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.

Dogs Don't Wear Pants
2019 / Finland, Latvia / 105 min. / Dir. by J.-P. Valkeapää / Premiered online on Feb. 6, 2020

Psychological thrillers about BDSM tend to catch a lot of flak for factual inaccuracies and problematic representation, so it’s probably best to defer to kinkier minds when it comes to critiquing the nitty-gritty details of the Finnish feature Dogs Don’t Wear Pants. That said, writer-director J.-P. Valkeapää does a solid job of keeping the focus on the macabre emotional core of his story rather than its sensational accoutrements. It’s been several years since neurosurgeon Juha (Pekka Strang) lost his wife in a freak drowning accident, but he continues to wallow in his grief through morbid psychosexual obsession. When he wanders by pure happenstance into the lair of workaday dominatrix Mona (Krista Kosenen), his interest quickly escalates beyond routine humiliation and into risky and disturbing flirtations with death. Valkeapää turns what might have been sub-De Palma trash into a chilly, somber character study about not one but two damaged souls, a tale that culminates in the sort of liberating exhale that’s all too uncommon in kinky thrillers. Rating: B- [Now available to stream from Shudder.]

Come to Daddy
2019 / Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, USA / 96 min. / Dir. by Ant Timpson / Premiered online on Feb 7, 2020

Director Ant Timpson’s volatile, pitch-black horror-thriller Come to Daddy is the sort of weird indie feature whose utter unpredictability is its best quality. The less one knows about the story, the better, but the setup is simple enough. Thirtysomething music-industry wannabe Norval (Elijah Wood) has received a strange letter from the father he barely knows. When he shows up at his father’s remote coastal hideaway as instructed, things are strained and peculiar from the start, with Dad (Stephen McHattie) drunkenly prowling about and veering from roaring resentment to cruel amusement. Things only get more outlandish from there as Come to Daddy careens through some truly deranged plot swerves. Eventually, all sense of sanity goes out the window and the film mutates into a cascading, absurdist fiasco in the mold of the bumbling-hitman sequence from Mulholland Drive (2001). Wood delivers an entertaining performance as a preening dimwit, and while the film doesn’t really add up to much in the end, it’s never dull. Rating: C+ [Now available to rent or purchase from major online platforms.]

VFW
2019 / USA / 92 min. / Dir. by Joe Begos / Premiered online on Feb. 14, 2020

There’s a blunt and grimy simplicity to director Joe Begos’ VFW, an over-the-top survival thriller that pits a group of cantankerous Vietnam veterans against a rampaging horde of drug-dealing gangsters and crazed addicts. Unfolding in a quasi-dystopian parallel universe that’s indebted to The Warriors (1979) and Repo Man (1984), VFW is most enjoyable when it leans into gorehound excess and gritty retro style, the latter of which includes a hallucinatory red-and-blue color scheme. Undeniably, watching a band of grizzled but winning character actors – including William Sadler, Fred Williamson, Martin Kove, and an improbably still-imposing Stephen Lang – hack their way through countless goons has an undeniable lowbrow appeal. Unfortunately, this doesn’t quite paper over the film’s tiresome Boomers vs. Millennials conflict, or Begos’ vaguely reactionary gushing over the former cohort. It’s the sort of grisly siege story that plainly wants to follow in the footsteps of Green Room (2015) but ends up feeling much closer to Death Wish (1974). Rating: C- [Now available to rent or purchase from major online platforms.]

Jessica Forever
2019 / France / 97 min. / Dir. by Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel / Premiered online on Feb 20, 2020

If Michael Haneke or Joachim Trier ever stooped to crank out a dystopian YA sci-fi feature in the vein of The Hunger Games, Divergent, or The Maze Runner, it would probably still be more compelling than Jessica Forever. Those filmmakers might have at least imbued the story with a dose of the dramatic frisson that is absent from this doggedly vague and inert tale. In an oddly banal-looking suburban France of the near feature, the mysterious Jessica (Aomi Muyock) acts as surrogate mother for a band of violent young men who are being hunted by the authoritarian government’s killer drones. That’s about all that directors Caroline Poggi and Jonathan Vinel offer in the way of world-building. Although they wield their precise European art-film style capably enough, it’s ultimately not in the service of anything save for the thinnest and foggiest character drama. The addition of magical-realist touches just end up confusing things further, suggesting a more ambitious feature buried by the filmmaker’s elliptical approach. Rating: D+ [Now available to stream from Shudder.]