energy drinks). Rating: D- [Now available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]
Genre-hopping Taiwanese writer-director Giddens Ko gets originality points for using an over-cranked teens-vs.-vampires gorefest to present an allegory about the dehumanizing effects of bullying (on all parties involved). In Mon Mon Mon Monsters, an undead blood-sucking girl falls into the clutches of a pack of high-school sociopaths and their usual target, class misfit Lin (Yu-Kai Teng). Somewhat reluctantly, Lin joins in with his bullies as they torture the bound creature for their amusement and repurpose her black-magic-suffused blood for their own twisted schemes. Ko’s film is wickedly stylish and utterly bonkers, but it’s also somewhat enervating. The bullies are so shrill and over-the-top in their irredeemable awfulness, the feature’s effort to craft a scathing social satire about the amorality of modern youth feels sour and phony. Aficionados of Asian horror at its most comically excessive will enjoy Mon Mon Mon Monsters as a gonzo pleasure, but it’s too clumsy and unpleasant to be any kind of cult classic in the making. Rating: C+ [Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.]