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

Satanic Panic
2019 / 85 min. / Dir. by Chelsea Stardust / Premiered online on Sept. 6, 2019

While its title suggests a satirical jab at the real-world moral panic over Satanic ritual abuse that gripped the U.S. in the 1980s, director Chelsea Stardust’s feature plays more like a de-fanged, bargain-bin version of Get Out (2017). Here the outsider-turned-sacrifice is pizza delivery drone Sam (Hayley Griffith), who on her first day on the job has the misfortune of blundering into a cabal of devil-worshipping McMansion-dwellers. Visually bland and oddly draggy in spots, the film suffers from a screenplay that aims for Buffy: The Vampire Slayer quippiness but just feels tiresomely smug about its long-winded irreverence. Satanic Panic’s rather unexpected saving grace is its clever, (relatively) low-key depiction of ritual magic, which contrasts strangely with its knowingly absurd, “heavy metal album cover” spirit. In a horror-comedy that’s otherwise shamefully light on scares and laughs, the gruesome curses that high priestess Danica (Rebecca Romijin) and her cohorts call down on their enemies are genuinely disturbing and even (in one case) outright terrifying. Rating: C (Now available for rent or purchase from major online platforms.)

Depraved
2019 / 114 min. / Dir. by Larry Fessenden / Premiered online on Sept. 13, 2019

Longtime indie horror journeyman Larry Fessenden has never made a film as ambitious or serious-minded as Depraved, its bait-and-switch grindhouse title notwithstanding. (In this case its meaning is closer to its usage in Calvinist theology.) A modern-day retelling of Frankenstein in all but name, Fessenden’s feature relocates the action to a Brooklyn loft-cum-laboratory and sprinkles the story with contemporary concerns like undiagnosed wartime PTSD and the malfeasance of Big Pharma. These additions don’t amount to much in practice, unfortunately, and Fessenden struggles to find something novel in Mary Shelley’s premise that dozens of filmmakers haven’t already unearthed. Despite these limitations and an off-the-rails climax, Depraved is a solid, creepy, and occasionally rewarding work of low-fi horror. Fessenden focuses primarily on the developing awareness of the monster Adam (Alex Breaux) – specifically, his emergent, troublesome urge to connect with the abruptly truncated life of his brain donor (Owen Campbell). This novel angle and the director’s use of hallucinatory, organic visuals inject some vitality into an otherwise routine adaptation. Rating: C+ [Now available for rent or purchase from major online platforms.]

Hell House LLC III: Lake of Fire
2019 / USA / Dir. by Stephen Cognetti / Premiered online on Sept. 19, 2019

Now that indefatigable auteur Stephen Cognetti has made his third feature in the Hell House LLC series – a tedious, chintzy franchise that’s akin to the saddest haunted house attraction in cinematic form – one is inclined to concede that his devotion to sketching an elaborate demonic mythology on a shoestring budget is sort of endearing. Make no mistake: Like its predecessors, Lake of Fire is dreadful in almost every respect, from the clunky writing to the shabby design to the slapdash assembly. (The entirety of the series seems to be presented in the context of a fictional ghost-hunter reality show, but this framing is confusingly inconsistent.) Still, there’s a scrappy appeal discernible in Cognetti’s enthusiastic Ed Wood-like ambition to make the sort of spooky, thrilling horror movies he loves – even though the resulting films are never remotely spooky or thrilling. If Lake of Fire is ultimately half a notch more tolerable than its forebears, this is primarily due to the film’s go-for-broke bloodbath of a climax. Rating: D [Now available to stream from Shudder.]

Bloodline
2018 / USA / 95 min. / Dir. by Henry Jacobson / Premiered online on Sept 20, 2019

There’s plenty to surface gleam to admire in director Henry Jacobson’s Bloodline, a moody yet grisly serial-killer character study that stars erstwhile American Pie scene-stealer Seann William Scott. Previously a documentary producer and cinematographer, Jacobson brings an undeniably striking visual sensibility to this tale of high school-based social worker and devoted family man Evan (Scott), who by night stalks and murders the abusive, deadbeat fathers of his most traumatized students. Cinematographer Isaac Bauman, editor Nigel Galt, and composer Trevor Gureckis are all in top form, lending an otherwise straightforward “sociopath-as-vigilante” story a dreamy, feverish, distinctly L.A. atmosphere worthy of a Michael Mann or Nicolas Winding Refn feature. This, however, is also what makes Bloodline something of a disappointment: The film’s seductive packaging covers a predictable, even banal screenplay that doesn’t have much to say concerning its anti-hero’s psychology. There’s more meat in an average episode of Dexter (2006-13) than in Bloodline, and although Scott’s performance is fittingly unnerving, he isn’t given much to work with. Rating: C+ [Now available to rent or purchase from major online platforms.]

Corporate Animals
2019 / USA / 86 min. / Dir. by Patrick Brice / Premiered online on Sept. 20, 2019

Corporate Animals’ conceit – a gaggle of middle-managers turn on each other in bloody fashion during a corporate bonding exercise gone wrong – isn’t without perverse potential. However, writer Sam Bain and director Patrick Brice seem to be under the mistaken impression that their feature can coast on grisly slapstick and the kind of social “satire” that constitutes little more than gawking at squabbling assholes. The audience’s sympathies naturally lean towards down-to-earth junior exec Jess (Jessica Williams) and away from corrupt, repulsive CEO Lucy (Demi Moore), but there’s only so much schadenfreude to be gleaned as the abused employees gradually turn on the latter. The comedy, such as it is, is hackneyed and exhausting, and the film is too-rarely enlivened by over-the-top gore effects and surreal detours such as an animated, hunger-induced hallucination. There’s some modest novelty in watching Moore ham it up as a cartoonishly craven villain, but in general the film’s overqualified cast is stymied by the shrill yet toothless script. Rating: C- [Now available to rent from major online platforms.]

Bliss
2019 / USA / 80 min. / Dir. by Joe Begos / Premiered online on Sept. 27, 2019

Writer-director Joe Begos’ gruesome, hallucinatory vampire tale Bliss has the vibe of a 1990s throwback, and not just due to a metal-heavy soundtrack that might have been plucked from a Sam Goody CD rack. A nihilistic, L.A. variation on Abel Ferrara’s NYC-set bloodsucking parable The Addiction (1995), Begos’ feature has the angsty atmosphere of Gen X gothic touchstones like Interview with the Vampire (1994) and The Crow (1994), but with an extra-gritty, nightmarish edge. Consistent with contemporary low-budget monster films, Bliss plays coy with its premise. As struggling painter Dezzy (Dora Madison) spirals downward into a whirlwind of sex, drugs, and less conventional addictions in search of artistic inspiration, the word “vampire” is never actually uttered. Ultimately, Begos’ feature is hampered by a meandering, repetitive screenplay and thematic shallowness, but it’s hard not to be impressed by Madison’s committed, unhinged performance as an unsympathetic victim-turned-villain. There’s also lots and lots of gore – so much that Bliss’s earnest urban-horror sensibility at times curdles into unintentional silliness. Rating: C+ [Now available to rent or purchase from major online platforms]