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.
2018 / UK / 81 min. / Dir. by Paul Hyett / Premiered online and opened in select cities on May 3, 2019
Nunsploitation horror is in something of a slump lately, between last year’s aimless spook story The Nun and a streak of unmemorable VOD clunkers (The Devil’s Doorway, Welcome to Mercy, St. Agatha). Director Paul Hyett’s witless demonic-possession flick The Convent does nothing to rectify this unfortunate trend. While on trial for murder, Hannah Arterton’s 17th-century English commoner is offered sanctuary by an order of religious sisters. Their gloomy priory, it turns out, is haunted by a voracious Satanic presence, one that is not entirely uninvited. Hyett at least has the good sense to lean into his film’s unabashed trashiness, larding the plot with occult freakiness, lesbian eroticism, and copious, Fulci-esque gore. This almost makes The Convent feel like a dime-store burlesque of Ken Russell (The Devils, Gothic, The Lair of the White Worm), or it would, if the film didn’t prove to be such a tedious slog. Turning such profane raw materials into a lackluster array of stock horror drivel is damn unforgivable. Rating: C- [Now available to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other major platforms.]
The Nightshifter (Morto Não Fala)
2018 / Brazil / 110 min. / Dir. by Dennison Ramalho / Premiered online on May 23, 2019
Stênio (Daniel de Oliveira) works the graveyard shift at a São Paulo morgue, which gives him plenty of time to exercise his singular gift: conversing with the recently deceased. This mostly entails trite exchanges with stunned accident victims and vengeful street thugs. However, one day an opportunity arises for Stênio to dispose of his odious wife’s lover, and the temptation is too much for the put-upon working stiff to resist. Director Ramalho starts with a vivid hook seemingly plucked from an old Tales from the Crypt episode, and initially it seems as if the premise might yield some darkly ironic fruit. Unfortunately, the film eventually collapses into a meandering, bog-standard story about a vengeful ghost. Dodgy digital effects aside, there are flashes of vicious inspiration in the film’s set pieces – a bit involving a glass-coated kite string, for example, has a Saw-like ghastliness. However, The Nightshifter is mostly content to pummel its distasteful protagonist with tiresome haunted-house shocks for an unwarranted 110 minutes. Rating: C [Now available to stream on Shudder.]
2018 / USA / 99 min. / Dir. by Al White / Opened in select cities on March 13, 2019; premiered online on May 28, 2019
Director Al White’s mesmeric, utterly unclassifiable debut feature establishes its thematic core in its first 20 minutes. Troubled twentysomething Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) mourns the passing of her best friend Grace by breaking into the dead woman’s apartment in their sleepy Colorado town. Starfish takes is sweet time in this passage, steeping in Aubrey’s shattering grief – and other unresolved demons – with a delicate attentiveness to Grace’s indie-cool worldly possessions, including an enigmatic mixtape. Abruptly, the “elevated” sci-fi-horror of last year’s Annihilation and The Endless forces its way into Aubrey’s mourning process with mysterious monoliths, bizarre phenomena, and slavering alien creatures. Ambitious and weird in a gratifying way, Starfish relies on diverse methods – including an anime music video and a scene of meta-horror straight out of Inland Empire (2006) – but at its heart are Gardner’s intrepid performance and a messy, humane meditation on fear, fuckups, and forgiveness. It’s The Mist (2007) as a one-woman college radio show, with a dollop of Another Earth (2011) and a dash of Tarkovsky. So, yeah: weird. Rating: B [Now available to rent or purchase from Google Play and other major platforms.]