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.

Possessor
2020 / UK, Canada / 103 min. / Dir. by Brandon Cronenberg / Premiered online on Nov. 6, 2020

With his sophomore feature, writer-director Brandon Cronenberg (Antiviral) cements his status as both a worthy inheritor of his father’s twisted vision and a singular talent with his own obsessions and heady style. Unfolding in the kind of chilly, near-feature Canada that has become synonymous with the filmmaker’s surname, Possessor follows the travails of a high-tech corporate assassin, Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), who inhabits the bodies of unwitting individuals to commit her murders. Her latest task – wipe out a tech company’s dynastic leadership through the boyfriend (Christopher Abbott) of the heir-apparent – becomes a convoluted psychic nightmare that’s just as indebted to Ken Russell and Ridley Scott as to the elder Cronenberg. Be warned: Possessor is studded with some truly gruesome acts of physical violence. However, what lingers long after the film’s gutting conclusion is not just Possessor’s bloody cruelty and sterile beauty, but the screenplay’s sophisticated, deeply pessimistic fascination with the way that work (of all kinds) demands the eradication of attachments and humanity.

Rating: B

Now available to rent from major online platforms.

The Nest
2020 / UK, Canada / 107 min. / Dir. by Sean Durkin / Premiered online on Nov. 17, 2020

Genre purists will justly argue that The Nest, the long-awaited sophomore feature from writer-director Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene), is not remotely a horror film. Except for a couple of inexplicable occurrences, nothing plausibly supernatural happens in this tale of British financier Rory O’Hara (Jude Law), who abruptly moves his American wife (Carrie Coon) and their children back to England and into a cavernous Surrey manor. At the plot level, it’s a domestic drama with a touch of thriller, but The Nest sure as hell feels like a horror movie. As Rory’s deceptions and inadequacies begin to tear apart his increasingly unhappy family, Durkin’s film brims with an overwhelming sensation of dread and dissonance, as though the house might swallow the O’Haras one by one. Viewers who are expecting a literal ghost to show up will be frustrated. Cineastes who are down for a smothering gestalt of Edward Albee, Shirley Jackson, and David Lynch will find The Nest to be a bilious delicacy.

Rating: B

Now available to rent from major online platforms.

Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on the Exorcist
2019 / USA / 104 min. / Dir. by Alexandre O. Philippe / Premiered online on Nov. 19, 2020

Anyone who has listened to a William Friedkin commentary track is probably familiar with the acclaimed filmmaker’s reputation as a bit of a self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing figure, with a penchant for restatement rather than insight. Leave it to one of the current masters of movies-about-movies, Alexandre O. Phillippe (78/52, Memory: The Origins of Alien) to transform a 100-minute interview with Friedkin into a compelling and revealing documentary. The subject is Friedkin’s 1973 smash The Exorcist, and as he did with Psycho and Alien, Phillippe improbably finds fresh morsels in the carcass of one of the most picked-apart pop-cultural touchstones of the late 20th century. Although it includes some familiar anecdotes and telling elisions, Leap of Faith is less concerned with the nitty-gritty of The Exorcist’s production and reception than with digging into Friedkin’s diverse influences and distinctive methods. In this, it offers a rare, absorbing peek into the impressive artistic mind of a legendary American filmmaker and one of his most monumental works.

Rating: B-

Now available to stream from Shudder.