Michael Hartford

writer, photographer, programmer, dad

Author: Michael Hartford (page 1 of 11)

Butter on the Latch

Two women leave the city behind for a camp in the woods where there are classes in Balkan folk music and dance. A budding romance creates tensions and some apparent fugue states.

This movie left me with more questions than answers, but not especially good questions. For one, why a Balkan folk culture camp? Neither woman expresses a particular interest in Balkan culture nor seems to be participating much in the classes; one of them seems to be able to pronounce the words in a Slavic song, but it’s never explained if she has any sort of relationship to the culture. And why “Balkan”? It’s a weird sort of pan-Balkan camp, spanning Greek to Serbian to Romanian; maybe “Balkan” is meant metaphorically, in that these women, who seem to share so much, are driven apart and isolated by the very things they share? Or could this have been set in any old camp to the same effect?

And why is the camera work so disorienting and occasionally evokes motion sickness? I understand that it was shot with a DSLR, so it was necessary for everything to be framed between an extreme closeup and about five feet away, and that the auto-focus gets gimpy when things move too fast (or move at all), but surely it was a choice not to use a tripod, or not to rent the appropriate gear?

From the synopsis I expected something like “The Wicker Man,” or what I expect the upcoming “Midsommar” to be: city people stumble into a pagan ritual where Dark Things Happen. And there were some moments of creeping dread and unsettling oddness, and the lighting, so bright and green, was characteristic of classic folk horror. But except for a conversation (to which Sarah is only half paying attention) about evil spirits that can inhabit animals or the landscape, there’s nothing to tie the events of the movie back to the milieu of the camp or the setting in the woods. Perhaps there is something magical going on here, but the main characters are too dense and self-absorbed to see it, and because we’re trapped in close-up with their perceptions we can’t see it either, and if the damned camera had pulled back just a few feet and been bolted onto a tripod and FOCUSED FOR ONE DAMNED SECOND, everything might have been made clear.


The Untamed

A woman befriends a male nurse in a small Mexican town, and introduces him and his sister to a tentacled creature in a remote cabin that offers both unspeakable pleasure and pain.

If H.P. Lovecraft wrote tele-novellas, this would have been the result: a blend of cosmic horror, family drama, and dangerous desire, with a fair bit of gore and skin. It’s interesting and disturbing, which is a good combination.

Lake Mungo

After 16-year-old Alice drowns on a family outing, her parents and brother experience unexplained sounds and discover secrets that Alice had buried.

Shot as a very believable documentary, “Lake Mungo” is a subtle exploration of grief, belief, secrets, time, and memory. It spools out its revelations slowly, with twists that force you to reconsider how you’ve been interpreting the story. Right through the credits there are misdirections and revelations that make this a quietly creepy and disturbing film.

What Metal Girls Are Into

Three women staying in a remote rental unit in the desert for a heavy metal festival make a gruesome discovery in the freezer, and find that the landlord and his friends have decidedly uncool intentions.

Fast, funny, and furious, with a good soundtrack and some crunchy kills. It delivers exactly what it promises on the box, in about 15 minutes, with wit and moxie.

The Battery

Mickey and Ben, a pitcher and catcher roaming through a post-apocalyptic New England landscape populated by slow-moving zombies, catch a hint of a possible haven over some purloined walkie-talkies. The mysterious voices they hear, though, don’t lead to salvation.

This 100 minute movie was about 80 minutes too long; I imagine that the world after a zombie apocalypse would indeed be incredibly dull, and that the survivors would tend to get on each others’ nerves, but one doesn’t watch a zombie apocalypse movie expecting the experience to be quite so tedious. I thought that the movie would finally pick up after an hour, when three additional living characters are introduced, but after a few minutes of real drama we get locked into an even more claustrophobic space with Mickey and Ben. I was rooting for the zombies toward the end, and even then was disappointed by a lackluster conclusion with a zombie hoard that can’t even catch a man who has been shot in the leg.

The Silence

Cave explorers unleash a hidden species of blind, ravenous, and accutely-hearing bat-like creatures, which wreak havoc on humankind. A family in New Jersey seeks to escape the noise of civilization, which attracts the flying monsters, and discover that sometimes humans can be just as dangerous.

This is “A Quiet Place” meets “The Birds” meets “Children of the Corn,” with a couple scenes of “The Strangers” and “Hunger Games” tossed in. The script telegraphs its intentions well in advance–not only Chekhov’s gun, but Chekhov’s drain pipe, rattle snake, inhaler, cigarette lighter, iPhone, and fire alarm; surprise is not the plan, I suppose. The cinematography is lovely, though, and the performances, particularly by Tucci and Shipka, are solid. Had it narrowed down its focus and not tried to toss in everything all at once, this could have been a good movie.

Ghost Stories

A professional psychic debunker is invited by his hero, a skeptic who disappeared years ago, to investigate three cases of the supernatural that appear to be inexplicable. He finds that it is the connection between the cases, rather than the facts themselves, that is the most disturbing.

This started off strong; I liked the windswept beach scene of the meeting between Goodman and Cameron, it looked very much like the setting of “I’ll Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” the classic tale of a skeptic’s comeuppance; and the first story, in a haunted abandoned asylum, had some jump scares that made me jump. The next two stories, though, didn’t grab me in the same way, and as the framing story took center stage and began to look like a setup to an allegorical lesson I was disappointed. But in the last five or ten minutes, all the strands are pulled together in an interesting, if not surprising, way, and I came away liking it a bit more than I thought I would at the 45 minute mark, though still a bit less than I thought I would 30 minutes in.

The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg

Four college boys — Eli, the scholarly Jew; Timothy, the debauched WASP; Oliver, the ambitious Kansas farmboy; and Ned, the wanton homosexual — travel Arizona over Easter break to visit a mysterious monastery that promises the gift of eternal life. Such a gift can only come at a terrible price.

The first two-thirds of this book are a bit of a slog; the characters are all pretty despicable, with casual misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Semitism sprinkled through their alternating first-person narrative chapters. The trip from their unnamed prestigious East Coast school to Arizona, by way of New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, Oklahoma, and Phoenix, is a dull procession of sexual escapades and hours on the road, with bits of their personal histories told in flashback. Spending so much time inside the heads of these characters, particularly Timothy, is grueling.

Once at the House of Skulls, things pick up a bit. The monastery is indeed mysterious, and their days are spent learning to meditate, working in the fields that provide food to the isolated house, and listening to the history of the order, which may derive from some ancient Atlantean cult, or may simply be a mad undertaking by men whose brains have been addled by too much desert sun. The inevitable conclusion, which has been hinted at since the beginning, comes abruptly and violently, and the mysteries of the Book of Skulls remain mysterious.

There are certainly rich and intriguing ideas scattered throughout “The Book of Skulls,” though maybe not quite enough to sustain a novel with the kinds of characters we’re given. I’m happy to leave Eli, Timothy, Oliver, and Ned to their desert fates, having spent a bit too much time rattling around in their unremarkable heads.

Starry Eyes

Sarah is a struggling Hollywood actress, going to degrading auditions while holding down a fast food job, until she gets a callback for a role that will come at a very steep price, both for herself and for her friends.

This movie starts off a little slow and slightly off kilter, with a very strange sequence of audition scenes and a very creepy producer whose intentions are far beyond merely “inappropriate.” It picks up steam, though, as Sarah starts to literally fall apart. The last twenty minutes or so are absolutely bonkers insane, with giallo-level gore, gruesome body horror as Sarah decays before our eyes, and a terrifying death and rebirth arc.

Mercy Black

As children, Marina and her friend Rebecca stabbed their friend Lily as an offering to “Mercy Black,” a mysterious creature that promises to take away their and their families’ pain. 15 years later, Marina has returned home from the psychiatric hospital, and so, it appears, has Mercy.

This is pretty clearly inspired by the 2014 Slender Man case, and (from what I’ve heard, as I haven’t suffered through it personally …) better than the “Slender Man” movie. There are some interesting ideas about belief explored, and about the spread of urban myths, and there’s good atmosphere, tension, and scares. The ending is a little loose, with a couple of surprising twists, and it ends on a much more nihilistic note than I expected.

I didn’t go into this movie with very high expectations – it’s a Blumhouse straight-to-streaming release – but I came away enjoying it quite a bit more than I expected to. Maybe not destined to be a classic, but definitely a fun rainy-day movie.

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