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

The horrors in this week’s minor VOD releases include an undead messiah, a devious therapist, a mind-bending new drug, and Pauly Shore singing.

Godforsaken (VOD April 8): There’s an intriguing premise lost somewhere in all the stilted acting and headache-inducing camerawork of this found-footage horror movie. The main characters are documentary filmmakers, but their footage looks like a chaotic mess even before they start running for their lives. A three-person crew heads to a small town in Canada to investigate a young woman who rose from her coffin at her own funeral. Led by local native Chad (Chad Tailor), they document how nearly the entire town falls under the spell of this woman, who’s a combination faith healer and cult leader. The eeriness of the mass mind control almost overcomes the universally terrible performances, but writer-director Ali Akbar Akbar Kamal soon abandons his more unsettling ideas. The larger existential questions disappear in favor of a generic zombie story, with repetitive arguments and a half-hearted, almost accidental explanation for what’s going on. The last third of the movie is nearly nonstop incoherent screaming, combined with murky, jumbled images. Grade: D+

What? (Select theaters April 8; VOD and Blu-ray April 19): It’s being marketed to piggyback on the success of CODA, but this black-and-white silent comedy about a deaf actor draws plenty of inspiration from another controversially crowd-pleasing Best Picture winner, The Artist. John Maucere produces and stars as Don, a struggling middle-aged actor still looking for his big break. He’s up for a role in a heist thriller, but the director gives him the runaround, instead hiring him to teach sign language to a hearing actor to play a deaf character. With its old-timey piano-based score and its emphasis on broad physical comedy, What? attempts to evoke Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton on a minuscule budget, with intermittent success. The lighthearted humor is more effective than the heavy-handed lesson-learning that crops up in the final act, although both are well-intentioned. The movie is a valuable showcase for deaf performers, even if there isn’t much to the narrative. Grade: C+

Spiritwalker (VOD and DVD/Blu-ray April 12): The energetic pacing of this slick Korean sci-fi thriller covers for most of its plot inconsistencies, at least until a lengthy explanatory flashback toward the end. It’s probably better not to know why fugitive amnesiac main character Ian (Yoon Kye-sang) keeps switching into new bodies every 12 hours. Writer-director Yoon Jae-keun drops the audience right alongside the protagonist as he looks for clues and evades his pursuers (while sometimes also possessing them). Star Yoon gives Ian an appealing everyman quality, even as he’s taking out multiple henchmen, and there are some exciting, well-crafted car chases and shootouts. It’s only as Ian learns what really happened to him that the movie starts to drag, with a convoluted plot involving experimental drugs and corrupt officials. The emotional connection between Ian and his love interest feels like an afterthought, but the pulpy story moves along just fine without it, balancing disorienting head trips with propulsive action. Grade: B-

My Sweet Monster (VOD and DVD April 12): Maybe there was a two-for-one deal on Jon Heder and Pauly Shore for Russian animation studios, because just a few weeks after co-starring in Pinocchio: A True Story (whose baffling trailer went semi-viral), they’ve reunited for the English-language version of this bizarre Russian fable. Heder voices the title character, a forest-dwelling whatsit named Bogey, and Shore voices the villain, an evil mail-sorter who takes over a mythical land via extortion. The protagonist is Princess Barbara (Haylie Duff), a spunky dreamer who runs away after her father is forced to promise her hand in marriage to Shore’s sinister postman. The animation is hideous, the songs are irritating, the world-building is confusing and contradictory, and the vague pro-nature message may have gotten lost in translation. The American actors sound like they’re delivering their performances at gunpoint, especially in the painful musical numbers from Shore and Heder, and the experience is only slightly less traumatic for viewers. Grade: D-

Chariot (VOD and select theaters April 15): Writer-director Adam Sigal’s surreal drama coasts for quite a while on a steady stream of unexplained weirdness. After an extended dialogue-free opening set in 1840, the movie shifts to what appears to be the present day, as the troubled Harrison Hardy (Thomas Mann) seeks help to rid himself of a recurring dream he’s had nearly 5,000 times. John Malkovich embraces the absurdity as Harrison’s therapist, in an orange wig that makes him look like Venom’s nemesis Cletus Kasady. But Malkovich only makes brief appearances; the main story concerns Harrison’s connection with his sexy, unpredictable neighbor Maria (Rosa Salazar), although their supposed grand passion is never convincing. Sigal fills the movie with odd digressions and characters with apparent supernatural abilities, but what’s intriguing at first eventually turns frustrating. None of the strange detours leads anywhere interesting, and Sigal wraps it all up in a rush of exposition that is both inadequate and dissatisfying. Grade: C

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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