If you’re nostalgic for The Smiths or Wilmer Valderrama or comedic mafiosi, this week’s minor VOD releases have you covered.
Phobias (VOD March 19): A horror anthology with five segments each themed loosely around a particular fear, Phobias fits together more effectively than a lot of DTV genre anthologies, which are often just random compilations of unrelated short films. Despite its five different directors, Phobias has a fairly cohesive style and tone, and the main characters from the individual chapters actually appear together in the framing story. That framing story (about a secret facility that somehow weaponizes people’s fears) doesn’t add much to the other segments, though, and those segments mostly just peter out rather than end properly (perhaps so that the characters can continue into the overarching narrative). Chris von Hoffman’s “Ephebiphobia,” about a teacher terrorized by her teenage students, is the best (and most complete), with a chilling performance from Mackenzie Brooke Smith as the lead teen antagonist. There are scattered creepy moments throughout the rest of the movie, but the pieces never quite add up. Grade: C+
Shoplifters of the World (VOD and select theaters March 26): Just a few months after the U.S. release of The More You Ignore Me, here’s another 1980s-set dramedy about obsessive fans of The Smiths. Shoplifters of the World is a lot slicker and broader than the mental illness-themed The More You Ignore Me, closer to a music-filled ’90s mainstream ensemble comedy like Can’t Hardly Wait or Empire Records. Set in Denver, Colorado, on the day in 1987 when The Smiths’ breakup was announced, the movie follows four college-age friends as they party, drink, hook up and mourn the loss of the greatest band that ever existed. Meanwhile, record store clerk Dean (Ellar Coltrane) holds a local radio DJ hostage and forces him to play nothing but Smiths records. It’s an exuberant, lighthearted coming-of-age story that deals superficially with issues of identity and sexuality (and features its best performance from Joe Manganiello as the surprisingly introspective metalhead DJ). Grade: B
The Toll (VOD and select theaters March 26): The inherent suspicion between strangers (especially when one of them is a woman traveling alone and the other is an overly solicitous man) provides much of the tension for writer-director Michael Nader’s horror movie, which strands rideshare driver Spencer (Max Topplin) and weary passenger Cami (Jordan Hayes) in the middle of some dark and spooky woods. Spencer’s car won’t start, the road seems to go in an endless loop, and there are strange apparitions among the trees. Topplin and Hayes carry the movie with layered performances that keep shifting audience sympathies, and Nader makes his simple setting ominous and disturbing. The more the movie delves into the nature of the supernatural threat, though, the more it resembles cheesy urban legend-based horror movies like The Bye Bye Man. And a cheap final twist undermines all of the careful character work in favor of quick, empty jolts. Grade: B-
To Whom It May Concern (VOD March 26): Shot in 2015 and just now getting a proper release, this turgid drama features dedicated if misguided performances from stars Dawn Olivieri (also a producer) and Wilmer Valderrama, both of whom may have been trying to break out of their TV-series niches. Olivieri plays self-destructive waitress Anna, who’s suicidal in a glamorous, nonthreatening way that still allows her to always be perfectly coiffed and made up. Anna takes in her neighbor Sam (Valderrama) after a fight with his girlfriend leaves him nowhere to stay, and they start to fall for each other in a vague, halting manner. Aside from a single voicemail from her sister, there’s no indication of the source of Anna’s existential crisis, nor any sense of how or why her connection with Sam could help. The stars look good together, but writer-director Manu Boyer doesn’t do anything more than have them strike pouty poses. Grade: C
Witness Infection (VOD and DVD March 30): Starting with the weak pun in the title (it’s like “witness protection,” get it?), this horror comedy delivers limp humor along with some truly gross zombie effects. It’s mostly a cliched mobster comedy in its first half, as mild-mannered dog groomer Carlo (Rob “son of Jim” Belushi) is pressured by his crime-boss dad (co-writer Carlos Alazraqui) to marry blinged-out mafia daughter Patricia (Erinn Hayes) to bring peace between two mob families both hiding out in Southern California. Lots of mediocre jokes about Italian stereotypes ensue. Eventually, townspeople start turning into zombies after eating a bad batch of sausage rolls from a local food truck, and Carlo and his co-worker/love interest Gina (co-writer Jill-Michele Melean) have to fend off the undead while avoiding the wrath of Patricia’s family. The humor is juvenile, the plotting is slapdash, and the living characters are only slightly more engaging than the zombies. Grade: C