Michael Hartford

writer, photographer, programmer, dad

Tag: movies

Daily Horror Movie: Synopsis and assessment

I watched 39 horror movies between September 21, when I watched “The Witch,” and October 31, when I watched “Halloween.” Some days I watched a couple of movies, some days I watched none, but it averaged out to just under one a day–that’s a lot of spooky stuff.

Here’s the list sorted by my rankings as I watched them: A Horror Movie a Day at Letterboxd.

It looks like my top five were “The Witch” (great period piece about the peculiar fears of the Puritans), “The Conjuring” (theme park ride of terror jumps), “Raw” (unrepentant French cannibalism), “A Dark Song” (brooding and nihilistic), and “Halloween” (classic). I would wholeheartedly recommend these movies to any horror fan, though maybe “The Witch,” “Raw,” and “A Dark Song” are not for beginners.

At the bottom of the list, I would definitely steer people away from “Death Bed” (dreadful without being fun), “Bleed” (poorly conceived mishmash), and “Malevolent” (good concept poorly executed). Other lower ranking movies weren’t necessarily bad (especially “Death Bed” or “Bleed” bad), they just weren’t notably good.

I came away with an appreciation for Asian horror (“Ringu,” “Train to Busan,” and “The Red Shoes” were awesome), as well as for some interesting high-concept movies like “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” and “The Endless.” And it was fun to see some classics again, like “Night of the Living Dead” and “Halloween.” All in all, more good movies than bad.

My watch list is chock full of horror right now, but I should probably do a palate cleanser of a comedy or two before getting back to the dark stuff …

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: 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: 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: 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: 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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