Michael Hartford

writer, photographer, programmer, dad

Tag: horror (page 1 of 4)

Into the Dark: All That We Destroy

Geneticist Victoria hits on a novel, if ethically problematic, way to help her son Spencer work through his violent impulses. The experiment doesn’t go as planned.

This was a solid offering in the Blumhouse “Into the Dark” series: not as good as “Pooka” or “New Year, New You,” but better than “Down” and “Treehouse.” It drags a bit in the middle–it feels like it could have been about an hour long with a tighter script–but delivers some interesting ideas and a tense final act.


When a giant monster attacks Manhattan during his going-away party, Rob defies the evacuation to go back into the city rescue his girlfriend Beth, with his camera-toting friend Hudson right behind him.

I grew up watching badly-dubbed Japanese monster movies that ran on Saturday afternoons after cartoons, and I recall the cinematography being comprised of long static shots of lumbering beasts smashing cardboard cities, with very few close-ups of the human victims of the mayhem. “Cloverfield” undercuts the conventions by focusing almost exclusively on the human carnage, with shots so close-up to be dizzying to the point of nausea, and no context provided for the chaos and destruction. The characters are in no position to know what’s going on, and so we as the audience are left in the dark as well. We are trapped in the “fog of war,” directionless and dizzy, just trying to make our way through the rubble.

I liked the conceit of the video tape palimpsest, with little glimpses of a very different day not so long ago when Rob and Beth had a much less terrifying adventure on Coney Island. The juxtapositions made the characters more interesting, and their present condition more harrowing.

The Perfection

Charlotte, a former cello prodigy who had to give up music to care for her dying mother, seeks out her former teachers and their new protege, Elizabeth. But Charlotte has more than music on her mind.

This didn’t go where I thought it would go, and it got there by way of some suspect routes, but overall I enjoyed it. It’s very much a suspend-all-disbelief story that relies on some ludicrous assumptions, but the performances by Allison Williams and Logan Browning bridge the ridiculous situations with believable and complex emotions. There’s some gross stuff along the way, which is what gets the most attention in the buzz this movie has generated, but it’s really the acting, appropriately melodramatic and intense (Steven Weber’s Anton is also satisfyingly creepy), that makes it worth a watch.

Blue My Mind

Mia moves to a new school, where she has to deal with making new friends, tries to fit in with the cool kids, and faces a terrifying physical transformation.

This is a coming-of-age-body-horror tale not unlike “Raw” or “Ginger Snaps,” where the physical transformations of puberty are amplified to horrific levels while the person suffering the change tries to cope with sex, drugs, alcohol, and generalized rebellion, before finally embracing the transformation in all its terrible glory. It’s pretty brutal and stark, but also poetic and lyrical; that mix makes it a highly recommended watch.

Also, thank goodness for subtitles; I think I could probably have caught a lot of this had it been in standard German as taught in American universities or spoken in Bavarian cities, or even in a Plattdeutsch dialect, but Swiss German really is its own thing.

Monster Party

Three young burglars plan to rob a house where there’s a dinner party going on for serial killers in a sort of rehab program. Several of the serial killers fall off the wagon, with gruesome results.

This was a fun twist on the “home invasion” sub-genre, with some delightfully gory kills and a surprising amount of tension. Though it’s played pretty straight, there’s a satirical edge, and a lot of fun to be had with sending up standard horror tropes, like the disfigured monster in the closet and a final girl who has a murderous streak of her own. It’s certainly not deep, nor does it mean to be; it revels in its implausible gore (including various limbs being lopped off, a skull split with a katana, and a pile of apparent sausage links expelled during a disembowelment), its characters are thin to the point of being cardboard props, and there is no motivation for the violence except the violence itself. “Monster Party” succeeds on its own terms.

The Untamed

A woman befriends a male nurse in a small Mexican town, and introduces him and his sister to a tentacled creature in a remote cabin that offers both unspeakable pleasure and pain.

If H.P. Lovecraft wrote tele-novellas, this would have been the result: a blend of cosmic horror, family drama, and dangerous desire, with a fair bit of gore and skin. It’s interesting and disturbing, which is a good combination.

The Silence

Cave explorers unleash a hidden species of blind, ravenous, and accutely-hearing bat-like creatures, which wreak havoc on humankind. A family in New Jersey seeks to escape the noise of civilization, which attracts the flying monsters, and discover that sometimes humans can be just as dangerous.

This is “A Quiet Place” meets “The Birds” meets “Children of the Corn,” with a couple scenes of “The Strangers” and “Hunger Games” tossed in. The script telegraphs its intentions well in advance–not only Chekhov’s gun, but Chekhov’s drain pipe, rattle snake, inhaler, cigarette lighter, iPhone, and fire alarm; surprise is not the plan, I suppose. The cinematography is lovely, though, and the performances, particularly by Tucci and Shipka, are solid. Had it narrowed down its focus and not tried to toss in everything all at once, this could have been a good movie.

Ghost Stories

A professional psychic debunker is invited by his hero, a skeptic who disappeared years ago, to investigate three cases of the supernatural that appear to be inexplicable. He finds that it is the connection between the cases, rather than the facts themselves, that is the most disturbing.

This started off strong; I liked the windswept beach scene of the meeting between Goodman and Cameron, it looked very much like the setting of “I’ll Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” the classic tale of a skeptic’s comeuppance; and the first story, in a haunted abandoned asylum, had some jump scares that made me jump. The next two stories, though, didn’t grab me in the same way, and as the framing story took center stage and began to look like a setup to an allegorical lesson I was disappointed. But in the last five or ten minutes, all the strands are pulled together in an interesting, if not surprising, way, and I came away liking it a bit more than I thought I would at the 45 minute mark, though still a bit less than I thought I would 30 minutes in.

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.

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