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.
An occult chiller set primarily in an eerie Latvian convent, Tommy Bertelsen’s Welcome to Mercy is a lazy, muddled horror feature, but at least it’s wily about concealing that fact. Relying on an admittedly evocative setting and familiar demon-possession tropes, it almost succeeds in obfuscating the clumsiness of its storytelling. Spurred by her father’s ailing health, Americanized single mom Madeline (Kristen Ruhlin) returns to the Old World with her young daughter. However, this homecoming unleashes a hibernating unholy power in Madeline, and she reluctantly agrees to a spiritual convalescence at the nearby convent. Cue the confounding flashbacks, Satanic parlor tricks, and nunsploitation eroticism, none of it amounting to much. Bertelsen seems overly impressed with screenwriter Kristen Ruhlin’s plot – which is somehow both trite and confusing – and giddily drapes it with a foreboding that it never earns, even in hindsight. The performances, cinematography, and production design are all solid, but by the time the underwhelming “twist” ending arrives, it’s apparent how gravely the film’s craft has been wasted. Rating: C- [Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]
An existential techno-horror meltdown for the current, performative era of the digital age, Daniel Goldhaber’s Cam is centered on full-time camgirl Alice, a.k.a. “Lola” (Madeline Brewer), who live-streams her NC-17 frolicking and edgelord faux suicides to chatrooms of enthusiastic, anonymous viewers. As it chronicles the banal details of Alice’s routine with a stylized, candy-colored eye, Cam initially seems to be setting up a sex worker spin on the “obsessed fan” thriller. In truth, scripter Isa Mazzei – who drew from her own experiences as a camgirl – is up to something cleverer and much more unsettling. Abruptly, Alice discovers that she’s been locked out of her account by a doppelgänger who begins climbing in the rankings and siphoning her income. It’s this year’s Unfriended: Dark Web by way of Lost Highway (1997) and Enemy (2013), with a hefty dose of gig economy anxiety. Mazzei and Goldhaber take that heady concoction to some harrowing places, but they ultimately keep the story frustratingly grounded, never fully realizing its nightmarish potential. Rating: B- [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]
Drawing from real-world bogeymen such as Dennis “BTK” Rader, The Clovehitch Killer treats a hackneyed premise – the serial killer burrowed deep into the cozy camouflage of flyover suburbia – with an admirable, unfussy solemnity. Director Duncan Skiles sketches an uncommonly authentic portrait of whitebread evangelical family life around teenager Tyler (Charlie Plummer), whose discovery of an unsettling clue triggers a consuming paranoia that his square, blue-collar father (Dylan McDermott) is the killer who once stalked their small Kentucky town. There’s a measured, modest quality to Skiles’ filmmaking here that complements the veneer of Middle American normalcy – the family game nights and the scouting food drives – which the murderer uses as his hunting blind. Unfortunately, the director and screenwriter Christopher Ford never justify their earnest, ponderous approach to the story or their late-game structural shenanigans with any unexpected swerves or thematic depth. Clovehitch is too predictable to be a compelling thriller, but too hollow to be taken seriously as a critique of middle-class rot. Rating: C+ [Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]