by Andrew Wyatt on Mar 1, 2021

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.

A Nightmare Wakes
A still from 'A Nightmare Wakes'.
2020 / USA / 90 min. / Dir. by Nora Unkel / Premiered online on Feb. 4, 2021

Writer-director Nora Unkel probably had good intentions when she scripted A Nightmare Wakes, a bargain-bin psychological horror film about the creation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Like Haifaa Al-Mansour’s uninspired biopic Mary Shelley (2017), Nightmare attempts to turn this literary origin story into a sympathetic portrait of the writer, but Unkel just ends up offending Shelley’s legacy. Ruthlessly fictionalizing events and scrambling historical chronology, A Nightmare Wakes frames the birth of Frankenstein as an act of glorified therapy for a mentally disturbed young woman. Mary (Alix Wilton Regan) is haunted by her dead children and her husband’s infidelity, not to mention a longing to prove herself to her sneering male contemporaries. Unkel’s screenplay employs this armchair psychoanalysis as an excuse to stage tedious nightmare sequences squirming with faux-provocative perversity. It might have been merely dull and slipshod, but Nightmare’s ahistorical and insulting portrayal of Shelley is what truly rankles. A literary giant is reduced to a silent-film heroine, shrinking and shrieking at her own Freudian demons.

Rating: D

Now available to stream from Shudder.

The Reckoning
A still from 'The Reckoning'.
2020 / UK / 110 min. / Dir. by Neil Marshall / Premiered online on Feb. 5, 2021

In the wake of his indie werewolf flick Dog Soldiers (2002) and the subterranean creature feature The Descent (2005) – one of the great horror films of the 2000s – Neil Marshall seemed poised for genre stardom. Now, after a decade-and-a-half of duds, Marshall has hit a new low: The Reckoning is essentially a star vehicle for his partner, Charlotte Kirk, and neither director nor leading lady have the talent to salvage this cheapjack Restoration-era horror flick. It’s unfortunately easy to envision what might have been: a variation on Witchfinder General (1968), centered on a 17th-century English widow (Kirk) who is unjustly targeted for inquisitorial treatment by a piggish nobleman and fanatical priest. Marshall sprinkles in some occult-horror elements via his heroine’s demonic visions, but The Reckoning is primarily a secular tale of female oppression and (eventual) liberation. At least that’s the intent, but between the hammy-to-awful acting, unconvincing period production design, and general sense of overwrought absurdity, The Reckoning is a textbook Bad Movie.

Rating: D+

Now available to rent from major online platforms.

A still from 'Sator'.
2019 / USA / 85 min. / Dir. by Jordan Graham / Premiered online on Feb. 9, 2021

Writer-director Jordan Graham’s cryptic but intensely atmospheric micro-budget feature Sator doesn’t have a lot of story, and what story it has is mostly delivered through a blend of slantwise exposition and sinister implication. Still, the meat of the film is easy enough to discern: Adam (Gabriel Nicholson) is holed up in a remote cabin in the forest, hiding out from a malevolent entity named Sator that has bedeviled his family for generations. Graham reportedly modified an existing screenplay, shaping it around his real-life grandmother’s eerie anecdotes about her guardian spirit. (She also appears in the film as Adam’s grandma.) The result is a superbly claustrophobic occult horror feature that oozes with the kind of haunting eccentricity that only emerges from such real-world raw materials. Sator can be somewhat lumpy and rambling – and an abrupt third-act perspective shift doesn’t entirely work – but it’s always profoundly, oppressively creepy in a way that puts far more lavish horror features to shame.

Rating: B-

Now available to rent from major online platforms.

After Midnight
A still from 'After Midnight'.
2019 / USA / 83 min. / Dir. by Jeremey Gardner and Christian Stella / Premiered online on Feb. 11, 2021

The individual viewer’s patience for the cheeky creature feature After Midnight will depend on their tolerance for delayed satisfaction and quirky genre-mashing. Co-directors Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella are reticent about showing too much of their star attraction, a mysterious, snarling beast that attacks Hank’s (Gardner) Florida farmhouse each night. Purely in terms of running time, however, After Midnight is more of an indie romantic drama than a horror flick, skipping through the years to chronicle the soured, decade-long relationship of Hank and Abby (Brea Grant). However, these flashbacks are intercut with scenes of Hank’s terrifying present-day ordeal: Abby is missing and the house is besieged by an unseen monster. One suspects a heavy-handed metaphor is at work, but Gardner’s screenplay is up to something much more original, heartfelt, and even absurdly funny. Not every choice works, but After Midnight wins a lot of points for its weird sincerity. How many monster movies include an earnest karaoke performance of Lisa Loeb’s iconic Gen X single “Stay”?

Rating: B-

Now available to stream from Shudder and to rent from major online platforms.

A still from 'Tentacles'.
2021 / USA / 90 min. / Dir. by Clara Aranovich / Premiered online on Feb. 12, 2021

After a seven-month absence, Hulu’s Into the Dark horror anthology series stages a somewhat unpromising return with director Clara Aranovich’s Tentacles. When Tara (Dana Drori) and Sam Anselm (Casey Deidrick) meet-cute at an open house where he’s shooting photos, they quickly slide into an intense relationship. However, Tara hasn’t been entirely honest about her past, and a stalker ex-boyfriend proves to be the least distressing thing about her. Tentacles’ dithering over matters of character and subgenre fatally undoes what might have been a creepy little B-picture with a Tales from the Darkside vibe. Neither the performances nor the screenplay are sturdy enough to support the dual-viewpoint romantic tragedy that the film seems to be aiming for, but the body-horror elements that might have mitigated these weaknesses are unfortunately mishandled. Tara’s dark secret will be obvious to most viewers, but Aaranovich insists on drawing out the story’s mysteries, resulting in a film that feels like it's going in circles for its final 30 minutes.

Rating: C-

Now available to stream from Hulu.

A still from 'Shook'.
2021 / USA / 88 min. / Dir. by Jennifer Harrington / Premiered online on Feb. 18, 2021

The best joke in Jennifer Harrington’s lightly satirical “influencer slasher” Shook occurs in its opening minutes, as a red-carpet photo shoot for a cosmetics brand is revealed – via a winking wide shot – to be a kind of Potemkin gala staged in a dismal, featureless alley. It’s all downhill from there, unfortunately, as the film attempts to execute a cut-rate iteration on the Scream formula, with the addition of clumsy critiques of social-media culture. Beauty influencer Mia (Daisye Tutor) takes a break from the daily online grind to dog-sit for her chronically ill sister (Emily Goss). Cue a late-night call from the creep across the street, kicking off a twisted, bloody game involving Mia’s local influencer friends. Harrington’s direction is strong, especially in the film’s first half, and she finds some vivid ways to visualize the incessant hubbub of Mia’s digital life. However, solid direction can’t salvage the tin-eared screenplay or shoddy performances, and Harrington eventually loses control as Shook’s plot degenerates into a convoluted mess.

Rating: C-

Now available to stream from Shudder.

The Vigil
A still from 'The Vigil'.
2019 / 89 min. / Dir. by Keith Thomas / Premiered online on Feb. 26, 2021

The secret to writer-director Keith Thomas’ wonderfully creepy debut feature The Vigil lies in its chilly, self-contained intimacy. Other than a title card explaining the Jewish tradition of shemira – the ritual watch maintained over a cadaver between death and burial – the film refrains from stiffly explaining the particulars of its Brooklyn-based Orthodox Jewish milieu, permitting the story to unspool with an authentic remorselessness. The financially and mentally struggling Yakov (Dave Davis, wonderfully tormented) is ex-Orthodox, but he is lured back to the periphery of his old community by a one-night gig as a shomer (paid watchman) for a deceased eccentric. So begins a long, dark night in which Yakov contends not only with his personal demons but also the more literal variety. With an assist from Zach Kuperstein’s chiaroscuro photography and terrifically unnerving sound design, Thomas successfully maintains an invigorating balance between 21st-century occult-horror tropes and a formidable atmosphere that flows directly from his protagonist’s faith and guilt.

Rating: B

Now available to rent from major online platforms.