by Andrew Wyatt on Sep 3, 2020

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.

Black Water: Abyss
2020 / Australia, USA / 98 min. / Dir. by Andrew Traucki / Premiered online on Aug. 7, 2020

All the ingredients for a solid killer-animal flick are accounted for in Andrew Trauchi’s Black Water: Abyss: five overconfident adventurers, a flooded cave system, and a mess of rapacious saltwater crocodiles. A sort-of sequel to the 2007 horror-thriller Trauchi co-directed with David Nerlich, Abyss takes the tried-and-true Aliens route, cranking up the threat by piling on more creatures. The original Black Water was a simple but gruesome little genre morsel, so why does Abyss feel like such a slog? Part of the blame rests with the screenplay, which has a strange conviction that its soapy relationship melodrama is just as compelling as the threat posed by primordial apex predators. However, Traucki also seems a bit lost in the scenario, permitting his underwhelming performers to blunder their way through a lot of gory back-and-forth with little sense of escalation. Particularly when the superlative example of Crawl (2019) is fresh in the memory, one is hard-pressed to be generous to such an underwhelming also-ran.

Rating: C-

Black Water: Abyss is now available to rent from major online platforms.

2020 / USA / 93 min. / Dir. by Eugene Kotlyarenko / Premiered online on Aug. 14, 2020

A self-consciously sleazy tale of viral fame and gig-economy groveling, Spree would be a much less tolerable film without the presence of Stranger Things breakout Joe Keery. Portraying a pitiable, somewhat dimwitted rideshare driver with a sociopathic plan to rocket himself to overnight Internet renown and true-crime notoriety, Keery turns a character that could have been comically broad into a wretched, cringe-worthy anti-hero. (Imagine Travis Bickle as a positivity-spouting wannabe influencer.) The actor’s agreeably slippery performance and the film’s fitting tone of careening momentum are unfortunately the most interesting things about Spree, which exhibits the sort of strained edginess that is endemic to indie horror-thrillers that overstate their transgressiveness. Still, the film is a rare beast in one respect: Keery’s driver is such a delusional wild card, it’s genuinely hard to tell where the plot is headed from moment to moment. Although the screenplay is rife with ungainly dialogue and paper-thin characterization, the film’s events do have an authentic air of livestreamed, late-capitalist chaos.

Rating: C

Spree is now available to rent from major online platforms.

Random Acts of Violence
2020 / USA / 80 min. / Dir. by Jay Baruchel / Premiered online on Aug. 20, 2020

Jay Baruchel’s sophomore feature as a director draws from a plethora of horror, thriller, and satirical influences, particularly The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Natural Born Killers, and House of 1,000 Corpses. However, although Random Acts of Violence mimics the nihilism of its forebears, it’s also shockingly artless and flaccid. (If only Baruchel had Tom Six’s gleefully vile convictions, Random Acts would at least feel provocative rather than merely unlikable.) Jesse Williams portrays Todd, an artist whose hyperviolent indie comics fictionalize the exploits of a real-world serial killer. During a publicity tour, Todd and his companions are followed (and eventually hunted) by a murderer who seems inspired by the ghoulish tableaus in the artist’s panels. Baruchel and Jesse Chabot adapted the film from the 2010 graphic novel Slasherman, but whatever incisive commentary on media violence the comic might contain has been lost in translation. Simply put: Random Acts is a loathsome film that seems to hate its characters, creators, and audience in equal measure.

Rating: D-

Random Acts of Violence is now available to stream from Shudder.