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.
Recently released from a psychiatric institution, the desperate Isaac (Jonathan French) agrees to an odd job that gets creepier with each revelation. He’s initially told that he will be looking after a friend’s mentally frazzled nice, Olga (Leila Sykes). Oh, and she dwells on a tiny island in the middle of a lake. Oh, and Isaac must wear a harness attached to an absurdly long chain. Director Damian Mc Carthy’s unnerving feature debut is a patchwork beast, and that quality is one reason it feels a bit unsatisfying. The filmmaker throws together a plethora of subgenres – including, but not limited to, psychological thriller, captivity horror, and murder mystery cum ghost story – without ever making an effort to truly synthesize them. Still, Caveat boasts a hell of a location, as Olga’s dilapidated family home veritably reeks of gothic dank and festering secrets. What’s more, Mc Carthy has a natural showman’s facility with shivery jump scares, which helps paper over the story’s lumpier bits.
Caveat is now available to stream from Shudder.
Welsh director Prano Bailey-Bond’s stylish and enigmatic feature debut has a hook that will be irresistible to horror fans: What if one of the notoriously stodgy government censors that scrutinized the British home video market in the 1980s was suddenly dropped into a giallo? The painfully prim Enid (Niamh Algar) takes her work seriously, although this has less to do with her sense of good Christian propriety than her profound guilt about a childhood tragedy. Bailey-Bond takes her time establishing both her protagonist’s character and the film’s heightened, menacing style. Once Enid becomes convinced than an actress glimpsed in a Z-grade slasher is her missing little sister, however, her reality begins to disintegrate right on cue. While Censor never reaches the kind of mind-melting weirdness it gestures towards, it’s a moody and defiantly opaque work of psychological horror, one that appreciates the transgressive scuzzines of the “Video Nasties” while also conceding that a steady diet of in-your-face VHS depravity is not healthy for the human mind.
Censor is now available to rent from major online platforms.
The kindest thing one can say about director Terence Krey’s microbudget feature debut is that it uses its limited resource effectively. This isn’t entirely a backhanded compliment: An Unquiet Grave is the kind of story that works precisely because its scope is intimate, even claustrophobic. Distraught widower Jamie (Jacob A. Ware) persuades his late wife Julie’s twin sister Ava (Christine Nyland) that they can resurrect her via black magic. Together, husband and sister enact a nocturnal ritual at the spot where Julie died, a gambit which results in a Stephen King-indebted drama of unintended consequences and gothic vengeance. The screenplay by Nyland and Krey is a solid enough occult potboiler. However, Key’s direction, while atmospheric, is frustratingly aimless, and his indulgence only ends up highlighting the script’s weaker bits. Nyland is also a noticeably better actor than Ware, and that kind of discrepancy is lethal in a two-hander: Ware just ends up dragging her down with his stilted line-readings and awkward rhythms.
An Unquiet Grave is now available to stream from Shudder.
The most immediately disconcerting thing about False Positive is the sight of Broad City co-creator and star Ilana Glazer as a Manhattan career woman, complete with straightened hair and a posh apartment. Lucy and her cosmetic surgeon husband Adrian (Justin Theroux) are having difficulty conceiving, so they call on Adrian’s old mentor Dr. Hindle (Pierce Brosnan), now an internationally renowned fertility expert. The good doctor gladly helps them in the baby department, although his treatments also spur paranoia, memory loss, and other, weirder symptoms in Lucy. Director John Lee – working from a script by Glazer – includes obligatory nods to Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Indeed, False Positive is strongest when it’s underlining subtler, more patronizing sexist phenomena, both on and off the exam table. However, inviting comparisons to Polanski’s masterwork just ends up hurting a film that seems incapable of (or interested in) resolving the dissonance between its intimations of occult conspiracy, its more surreal horror elements, and its sordid but comparatively banal plot.
False Positive is now available to stream from Hulu.
Werewolves Within finds director Josh Ruben (Scare Me) settling comfortably into his groove as scrappy comedy-horror filmmaker, one reminiscent of a loopier and less polished Edgar Wright. Confidently mashing up Northern Exposure, Hot Fuzz, and Knives Out, Ruben’s sophomore feature drops beta-male forest ranger Finn (Sam Richardson) into a quirky New England town fragmented by a gas pipeline battle and culture-war divisions. Richardson tops a deep and very game cast of comedic character actors playing cartoonish Yankee stereotypes – the oily company man, the sweet innkeeper, the agent-of-chaos rednecks – but it’s nonetheless a pleasure to watch them bounce off each other. Along with a ridiculously charming Cool Girl mail carrier (Milana Vayntrub), these oddballs end up serving as Finn’s fractious allies when mauled bodies start turning up and suspicions of lycanthropy emerge. While Werewolves Within is both slight and broad, it’s also infectiously fun, and it even has a point about the way that neighborly decency is denigrated as weakness in our current vulgar era.
Werewolves Within will be available to rent form major online platforms on July 2, 2021.