Going to a movie theater requires about as much prep as storming an abandoned mall full of zombies these days, but cinephiles who prefer to keep the mortal peril on screen have plenty of options this October. Rallying around the common cause of saving Halloween, genre festivals and streaming services have taken up virtual arms to ensure that this month is packed with as much horror, action, and just plain weirdo content as possible. It’s a mission that, combined with a higher-than-average volume of VOD horror releases, prompts a once-unspeakable question: Is there such a thing as too many horror movies?
To help viewers navigate this unprecedented, overwhelming, and exciting wave of virtual genre festivals, we’ve scoured the catalogs of three of the season’s major players and compiled a guide to the best and buzziest titles to add to your watchlist. Curl up under a blanket and grab a bowl of candy, because the lack of social contact means that these technically count as healthy Halloween treats.
Of this month’s virtual events, the Nightstream Film Festival—a joint effort between the Boston Underground, Brooklyn Horror, North Bend, Overlook, and Popcorn Frights film festivals—is the one that offers the closest thing to one of the many in-person festivals shuttered by the pandemic. That means not only a well-curated selection of new films from around the festival circuit, but also world premieres, online parties, and even a virtual festival lounge that’s sort of like a cross between an 8-bit video game and a Zoom happy hour. (It’ll also feature a conversation with American Psycho director Mary Harron moderated by this writer.)
Nightstream is offering individual tickets to its screenings as well as bundled ticket packages; ticket buyers have a predetermined window, ranging from a few hours to a few days, after a scheduled “screening” time to watch the films they rent on the festival’s Eventive page.
The best and most succinct way to describe this very odd film is The New England Chain Saw Massacre, as two unlikable characters are plunged into a vivid, visceral body-horror nightmare after asking to use what seems like a harmless old lady’s phone while stranded on a camping trip. Director Devereux Milburn throws everything from the Brothers Grimm to Quentin Tarantino into his cauldron of stylized frights, culminating in perhaps the strangest celebrity cameo in recent memory. Originally set to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Honeydew makes its world premiere at Nightstream.
Honeydew will be available to rent from October 9 to October 15.
A favorite of The A.V. Club’s at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival, Nightstream gives U.S. audiences their chance to rent Jumbo, another strange little film that lingers long after its succinct 93-minute running time. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire’s Noémie Merlant stars as Jeanne, the night janitor at a provincial French amusement park who falls in love with a Tilt-A-Whirl ride she affectionately nicknames “Jumbo.” But where things get really weird is this: The ride seems to like her back. As we wrote in our Fantasia review: “That may sound like the stuff of exploitative TLC documentaries, but [director Zoe] Whittock treats it as a character study rather than a sideshow, an approach that pairs with Merlant’s heartsick performance to empathetic effect.”
Jumbo will be available to rent from October 9 to October 15.
The influence of George Romero’s zombie movies is unmistakable and inescapable, but My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To uses a lesser-known Romero classic as its jumping-off point. Specifically, writer-director Jonathan Cuartas’ horror-drama is reminiscent of Martin (1978), in that it takes the vampire legend and reframes it as a metaphor for how chronic illness affects not only the afflicted person, but their loved ones as well. Thomas (Owen Campbell) is allergic to sunlight and needs human blood to survive, but otherwise he’s a sweet, lonely teenage boy whose siblings would do anything for him—including making sure that the blood bucket on the kitchen counter is always full. This is a bleak and violent film, but it’s also a sensitive and delicate one, with compelling performances from its ensemble cast.
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To will be available to rent in four-hour windows on October 9 and October 10.
One of two Indonesian horror films to screen at this year’s Nightstream (the other, May The Devil Take You Too, hits Shudder on October 29), Queen Of Black Magic is the opposite of an “elevated” horror movie, and a nice palate cleanser if you’ve been immersed in arthouse takes on the genre. This film is all about creepy-crawly blood and gore, which it delivers with pummeling intensity and sadistic glee. (Think extreme child peril and vomiting bugs.) This remake of the 1981 Indonesian folk-horror classic is scripted by Joko Anwar, whose Satan’s Slaves offers up similar roller-coster thrills; Queen Of Black Magic takes a while to get going, but the back half will leave even jaded viewers’ jaws on the floor.
Queen Of Black Magic will be available to rent late-night on October 10.
Abraham Castillo Flores, head programmer of Mexico City’s Morbido Film Festival, has been sharing his passion for Mexican horror movies through this hour-plus multimedia lecture for a few years now. The A.V. Club saw it at Fantastic Fest in 2019, and walked away with not only a new appreciation of Mexican culture’s profound and inspiring relationship with death and the supernatural, but also a watchlist a dozen items long. Now Flores is taking the lecture online; if your knowledge of Mexican genre movies begins and ends with Guillermo del Toro, bring a notepad and get ready to update your Letterboxd account.
The Morbido Crypt’s Guide To Mexican Fantasy And Horror Cinema will be available to stream on October 10 from 12 to 3 p.m. Central.
The Telluride Horror Show, a festival with a small but intensely devoted fan base, is also taking its program online this year, screening films like Possessor: Uncut and Fantasia favorite The Columnist online from October 15 to 18.
If Nightstream has the atmosphere of a traditional film festival, then Salem Horror Fest is a virtual con, sprawling and colorful and packed with celebrity guests and panel discussions. Those last two categories are where Salem Horror really shines: The festival includes both a series of high-profile reunions with some impressive names attached and a diverse selection of panels, podcasts, and lectures. Festival director K Lynch has taken special care to spotlight Black, LGBTQ+, and feminist voices at this year’s virtual fest, one of the many ways this young festival lives its inclusive “horror is for everybody” message. (They even included a few of the A.V. Club’s film writers: Anya Stanley, Charles Bramesco, Randall Colburn, and Katie Rife all appear in or host events.)
Salem Horror Fest officially launched last weekend, but it’s pretty easygoing as far as access goes, offering viewers the option to purchase tickets for either weekend of the fest, an all-access badge, or a special “encore” package. Once purchased, each badge operates almost like a streaming service, unlocking access to a virtual platform where a festival-goer can click around at will.
With two films—the other, Bloodthirsty, is set for Telluride Horror Show—traveling the virtual festival circuit this year, Amelia Moses is one director who’s not letting 2020 slow her down. Set in that classic milieu of a group of college friends spending the weekend together at a remote cabin, Bleed With Me is a slow-burn psychological horror story that may test some viewers’ patience. But those who stick with it will be rewarded with feverish, hallucinatory body horror that establishes first-time filmmaker Moses as a voice to watch. Think David Cronenberg by way of Jean Rollin, and you’re beginning to get on this movie’s wavelength.
Bleed With Me is available to rent as part of the Salem Horror Fest’s Weekend 2 package. It also screens at Nightstream October 11 to 15.
Set your expectations in advance: Death Drop Gorgeous is a micro-budget DIY slasher movie set in, and starring many of the denizens of, Providence, Rhode Island’s gay nightlife scene. As such, the camerawork and the sound are not as polished as in some of the films recommended here. But how many of those films have an extended, unforgettably gory set piece based around a glory hole? That’s right. None of them. With a cast loaded with charismatic performers (drag and otherwise), Death Drop Gorgeous is best enjoyed with a drink in hand and a smear of lipstick across your face.
Death Drop Gorgeous is available to rent as part of the Salem Horror Fest’s Weekend 1 package.
The jewel in Salem Horror Fest’s celebrity crown for 2020 is its celebration of iconic horror director Joe Dante, who joins the festival for video panels commemorating the 30th anniversary of Dante’s hand grenade of a blockbuster sequel, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, as well as the 40th anniversary of the somewhat less tongue-in-cheek but equally fun The Howling. Dante also appearance on the New Beverly Cinema’s Pure Cinema Podcast, where the filmmaker talks formative influences with hosts Elric Kane and Brian Saur. Also of interest: Andrea Subissati and Alexandra West’s breakdown of The Howling on their podcast Faculty Of Horror, and Goosebumps illustrator Tim Jacobus’ poster art for the occasion.
Another slow-burn standout making its world premiere at Salem Horror Fest, The Strings begins with a young person—here, heartbroken musician Catherine (Teagan Johnston), reeling from the recent breakup of her band and her long-term relationship—going off to a remote cottage for some alone time. What’s distinctive about The Strings is that it focuses on Catherine’s creative process as much as it does the gradually building sensation that there’s something else there watching her, weaving them together with heady concepts from theoretical physics for a cerebral haunted-house tale with some genuinely heart-stopping moments. If you’re a fan of ambient dream-pop, the music is pretty good, too.
The Strings is available to rent as part of the Salem Horror Fest’s Weekend 1 and Weekend 2 packages.
Once you’ve burned through the academic offerings at Salem Horror Fest, the Miskatonic Institute Of Horror Studies, a leader in the field with branches in New York, Los Angeles, and London, has also taken its lectures online. Upcoming lectures include Monster, Vampire, Cannibal: Queer Horror & The Gothic and a timely exploration of masks in horror cinema from Australian scholar Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
Fantastic Fest was officially canceled this year—and if you’ve ever crowded into the lobby of the Alamo South Lamar in Austin on a Saturday during that particular festival, you’ll understand why. But during the last week of September—the traditional date for the in-person event—the Fantastic Fest programming team threw an abbreviated online event called “A Celebration Of Fantastic Fest” on the Twitch-esque screening app Scener.
The new films screened at the celebration have since disappeared into the digital ether (except for Queen Of Black Magic, which hits Nightstream this weekend). But parent company Alamo Drafthouse has kept a selection of repertory titles from Fantastic Fests past and present available for rent on the Alamo On Demand website, presented with the festival’s signature found-footage pre-shows, crowdsourced bumpers, and “Don’t Talk” PSAs.
Over the years, the Alamo Drafthouse and its subsidiaries have carved out a very specific niche of what they sometimes refer to as “anti-human” action movies: low-budget direct-to-video ephemera that could have been made by aliens, so loose is their grasp on how human beings actually talk, think, and behave. Weave in ridiculously huge explosions, inept fight choreography, reckless endangerment behind the wheels of juiced-up ’80s muscle cars, maybe some ninjas, and voilà. Miami Connection and Dangerous Men are both classics of the subgenre, and Action USA, which made its world theatrical premiere at Celebration Of Fantastic Fest, is a worthy entry into this growing canon. A Lethal Weapon ripoff with some incredible location shooting at a Texas honky tonk circa 1989, it’s as American as blowing your fingers off with fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Action USA is available as a digital rental on Alamo On Demand. It makes its theatrical/virtual cinema debut at select Alamo Drafthouses on November 6, with a virtual expansion on November 13.
Fifty years on, the psychosexual anxieties underlying Daughters Of Darkness should appear quaint. But the fear of female power is as potent (and intoxicating) in 2020 as it was in 1971. Just as heady but less stultifying than many Euro-vampire films of its era, Daughters Of Darkness isn’t the most coherently directed of movies. But it’s got sexual tension, sophisticated glamour, queer subtext, and chilling atmosphere to spare—and isn’t that what you want out of a film like this one? Romantic, melancholy vampires from Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger to Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive owe a debt to Delphine Seyrig’s performance as Countess Bathory in this film, which premiered a ripe, decadent new 4k 16-bit scan restoration at Celebration Of Fantastic Fest.
Blue Underground’s 4k restoration of Daughters Of Darkness is available for digital purchase on Alamo On Demand, with a Blu-ray and 4k UHD re-release planned for October 27.
Fantastic Fest has been key to the modest ascent of Oklahoma City auteur Mickey Reece, alternately referred to in official press releases as “the Soderbergh of the sticks” and “flyover Fassbinder.” Reece, who’s made 36 films since 2008 with basically no money and a handful of trusted collaborators, first started to get national attention when his film Strike, Dear Mistress, And Cure His Heart played at Fantastic Fest in 2018. His latest, Climate Of The Hunter, screened at Fantastic Fest 2019 and is playing Nightstream this weekend; if you’d like to dig deeper into Reece’s oddball filmography, Alamo On Demand also has six of Reece’s more recent projects bundled together for a very reasonable $7.99 rental fee.
The films of Mickey Reece are available for digital rental or purchase on Alamo On Demand.
Of the 16 recommendations in this guide, Triple Fisher: The Lethal Lolitas Of Long Island is the only one U.S. residents can’t rent right away with a credit card and a couple of clicks. But we’re putting it on your radar anyway—especially if your esoteric interests include true crime and trashy made-for-TV movies. A unique and ambitious use of the found-footage format, Triple Fisher takes the three made-for-TV movies about the Amy Fisher/Joey Buttafuoco case that aired in a single week in 1992 and combines them into one surprisingly easy to follow feature film. Drew Barrymore, Alyssa Milano, and Noëlle Parker play Amy in the respective tellings, each of which has its own ideas about what “really” happened. Juxtaposed in such close proximity, the shifting points of view start to reveal subtextual commentary on media spin and pop cultural misogyny, with some very silly callbacks (take the shouted line, “You can’t get herpes from a toilet seat!”) to keep things from getting too heavy.
Triple Fisher: The Lethal Lolitas Of Long Island currently has no VOD or festival dates planned following its screening at A Celebration Of Fantastic Fest. You can book it theatrically through AGFA.
As far as traditional streaming services go, it’s hard to beat the Criterion Channel’s ’70s Horror block for the October season. Blending arthouse horror chills and and lowbrow exploitation kicks, highlights of the eclectic 28-film set include the atmospheric Let’s Scare Jessica To Death and the shocking The Witch Who Came From The Sea alongside better-known titles like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Black Christmas, Rabid, and The Wicker Man.