VODepths: What to See (and Avoid) On Demand This Month

In this month’s fringe VOD releases, ghosts and filmmakers find love, bad things happen in escape rooms and wildlife sanctuaries, and a haunted tiki statue causes chaos. 

Endless (VOD and select theaters August 14): Riley (Alexandra Shipp) is a smart girl from a rich family who plans to go to law school. Chris (Nicholas Hamilton) is a bad boy who rides a motorcycle and is into shirtless woodworking. Somehow these two gorgeous and impeccably styled teenagers find love together, only for their romance to be shattered when Chris dies in a car accident. Yet their love does not die! Chris, now a ghost, hangs around their picturesque coastal town and appears to Riley in soft-focus shots, surrounded by swirls of sparkles. They even have their own version of the famous Ghost sensual pottery scene, only with tomato-slicing. Director Scott Speer previously made similar doomed-teenager romance Midnight Sun, and he brings the same overwrought melodramatic energy to Endless, which attempts to be a meditation on grief and acceptance, but never goes deeper than its heroine Googling “spiritual connection” when she starts seeing the specter of her dead lover. Grade: C

The Silencing (VOD and select theaters August 14): Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is out of place as an earthy outdoorsman in rural America (or possibly Canada) who discovers that a masked killer has been going all Most Dangerous Game in his wildlife sanctuary, hunting teenage girls with a spear-throwing device known as an atlatl. Coster-Waldau’s grim, taciturn Rayburn Swanson, whose own teenage daughter went missing five years earlier, clashes with the town’s earnest new Sheriff Alice Gustafson (Annabelle Wallis) as they independently track the killer. Writer Micah Ranum and director Robin Pront (The Ardennes) hint at some social commentary with the tension between Sheriff Gustafson and the head of the tribal police on adjacent Native land, but the result is mostly Taylor Sheridan Lite. The murder mystery is underwhelming, full of awkward misdirection and characters making idiotic decisions for the sake of plot expediency, and the protagonists’ angst never resonates beyond their morose facial expressions. Grade: C+

Escape: Puzzle of Fear (VOD and DVD August 18): It seems a little late for a mockbuster version of 2019 horror hit Escape Room, and the actual escape room content of this plodding revenge thriller is pretty minimal. The movie does effectively recreate the tedious feeling of attempting to solve a poorly designed escape room, though, and writer Lizze Gordon and director J. Jones offer up a couple of scenes with the requisite codebreaking and clue-finding. Mostly Puzzle of Fear focuses on the dark secrets that rich douchebag Matthew Blake (Tommy Nash) has been sloppily hiding, which come to light in a seemingly endless series of expository flashbacks. Characters act nonsensically to set up supposedly shocking reveals that come later, but the elaborate revenge plot is a tame misfire. The tepid Saw-style traps the characters face make Jigsaw look like Leonardo da Vinci. Grade: D+

The Unfamiliar (VOD August 21) Remember when The Brady Bunch took a vacation to Hawaii and picked up a cursed tiki statue? This is the horror-movie equivalent of that, with about the same level of plot sophistication. Military doctor Izzy (Jemima West) returns from Afghanistan to a home and family that seem, well, unfamiliar. Her professor husband Ethan (Christopher Dane) insists that she’s suffering from PTSD, but then why is he acting so strange about all those artifacts he brought back from a research trip to Hawaii? What starts out as a dull, familiar haunted house story turns into something much crazier once the family travels back to Hawaii for Izzy to “rest.” This may be the first movie to derive horrors from Hawaiian mythology, but director and co-writer Henk Pretorius handles it with clumsy condescension, including an uncomfortable use of an indigenous shaman as a plot device. There’s a good reason that tikis are generally not considered terrifying. Grade: C-

Benjamin (VOD and DVD August 25) The title character of British comedian and TV host Simon Amstell’s Benjamin is a neurotic filmmaker who, when asked what his latest movie is about, answers, “My inability to love.” That dry wit carries thise somewhat scattered romantic comedy, in which the pathologically self-deprecating Benjamin (Colin Morgan) falls for elfin French musician Noah (Phénix Brossard). Benjamin’s constant self-sabotage is mostly amusing, although it’s tough to find much emotional investment in his romance with Noah, who always seems more like a distant object of desire than a fully realized character. Still, Morgan is charmingly flustered in an early-Hugh Grant way, and Amstell has a knack for biting one-liners about the fundamental emptiness of human existence. A subplot about Benjamin’s depressed comedian best friend doesn’t really go anywhere, and Amstell has trouble figuring out a satisfying ending, but as Benjamin himself would probably say, nothing in real life is satisfying, anyway. Grade: B

Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He's the former film editor of 'Las Vegas Weekly' and has written about movies and pop culture for Syfy Wire, Polygon, CBR, Film Racket, Uproxx and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.

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