Michael Hartford

writer, photographer, programmer, dad

Author: Michael Hartford (page 1 of 10)

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.

Vacancy

A couple leaves the interstate to avoid a backup, run into car problems after a racoon encounter, and end up at a seedy motel for the night. Then things get unpleasant.

This is very much in the same vein as “The Strangers,” if a little less nihilistic (the villains in this case at least have a major snuff film operation, whereas the villains in “The Strangers” are just in it for the LOLs). Lots of tension, quite a few jumps, surprisingly little by way of on-screen gore and violence but a terribly dark premise. While not technically a “home invasion” movie, it definitely has all the tropes, and would stand up well in a double bill with “The Strangers,” “Better Watch Out,” and “Hush.” Highly recommended for fans of killers trying to barge through locked doors.

Love, Death, and Robots

“Love, Death, and Robots” consists of 18 unrelated short science fiction and fantasy films, all under 20 minutes and most animated rather than live action. Their quality varies wildly, from sublime to ridiculous; most look and feel like the video game trailers that sometimes pop up in the advertisements of the ridiculous CW superhero shows that I love to watch.

There were seven that I really liked–“Three Robots,” “Helping Hand,” “Ice Age,” “Sonnie’s Edge,” “Beyond the Aquila Rift,” “Good Hunting,” and “The Witness.” These had interesting stories, characters, and animation styles, and seemed to be more than just video game trailers. And there were a couple–“Shape-Shifters” and “The Secret War”–that I thought were just abysmal, with no effort to rise above the genre. The rest might have had a few interesting aspects–for example, Samira Wiley’s performance in “Lucky 13,” and the animation in “Fish Night”–but were mostly predictable and frankly dull.

Most also had gratuitous nudity to make them seem more “edgy” than they really were. Nudity was appropriate and used well in “Sonnie’s Edge” and “The Witness,” but in the rest it seemed to be there mostly for the “NSFW” vibe. The violence was pretty much over the top, too, but not really out of place given the subject matter; some of it, particularly in “Sonnie’s Edge,” was grueling and effective.

Overall, this series reminded a lot of “Heavy Metal,” though without the loose unifying structure that the orb provided in that movie. I haven’t seen “Heavy Metal” in years, and I suspect that on re-watching it I’d find the same things to criticize, though it was a pretty awesome movie for a 14-year-old boy’s tastes; which seems to be the audience most of “Love, Death, and Rockets” was targeting as well.

Sacrifice

After suffering a series of miscarriages, an American doctor moves to her husband’s family’s estate on a remote Scottish island, with plans to adopt a child from a yet-more-remote island equipped with a state-of-the-art obstetric hospital for unwed mothers. When she discovers a bog body on her property, though, a grim mystery involving matricide and a patriarchal cult begins to unravel.

There are a lot of silly things about this movie that even the most intentional suspension of disbelief cannot overcome. I can accept that the doctor is good at detective work, but her handling of both a backhoe and a boat on a choppy North Sea channel are a bit hard to take. And I completely missed how the police sergeant who helps her with her investigation went from six weeks pregnant to giving birth to a pretty large baby in what seemed no more than a day or two in movie time. Based on a novel, it would seem that the film had to do some major time dilation to get its story to fit into an hour and a half.

Still, I enjoyed this movie more than I disliked it. Radha Mitchell, as the doctor, and Joanne Crawford, as the police sergeant, both give solid performances; the scenery is starkly beautiful; and the last 15 minutes is pretty awesomely unhinged, with more tension and drama than I anticipated. It’s not a complete waste of 90 minutes, and if you’ve already seen “The Wicker Man,” “The Apostle,” and “Harvest Home,” you might as well watch this take on creepy-fertility-rites-in-an-isolated-community tale.

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.

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