Michael Hartford

writer, photographer, programmer, dad

Author: Michael Hartford (page 3 of 9)

A Field in England

A band of deserters from the English Civil War are compelled by an alchemist (with the assistance of some psychedelic mushrooms) to dig a hole in search of buried treasure. Things get weird.

This is a strange and disorienting movie, cycling through almost Monty Python-like slapstick, psychological torture, mysticism, and historical re-enactment. There’s bawdy humor, grim death by musket, stinging nettles, and some frightening screams.

The Alchemist Cookbook

Sean lives in a trailer in the woods with his cat Kaspar, working on alchemical experiments with plans to raise a demon and gain worldly wealth. His sanity and health deteriorate, and worldly wealth certainly does not follow from his efforts.

I enjoyed this quiet, sad little movie. Sean is strange but likeable, and his dreams of wealth–a mansion in the woods filled with Doritos, Gatoraide, and Little Debbie snacks–are charming in their pathetic lack of imagination. His past is never explained, but there are hints that suggest he’s not running away from much happiness. His decline, probably sped by the fact that he can’t find the psychiatric meds that his friend Cortez delivered along with some groceries, is sad to watch.

Whether or not he was successful in raising a demon is unclear; he sees things, but those may be his psychosis at work. There were certainly metaphorical demons at play in his mind. It’s an interesting contrast to A Dark Song, another movie about raising demons and being surprised at what responds.

The People Under the Stairs

When 13-year-old “Fool”‘s family is threatened with eviction, he joins a pair of robbers who are planning an ill-conceived heist of the landlord’s house. The home, however, is an insane fortress with mutilated cannibals imprisoned in the basement by a pair of deranged siblings.

This movie is over the top in so many ways: a wild mix of horror, comedy, and satire, with an angry political vein just under the surface. There are some tense moments, particularly when Fool and Alice are chased through the walls by the shotgun-wielding landlord, and some comic slapstick routines. Tonally uneven, but a fun and wild ride.

Velvet Buzzsaw

An assistant at an LA art gallery discovers a cache of strange and disturbing paintings when her reclusive neighbor dies. The paintings become the focus of much interest among art collectors and dealers, but they may be much more unconventional than most outsider art.

The characters in “Velvet Buzzsaw” are all delightfully unlikeable (except Coco, I liked Coco), driven by ambition and greed. And the ends that they meet are delightfully grim, and entirely deserved, giving the movie the feel of a kind of revenge fantasy. But the artist behind the deadly artwork seems to be as horrific as his output, so rooting for the mayhem feels a bit awkward. All in all, I enjoyed this movie for its wit, stylish design (it has moments that feel like the most hallucinatory moments in Argento’s “Three Mothers” films), and not-so-subtle satire. Also for John Malkovich, who basically plays John Malkovich.

The Case of the Bloody Iris (Why Are There Strange Drops of Blood on Jennifer’s Body?)

Jennifer is a fashion model on the run from her estranged husband and a sex cult. She moves into an apartment building with a friend where two women were recently murdered, one in the same apartment. Murders continue as a killer stalks Jennifer.

This is probably about as pure a giallo as could possibly exist: beautiful victims, stylish settings, many red herrings and misdirections (at least three potential suspects crop up besides the actual killer, two of whom meet their own demise), and a good deal of blood. Giallo fans will recognize many of the actors, and will not be terribly surprised at the outcome. Credulity is stretched to the breaking point (right after we see Mizar [Carla Brait] beat the crap out of a big guy without breaking a sweat, we see her go down to the stalker’s single karate chop to the neck?), but if you suspend your disbelief and go along for the ride, this is a fun movie. (Well, except for the raging misogyny and not-too-subtle racism that crops up throughout; it is definitely a product of its time and place.)

All the Colors of the Dark

Jane is tormented by her mother’s murder when she was a child, by a recent car crash that claimed her unborn child, and by terrifying nightmares of a blue-eyed knife-wielding killer. Her husband recommends vitamins, her sister recommends psychotherapy, and her neighbor recommends participation in a Black Mass.

The first half of the movie, in which Jane is stalked by a silent blue-eyed man who may or may not be a figment of her imagination, is better than the second half, after she starts to participate in a Satanic cult’s ritual orgies and plunges deeper into insanity. But it’s still a solidly tense and unsettling movie that shifts between dream and reality, keeping the viewer off balance and delightfully confused. Though the director and most of the actors worked in the giallo genre, this is far more gothic than giallo in tone, with its dreams, mysterious castle, and dark occult activities. The movie wraps up like a giallo, though, a little too neatly, with the dastardly plot exposed; it would have been a more satisfying film if things had been left a bit more mysterious and unexplained.

Strip Nude for Your Killer

After a fashion model dies during an abortion, people linked to her modeling agency start to die at the hands of a heavy-breathing killer dressed in black leather.

This is a paint-by-numbers giallo, with plenty of blood, boobs, red herrings, and scenery-chewing over-acting. The male lead is incredibly creepy, and incredibly lacking in self-awareness; the female lead, played by Edwige Fenech, is smart and savvy except in her choice of romantic partner (see above creepy male lead). It teeters on the precipice of being a sex farce, but manages some moments of real tension (as when Magda is alone in the photography studio). It’s not a great introduction to giallo–“Tenebre” and “Torso” are better movies, and better representatives of unhinged Italian slasher gems–but it’s definitely a much-watch for fans.

Ghostkeeper

Three friends snowmobiling in the Canadian Rockies become stranded at an apparently abandoned hotel. But the hotel is not abandoned: a mysterious old woman lives there, and she’s not alone.

This is a spooky little movie that moves along at just the right pace; it doesn’t do anything particularly new or surprising, but it delivers exactly what the packaging promises, which is what one wants from a ghost story on a cold night. And while the sets and costumes definitely show their time period (late ’70s/early ’80s hair and snowmobile suits are awesome!), the movie has a timeless feeling.

Life After Beth


Zach’s girlfriend Beth miraculously returns from the dead, but she’s a little different now …

This movie works only so far as Aubrey Plaza’s performance gives it some soul. Her mix of quirkiness and rage gives depth to an otherwise slapstick parody of zombie apocalypse movies that feels like a sketch comedy stretched well past its breaking point. It has its enjoyable moments, and is sometimes genuinely funny, but doesn’t quite deliver on its promise.

The Girl with All the Gifts

At a military lab besieged by zombie-like “hungries,” a team of scientists and soldiers experiment on children infected by the fungus that creates the hungries to try to find a cure. The lab is overrun and a small group of survivors flees with one of the children reluctantly in tow; in the post-apocalyptic landscape overrun with hungries, a terrifying vision of the future emerges.

This is a nice entry in the zombie apocalypse genre, with an interesting take on the cause of zombieism (a fungal infection similar to Ophiocordyceps unilateralis), some strong characters (particularly the girl Melanie), and a thought-provoking ending. It clearly owes a debt to “Day of the Dead,” but its characters are less black-and-white, and the acting is quite a bit better. While there are certainly credulity gaps, as in all such movies, the logic of the infection and responses to it holds together surprisingly well, and the ending is certainly surprising and satisfying.

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