Every month, there are dozens of movies released to VOD and streaming that barely make a dent in the pop-culture consciousness, but represent an entire world of cinema just outside (or sometimes far outside) the mainstream. There’s a lot of trash on the fringes – but there are also undiscovered gems, so this column will illuminate the obscure, weird and potentially worthwhile films hidden in the depths of VOD and streaming. If you find yourself with a little more time on your hands these days, maybe take a peek into those depths yourself.
Hooking Up (VOD and select theaters March 20) She’s a sex addict! He’s a cancer patient! Their support groups are across the hall from each other! Will they fall in love? Of course they will, and Hooking Up never really pretends otherwise, although stars Brittany Snow and Sam Richardson dutifully bicker throughout the movie’s first half. Director and co-writer Nico Raineau leans too hard on the supposed edginess of Snow’s Darla, a magazine sex columnist (still one of the most popular jobs in movies) who uses vulgarity and sexual aggression in place of emotional intimacy. The overly convoluted plot involves multiple levels of deception to get Darla and Richardson’s Bailey on a road trip to revisit her past sexual haunts, but it eventually provides for some nice moments of connection. The movie isn’t exactly sensitive about either sex addiction or cancer, but when it occasionally calms down, it can be sweet and heartfelt. Too often, though, the forced crassness outweighs the likability. Grade: C+
Hunter’s Moon (VOD and DVD March 24) After moving into a remote mansion adjacent to a large orchard, a married couple (Jay Mohr and Amanda Wyss) leave their three teenage daughters alone for the night, making them vulnerable to a home invasion by a group of local thugs. Or at least that’s where Hunter’s Moon seems to be going, but this awkward thriller/horror hybrid spends far too long playing coy about its actual subject (werewolves) and who its villains are (not werewolves). Characters make vague threats that are then followed through offscreen or not at all, and the power dynamics keep shifting in confusing and inconsistent ways. It doesn’t help that star Katrina Bowden (still mainly recognizable from 30 Rock) is playing the world’s oldest teenager, or that big-name ringer Thomas Jane (as the local sheriff) doesn’t show up until halfway through the movie (and then delivers all of his lines through clenched teeth). The werewolves, when they finally arrive, are underwhelming, and none of the eventual plot revelations justify slogging through the muddled narrative. Grade: C-
Banana Split (VOD and select theaters March 27) An underrated gem, this charming, funny teen comedy has been making the film-festival rounds since mid-2018. Hannah Marks (who co-wrote the screenplay with Joey Power) and Liana Liberato are lively and appealing as a pair of teenage girls who become unlikely best friends, even though Liberato’s Clara is currently dating the ex-boyfriend of Marks’ April. It’s a celebration of teen-girl friendship and the staying power it has over and above romantic relationships, which means that the characters’ mutual love interest, Nick (Dylan Sprouse), is a bit one-dimensional. That’s okay, since April and Clara are so vibrant and real, and the movie depicts their bond with all the rush and excitement of a budding romance (cue many, many bubbly musical montages). There’s so much genuine glee and heartbreak in their friendship that it really doesn’t matter who gets the guy in the end. Grade: B+
Butt Boy (select theaters April 3; VOD April 14) Let’s not mince words here: This is a movie about a guy with a sort of dimensional portal in his anus, through which he can consume objects, pets and even people. Director and co-writer Tyler Cornack plays Chip Gutchel, a sad-sack office drone who has some kind of awakening during a prostate exam and becomes addicted to sticking things up his butt, where they seem to disappear. Cornack approaches this concept with such deadpan seriousness that it’s tough to tell whether it’s meant to be funny, especially as most of the story is a cat-and-mouse game between Chip and a hard-boiled detective (Tyler Rice) searching for a missing child who is, yes, up Chip’s butt. It’s like an Adult Swim version of a serial-killer thriller, but disappointingly low on amusing absurdist details until the bonkers finale, which tries to wring some emotional catharsis from the one-joke premise and falls completely short. Grade: C
Rootwood (VOD and DVD April 7) As Kevin Smith’s Tusk and David Gordon Green’s Halloween have proved, possibly the lowest people in the horror-movie hierarchy these days are podcasters. Rootwood’s hapless victims are a pair of hosts, Will (Tyler Gallant) and Jess (Elissa Dowling), who are recruited by a mysterious producer (Sleepaway Camp cult icon Felissa Rose) to investigate the mystery of the “Wooden Devil” in Rootwood Forest (actually Malibu Creek State Park) outside Los Angeles. The podcasters –and a friend recruited to help with video equipment and add pointless sexual tension– stumble around the forest finding what are meant to be ominous clues but are mostly just innocuous-looking props. Director Marcel Walz occasionally switches to documentary-style footage from the characters’ perspectives, but never fully commits to a found-footage approach. The capable actors do what they can with the dull material, and a meta twist in the final act adds a slight jolt to what is otherwise a completely rote monster-in-the-woods story, but it’s not enough to rouse the movie from its stupor. Grade: C-
Abominable (VOD and DVD April 14) Not to be confused with last year’s DreamWorks animated movie about a cuddly yeti looking to return home, this Abominable is a micro-budget horror movie featuring a dude in a fur-covered rubber suit biting people’s faces off. Unlike a lot of tiny horror productions, Abominable at least shows its monster early and often, and it doesn’t skimp on the gore (arms and jaws are ripped out, in addition to the aforementioned face-biting). A team of researchers or possibly paramilitary contractors or something arrives at a remote outpost somewhere snowy (maybe the Himalayas, or also maybe a national park?), searching for the elusive “yeti plant” that cures all diseases. The yeti plant is guarded by the actual yeti, of course, who attacks the annoying characters at regular intervals between boring scenes of aimless wandering through the snow. The plot (involving lots of “triangulating” of communication equipment) is incoherent, the dialogue is often hard to hear, the character motivations are nonsensical, and the yeti is more laughable than scary. Needed more face-biting. Grade: D