Though often viewed as lesser-than creations, there have been a slew of direct-to-video movies that are worthy of both recognition and praise. For decades, theatrical releases have garnered immense appreciation and attention, constantly being talked about and acknowledged by critics, fans, and award circuits. In many ways, thought of as inferior, direct-to-video movies can be just as good if not better than big-screen, theatrically released pictures, with a handful of sequels going on to be even more well-received than their predecessors. From heartwarming animated flicks to terrifying slashers, action extravaganzas, and kung-fu comedies, the small screen has proven to be a worthy adversary to cinematic releases.
The 1996 action horror comedy Tremors 2: Aftershocks is heavily considered one of the greatest direct-to-video movies, while the sequel to the great Disney musical The Lion King, 1998’s The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, went on to gross over $460 million worldwide from sales and rentals alone, proving that there is, in fact, an eager marketplace for home video releases. These direct-to-video movies deserve more love than they get.
Updated on August 28th, 2023, by Danilo Raúl: This article has been updated with additional content to keep the discussion fresh and relevant with even more information and new entries.
No one will fault you for calling out Recoil a Punisher rip-off, but it’s damn entertaining to watch. Directed by Art Camacho and written by Lee Anthony Smith, the story features the talents of Directed by Art Camacho, written by Lee Anthony Smith. In this action-packed thriller, a cop doing his job guns down the son of a Mafioso in a failed bank robbery.
The mob is not about to let this one slide and goes after the cop’s family, and partners in the force killing them all. The cop, feeling disgusted and with no will to live, quits the force and embarks on a journey of vengeance where he’ll stop at nothing to get justice for his family, killing every single person who gets in his way to get revenge. It’s a straightforward revenge story that went straight to video, but it’s a solid flick all around.
Survivalist horror is the Russian roulette of the genre, as not many films can pull it off well. However, Frozen does it spectacularly. This low-key movie, written and directed by Adam Green, stars Emma Bell, Shawn Ashmore, and Kevin Zegers. It’s the story of three friends left stranded on a ski lift after they plead with an operator for a final round of skiing.
After coming to terms with their situation, they must attempt to do everything to survive. Their attempts range from stupid, as one jumps out of the cart, thinking the snow can soften his landing, to making the trip from the cart to the pole using the cutting wire. It’s a desperate endeavor that challenges your senses and keeps you wondering who will survive this ordeal.
Do you even wonder what happened to those mindless big movies filled with explosions they used to make in the 1980s without the excess of CGI? Scott Adkins is keeping them alive and well in plenty of direct-to-video releases. He’s our main lead in One Shot, alongside working actors such as Ashley Greene, and the late Ray Stevenson.
The story, written and directed by James Nunn, follows a team of Navy SEALs led by Jake Harris, who must team up with CIA analyst Zoe Anderson to prevent a terrorist attack in Washington, DC. They must recover an asset from a black site, only to find a refusal from the site manager as it contradicts his orders to keep the asset in place. It’s a dumb, fun movie with plenty of martial arts shenanigans!
Scott Adkins lands another entry in the ranking, and if you’re wondering if you should check the filmography of this great actor, you probably should if you’re a fan of action films! The Debt Collector is a story written and directed by Jesse V. Johnson, featuring the talents of Adkins, Louis Mandylor, and Michael Paré.
We follow the life of a French and lucky martial artist trainer who can’t land a steady job in America. He finally gets a big break by working as a debt collector for the mob, which seems easy at first, until one collection goes wrong, and he’s forced to fight his way out of a difficult situation if he wants to stay alive.
If you’re a fan of Kristen Stewart, you’ll surely appreciate his first efforts as an actress, such as the film Speak. The movie is written and directed by Jessica Sharzer, based on the novel of the same name by Laurie Halse Anderson. It’s a coming-of-age story touching heavy subjects such as peer pressure and rape.
In the story, we follow the footsteps of Melinda, a girl who has taken on a vow of silence after calling the cops at the height of the frenzy of a popular summer party. While no one around her seems willing to understand why she did this, Melinda is snubbed by her friends, only finding solace in her art classes while holding on to a dark secret.
Be on the lookout for any films made by Jesse V. Johnson; the man has a great talent for making action films reminiscent of the Orion days with former big-name action stars who are still active. Derek Kolstad writes the story for The Package, and the movie features the talents of Steve Austin, Dolph Lundgren, and Eric Keenleyside.
In this movie, we follow a mob enforcer tasked to deliver a special package to a crime lord, but there’s a caveat to the task: an unending array of assassins are following this man to kill him at all costs. Will he be able to complete the delivery as requested? It’s Steve Austin versus everyone else, so the only answer to that question is, “Hell Yeah!”
Serving as the standalone sequel to the widely popular Disney film A Goofy Movie, the 2000 animated comedy An Extremely Goofy Movie follows Max Goof as he heads off to college, excited to break free from his bumbling father and enjoy his newfound independence in peace. Max’s plans for some time apart from his dad Goofy hit a snag when the elder Goof loses his job and decides to finish his degree, resulting in hijinks and misadventures.
The follow-up is a fun movie that showcases the endearing father and son duo as their relationship is tested in more ways than one, with Goofy slowly discovering Max may not need him like he used to. Critics praised the straight-to-DVD sequel, with many calling it likable and ambitious; An Extremely Goofy Movie won the award for Best Animated Home Video Production at the 2000 Annie Awards.
Michael Dougherty directed the 2007 anthology horror comedy Trick ‘r Treat, telling four terrifying Halloween horror tales set in the small fictional town of Warren Valley, Ohio; a mysterious trick-or-treater wearing a burlap sack and footie pajamas makes an appearance in each of the interwoven stories. Dougherty had previously created the animated short Season’s Greetings in 1996, which served as a precursor and inspiration for the spooky flick.
With an impressive cast including Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, and Leslie Bibb, Trick ‘r Treat went on to receive critical acclaim during its limited appearance at film festivals like Fangoria, acquiring a strong and passionate cult following in the process. After suffering a pushback, the horror comedy was released on home media to great fanfare and has become a spooky season staple; Dread Central wrote, “Trick ‘r Treat ranks alongside John Carpenter’s Halloween as traditional October viewing and I can’t imagine a single horror fan that won’t fall head over heels in love with it.”
Touting a dynamite cast of talented performers like Parick Wilson, Chris Pine, and Ed Helms, the 2014 comedy crime film Stretch follows the eponymous down-on-his-luck lead (Wilson) as he grapples with his addictions to gambling and cocaine; the limousine chauffeur takes on the job of shuttling around a mysterious billionaire, yielding dangerous results. The thrillingly over-the-top action comedy also features cameos by celebrities like Ray Liotta, Norman Reedus, and David Hasselhoff, garnering a lot of anticipation and build-up for its release.
Just one month before its release date, Universal Pictures pulled Stretch from their schedule, and it was instead distributed via video on demand; The Hollywood Reporter called this decision “an unprecedented move.” Regardless of its debut drama, the picture went on to earn glowing reviews from critics and was commended for its bold and refreshing energy and infectious sense of humor, as well as Wilson’s show-stealing performance.
Michael Jai White starred as the titular former CIA agent in the 2009 blaxploitation action comedy Black Dynamite, chronicling the Vietnam War veteran and kung fu fighter as he sets out on a crusade to avenge his little brother’s death and clean up the streets of gangsters and drug dealers. White became inspired to create the idea of the picture after listening to James Brown’s “Super Bad” and because of his love of throwing classic blaxploitation movie parties, eventually pitching the movie’s premise to director Scott Sanders while sporting his blue jumpsuit.
The filmmaker was instantly attracted to the idea, later expressing to The AV Club, “It’s just a little too badass. That’s the tone of the movie. Our humor comes from the fact that the movie is just a little too badass.” Black Dynamite paid homage to the low production values of blaxploitation films, with many filming errors done on purpose; its success led to an animated series, web show, and a follow-up sequel currently in the works.
Widely regarded as one of the best direct-to-video sequels ever created, the 1996 action horror comedy Tremors 2: Aftershocks focuses on Tremors character Earl Bassett (the late great Fred Ward) as he agrees to once again hunt and eliminate an outbreak of deadly subterranean “Graboids” at a Mexico oil refinery. Destroying the creatures proves to be quite the challenge due to the Graboid’s newfound ability to attack above ground, causing Bassett to enlist the help of superfan Grady Hoover and fellow survivor of the Nevada incident Burt Gummer.
Tremors 2: Aftershocks was set for a straight-to-video release due to its predecessor finding immense success in the home-video rental market rather than in theaters. The fun and wild action comedy was appreciated for its faithfulness to the franchise, with TV Guide saying, “This movie is a rarity among direct-to-video sequels, one that’s not only worthy of its theatrical predecessor but suggest that it too, belongs on the big screen…despite the significantly lower budget, the monsters remain entirely convincing.”
Cuba Gooding Jr. and action legend Dolph Lundgren teamed up for the exciting 2012 flick One in the Chamber, in which the former actor portrays skilled assassin Ray Carver as he works both sides by providing services to two rival mafia families. After a botched job to assassinate a prominent crime boss, Carver attracts the unwanted attention of legendary Russian hitman Aleksey “The Wolf” Andreev, with the two hired killers eventually joining forces to bring the criminal underworld down.
Both of the talented lead actors thrive in their powerful and dangerously gripping roles, giving audiences a thrill ride as they wrack up an ever-growing body count of the Prague mafia members. While it’s no surprise that Lundgren thrived in his action-filled and physically demanding performance, Gooding Jr. also proved to be quite the formidable assassin, showing he can tackle any genre and film style.
The 1998 animated romantic musical drama The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride is the sequel to Disney’s 1994 blockbuster hit The Lion King and centers on the Pride Lands of Africa King Simba and the empowering Queen Nala’s daughter Kiara, as she sets out to end the feud between her father’s pride and the outcast pride who were once loyal to the evil Scar. The headstrong and curious Nala ends up falling in love with the banished rogue lion Kovu, with the pair struggling to unite their warring pride.
Matthew Broderick returned to voice Simba, as did Timon and Pumbaa performers Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella among others. The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride went on to earn positive reviews from both critics and audiences, going on to become and remain one of the top-selling direct-to-video releases of all time, earning a whopping $464.5 million worldwide in sales and rentals.
Joe Lynch directed the 2007 slasher film Wrong Turn 2: Dead End, the second installment in the Wrong Turn franchise that follows a group of strangers who become contestants on a survival-themed reality television show, having to thrive in the West Virginia wilderness for a week; the seemingly innocent challenge takes a turn for the menacing when the group becomes targeted by an inbred family of ghastly cannibals.
Wrong Turn 2: Dead End was screened at the London FrightFest Film Festival and Austin’s Fantastic Fest before being released on DVD, ultimately going on to become the best-reviewed movie from the franchise. Some critics called the slasher superior to the original, with FEARnet’s Scott Weinberg calling it, “A fast-paced and completely unapologetic love-letter to the old-school ‘80s splatter sequels like Friday the 13th 2 and Texas Chainsaw 2 (Gory, too!).”
Legendary Belgian action movie star Jean-Claude Van Damme headlined the fifth installment of the Universal Soldier franchise, appearing alongside fellow action icon Dolph Lundgren as reactivated cyborg Luc Deveraux sent to rescue the planet from a nuclear Armageddon. The excitement-filled extravaganza was released directly to video in 2010, with Universal Soldier: Regeneration being fairly well-received by critics, with many calling it a solid and thrilling B-level action flick. Most of the direct-to-video Universal Soldier films are considered cult classics of the ’90s and ’00s.
Director John Hyams was optimistic it would once again jumpstart the series, having expressed, “I hope that we have breathed some life into the franchise. Some of the powers that be have certainly talked about doing another one already…With what’s happening with the storylines, we could certainly go in several directions.” Both Van Damme and Lundgren returned for the 2012 follow-up, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning.