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.
There is a great horror film waiting to be made about the enervating dread of simply being a woman online. The blood-spattered Dutch thriller The Columnist isn’t that film – it’s more of a black-hearted satire, albeit one where it’s hard to say exactly what is being satirized. It at least has a solid lead in Westworld’s Katja Herbers, who portrays a cultural essayist obsessed with punishing the misogynists who relentlessly harass her on social media. Director Ivo van Aart bestows this story of a fed-up woman’s gleefully violent revenge with plenty of vigor and style, but he can’t completely conceal the story’s inconsistent momentum and shopworn plot beats. However, The Columnist’s lethal problem is a thematic one. It regards Herbers’ murderess in a confused and detached manner, and it’s hard to discern what is being mocked here. If the film successfully skewers anything, it seems to be its anti-heroine’s myopic insistence that people should just be nice to each other.
The Columnist is now available to rent from major online platforms.
A psychedelic sci-fi horror curio from South African director Ryan Kruger, Fried Barry expands on the filmmaker’s 2017 short film and adds generous shots of weird-fiction madness. The titular Barry is a crusty heroin addict played by the admittedly transfixing Gary Green, who looks like a mad scientist’s attempt to splice Abraham Lincoln’s genes into Ed Harris. One night Barry is whisked away by a flying saucer, subjected to alien experiments, and unceremoniously dumped back on Earth. The plot is essentially an excuse for a nearly mute, post-abduction Barry to bumble around a Repo Man-esque Capetown, encountering various lowlifes and weirdos: now he’s picking up prostitutes, now he’s in a mental hospital, now he’s fighting a homeless serial killer. It’s dreadfully, awkwardly episodic, but when the film enthusiastically embraces its cult-flick weirdness and grindhouse nastiness, it’s at least repulsively watchable. (There’s a birth scene that’s pure nightmare fuel.) Unfortunately, Kruger ultimately favors a limp, unearned pathos that undercuts the gruesome spectacle and hallucinatory visuals.
Fried Barry is now available to stream from Shudder.
The appeal of Alexandre Aja’s grueling techno-thriller Oxygen is undeniable: Lock Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds) in a box and watch as her panicked character tries to puzzle her way out in real time. It’s not a completely novel premise – Rodrigo Cortés’ Buried (2011) did it first with Ryan Reynolds, and to sharper effect – but Aja expands his pitch with a cascade of mind-boggling sci-fi twists. From the moment that Laurent’s amnesiac scientist Liz wakes up in a failing cryogenic tube, it’s apparent that there are layers of mystery at work. The cunning of Christie LeBlanc’s script lies in how it entwines those mysteries with Liz’s dwindling air supply, as saving herself demands that she unravel who she is and what has happened to her. With the addition of a perfectly cast Mathieu Amalric as the voice of an amusingly unforthcoming medical AI, Oxygen emerges as one of Netflix’s juiciest one-off thrillers. (Avoid the dub, however, and watch it in the original French with subtitles.)
Oxygen is now available to stream from Netflix.
Title notwithstanding, The Djinn presents neither a folk-horror tale about the jinn of Islamic mythology nor an orientalist fantasy involving a magic lamp. Instead, the sophomore feature from directing duo David Charbonier and Justin Powell (The Boy Behind the Door) proffers a tidy if disposable occult tale about a tween trapped in an apartment with a malevolent, shapeshifting spirit. When the mute and moody Dylan (Ezra Dewey) finds a grimoire hidden in his new home, he can’t resist casting a spell that will grant his heart’s desire. So begins a harrowing night in which Dylan must battle a malevolent entity that assumes the forms of the recently dead. The film’s late-1980s setting never amounts to much – beyond a score that cribs shamelessly from Stranger Things. Still, despite its shoestring budget, The Djinn squeezes a respectable amount of tension from one location, modest visual effects, and Dewey’s wordless performance. However, the feature is ultimately too obvious and plodding to work effectively as a nail-biting thriller.
The Djinn is now available to rent from major online platforms.
Simon Barrett is probably best known as the screenwriter behind the well-received Adam Wingard features You’re Next (2011) and The Guest (2014). Unhappily, Barrett’s debut feature as a director is something of a disappointment, as he trades his distinctive brand of bloody domestic chaos for less inspired boarding-school tropes. Camille (29-year-old Suki Waterhouse, absurdly cast as a high-school senior) is the new kid at the posh Fairfield Academy, where she immediately runs afoul of the mean-girl clique and becomes entangled in a mystery involving suicide, revenge, and (maybe) ghosts. Seance is competent enough as dumb horror movies go, and it eventually delivers the goods with respect to over-the-top bloodletting. However, the welcome presence of a familiar face or two – hey, it’s Madisen Beaty from The Master! – can’t conceal the sense of lax disengagement, the unfocused storytelling passed off as misdirection, or the tedious reliance on high-school horror cliches that were already stale in the early aughts.
Seance is now available to rent from major online platforms.