Michael Hartford

writer, photographer, programmer, dad

Tag: horror (page 1 of 3)

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.

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.

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.

The Void

A police officer finds a blood-covered man crawling along the side of the road, and rushes him to the hospital. Soon after he arrives, something starts to transform the patients and staff into monstrous and blood-thirsty creatures. When the survivors venture into the hospital’s mysterious sub-basement, they find that much is amiss.

This movie has some great body horror effects going on, and some impressive gore. It teeters between horror and science fiction, with some Satanic cult action tossed in, and that gets to be a bit much, but it delivers some good scares and cringes.

Cold Skin

On the eve of the First World War, a young man travels to an isolated Antarctic lighthouse to serve as a meteorologist. He discovers that the previous meteorologist died under mysterious circumstances, and that the lighthouse keeper with whom he will share the island is keeping a strange amphibious humanoid as a kind of pet/sex slave. Every night, hordes of the humanoids rise from the waves and attack the lighthouse, and the keeper and meteorologist must fight for their lives.

I expected something a little more like “Shadow Over Innsmouth,” but this feels a little more like “Avatar” (albeit quite a bit darker and gorier). There are some gorgeous scenes of the stark Antarctic island, and the underwater scenes are impressive, but the large-scale battles feel clunkily animated.

The Demon Lover

When his followers abandon him over a Satanic sex ritual, occult practitioner Laval Blessing conjures a demon to exact his revenge. Can Detective Frazetta crack the case and stop him before it’s too late? (Also, there’s a really awesome bar fight, and one of the cult members looks like Frank Zappa.)

Over the top horrible and campy, but also strangely fun and engaging. This was clearly made on as little budget as possible, and with an incredibly sparse script, but it leans into its subject and isn’t afraid to take the most asinine premise with utmost seriousness. Set your expectations low, and you’ll enjoy this little romp.

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