Michael Hartford

writer, photographer, programmer, dad

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Daily Horror Movie: A Dark Song

A Dark Song

A Dark Song

A woman grieving the loss of her son locks herself in a secluded house with a practitioner of black magic to perform grueling rituals meant to seek vengeance and forgiveness.

This is a hell of movie: it’s about the horrors of grief, loss, vengeance, and forgiveness, set within a dark and abusive relationship where neither party has any hope of getting what they want. Sophia is single-minded and focused on her goal, Solomon is damaged and flawed and consumed with his own agenda. There are really no traditional horror scares until the last twenty minutes, but it’s terrifying in its look into the nihilism at the core of both characters. It’s a very claustrophobic movie, locked inside a creaking, dark old house with two characters who are themselves locked into their consuming and impossible desires.

“A Dark Song” is also the perfect movie for a gloomy Twin Cities Marathon day; I couldn’t help but think of this day four years ago, when I did the marathon after months of plodding, consistent, ritualistic preparation. Pushing through the last six miles (a marathon is a 10K with a 20 mile warmup) was a lot like sitting in that charmed circle without eating or drinking for two days, or suffering through incantations with a festering knife wound and raging fever; there may have been demons dragging at me at some point, too. I can appreciate Sophia’s dedication to her stupidly single-minded goal despite all the urging of good sense.

Daily Horror Movie: We Are Not Alone

We Are Not Alone

We Are Not Alone

A family moves into an old house, where strange occurrences become increasingly disturbing. They enlist the help of a local priest (who makes it very clear that he is not, in fact, an exorcist), and unfortunate events ensue.

This a good enough haunted house/exorcism movie if you approach it on its own terms. It’s short (an hour and fifteen minutes), and there’s no fat at all in the storytelling: it gets right to the point and doesn’t spend any time on subplots or a lot of characterization. There are some genuinely creepy moments, especially in the hidden basement, and the haunting stays within the rules it establishes at the start. I kind of expected a little more–I’ve had good luck lately with Spanish-language horror–but this is a serviceable scary movie. (And I liked the call out to “The Changeling” with the ghostly ball.)

Two important takeaways: if you discover a secret basement in your house at 3 AM, you should probably wait until later in the day to explore it; and if the priest you’ve engaged to battle a demonic force in your house explicitly states that he’s not an exorcist, maybe ask around before committing. (Every Catholic diocese is required to have an exorcist on staff; when I had an internship at a diocesan office in college, I used to have coffee breaks with our exorcist, though I’m not sure he would actually have been a lot more effective in this case than poor Father Rafael.)

Daily Horror Movie: The Endless

The Endless

The Endless

Two brothers who left a UFO cult ten years ago are having trouble adjusting to the outside world. The younger brother decides to make a visit to the cult compound to find closure, and the older brother reluctantly joins him. They find that leaving again is much harder than they ever anticipated.

This is a relatively slow and subtle movie, with a lot of quiet revelation and no real scares. But it has a lot of horror, of the existential dread variety. Though there are little hints of something Lovecraftian going on (Lovecraft gets a name drop on the brothers’ first day at camp, there’s some talk of impossible and imperceptible colors, and there are hints of some unfeeling and inhuman power lurking just beyond perception), “The Endless” is much quieter than explicitly Lovecraftian movies like “Re-Animator” or “Alien.” This is the philosophical, nihilistic side of Lovecraft; deeply unsettling, skillfully shot, and with characters who are both believable and bizarre.

Daily Horror Movie: Green Room

Green Room

Green Room

A punk band touring dives in the Pacific Northwest get booked at a skinhead club. After their set (opened with a cover of “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”), they witness a murder backstage. And then things get progressively bad …

I really enjoyed this movie. It had the kind of propulsive energy you’d expect from a film about a punk band, and also a lot of very unsettling violence as the besieged band members square off against the neo-Nazis, and also a lot of wonderfully dark humor. The characters are well-rounded and likeable (at least the non-Nazi ones are likeable), which makes the gruesome violence that much more affecting.

Daily Horror Movie: Demonic

Demonic

Demonic

A team of ghost hunters explore an abandoned house and meet a fate eerily similar to the murders that happened there decades ago. A police detective and psychologist try to solve the mystery by interviewing the last known survivor.

Meh. This was a pretty predictable outing, mixing found-footage, possession, ghosts, and ax murders. The storytelling is somewhat interesting in the way it jumps between the time before the ghost hunters come to their awful end, and the investigators trying to piece it together, but that’s really the only noteworthy thing about this movie. It’s definitely not helped by the fact that the characters are largely unlikable and don’t seem to like each other very much; I looked forward to the lurking horror in the house doing them in just to put an end their constant sniping.

The ending was interesting and well-played, with a bit of a twist, but it doesn’t redeem “Demonic” from being an average and unremarkable bit of horror filler.

Daily Horror Movie: Several short, scary films

Work and errands prevented me from watching a full horror movie today (well, I did watch Trump’s Showdown on Frontline, which is a different sort of horror …). So I found a collection of very short (most under 5 minutes) scary movies to sample to ensure good nightmares tonight.

The ones I sampled where:

Lights Out by David Sandberg – nice little jump scare.

He Took His Skin Off For Me by Ben Aston (based on a story by Maria Hummer) – not so much a horror movie as a slipstream fantasy story, with some gruesomely beautiful aspects.

The Smiling Man by Michael Evans – actually, this is almost exactly the same film as “Lights Out,” but it’s still unnerving.

Mama by Andy and Barbara Muschietti – a short that sets up the full-length film of the same title, a couple of very intense minutes

Alexia by Andres Borghi – good reason to delete your Facebook account …

Daily Horror Movie: Borderlands

The Borderlands

The Borderlands

A team sent by the Vatican to investigate a miraculous claim at an English country church discover there’s far more beneath the the strange phenomena than they had imagined.

This is a “found footage” film, so lots of hand-held, head-mounted, herky-jerky scenes, not for the weak-of-stomach. The main characters–Gray, a secular (“I believe some things”) AV expert; Deacon, a gruff priest who may be a heretic and may also be a drunk; and Mark, the by-the-book leader of the team–have compelling chemistry and rich characterization, which is key to a good horror movie; you can’t help but like them, even the stick-up-his-ass Mark, and you don’t want terrible things to happen to them. The priest at the church, Father Crellick, is believable as both a misguided hoaxer and an innocent who has stumbled upon a terrible evil he cannot comprehend. The introduction of a mysterious Italian priest near the end was a bit much, but fit within the general “there are things the Catholic Church keeps hidden” vibe of the film.

A few loose ends were never tied up, particularly the animosity the villagers show to the team of investigator–are they in league with the evil at the church? Are their sympathies with Crellick? But the ending is satisfying (if at first terrifyingly claustrophobic and then Lovecraftian in its horror). All around an awesome and scary movie.

Daily Horror Movie: Emelie

Emelie

Emelie

The new babysitter is not what she seems …

When their usual sitter falls through, a couple hires an unknown sitter to watch their three children while they celebrate their anniversary. At first the kids like “Anna,” the new sitter, because she lets them do anything they want, but things start to take on an increasingly dark tone until they find themselves prisoners of a deranged woman who is planning to kidnap the youngest child to replace her own dead baby, and probably dispatch the older children in some gruesome and demented manner.

The first half of the movie was pretty good. The atmosphere was tense and uneasy, and Sarah Bolger plays the sitter’s gradual descent into madness very believably. But there were a few too many plot holes: when the old sitter comes to check on them, why don’t the kids make a break for it? If the oldest boy can escape to the backyard tree house to meet up with his friend (in what felt like the setup to a “Goonies”/”Stranger Things” scenario that never happens), why can’t he escape to a neighbor to alert an adult? And who is the male accomplice who dies in an ill-conceived attempt to delay the parents’ return? The slow build-up of the first half feels rushed and slipshod in the second.

Netflix gave this to me in a list of recommendations surrounded by horror movies, but I’m not sure this quite qualifies. It’s more a psychological thriller in the mold of “Single White Female” or “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”–it has some tense and frightening moments, but lacks the intensity I expect of a true horror movie.

Daily Horror Movie: Angel Heart

Angel Heart

Angel Heart

Private detective Harry Angel is hired to trace the whereabouts of former crooner Johnny Favorite, who disappeared after World War II, by a mysterious gentleman with whom Favorite has a contract on which a debt is due. Favorite’s trail leads Angel to New Orleans, where he finds much voodoo, blood, and sex, and a surprising conclusion to his search.

I saw this movie when it first came out, under quite a bit of controversy because it just squeaked by with an R rating after the sex scene was edited down by 10 seconds. It was one of the first R-rated movies I saw on my own, having turned 17 a few months before it came out, and I remember the transgressive thrill of the juxtaposition of sensuality and gore was a big part of its appeal. I’ve probably seen it once or twice since–it relies on a (somewhat clunky and obvious) twist for some of its appeal–and I was surprised that it still holds up more than 30 years later. Some of the soundtrack has an ’80s smooth jazz feel that is a bit dated (though the music in New Orleans is great), but the acting is solid, the atmosphere is perfectly executed, and the story is still enjoyable.

Without the voodoo trappings and supernatural twists, this would be a pretty standard murder mystery story, perhaps something that Jim Thompson or James Ellroy would write. But without the voodoo and the devil, it wouldn’t be “Angel Heart,” and the world would be a somewhat drabber place.

Daily Horror Movie: As Above, So Below

As Above, So Below

As Above, So Below

An adventurous archeologist descends into the catacombs below Paris with a ragtag team of urban spelunkers in search of the Philosopher’s Stone, and discovers a terrifying netherworld of personal horror.

There’s a lot about this movie that should have made it a failure. The idea is hackneyed and derivative, stealing equal parts from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Tomb Raider,” “The Descent,” and “The DaVinci Code”; the characters are predictable tropes; the “clues” they find are laughably ludicrous; it feels like a “found footage” movie, with most of the cameras affixed to the characters’ heads, but it breaks its own cinematography rules whenever it’s convenient. But I absolutely loved it!

It feels like a classic D&D dungeon crawl, with a party of rogues seeking treasure while beset with traps and demons. They all have their own motives for being there–the lure of riches, the thirst for knowledge, haunted pasts–and they all find something different in the catacombs. Some meet gruesome and surprising ends, and as thin as the characterization was, I felt bad for them; I think that was largely because the cast were so enthusiastic and committed to the preposterous setup that I couldn’t help but be equally enthusiastic and committed.

A great movie? No, but a seriously fun movie. A horror movie? Well, there’s at least one great jump-scare, and some pretty gruesome scenes, but it probably belongs more with “Raiders of the Lost Ark” than “The Descent.” Certainly a movie worth a watch.

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