Michael Hartford

writer, photographer, programmer, dad

Us

A family’s beach vacation is interrupted by their violent doppelgangers.

There are twists and jumps and scares and blood spatter galore in this epic Jordan Peele horror/fantasy/sci-fi masterpiece. I saw echoes of and nods to classic terrors like “The Shining,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Strangers,” and even “Susperia” (in a beautifully choreographed and bloody dance battle). It goes off the rails, especially at the end, but in a good way, and manages to be both terrifying and hilarious. I think I need to watch it a few more times to fully digest everything going on in this movie.

If Toni Collette deserved an Oscar for “Hereditary” (and she did), then Lupita Nyong’o deserves them all for her dual roles in “Us.”

The Descent

Following a horrible accident, a group of women who have enjoyed thrill-seeking adventures together in the past embark on a spelunking trek. A cave-in and poor planning are not the least of the horrors they encounter underground.

The first half of this movie, with the tensions within the group, the one-upmanship played out in deadly circumstances, and the challenges of battling each other and the caves, was scary enough; I’m a big fan of NPS and Appalachian Mountain Club accident reports, and this was a set up for the worst possible trip assessment in the history of trip assessments. Indeed, I found the troglodytes to be a little over the top and wholly unnecessary, though they did provide some pretty serious scares despite being unevenly powered, sometimes fearsome and other times easily knocked around. Darkness and tight spaces and idiot friends are scary enough.

Without Name

Eric goes into a remote forest to survey the land for a secretive developer with his assistant Olivia, with whom he is having an affair. They encounter a rootless young man who shares his anarchist philosophy and his psychedelic mushrooms, along with some local fairy lore. Olivia leaves after a fight, and Eric makes a mushroom tea from instructions in a book left in the cottage where they’re staying. This proves to be a mistake.

I was originally drawn to this movie because about a quarter of the traditional Irish tunes are called “Gan Anam,” “Without Name”; and that proves to be the “name” that the isolated woodland is called by the predictably hostile locals Eric meets at the pub. This is an enjoyable little movie–it does a good job of portraying the disorientation of being lost in the woods, and Eric’s growing paranoia is nicely unsettling. It would pair nicely with Across the River or The Alchemist Cookbook if you’re looking for disturbed-in-the-woods fair.

Into the Dark: Down

On the Friday before the “perfect storm” of a Valentine’s Day long weekend, two young professionals are trapped in a parking garage elevator. One thing leads to another, and another, and yet another, with dire and surprising consequences.

This was a solid thriller; nothing cutting edge, nothing really unpredictable, but still enjoyable, with some good tension and creative use of the cramped elevator as its primary location. Nothing about the story is really surprising at all, but the performances from the two leads are good, and the ending is satisfying. I like this kind of movie/show (not sure where to put the “Into the Dark” episodes, as they’re pretty close to movie quality but just a little longer than most dramatic series episodes) for a workday afternoon: I can half pay attention while doing some relatively rote work, pulling away to the action whenever something dramatic is about to happen.

Rooms by Lauren Oliver

Family members converge on a house in Upstate New York upon the death of Richard Walker, their secrets and disappointments mingling with those of the ghosts of two of the house’s former residents, and of a girl who has gone missing from Boston.

It took me about 100 pages to get into this book because the characters were initially so sad, defeated, and in some way repulsive; there was a great deal of moping and whining, a fair amount of self-destructive behavior, but not in any way that seemed interesting or enlightening. After the initial slog, though, the story and interest started to pick up with the arrival of a mysterious teen-aged girl, and of a third mysterious ghost; surprising convergences in the characters’ histories started to arise, and their various stories began to come to a more dramatic head.

The final coincidences were a bit much for my normally pretty forgiving suspension of disbelief, and a few things were tied up just a bit too neatly, but there were some thought-provoking ideas and a handful of interesting character moments that made this book worth finishing.

Baskin

Five Turkish police officers answer a call for backup, and find themselves inside an abandoned police station that is a portal to a strange and terrifying hell.

This is a visually striking film, bathed in red light, buckets of gore, and terrifying images glimpsed at the edge of the screen and lurking in the shadows. The Grand Guignol horrors on display are more than a little over the top, with manglings and mutilations and torture galore, and the story quickly becomes weirdly allegorical while also insanely bloody. It’s definitely nightmare fodder, but stunningly executed all the same.

The Void

A police officer finds a blood-covered man crawling along the side of the road, and rushes him to the hospital. Soon after he arrives, something starts to transform the patients and staff into monstrous and blood-thirsty creatures. When the survivors venture into the hospital’s mysterious sub-basement, they find that much is amiss.

This movie has some great body horror effects going on, and some impressive gore. It teeters between horror and science fiction, with some Satanic cult action tossed in, and that gets to be a bit much, but it delivers some good scares and cringes.

Cold Skin

On the eve of the First World War, a young man travels to an isolated Antarctic lighthouse to serve as a meteorologist. He discovers that the previous meteorologist died under mysterious circumstances, and that the lighthouse keeper with whom he will share the island is keeping a strange amphibious humanoid as a kind of pet/sex slave. Every night, hordes of the humanoids rise from the waves and attack the lighthouse, and the keeper and meteorologist must fight for their lives.

I expected something a little more like “Shadow Over Innsmouth,” but this feels a little more like “Avatar” (albeit quite a bit darker and gorier). There are some gorgeous scenes of the stark Antarctic island, and the underwater scenes are impressive, but the large-scale battles feel clunkily animated.

The Canal

An archivist becomes obsessed with a 100-year-old film that documents a crime that occurred at his home. Meanwhile, his wife has gone missing, and it comes to light that she was having an affair. He begins to lose his grip on sanity, believing that there is something in the house that can only be seen through an old movie camera that is responsible for both the long-ago crime and his wife’s disappearance.

This is a good atmospheric movie, with a few scary moments (particularly when the archivist’s young son is threatened by the ghosts) and some good plunging-into-madness hysteria from the lead actor. And the ending is nightmarish and unsettling, a final dive into insanity. Overall a nice little ghost story.

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

When Nancy entered a mysterious door in the basement, she found herself in the Halls of the Dead, where stillness and silence are valued above all else. Now returned to the noise and bustle of our world, she has been sent to Eleanor West’s school for children who were “lost” in various fairy lands, skeleton kingdoms, and realms of magic. All of the students (and their teachers) long to return “home” to those magical worlds, while struggling to learn to live in the mundane. As if that weren’t enough of a challenge, though, there’s also a killer stalking the school.

This is a short but rich novella, with a fascinating underlying theory of portal worlds, described along axes of Nonsense and Logic, Virtue and Wickedness. All of the characters traveled to different worlds, and are shaped by the experience in unique ways; their stories are only briefly sketched, but tantalizingly. And though the book is able to stand alone as the story of Nancy’s role in bringing an end to the murders at the Home for Wayward Children, it also launches a collection of stories exploring the other worlds that are hinted at here.

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