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.
The Cleanse is an odd beast indeed, a comic riff on The Brood (1979) that feels like something Joe Dante or Robert Zemeckis might have helmed in the mid-1980s. Even that formulation gives the film too much credit, though – director Bobby Miller lacks the wit and journeyman talent of those filmmakers. The Cleanse isn’t remotely frightening or freaky enough to be a body-horror feature (the gross-out stuff is strictly PG-13), but it’s remarkably laugh-free for a comedy. So, what is the viewer left with? Johnny Galecki makes no impression at all in the role of a sad sack who attends a strange New Age purification retreat. At least the practical effects are striking when he and his fellow seekers start vomiting up creatures that embody their negative impulses. Although it aims for a bizarrely melancholy vibe, The Cleanse is ultimately just lifeless and uninvolving, distinguished only by its faintly gnarly premise and its ugly-cute creature designs. Rating: C- [Now available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, and other platforms.]
Vanessa Shaw (3:10 to Yuma, Two Lovers) deserves far better than that the D-list Netflix Originals she’s been appearing in lately, but one supposes she has a mortgage like everyone. Last year she headlined the ludicrous psychological thriller Clinical, and now she’s starring in Family Blood, a dreary modern vampire tale with all the personality of a burnt microwave dinner. Shaw portrays Ellie, a single mom and recovering drug addict who has just settled into a new home in a dodgy but gentrifying neighborhood. Unfortunately, one of Ellie’s fellow 12-steppers, Christopher (James Ransone), begins stalking her, and after a hazy nocturnal encounter with him, she finds herself craving blood and spurning the sun. Visually speaking, Family Blood is bland but competent – at least for this sort of bargain-bin supernatural-horror picture – but the storytelling is ruinously aimless and monotonous. Vampire films are almost always chock-a-block with tropes, but this one doesn’t have even a drop of originality. Rating: D [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]
Based on real-world Slavic tales of a malicious rural spirit, Czech director Jiri Sádek’s The Noonday Witch is a domestic sort-of-ghost story that is so determinedly slow-burning that it almost forgets that it’s supposed to be frightening. Its plot and themes recall The Babadook (2014), but Sádek’s picture swaps the former film’s raw focus for a drowsy, moldering Old World sensibility. The newly widowed Eliška (Anthropoid’s Anna Geislerová) moves to her husband’s native village with her daughter (Karolína Lipowská) for a fresh start. Remarkably, Eliška hasn’t yet told her child that Dad committed suicide – he’s merely “away” – and this lie of omission curdles their relationship, exacerbating creepy occurrences such as the dementia-addled old woman who keeps appearing on their doorstep. Admittedly, the film is both meandering and light on actual terror, and it concludes with something of a whimper. However, it’s also stylish and genuinely unnerving, a rare portrait of maternal protectiveness perverted into unholy mania. Rating: C+ [Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.]
Cargo might be a zombie-apocalypse picture – with all the stale baggage that implies – but it also draws from Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road and Rudulph Maté’s ticking-clock noir D.O.A. (1949). Expanding on their seven-minute short from 2012, directors Ben Howlling and Yolanda Ramke begin their feature mid-Armageddon. In the Australian Outback, the middle-aged Andy (Martin Freeman) struggles to protect his wife, Kay (Susie Porter), and 1-year-old daughter from a viral zombie outbreak. Tragedy soon strikes: Kay is infected and killed, but not before biting her husband. Facing a 48-hour window until the contagion turns him into a cannibalistic ghoul, Andy is obliged to search the sparsely populated landscape for a caretaker for his child. Undeniably, Cargo is a cruel, wrenching piece of work, if frustratingly beholden to the subgenre’s tropes. Novel touches – like the Aboriginal ritual mobs that actively hunt zombies in the trackless bush – lend the film just enough flavor for it to linger. Rating: B- [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]
A cut-rate Videodrome (1983) for the retro-gaming geek set, Sequence Break is a horror film only in the loosest sense. The awkward, rumpled Oz (Chase Williamson of John Dies at the End) is a tinkerer at a dying arcade resale shop when two arrivals upend his sad-sack life: secretly nerdy girl-next-door Tess (Tabianne Therese), who has an improbable crush on him; and a mysterious, black-box arcade cabinet that quickly develops a maniacal hold on Oz. The film features some startlingly grotesque biomechanical imagery, but it just feels like a limp, facile copy of Cronenberg’s nightmarish hallucinations. (Instead of James Woods with a Betamax player vagina in his abdomen, here Oz mashes an oozing, clitoral game button to blast vector graphic aliens.) The performances are clunky as hell, and a late-game swerve into Primer-style time loops feels like a failed, Hail Mary attempt to save the film from its own shapeless, repetitive, and nonsensical plot. Rating: D+ [Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.]
Mark Young’s Feral is ostensibly a zombie-outbreak film, but structurally if feels closer to a werewolf picture – not that it’s a tolerable specimen of either form. There’s only one undead beast at first, a scuttling creature that stalks a group of insufferable med students during a backpacking trip, infecting them one by one. Other than some ghastly makeup effects and the positioning of a lesbian couple (Scout Taylor-Compton and Olivia Luccardi) as the default protagonists – a welcome, if modest, changeup from the genre’s usual heteronormativity – there’s nothing distinctive about Feral. It’s chintzy, by-the-numbers indie horror through and through, with the added drag of some wince-worthy dialogue and acting. Director Young seems utterly unconcerned with inventiveness, preferring to arrange characters and situational tropes into a bland gruel of running, hiding, searching, waiting, and screaming. The only truly scary thing about the film is that it runs out of narrative steam with 30 or 40 interminable minutes still to go. Rating: D [Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]
Two scientists (William Jackson Harper and Rebecca Henderson) are assigned by their corporate employer to investigate a series of enigmatic wilderness sites where both cult activity and weirder phenomena are known to have occurred. Director Philip Gelatt draws from a host of cinematic influences – chiefly 1970s genre works like Silent Running (1972), Phase IV (1974), and Stalker (1979) – while still maintaining a sense of eerie novelty. They Remain has atmosphere in spades, and the film’s impressionistic images and unconventional editing underline the hallucinatory time slippage that the characters begin to experience. Unfortunately, there’s remarkably little plot to go along with all the mood. The film is more of a narcotic haze than a story, lacking any sense of rising action – just repetitive scenes of Harper wandering the woods and passive-aggressively sparring with his partner. Gelatt’s infatuation with elliptical mystery leads to narrative obfuscation, and he fails to resolve the dissonance between the film’s gaudier elements and its chilly sci-fi horror vibe. Rating: C [Now available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]