Michael Hartford

writer, photographer, programmer, dad

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Ruin Me

Alexandra joins her boyfriend Nathan on a “Slasher Sleepout” weekend, where participants are treated to a thrilling camping trip being stalked by a killer. But the fake killer may be all too real …

There are twists within twists within twists in this movie; it seems to be going in one direction, then abruptly goes in another, and just when you think you have it figured out it all changes again. It has a “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” vibe, where we are both doubting the protagonist’s sanity and certain that she’s the only sane person on the screen. It’s a fun ride–not especially deep, not particularly daring, but fun.

High Tension

Marie goes to her friend Alexia’s isolated family farmhouse for the weekend. During the night, a psychopath attacks, murdering the family and kidnapping Alexia. Marie pursues the psychopath and tries to save Alexia.

This is a brutal movie, with terrific tension and horrific gore. The twist at the end doesn’t feel earned–it was certainly never set up in a way that could have tipped off even the most astute viewer–but I’m willing to forgive it for the unrelenting violence and psychic trauma that leads up to it. It’s on par with The Strangers for home invasion horror, and Raw for blood spatter and Francophone psychosexual terror.

The Reflecting Skin

A boy living in a farming community comes to suspect his neighbor, an English widow, is actually a vampire, who he suspects is responsible for the mysterious disappearance of two of his friends. After his father’s brutal suicide, the boy’s brother comes home and starts an affair with the neighbor, which the boy tries to disrupt when signs of the vampire’s effects on him become apparent.

This movie is strong on concept, but weak on execution. The ideas in it are really interesting–I like the way it slowly unfolds that the boy’s brother has been away in the Pacific during nuclear weapons testing, and the way he and his friends misinterpret the neighbor’s grief and isolation as signs of vampirism. But the acting is melodramatic, and some important plot points–in particular the friends’ abductions, and the father’s history of homosexuality and possible pedophilia–are left dangling.


Two high school boys skip school to drink, smoke, and goof off in an abandoned mental hospital. In the basement they find a woman chained naked to a table, apparently in a strange undead state. One boy wants to keep her as a sex slave, and one boy wants to liberate; both plans lead to gruesome consequences.

This movie has a similar vibe to The Corpse of Anna Fritz: toxic masculinity, the perils of peer pressure, borderline necrophilia. “Anna Fritz” is the better movie, with a much more satisfying conclusion, but “Deadgirl” has some moments of real tension and stays on-message without becoming preachy.

Undertow by Elizabeth Bear

Against a backdrop of corporate and political intrigue, environmental and cultural pillaging, and the unraveling of the very fabric of reality, an assassin, a knowledge broker, and a “conjure man” betray, bedevil, and bewilder each other and the powers behind the far-flung, watery outpost of Greene’s World.

There’s a lot going on in “Undertow,” and sometimes a bit too much. The book is rich with ideas about space travel, the interactions between humans and other species, the implications of ubiquitous cybernetics, and the manipulation of chance. Add in some fast-paced adventure, an intriguing setting on a watery world, and layered political manipulation, and it can be a lot to keep track of. It does pull together in the end, though, and the final chapter is riveting.

I especially liked that the aliens were truly alien, and not just people in funny costumes. Based on the biology of Earth amphibians, their drives, culture, and behavior are understandable, but clearly not human, and the failure of humans to understand them, and their very different sense of community and history, propels much of the action.

Don’t Leave Home

An American artist who has made a series of dioramas of the scenes of mysterious disappearances is invited to the Irish home of a former priest involved in one of the vanishings, and is commissioned to create a model of a grotto near his house. The priest’s assistant has strange ulterior motives in the invitation, and the priest is unable to warn the artist of the danger she’s in.

Woodsy grottoes, statues of Mary, lush bogs, a creepy old house, and constant rain provide the mood for this movie. It’s really much more mood than plot that moves this story along, with its constant movement between dreaming and waking and the dreary atmosphere. Overall a good movie, with a few creepy moments and an interesting premise, but it wraps up a little too neatly and never really provides any scares.

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.

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