by Andrew Wyatt on Oct 29, 2018

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.

Satan’s Slaves (Pengabdi Setan)
2017 / Indonesia, South Korea / 107 min. / Dir. by Joko Anwar / Premiered online on Oct. 4, 2018

Writer-director Joko Anwar’s self-assured remake of an obscure 1980 Indonesian cult classic is couched in an evocative rural Javanese milieu that lends the feature a lived-in richness. It’s fortunate that Anwar sweats the details of his Islamic-flavored ghost story, given that the narrative beats and jump-scares in Satan’s Slaves feel regrettably derivative. Nicking liberally from Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Omen (1976), The Conjuring (2013), and several decades’ worth of J-horror, the new film concerns the hard-luck family of an ailing and forgotten pop chanteuse. Following their mother’s death early in the feature, the four siblings discover that they are being haunted – not just by mom’s restless spirit, but also by the aftershocks of the twisted occult dealings she had in life. All told, it’s a well-worn yet gratifyingly creepy tale, where the creased, humid setting consistently distracts from the nagging familiarity of the ghostly head games and “shocking” plot twists. Rating: B-

Await Further Instructions
2018 / UK / 91 min. / Dir. by Johnny Kevorkian / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Oct. 5, 2018

For a sizable chunk of Johnny Kevorkian’s clunky sci-fi horror fable, the sheer inexplicable weirdness of the characters’ outlandish dilemma is (barely) enough to keep the film sputtering along. When Nick (Sam Gittins) takes girlfriend Annji (Neerja Naik) to meet his family on Christmas Eve, the hyperbolic awfulness of his suburban British clan – including Nick’s tightly wound father, snippy sister, and bigoted granddad – is more enervating than amusing. However, once the family discovers that they’ve been physically sealed inside their home by some mysterious entity, the escalating lunacy of their baffling situation has an undeniable dark energy, one veined with gruesome techno-organic terror. (Think The Outer Limits meets David Cronenberg.) However, in its final stretch, Await Further Instructions reveals itself as a hollow, hamfisted polemic, one with all the profundity of a bumper sticker. The filmmakers slather on shallow moralizing about the evils of screen slavery and blind obedience to authority, all to distract from how little thought they’ve given to the film’s scenario. Rating: D+

Into the Dark: The Body
2018 / USA / 90 min. / Dir. by Paul Davis / Premiered online on Oct. 5, 2018

Hulu’s new anthology Into the Dark straddles the hazy line between cinema and television: Each month, the streaming service is serving up an original, standalone, feature-length horror film. Unfortunately, the series’ opening outing, The Body, is not an encouraging sign for future monthly offerings. Cleaning up after a high-profile job on Halloween night, stone-faced hitman Wilkes (Tom Bateman) discovers that when ghouls and goblins are about, no one bats an eye at a man lugging a cellophane-wrapped corpse through the streets. This should make a hired killer’s life easier, but Wilkes has the bad luck to be swept up in a cascade of fiascos with a gaggle of clueless, costumed partygoers. The dominant tone here is ostensibly a blackly comical one, although Paul Davis and co-writer Paul Fischer – expanding their 2013 short film of the same name – fail to wring laughs from all the bloody mayhem and tiresome Millennial potshots. The result is just dumb and dull, if fittingly gory in spurts. Rating: D+

2018 / UK / 89 min. / Dir. by Olaf de Fleur Johannesson / Premiered online on Oct 5, 2018

In 1980s Scotland, siblings Jackson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) and Angela (Florence Pugh) have a tidy scam going, staging phony “cleansings” of alleged haunted houses as a way to con grieving relatives and desperate homeowners. However, Angela – who plays the part of the medium – abruptly begins to have very real visions of the restless dead, not long before the pair take on a job at a rambling former foster home where several girls were once viciously slain. Malevolent has a few tick marks in its favor: some enjoyably musty production design, several genuinely unnerving shocks, and the presence of Pugh, who was so spellbinding in last year’s pitch-black Lady Macbeth. However, director Olaf Fleur Johannesson often seems to be flailing, as though he is uncertain where the plot is heading next or what sort of story he even wants to tell. By the time the film takes a hard left into grisly serial-killer territory, most of the suspense, pathos, and personality have long slipped away. Rating C-

2017 / Argentina / 87 min. / Dir. by Demián Rugna / Premiered online on Oct. 11, 2018

In a quiet Argentinian neighborhood, seemingly divergent paranormal phenomena are unfolding in three nearby houses. A horrified husband witnesses his wife being brutally murdered by an unseen force; a frazzled man is convinced a bogeyman is lurking somewhere in his home; and the recently buried corpse of a young boy turns up in his mother’s kitchen. Eventually, a police detective and cadre of paranormal sleuths arrive to uncover exactly what is happening. These characters are the closest thing to co-protagonists in the scattered and uneven Terrified, a sci-fi horror puzzle box that is less interested in telling a coherent story per se than in serving up bizarre incidents with a twist of cosmic terror. Writer-director Demián Rugna isn’t that concerned about little matters like lucidity or pacing, preferring to lean into those components that are grotesque, unfathomable, and morbidly amusing. It’s not good cinema, exactly, but the almost matter-of-fact approach to the film’s mélange of H.P. Lovecraft, Dean Koontz, and Stranger Things is memorable stuff. Rating C+

2018 / UK, USA / 150 min. / Dir. by Gareth Evans / Premiered online on Oct. 12, 2018

Writer-director Gareth Evans’ bone-crunching Indonesian action diptych The Raid (2011) and The Raid 2 (2013) is many things – bloody, propulsive, ludicrous – but it is certainly not unfocused. The same cannot be said of Evans’ first foray into feature-length horror, Apostle. Set in the early years of the 1900s, the film follows Thomas (Dan Stevens) as he infiltrates an xenophobic pagan cult on a remote Welsh island. Posing as a newly converted pilgrim, Thomas seeks his missing sister, who is allegedly being held for ransom by the cult leadership, among them the charismatic prophet Malcomb (Michael Sheen). It’s plain Evans has enthusiasm for the material here, which blends elements of The Crucible, The Wicker Man (1973), and Children of the Corn (1984) into a forbidding and gruesome tale of ritual practice gone gangrenous. Unfortunately, the director’s propensity for indulgence leads to numerous scenes that – while often harrowing in the moment – feel protracted, meandering, and disconnected from the story as a whole. Rating C+

The Witch in the Window
2018 / USA / 77 min. / Dir. by Andy Mitton / Premiered online on Oct. 18, 2018

Undoubtedly, some of the flaws in the chilly The Witch in the Window are attributable to the limitations of a low-budget production. Most conspicuous in this respect is the haunted setting itself, a Vermont farmhouse with chintzy, too-modern décor that clashes terribly with the moldering, gothic mood that the film is aiming for. However, the screenplay from writer-director Andy Mitton – who also edited and scored the feature – has other problems, primarily a peculiar disregard for the unsettling, tragic history that is the proper centerpiece of any decent ghost story. Instead, the titular witch is almost an afterthought in a melodrama about the fraught relationship between a father (Alex Draper) and his adolescent son (Charlie Tracker). The performers do their best to make this component credible and affecting, and Mitton admittedly has some talent for conjuring sensations of spine-tingling dread and surreal dislocation. However, Witch never gels into anything substantial; if feels less like a full-fledged horror film than a muted, bargain-bin approximation of one. Rating: D+

The Dark
2018 / Austria / 95 min. / Dir. by Justin P. Lange / Premiered online on Oct. 26, 2018

Writer-director Justin P. Lange’s grim, pitiless road film The Dark is the sort of horror feature that is plainly striving to say something profound – in this case, about the topics of abuse, trauma, and recovery – but never quite articulates its thesis with clarity. What the viewer is left with, then, is a strange, miserabilist fable-cum-character study, one with a refreshing absence of world-building gobbledygook. Lange’s film collides an undead cannibalistic girl (Nadia Alexander) and a blind kidnapping victim (Toby Nichols) and then watches as their twisted survival mechanisms mutate in one another’s presence. It’s a ponderous, harrowing piece of work where death often arrives swiftly and cruelly, although Lange makes time for moments of bruised poignancy and gallows humor. The film’s moral worldview is an exasperating muddle, but on the whole, The Dark is a novel, intriguing riff on myriad monster tropes – zombie, revenant, werewolf, serial killer – that remains its own defiantly ghastly thing. Rating: B-