Michael Hartford

writer, photographer, programmer, dad

The Autopsy of Jane Doe

A beautiful, mysterious corpse is discovered half-buried in the basement at the scene of a horrific crime. A father and son team of coroners unravel her history as they disassemble her body, and unleash a vengeful terror.

There are aspects of body horror as well as historical score-settling in this tight, tense story. The movie becomes darker and darker as layers of “Jane Doe” are (literally) peeled away and the awful history her body has to tell is revealed.

City of Ash and Red by Hye-young Pyun (translated by Sora Kim-Russell)

An unnamed man travels to an unnamed country to take on an unspecified role at his employer’s home office. The foreign country is in the midst of political and social upheaval, spurred on by an apparently virulent but possibly harmless (except for the paranoia it engenders) plague. Through a series of misfortunes, misunderstandings, and mis-remembered crimes, the man finds himself exiled to a rat-filled sewer in a foreign country, slowly losing his identity.

This is a grim, uncomfortable book. Many of the reviews have compared it to Kafka, and that’s certainly fitting: there’s faceless bureaucracy as in “The Castle,” a sense of paranoia as in “The Trial,” the weirdness of a foreign land as in “Amerika,” dissolution of the self as in “The Metamorphosis”, and the dissolution of society as in “An Old Manuscript.” Unlike a typical Kafka protagonist, though, the man in this story is drenched in guilt and part of his dissolution is an embrace of the worst, most inhuman parts of himself.

Rats, monkeys, garbage, knives (sharp and blunt), blood, and foul smells pervade the novel’s imagery. It’s a fascinating descent into horror; hardly a pleasant read, but a powerful one.

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

NOS4A2

Charlie Manx prowls the secret roads between our world and an evil Christmasland of the mind in his Rolls-Royce Wraith, searching for children to “rescue.” Vic McQueen, psychically damaged by both her own abilities to travel those secret roads (first on her childhood bicycle, then on a restored Triumph motorcycle) and by an earlier encounter with Manx, needs to catch Manx to rescue her son.

“NOS4A2” moves along at a brisk clip, built as it is around Vic as both pursuer and pursued. It’s a lot like a classic Stephen King novel, jam packed with pop culture references (as well as references , both overt and subtle, to other Joe Hill and Stephen King stories), and full of broadly drawn, over-the-top characters. While it certainly doesn’t break new ground in the horror epic genre–“Talisman,” for instance, was more original in its world-hopping, and some of the spooks in “20th Century Ghosts” are more unsettling than Charlie Manx (though the Gas Mask Man is certainly a high point in chilling characters …)–it’s solidly written and holds the reader’s interest. I especially like that the magic in the book comes at a steep cost for its practitioners–no one can hop between worlds without suffering cumulative damage. The denouement is a little too tidy, but I’m glad that it ends on a happy note after so much pain, especially in the last 150 pages or so.

The Witch at the Window

A father and his estranged tween son plan to stay at a dilapidated Vermont farm house that the farmer is repairing, perhaps to flip, perhaps to offer as a gesture of reconciliation to his estranged wife. The house is not unoccupied, though, and its inhabitant craves company.

This is a subtly unnerving movie. There are only a couple of entirely predictable jump scares; the horror unfolds slowly, as the real and imaginary blur and switch places. It plays with perception and memory to put the viewer off balance, and while the ending is a little maudlin, it is overall a refreshingly quiet and original ghost story.

Fast Eddie, King of the Bees – Robert Arellano

It dawned on me rather late in the book – around page 140 or so, as the crazy train narrative was just about to leap its last rails – that there was a shaggy-dog retelling of a well-known tragedy at the heart of this book, full of groan-inducing puns. I think I was blinded to it by the word play and madcap picaresque; or maybe I was supposed to miss it, just as the eponymous narrator misses it right to the end, and all the pieces start to fall into place, and then fall out of place again, because it was all a three-card monte misdirection after all.

Set in a near-future hellscape version of Boston (“The Beast”) of hyperinflation, packs of street urchins, underground squatter cities, and gated New Jersey suburbs, “Fast Eddie” is a playful, crazy, inventive story in the tradition of “Huck Finn,” “Tom Jones,” and “The Good Soldier Svjek.” The hero-narrator gets into scrape after crazy scrape, each one more inescapable than the last, and somehow climbs this ladder of chaos to the top of the underground Dig City. It’s best read the way you watch a Bugs Bunny cartoon, with critical faculties turned off and disbelief fully suspended. Energetic and frenetic to the very end, and a tour-de-force of alliteration and silly puns, this is an entertaining and engaging ride of a book.

Icelandic Horror Movie: Grafir og Bein (Graves and Bones)

On the weekend before he’s to be sentenced for financial fraud, Gunnar goes with his wife Sonja to a remote house where Gunnar’s niece Perla is staying after the apparent suicide of her parents. Strange things start to happen, seemingly centered on the little girl and the house’s tragic history.

I watched this in part to prepare for a trip to Iceland: I’ve read the tour guides and restaurant reviews and even done a few lessons in Icelandic, so I wanted to get a glimpse into Iceland’s culture through a horror movie. A few things I took away: Icelanders drink a lot of coffee and wear a lot of sweaters, they don’t talk a whole lot, and they’re incapable of distinguishing a real little girl from an evil ghost. It was useful to hear spoken Icelandic, and I enjoyed picking up the handful of words (45 or so, according to the app I’ve been using) that are in my extremely limited vocabulary.

The story was a little sketchy, with gaps in the plot that didn’t seem to be just a matter of translation. At the end, it was unclear how much of the haunting was real, and how much was in Gunnar’s head. All in all an enjoyable movie, but I think it could have done with some editing for clarity.

Holiday Horror Movies: Into the Dark: Pooka!

Into the Dark: Pooka!

An actor gets a gig as a live version of this year’s viral Christmas toy, a stuffed critter named “Pooka” that will repeat back what you’ve said to it, in a “naughty” or “nice” voice. He gets a bit too caught up in the role, though, and when the toys are recalled because they’re creepily malfunctioning, things go a bit off the rails …

This was an enjoyable enough story, with some nice tense moments and a bit of gore, but it in the end it’s revealed to be a take on “12 Days of Christine,” the “Inside No. 9” episode, and isn’t quite as effective: it can’t be as poignant, and doesn’t even manage to be as scary (the Halloween scene in “12 Days” put me on edge …), but it’s still pretty solid as a sort of “Black Mirror” take on fame, ambition, and fads.

Daily (Holiday?) Horror Movie: The Strangers

The Strangers

The Strangers

Things don’t go as planned for James when he pops the question to Kristen at their friends’ wedding, but things go far beyond just awkward at James’ dad’s isolated cabin when a trio of psychopaths intrude upon the discomfort.

I found myself marveling at the theory of self displayed by the intruders: sometimes it seemed as if they were fully aware of the perception of their victims, and sometimes it seemed as if they were surprisingly unaware of what their victims might see. Almost as if their awareness might be impacted by plot points or jump scares …

All in all, I found this a mostly enjoyable home invasion horror; and I’m counting as a holiday horror only because I think my own in-law holidays would be greatly improved by some home invasion terror … The nihilism behind the assault — the trio assaulted the victims because “you were home” — makes it that much more terrifying.

Really, the only thing scarier than the invasion itself is behind discovered by a pair of teen-age evangelists; please let my corpse disicate for a few weeks before the Witnesses or Mormons call it in …

Daily (Holiday?) Horror Movie: Better Watch Out

Better Watch Out

Better Watch Out

Luke has a crush on his babysitter, Ashley, and when their home is invaded by a masked man with a gun while Luke’s parents are at a Christmas party, things get progressively bad …

This is a home invasion horror with a twist. The enjoyment really depends on that twist, and I certainly don’t want to spoil it for people who are coming to this without having run into buzz about the twist, so I won’t say much more than that. I came in without having heard any buzz about it, and I was fully expecting a typical babysitter-saves-the-kids story that would get a “meh” rating; it’s a heck of a lot better than I expected.

Watch it, but don’t tell anyone about it!

Daily Horror Movie: Inferno

Inferno

Inferno

A man travels from Rome to New York to investigate his sister’s apartment building, which she is convinced is related to a mysterious book, “The Three Mothers.” No mysteries are solved, but lots of weird shit happens.

This isn’t a holiday movie; it’s a followup to “Susperia,” a favorite of mine, and I decided it would be a better watch tonight than a creepy Santa Claus movie. And it was, even though it’s weirder than “Susperia” (which ranks in the top 10 of weird movies I’ve seen).

There’s not much of a plot, at least not one that makes any sense, and there are bizarre events that can only be described as dream-like. It’s more of a visual poem than a film, with echoing imagery of water, wind, fire, slamming doors, cats, and blood, interspersed with brutal murders and suspenseful chases. I’m sure there’s an underlying reason to everything that happens, but I found it was more fun to just accept it, as one might a strange dream, and go along for the ride. You’re in good, if not safe, hands with Dario Argento.

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