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.

The Marshes
2018 / Australia / 85 min. / Dir. by Roger Scott / Premiered online on Jan. 9, 2020

Writer-director Roger Scott’s vicious, plodding thriller The Marshes initially seems as though it might be positioning itself as a gruesome Aussie survival horror feature in the tradition of Wolf Creek (2005) and Killing Ground (2016). When wetlands ecologist Pria (Dafna Kroenental) and her colleagues head into the marshes of New South Wales to conduct research, they’re immediately menaced by a grinning, sadistic redneck (“bogan” in Aussie parlance). It’s all so much misdirection, however. The real threat out in the rushes is the Swagman, a cannibalistic spirit that takes the form of a hulking 19th-century laborer armed with rusty shears. It’s a novel premise with some provincial flavor, but in practice it amounts to 85 aimless, laborious minutes of hiding, running, and screaming, the action little different from that found in any crummy, low-budget slasher. The violence is gruesome and unforgiving, but the whole thing is an exercise in hollow tedium: long on harsh, overbearing style but devoid of genuine thrills or substance. Rating: C- [Now available to stream from Shudder.]

The Sonata
2018 / France, UK, Russia, Latvia / 90 min. / Dir. by Andrew Desmond / Premiered online on Jan. 10, 2020

It’s hard to say what writer-director Andrew Desmond intended with The Sonata, a moody but distractingly uneven occult mystery that borrows liberally from The Omen (1976), Hellraiser (1987), The Ninth Gate (1999), and a couple of episodes of Friday the 13th: The Series (1987-90). When classical violinist Rose (Freya Tingley) discovers that her estranged father (Rutger Hauer) has committed suicide, she arrives at the reclusive composer’s French manse in a haze of mixed emotions. However, her ambitious manager, Charles (Simon Abkarian), is enticed by Rose’s discovery of an unpublished violin sonata composed by her father. While Rose pokes around the estate, Charles attempts to decode the score’s cryptic notations, even as both of them are gradually consumed by a nameless malevolence. The Sonata has gothic atmosphere in spades and a Polanski-like Continental elegance – as far as its modest budget will allow – but these are often undercut by clunky, B-movie dialogue. Moreover, the film spends so much time following Charles’ psychotic unraveling that its treatment of Rose ultimately feels undernourished. Rating: C [Now available to rent or purchase from major online platforms.]

The Host
2020 / Netherlands / 102 min. / Dir. by Andy Newbery / Premiered online on Jan. 17, 2020

The question raised by the insipid Dutch horror-thriller The Host is not whether the film is a shameless ripoff of Psycho (1960). Notwithstanding some gender swaps and a relocation to London and Amsterdam, it’s unquestionably a Psycho ripoff, right down to individual plot beats. (There’s also some Sweeney Todd and Hostel in there.) The question is whether the filmmakers honestly thought they were fooling viewers or whether brazenly tracing over one of the most famous thrillers of all time amounted to “edginess” in their minds. The Host is a gory, dreary dud of a potboiler about a sweet, eccentric guesthouse manager (Maryam Hassouni) who butchers her visitors into hamburger. There’s also a vaguely racist subplot about Chinese heroin smugglers and an unconvincing DEA agent in the mix – plus a baffling framing narrative featuring Derek Jacobi, for some reason. The Host isn’t cheesy enough to be enjoyed as Eurotrash kitsch, and it’s too dull and too invested in crime-thriller plotting to satisfy as a pseudo-slasher. Rating: D- [Now available to rent or purchase from major online platforms.]