Michael Hartford

writer, photographer, programmer, dad

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Daily Horror Movie: Spider Baby

Spider Baby

Spider Baby

Relatives seeking control of the family estate invade the strange solitude of the last generation of the Merrye family, three siblings afflicted with a regressive disorder that has made them morally and intellectually stunted, overseen by their kindly but ineffectual chauffeur Bruno. Things don’t go particularly well for anyone involved.

If John Waters had directed a Universal monster movie, something like “Spider Baby” would have been the result. Though soaked in camp–creepy cobwebs, spiders, rats, and horrific things in the basement–the cast plays it mostly straight, without the knowing winks of so many horror comedies. (Though the references to the Wolfman are a nice touch, given that Lon Chaney, Jr., plays the apparently harmless Bruno.) The performances of the three “children” are over the top and unhinged while frighteningly believable. This is a weird, fun little movie that deserves its cult status.

Daily Horror Movie: Train to Busan

Train to Busan

Train to Busan

A father and daughter board a train from Seoul to Busan just as a fast-spreading disease that turns people into ravenous zombies breaks out. The train is both a death trap and a life line as car after car is overrun, and unlikely alliances against the zombies are formed.

This movie feels much shorter than two hours: it’s fast-paced, intense, and terrifying, with just enough suspense to keep you on the edge of your seat and rooting for the scrappy band of zombie fighters. There’s very little dialogue, and most of the characters are nameless, at least in the subtitles, but they are interesting and likeable. Like every zombie movie, this one is in some ways an answer to Night of the Living Dead: the people fighting the zombies bicker about strategies, seeing your friends and loved ones become zombies is horrifying, and the authorities are as much a danger as the zombies in the battle to restore order. That the mayhem plays out in an orderly and hierarchical culture adds another layer of terror, and the claustrophobic setting in zombie-filled train cars is a different kind of terror than the shambling hordes that overrun the Pennsylvania farmhouse in “Night of the Living Dead.”

Daily Horror Movie: Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead

Night of the Living Dead

Seven people are trapped in an isolated farmhouse during a zombie apocalypse. As deadly as the shambling, hungry dead outside are, the real danger comes from themselves.

I probably haven’t seen this movie for 30 years, but I felt that it still held up. Its choppy, grainy look gives it a kind of timelessness, and while the acting, special effects, and premise are fair to preposterous, the core ideas are solid; every zombie movie since “Night of the Living Dead” is in some way a response this wonderful, horrible, thoroughly original film.

Daily Horror Movie: Hold the Dark

Hold the Dark

Hold the Dark

A naturalist goes to Alaska to search for a wolf pack that took a boy. But he discovers that wolves are not the most dangerous thing in the village of Keelut.

This is a laconic movie full of snow and guns and men in plaid. There are wolves and native witches and masks, and one of the most violent shootouts I’ve seen since the second season of “True Detective.” (Actually, I just rewatched the “True Detective” shootout, and the one in “Hold the Dark” is much more intense in its tightly-contained area and focus.) It’s gory and dark and senseless and brutal and I loved it. There’s a lot of subtext going on here, making us question things like love and vengeance and what makes us human. It’s just this side of “American Werewolf in Alaska” without sliding over the line to straight-up supernatural horror.

(Also, Letterboxd and IMDB don’t list its genre as “horror”; dude, this is totally a horror movie …)

Daily Horror Movie: Malevolent

Malevolent

Malevolent

A brother and sister have a good scam going, pretending to be paranormal investigators who can banish the ghosts from their clients’ homes. But then they come across a home, and a client, who are not what they expected.

Meh. There were some good things about this movie: I liked the nightmare of the eyeless mother, the character of the alcoholic Scottish grandfather (who disappears from the film pretty early on), the creepy schoolgirl ghosts, the conflicted heroine. But it was largely predictable from the start of the scenario. Good production and decent acting in service of a forgettable story.

Daily Horror Movie: Unsane

Unsane

Unsane

A woman visits a psychiatric clinic and through a combination of malfeasance and bureaucracy finds herself involuntarily committed. While trying to make the system see reason, she discovers that she has been followed into the hospital by the man who has been stalking her for the last two years, and he has some well-thought-out plans for her future.

This is a horror movie for 2018: insurance scams, undercover reporters, stalkers, toxic masculinity, bureaucratic nightmares, opioids–it has many of the real horrors of the current age in such over-the-top doses that it’s painfully realistic. If there had been a little politics thrown in, it would have been just a bit too much.

I like that Sawyer (played by Claire Foy) is abrasive and rude and kind of unlikable; it made me root for her as a character, though I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like her as a co-worker. Her stalker, David (played by Joshua Leonard), is a completely detestable “incel” type, which also seems right for this movie: finding something to like about him would have ruined an incredibly satisfying ending.

The gimmick of the movie (because every movie these days needs a gimmick, I guess) is that it was shot on an iPhone; except for the intimate, handheld feel of the movie, it doesn’t really have much of an impact (which may be a testament to the improving quality of smartphone video more than anything else). Overall, I thought this was a nice little psychological horror movie with some dark satire running under it, well worth a watch.

Daily Horror Movie: Ringu

Ringu

Ringu

After watching a strange videotape, four teenagers mysteriously die. A reporter, and aunt of one of the teens, investigates the rumors and urban legends that are growing up around the mystery, and finds herself embroiled in a deadly curse that threatens not only her life but that of her young son.

I loved the way this movie mixed a sense of ancient dread with contemporary urban legend. The idea of a ghost that can reach from beyond the grave and into videotapes and Polaroid cameras is surprisingly chilling. This movie is all atmosphere, with no jump scares (though the ghost girl crawling out of the television near the end is a shocking and terrifying image): lots of darkness and rain and shadows.

Daily Horror Movie: Torso

Torso

Torso

Female students at an Italian university are stalked by a mysterious killer. Four of them go to a secluded villa to escape the tension and terror in the city, but (surprise!) the terror follows them.

This movie has it all: Renaissance art history, bell bottoms, miniskirts, Mini Coopers, a hippie drug party, a masked strangler/slasher (five years before and an ocean away from “Halloween”), Technicolor blood, and lots of boobs. The first half is classic “giallo”: there are murders, and clues, and all the clues point to … well, pretty much all the men around the university. When the three friends (plus one, who arrives later) decamp to the countryside, we get a brief sex farce interlude, with the local yokels comically enamored of the sexy urban ladies, some lesbian interludes, and some nude sunbathing. But the last thirty minutes are truly harrowing, as the “final girl” first tries to keep her presence hidden from the slasher, then tries to signal for help in the town, and finally makes a break for it once the slasher’s identity is established.

Giallo movies tend to be a hot mess of blood and sex and plot holes, and this is no exception; but if you take a deep breath and go along for the ride, it’s a great ride, especially the last half hour.

This movie wasn’t streaming on any of the premium platforms (pity!), but I found it on YouTube as a not-bad dubbed movie with a mix of good and bad (mostly bad …) subtitles. My Italian isn’t good (my only successful transaction was negotiating an extra night at a pensione in Florence on my honeymoon about 20 years ago), but my English is good enough to know that there was something seriously amiss in some of the dialogue. Turn on the subtitles for the lecture on Renaissance art at the beginning (there’s actually some good foreshadowing there), and when the doctor is driving with the local woman in his (beautiful!) VW bug, but otherwise ride along with the dubbing and don’t look too closely at anyone’s mouths.

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.)

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