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.
Venezuelan writer-director Sebastian Gutierrez administers a bracing dose of razor-edged style with his latest feature, the sci-fi horror mind-bender Elizabeth Harvest. The impossibly statuesque Abby Lee (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Neon Demon) portrays Elizabeth, freshly married to the much older Henry (Ciarán Hinds), a wealthy, Nobel-winning geneticist. Sequestered in her new husband’s high-tech mansion, Elizabeth is restless and uneasy, a state exacerbated by the awkward, suspicious behavior of housekeepers Claire (Carla Gugino) and Oliver (Matthew Beard). A glossy, chilly update to the Bluebeard legend by way of Frankenstein and Ex Machina, Guiterrez’s film bites off a bit more than it can chew. The director serves up plot swerves somewhat haphazardly, and he favors the story’s prosaic thriller components over moral and existential rumination. Still, it’s an undeniably eerie and gorgeous film, owing to Cale Finot’s marvelously garish cinematography and Matt Mayer’s oneiric editing. The feature’s limpid shocks and needless structural convolutions might be unmemorable, but the striking visuals and juxtapositions linger. Rating: B-
The success of Netflix’s supernatural-horror series and 1980s nostalgia contraption Stranger Things virtually guaranteed the eventual arrival of imitators, but it’s sort of astonishing just how shameless Summer of 84 is about mimicking the show’s formula, at least superficially. Following James Stewart's lead in Rear Window, gawky Davey (Graham Berchere) begins to suspect that his policeman neighbor Mr. Mackey (Rich Sommer) is a child-murderer, largely based on circumstantial evidence. Besides a quartet of geeky young teens on BMX bikes, the film boasts a synth-heavy score and plenty of period detail that clumsily calls attention to itself. Directing trio François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell exploited a similar retro vibe in the giddy, gonzo Turbo Kid (2015), but here it feels somewhat superfluous, tacked onto a standard serial-killer-next-door thriller. The filmmakers never manage to rise above the screenplay’s stale premise and clunky archetypes, but they do keep the viewer guessing throughout, and conclude the story on an unexpectedly bleak, ambiguous note. Rating: C
Down a Dark Hall has a promising horror lineage, being adapted from the work of young-adult author Lois Duncan – who also penned the source novel for I Know What You Did Last Summer – and helmed by Rodrigo Cortés, director of the masterful man-in-a-box thriller Buried (2010). However, the filmmaker’s latest feature is dispiritingly bland gothic nonsense, more concerned with gloomy atmosphere and trite adolescent angst than with creating a compelling story. Following an arson charge, teenage delinquent Kit (AnnaSophia Robb) is packed off to the sinister Blackwood Boarding School by her defeated parents. There, she and four other outcast girls are subjected to the creepy attentions of the faculty, who are determined to unearth their hidden talents, albeit for questionable purposess. The performances range from dull to campy – Uma Thurman hamming it up as the French headmistress is a So Bad It’s Good highlight – but the plot is reliably schematic and uninvolving, blending haunted-house and wizarding-school tropes to underwhelming effect. Rating: C-
For all its over-the-top, Z-grade splatterfest shocks, the most gobsmacking thing about Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is that the screenplay is credited to S. Craig Zahler, normally a first-class purveyor of gore and desolation (Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99). It’s challenging to square Zahler’s directorial output with the embarrassingly dreadful writing in this shoestring reboot of the Puppet Master franchise. Reframing a story of murderous dolls as some kind of Nazi-sploitation nightmare for our neo-fascist times, directors Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund manage a tastelessness twofer. On the one hand, they encourage the viewer to cackle with glee as the diminutive clockwork stormtroopers enact their own miniature Final Solution on a succession of racial, religious, and sexual minorities. On the other hand, they also dictate that the film's heroes affect a pulpy, Inglourious-style righteousness, a pose as ridiculous as it is condescending. The whole thing is moronic and unpleasant as hell, redeemed only marginally by the anything-goes transgressive hokeyness of the homicidal set-pieces. Rating: D-
On the occasion of their one-year wedding anniversary, Jules (Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) decamp for a quiet weekend at the latter woman’s family lake house. However, the appearance of a neighbor (Martha MacIsaac) unearths some awkward secrets, setting up a shocking descent into blood-spattered terror. A nail-biting and often stylish entry in a narrow subgenre – the fraught relationship drama that erupts into survival horror – What Keeps You Alive is the least fantastical film to date from director Colin Minihan (It Stains the Sand Red, Extraterrestrial), and also his best. It goes too far to assert that the feature’s queerness is incidental, given that the story is, in part, a nightmare scenario built on the distinct anxieties and tribulations of lesbian romantic relationships. However, it’s refreshing to encounter a film where the characters’ sexuality is secondary to gritty thriller fundamentals. Although it indulges in too much wheel-spinning in its latter half, it’s still a dark, gut-wrenching pleasure, anchored by Anderson’s utterly chilling performance. Rating: B
An improbable amalgamation of myriad subgenres – queer-flavored coming-of-age tale, Brothers Grimm nightmare, gruesome thriller, post-Holocaust ghost story – Boarding School is a frustratingly messy film, but that shagginess has an unexpectedly mesmerizing quality. Writer-director Boaz Yakin takes his time in establishing a mournful, faintly menacing mood, observing as troubled tween Jacob (Eighth Grade’s Luke Pael, appealingly inscrutable) grapples with bullying, nightmares, and transgender twinges linked to his late grandmother. Eventually, his parents ship Jacob off to a eccentric boarding school for misfit kids, overseen by the amiably sadistic, Bible-thumping Dr. Sherman (Will Patton). Enjoyably weird but ruinously unfocused, Boarding School is miles from Yakin’s usual feel-good fare (Remember the Titans, Max), and it often feels as if the filmmaker is trying to cram too many concepts into a narrative container that is too conventional and constrictive to accommodate them all. The film’s retrograde depictions of disability leave a noticeably bad taste, but overall Boarding School is more of an overly ambitious curiosity than an outright failure. Rating: C+