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.
In horror cinema, the found-footage conceit has been employed to conceal mediocrity so routinely that such uninspired application is now the norm. The Devil’s Doorway is a dispiritingly on-point example. Aislinn Clarke’s film dabbles in the tedious conventions of the demon-possession and haunted-house subgenres for its 1960s-set tale, and the feature’s faux-vintage formal affectations can’t compensate for a fatiguing sense of familiarity. As two Catholic priests (Lalor Roddy and Ciaran Flynn) investigate an alleged miracle at a Irish “Magdalene Laundry,” one could quickly fill in a bingo card of post-Exorcist tropes as Clarke’s feature goes through the fright-free motions of dribbling out allegedly sinister revelations. The Devil’s Doorway squanders the potential of its unique, politically charged setting, preferring the tiresome theatrics of levitation, door-slamming, and creepy ghost-child giggling. Clarke’s occasional bursts of inspired low-fi camerawork – such as some legitimately unnerving tricks with framing and shallow focus – don’t make up for the film’s overall monotony and mustiness. Rating: D+ (Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, and other platforms.)
Like most of the better zombocalypse pictures in recent years, Domnique Rocher’s film injects some vitality into a stale subgenre not by discarding the form’s constraints but by making compelling structural and storytelling choices. When the brokenhearted, resentful Sam (Sanders Danielsen Lie, of Reprise and Oslo August 31) falls asleep at his ex’s Parisian flat during a party, he awakens to a world overrun with cannibalistic ghouls. For much of its running time, The Night Eats the World is a solo, mostly wordless endeavor. Taking a page from Castaway and I Am Legend, Rocher observes Sam over the ensuing months as he barricades the building, scavenges food and water, and develops a routine that allows him to both physically endure and stave off encroaching madness. Late in the film Sam encounters another living human (Golshifteh Farahani), but Night is foremost a measured, somber depiction of isolation, one less focused on procedural details than on challenging the distinctions between survival and living. Rating: B (Now available to rent or purchase Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.)
Preston DeFrancis’ self-aware slasher flick Ruin Me is deficient in all the usual ways that mark a low-budget indie horror feature: tin-eared dialog, tedious characters, cringe-inducing “humor,” and stilted performances. Yet, for all its flaws, the film still has one undeniably gratifying hook: It its devilishly difficult to discern exactly what kind of horror film one is watching. Thirtysomething heroine Alex (Marchienne Dwyer) and boyfriend Nathan (Matt Dellapina) are spending their weekend at a “Slasher Sleepaway” experience — part haunted house, part escape room, part live-action game – that starts to go seriously off the rails in aptly bloody fashion. As clumsy as the rest of the film is, DeFrancis and co-writer Trysta A. Bisset keep the viewer guessing to the end. Is it a meta-textual horror-fantasy (Final Girls)? A didactic death trap (Saw)? An immersive role-playing experience (The Game)? A therapy session gone wrong (Shudder Island)? A gigantic con (April Fool’s Day)? The conclusion is both far more banal and far more unsettling than one expects. Rating: C- (Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.)