Monday, 21 November 2011

Blu-ray Review: 'Silent Running'

Yes, I'm still here.

Just ahead of its 40th anniversary, Eureka brings Douglass Trumbull’s Silent Running to Blu-ray as part of their ‘Masters of Cinema’ series.

The Film

All plant life on Earth has become extinct; and what little natural beauty remains is now housed within giant domes situated on enormous space freighters. Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) works aboard Valley Forge with his three crewmates (one of whom is played by that guy from Forbidden World). Lowell pours his heart into looking after the contained environments, and hopefully awaits orders for them to refoliate the planet. But disaster strikes when they are instead commanded to abandon the project and destroy the domes. Unable to obey, Lowell does the unthinkable. Soon, he’s drifting through space with only three maintenance drones for company; and the last remaining forest dome to care for.

Avid gardeners and sci-fi lovers... this is your film.         

Key to it all is Dern, who utterly convinces as the unhinged space hippy. This is a largely one man show, and if he wasn’t able to give a great performance, then the whole picture would’ve come crashing down. Lowell is actually quite a fascinating character. He goes to extreme lengths to protect what he loves, but how should we feel about that? Of course he’s wrong, but you can’t help being sympathetic towards his plight.

The drones complement him perfectly. Once the peripheral crewmates are out of the picture, these waddling modified Nintendo 64s are all Lowell has left to interact with. Nicknamed Huey, Dewey and Louie, he upgrades their capabilities – allowing them to patch up his leg after an incident, help tend to the forest, and even play poker. And you know what? Despite having no dialogue whatsoever (unless you count the odd beep), they’re full of more warmth and personality than any Transformer I’ve ever seen.  

But while there is a plot to think about and characters to care for, Silent Running is very much a film for the senses. Trumbull worked on the effects for 2001 so he’d clearly have a good eye for something as visual as this. Aside from the obligatory views of enormous ships slowly passing through the void of space, the film revels in showing us all the flora and cutesy fauna (bunnies!) of Lowell’s forest domain – often accompanied by Joan Baez’s singing. The “flower power” attitude may date the film somewhat, but it’s always a delightful experience.

Not to mention a thematically haunting one.

The Disc

Natural is a word that often sprang to my mind while watching Eureka’s Silent Running Blu-ray. This is, inherently, a rather soft film with an abundance of grain; and I’m very glad to see it’s been kept that way. Grain levels do unexpectedly spike on occasion (leading to “snow storm” instances), but there’s always loads of fine detail on show. Take a look at the clearly visible textures on clothing, or the complex exterior shots of the Valley Forge for just a couple of excellent examples of the increased clarity on offer here.

Colours stand out to me as the transfer’s most impressive quality. Skin tones are pleasingly normal, while the lush greens and earthy browns of the forest dome genuinely pop – as does Lowell’s bright blue jacket. There’s no “teal and orange” controversy going on here, that’s for sure.

I did notice a small amount of edge enhancement, but it only appeared in one or two scenes and was far less obvious than some of the thick white halos seen burdening other discs. There’s also some shimmering here and there, but you can probably put that down to the film’s source materials. On the whole, Eureka has done a commendably cinematic job with their transfer.

Also pleasing is the faithfully presented HD mono audio. Dialogue and music is clear and precise, while sound effects are satisfyingly robust. That early scene where the domes are being detached, with everything clanging, screeching and then exploding is a real wake-up-the-neighbours moment. As impressive as a remixed HD 5.1 option can be, I’m a big fan of these more old-school audio presentations.

Eureka complement the film with a decent selection of extra features, including a comprehensive making-of documentary, interviews with Bruce Dern and Douglass Trumbull  (both of whom also provide a commentary), while there’s even an isolated music and effects track for your auditory pleasure. Yes, there’s little new material here, but it’s still good value overall. In addition, the SteelBook edition packaging is nice and sturdy - neatly bearing the original theatrical poster art - and houses an extensively detailed 48 page booklet.


Although not my first Eureka Blu-ray (I may have bought the... Human Centipede... ahem), I’m ashamed to admit that this is indeed my first ‘Masters of Cinema’ purchase. But if this impressive high-definition release of Silent Running is anything to go by, then I’m sure it won’t be my last. Eureka has clearly treated Trumbull’s eco-friendly sci-fi cult classic with the utmost respect, meaning this release deserves your attention.           

Monday, 31 October 2011

Horror Season - Halloween III: Season of the Witch

Happy, happy Halloween, Halloween, Halloween.
Happy, happy Halloween, Silver Shamrock!

Michael Myers is dead. Halloween II made that crystal clear. The writing/producing duo of John Carpenter and Debra Hill ensured there was no spooky cliff-hanger to sting the ending with and hint at further misadventures with the masked stalker. The night he came home was finally over.

However, the Halloween name was now hot stuff, having risen far above its indie origins. And after the financial success of its first sequel, another entry in the series was a given. But what could they do now that Myers was no more? The decision was to take the series in a whole new direction – a new and unique Halloween story to be released on an annual basis. Carpenter and Hill stayed on as producers, Tommy Lee Wallace was picked to direct, while acknowledged sci-fi writer Nigel Kneale (of Quatermass fame) was drafted in to write the screenplay (though he chose to have his name taken off the credits when Wallace was tasked with sprucing up the script).

The end result was... interesting.      

In Halloween III: Season of the Witch, a distraught shopkeeper holding a Silver Shamrock pumpkin mask is chased into a hospital by a group of mysterious men in suits. Although seemingly safe in the care of Dr. Dan Challis (cult legend Tom Atkins), one of his pursuers calmly enters the hospital and brutally murders the bed-ridden man before (even more calmly) committing suicide via the classic art of instantly exploding car. Mystified by the incident, Challis ditches his divorced wife and their Halloween-obsessed kids so he can team up with the dead man’s daughter, Ellie (career bombing Stacey Nelkin), to uncover the truth. With only the Halloween mask and Ellie’s father’s delivery records to go on, they travel to the secluded “company town” of Santa Mira, where Silver Shamrock is based. Once there, they soon discover an evil plot masterminded by Conal Cochran (Robocop’s Dan O’Herlihy), a demonic toy maker in command of an army of androids who intends to massacre the children of America on the night of Halloween using novelty masks infused with ancient, head-melting power harnessed from Stonehenge.    

Now isn’t that the greatest synopsis you’ve ever read? Don’t you just want to go on Amazon and order a copy right now? It’s simply fantastic. Madder than a wheelie bin full of cats, but fantastic. You can instantly tell from even the briefest plot summary that Season of the Witch is a true gem, and about as far a unique departure from the initial slasher films as you could expect.

Sadly, that’s exactly why this film fell into obscurity. Audiences weren’t prepared for such a different approach to a series which had previously focused on the exploits of a murderous babysitter hunter. So Season of the Witch was considered a failure, and has been singled out as “That one without Michael Myers” ever since, with many people not liking it simply because of that reason... which continues to baffle me. I cannot for one moment comprehend why anyone would not enjoy this film. It’s got to be one of the most underrated horror movies ever made! There’s far too much to love about it. Yes, I know it’s silly, but just hear me out.

For one thing, at least as far as I’m concerned, the plot is genius. Androids? Stonehenge? A megalomaniac who wants to dissolve our heads into a seeping mess of snakes, spiders and other creepy crawlies? Oh, yes please! Granted, it takes a while getting to all that, but it’s worth the wait. What I love is how they skirt around certain major plot issues. Like, how did Cochran even get a whole piece of Stonehenge there in the first place? All we’re ever told is: “We had a time getting it here. You wouldn’t believe how we did it.” And that’s all we need to know!                 

How about Tom Atkins as a star, right? As the Chuck Norris of horror, he alone is worth giving this a watch for. Maybe I’m biased, but it’s great to see Atkins get top billing for once. Too bad we so rarely see more of him in anything close to a leading role. Maybe you could count the first half of Maniac Cop, but Bruce Campbell pretty much took over that didn’t he? In regards to his part here, Challis is a funny character – he’s likeable in a burly way (you just wanna hug him), but how am I supposed to feel about a guy who neglects his kids to run off on a wacky adventure? And how does he manage to enchant all these ladies who are about half his age? First Jamie Lee Curtis in The Fog, and now Stacey Nelkin! Is he really all that man? We are not worthy.

Creating a new villain after Michael Myers was going to be a daunting task. After all, who could even begin to measure up? Yet somehow with Cochran, they nailed it. On the surface, he appears like the coolest grandfather of all time. How could anyone not love a guy who owns a toy factory? Then, after his true intentions become apparent, Cochran shifts gears to full-on evil. The scene where he lectures Challis on the sacrificial history of Halloween is chilling and a definite highlight.

Halloween... the festival of Samhain! The last great one took place three thousand years ago, when the hills ran red... with the blood of animals and children.

... Ho-ly crap. O’Herlihy clearly relishes playing such a maniacal role. And best of all, much like with Myers (before all that druid crap, anyway), his character is shrouded in mystery. Who is he? What is he? We may never know for sure. 

Truthfully, the other characters here are barely worth mentioning. Nelkin is little more than dead weight hanging off Atkins’ manliness (but to be fair she is a good actor who thankfully refrains from screaming all the time, and does have a few late surprises in store); Challis’ family are virtually nonexistent (his ex-wife is pretty much just a voice on the phone); while everyone else is introduced just so they can be gruesomely killed a few scenes later (let me tell you now, that one happy family is DOOMED).     

The original Halloween has always been praised for its ability hold back on graphic violence in favour of a terrifying atmosphere. Halloween II was, by comparison, a solid ninety minutes of slashed throats and syringes in eyes. I’ve always liked how Season of the Witch manages to find a spot somewhere in the middle. Deaths are far less frequent than they were in II, but they’re arguably even nastier. Thanks to the more fantastical plot elements, we get to see a man’s face being literally broken, a head being twisted clean off and the after-effects of a laser beam to the mouth! All good stuff.         

Two of the most important previous Halloween elements make a return here: Dean Cundey’s moody cinematography; and John Carpenter’s (with Alan Howarth) inimitable synthesiser score. That pitch-perfect framing and lighting, combined with those eerie bleeps and bloops make for yet another film which positively drips with an almost tangible ambience. In other words, this is the kind of movie that’s been proven by science to be best viewed in the very early hours of the morning, with bonus points awarded should you watch it on a worn out VHS tape. Am I making excuses for my decade-old DVD which isn’t even presented in the correct aspect ratio? Perhaps. Universal are supposedly working on a Blu-ray (probably timed for the film’s thirtieth anniversary next year), so if I’m still updating this blog in twelve months time, then I’ll be sure to give it a review.

Despite combining the best of both worlds, the film as a whole is never especially frightening (the infamous Silver Shamrock jingle will invade your dreams, mind you). It’s really just a LOT of creepy, highly imaginative fun. As for the ending... oh my god. That’s another story. I don’t dare give what happens away on the off chance that you haven’t seen it, but it’s bleak, ballsy and all kinds of intense. It may not have the unexpected shock factor of something like The Mist’s closing frames, but those final few sequences are still some of the most emotionally exhausting moments ever committed to celluloid.     

At least the film ended on a high note, because with its critical and financial failure, it was all over for Season of the Witch, and the proposed annual Halloween movie plan along with it. I often wonder how it might have fared if the title hadn’t been prefixed with Halloween III. Well, regardless of what could have been, the series continued. Six years later, using some supremely uninspired screenwriting skills, Myers and (even more incredulously) Donald Pleasence as Dr. Loomis were brought back for Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. From then on, it’s been a continuous string of Myers-starring sequels and reboots, with Halloween 3D expected to make an appearance within the next couple of years (apparently featuring, funnily enough, Tom Atkins himself in some capacity). And while there’d be a slight highlight with Laurie Strode’s eventual comeback in H20, most of them merely progressed further away from John Carpenter’s original vision.

But none of them were ever as remarkably original... or admittedly outright bonkers as Halloween III: Season of the Witch.  

Monday, 24 October 2011

Horror Season - Zombie Creeping Flesh

1980’s Zombie Creeping Flesh is surely one of the most infamous Italian zombie films to released following the success of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters. It’s got everything: extreme gore, baffling nudity, bad dubbing, and a never ending stream of stock footage. But more importantly, it’s directed by none other than the late, great Bruno Mattei (or Vincent Dawn, as he went by for this particular case of zombiesploitation). The man behind a multitude of craptastic B movies, he was essentially Europe’s answer to Roger Corman. So when his name pops up in any opening credits, you’re guaranteed something special, even if it’s for ALL the wrong reasons.   

In keeping with tradition, Creeping Flesh has more than a few alternate titles doing the rounds. Its original Italian title is Virus, while in the US, it’s known as Hell of the Living Dead. I’m also fairly sure it went by Zombi 4 at one point in time... and honestly, I’m undecided on whether this is better or worse than the official Zombi 4.  

Regardless, they’re a lot better than what we got lumbered with, if you ask me. And what’s up the UK title, anyway? I mean, sure, I get the whole ‘zombie’ part of it; but I don’t remember any moments with ‘creeping flesh’. Unless it’s referring to the classically trained shambling zombies themselves, which I suppose would makes sense in a way, but all those words make me think of are the sentient internal organs from Peter Jackson’s Braindead. I haven’t felt this short-changed since I watched Zombie Holocaust... and that was a cannibal movie!

But I should really look for something positive about the production to comment on. Oh hey, it’s scored by Dario Argento’s favourite prog-rock group, Goblin! That’s pretty neat, right? Well, I bet their involvement would be under any other circumstances, as the soundtrack here is comprised entirely of Goblin music ripped straight from other horror films including Dawn of the Dead, and even Alien Contamination!

Guess I better talk about the actual film, then. The plot’s your standard ‘zombie outbreak in a third world country’ deal, with the majority of the running time being set in Papua New Guinea. The exact cause of the outbreak does mystify me, however. From what I can gather, a single rat manages to get into the secure area of a secret testing site, and this unleashes clouds of poisonous gas into the air. I don’t understand how it adds up either, but at least we get to see the zombified rodent get inside a guy’s ridiculously ineffective hazard suit and spray blood all over his visor.

 It's the little things in life...

It doesn’t take long for the undead hordes to overwhelm the plant, and after a bit of graphic gut munching the film makes a radical shift in style to introduce our main protagonists. They’re a crack squad of commandos led by Lt. Mike London, who are tasked with saving hostages from some seemingly insane gunmen in a scene that makes me think I’ve accidently put in Italian A-Team. The Dawn of the Dead soundtrack gets to flex its muscles, and the terrorists are soon lying dead on the ground. But not before their leader parts with these famous last words:

You're all... doomed to a horrible death. Doomed to... be eaten up. First, they'll kill you... then afterwards... you'll be eaten... be eaten... devoured... by men like you... your brothers...

I’m clapping right now.

So after that ominous bit of foreshadowing, the squad are sent off to New Guinea on a top secret mission. It’s not long before they meet up with the movie’s heroin, Lisa, a journalist who’s there with a few friends of her own, including a not-so happy couple and a cameraman who looks EXACTLY like Inigo Montoya. Lisa’s there investigating the sudden outbreak of violence within the native population (the kind where everyone suddenly starts eating each other, apparently). The couple she’s with have also brought along a child who’s been bitten... which means this encounter can’t end well. And it doesn’t. While his mother is off being killed by the zombie priest from the cover art, the boy dies, comes back to life and promptly eats daddy’s lungs.

If there’s one thing these movies could arguably do better than their American counterparts, it was the zombies. Creeping Flesh is another example where the undead were really made to look that way. Many of them have rotted faces, smeared with gore and gouged out eyeballs, and in the case of the priest, half a face missing. Brilliantly, Inigo seems to think they could just “be drunk”.

So far, the only names I’ve bothered to take notice of are London and Lisa (dunno if I should count Inigo). Now would be a good time to mention another squad member, Zantoro. This guy might as well be called Italian “Howling Mad” Murdoch, as he steals the movie to the point where I look forward to what he’s going to do next more than I look forward to the comical gore effects. He approaches every situation with his eyes widened and his mouth spread into a crazy grin while giggling maniacally. He even lets himself get surrounded by zombies in a later scene just so he can blow their heads off at close range! I can’t decide who’s overacting more: the actor or the guy dubbing him. 

> Jeremy Irons in Dungeons & Dragons.

I bring Zantoro up mainly because he’s the one who figures out that the undead need to be shot in the head. Too bad the other three squad members never cotton on to this. They’ll continue to unload dozens of rounds of ammo into everywhere but the skull throughout the film, no matter how many time Zantoro screams “IN THE HEAD!” at them.

I also bring Zantoro up because he’s the one who empties his machine gun into that zombie kid’s face without a moment’s hesitation. And this was only after London had repeatedly shot pistol rounds into the boy’s chest with absolutely no effect! Watching this snarling child get repeatedly riddled with gunfire is the kind of sight that’s at once hilarious and deeply disturbing. A bit like the defecating scene from The Human Centipede.

From then on, the rest of the film consists of this newly formed rag tag team travelling from location to location while admiring all the lovely stock footage. There’ll be a line of dialogue, and then the scene will instantly cut to footage of a monkey swinging from a tree that was probably taken a decade earlier. Most of the time, the environment shown in the stock footage doesn’t even match up with that which surrounds the characters, begging the question: WHY BOTHER?

On their travels, they stop off at a native village just in time for the film’s absolute nadir. I swear to Christ, this part makes me want to take a shower. No, two showers. In order to get through safely, Lisa (who is rather in touch with the natives, according to Inigo) takes it upon herself to strip off her clothes, cover herself with tribal markings and then go for a walk through the village, at which point the stock footage goes into overdrive. But here’s the thing: we see actual footage of tribal burial processions taking place (sourced from an older documentary), which means seeing real dead bodies that aren’t in the best of conditions being carried around. It’s uncomfortable to watch, and reaches the point where I’m not sure what’s stock footage and what isn’t, although the sudden swirling storm of grain is usually a giveaway.

We are then treated to such pleasant sights as a woman picking maggots out of a skull’s eye socket and then eating them, as well as... Oh no, are they disembowelling a dead crocodile? What are they filling its intestines with? I didn’t need to see that. But at least this isn’t Cannibal Holocaust, because if it was, I’d probably have to watch them butcher the poor thing to death first!

The scene goes on so long it actually causes one of the commandos to throw up. Thankfully, zombies show up and send the tribe into chaos, while the team are forced to make a break for it. They eventually end up by some kind of settlement and decide to investigate (not sure why, but I guess Bruno needed some padding). This leads to yet another bizarre scene. While searching a house, two things of note happen. Firstly, a cat bursts from the stomach of an old “dead” lady (was it there for the warmth, or what?); and secondly, the least interesting commando takes the time to discard his weapon, try on a little green tutu, a top hat, and grab a cane so he can dance around in private for a bit. 

        You... you gave up right around here didn’t you, Bruno?

Yeah, I don’t need to go into this. It only takes a minute before the idiot’s surrounded on all sides by abnormally stealthy zombies and reduced to a bloody corpse. But I shouldn’t be complaining in the first place. His death simply gives a rapidly deteriorating Zantoro the excuse to go completely bananas, assault a crowd of the shuffling corpses with a burning torch, and turn into a hysterical wreck for the rest of the film. Not that there’s much left of it, though, as they’ve just about reached the end of their journey.

That’s right, after an eternity of driving, stopping, shooting and more driving, our heroes do eventually arrive at the sinister facility where all this horror began. Sadly, that rat from the beginning isn’t waiting for them as a mutated final boss, and instead we watch them wander around this bland environment before getting killed one after the other. Makes the whole film look a tad pointless, right? Although I must say, Inigo the cameraman does deserve a round of applause for making it this far. Any other film would have killed him off an hour ago, so it’s a little sad to see him go. Plus, they do throw in a little twist to keep things interesting.

But in the end, as terrible as Zombie Creeping Flesh is, it’s never particularly boring. Aside from that gruelling detour in the native village, there’s enough blood, guts and overacting to keep you entertained for the whole 100 minutes. Unlike that other film, you’re not going to be waiting an hour before someone’s face finally explodes. And at the very least, it does answer the age-old question of whether or not it’s possible to stick your hand in someone’s mouth and pop out their eyeballs from the inside.

According to this, the answer is a resounding yes.        

Monday, 17 October 2011

Horror Season - Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem

Eternal Darkness, developed by Silicon Knights for the Nintendo GameCube in 2002, was and still is one of the most inspired and unique gaming experiences ever conceived. Massively inspired by the literary works of H.P. Lovecraft, it tells an epic and harrowing tale of good vs. evil; in which you take control of twelve people whose interlinking stories span over the course of two thousand years. Each character finds him or herself inexplicably linked to a centuries-long battle against a vast, extra dimensional evil known as the Ancients – prehistoric monstrosities that, once banished, now threaten to return to our universe and utterly annihilate all living things – and their fateful involvement may well come at the cost of their lives... or worse.

As a form of storytelling, I have yet to play anything else quite like it. The game begins with university student Alexandra Roivas receiving a call from the Rhode Island police, who inform her that her beloved grandfather has been brutally murdered in his own home, the Roivas Mansion. Alex travels there to identify his mangled corpse (mangled as in: chewed up and spat back out), but with no clues as to how the grisly crime even happened, she decides to stay and find out for herself. It’s not long before she discovers her grandfather’s secret study, and inside it, the human skin-bound Necronom – sorry – The Tome of Eternal Darkness.

It is this book which recounts the terrible experiences encountered by those chosen to battle the Ancients across the ages, with each chapter focusing on a new character in a different time period, while in between chapters you search the traditionally creepy mansion for missing pages of the tome as Alex. Each character you play as is a fully fleshed out personality, bolstered by exceptional voice acting, and considerably different from the last. Among them are Pious Augustus, a Roman centurion who becomes an Ancient’s undead servant and the game’s main antagonist; Dr Maximillian Roivas, an ancestor of Alex’s who discovers that the family mansion hides a great deal of evil beneath its foundations; and Paul Luther, a Franciscan monk who gets caught up in accusations of bloody heresy. They’re just a few examples, and the locations you visit (and revisit) with them range from an ancient Persian temple (both before the birth of Christ and during the Gulf War) to Amiens Cathedral (at the time of King Charlemagne’s rule and then later set against the backdrop of World War I), with their appearances shifting to reflect the relevant time.    

Gameplay is simple, but ultimately satisfying. Unlike most other horror games of the time, your character doesn’t move with all the grace of a tank looking for a spot in the supermarket car park on a Monday afternoon. Rather, you’re actually able to smoothly manoeuvre them through the various environments. The camera is fixed, however, but it rarely causes any I can’t see what I’m fighting!-type difficulties. When it comes to combat, Silicon Knights devised a neat little targeting system which let you lock on to either a creature’s torso, arms and head for you to accurately shoot/slice at with a wide range of period-accurate weaponry.

In addition, you could also utilise the unconventionally spelt “Magick” to your advantage. As you progress through the game, you uncover a multitude of ancient runes used to create spells which allow you to cast certain helpful effects as enchanting your weapon to make it more powerful, conjuring a shield to protect you, or summoning an enemy to help you out in a battle. The overall strength of your magick is upgraded over time, and you can even mix and match runes to experiment with creating your own spells (preferable to just waiting to conveniently discovering them at a later point).

Eternal Darkness is perhaps most fondly remembered for its frightening sanity effects. Rather than relying on jump scare and monster closet horror tactics, this game presents us with something totally new. In addition to your health and magick bars, there is also the “Sanity Meter”, which gradually depletes as you come into contact with the various inhuman enemies. The lower it gets, the more your character’s sanity is affected, and you will begin to see... things. I probably shouldn’t give ANY of them away, but I’m sure a handful won’t hurt. Their effectiveness varies depending on how low your sanity meter gets, so early on you’ll only likely be hearing the agonised screams of some poor off-screen soul, or maybe the furious banging on a nearby door. A bit later, though, and the walls and portraits will literally start bleeding, while large flies may begin to crawl over the inside of your TV screen. And when you do eventually hit rock bottom, the game might even go so far as to make you think it just deleted all your save data. You know how there are certain moments in gaming that stick with you? Well, the first time your head spontaneously explodes in Eternal Darkness is probably gonna be one of them.

Oh, did I mention this was a Nintendo exclusive? Chyeah...

The only way you can recover your sanity is by violently finishing off defeated monsters. And just what are these creatures you face? The minions of the Ancients come in all shapes and sizes, such as moaning zombies that can be easily dismembered, scuttling lizard creatures that have the ability to transport you to another dimension (yeah, better watch out for those), and gruesome scythe-armed beasts that hide inside the bodies of unwilling victims before (chest)bursting out to attack you. Much tougher adversaries, like the three-headed “Horrors”, which can fire off health-draining bolts of dark magick, are just around the corner.

But the exact type of enemies you’ll encounter will depend on which of the three Ancients Pious aligns himself with at the end of the first chapter. So, if you pick “Chattur’gha” (the red one) then you’ll have to deal with much tougher foes, including zombies that can re-grow their limbs. Choose “Xel’lotath” (the green one), and some monsters won’t even have heads, the sight of which will further drain your sanity. Lastly, “Ulyaoth” (the blue one) creatures will specialise in attacking you with magick and, err... exploding zombies.

As you can probably guess, those changes do add incentive to play through the game multiple times, and if you complete Eternal Darkness with all three Ancient alignments, then there’s a small bonus lying in wait after the credits that hints at more to come. But that was almost ten years ago, so today a sequel is looking less likely. Silicon Knight’s recent track record hasn’t been too good either...

It’s not perfect, sadly. Despite the multitude of time periods, there are really only a handful of different locations (temple, church, mansion, temple again), and you’ll likely be thinking ‘Oh, HERE again’ from time to time. Also, you’re going to be fighting a lot of zombies, and most of them are very easy to kill (the game doesn’t become very challenging until you’re surrounded by monsters). Hacking off their head, followed by their arms time after time gets repetitious (never thought I’d write that), and by the end you’ll be sick of them. Visually speaking, it’s not the best looking game of its time, too. It’s by no means ugly, and there’s an admirable level of attention to detail, but compare it to the Resident Evil remake which was also released on the GameCube at around the same time, and you’ll see what I’m getting at.  

But it’s worth it for the atmospheric, one-of-a-kind experience alone. A fantastically imaginative story, coupled with rock solid gameplay and legitimate chills make Eternal Darkness a bona fide classic of horror gaming. Lovecraft fans in particular are bound to lap up its tales of macabre horrors, doomed protagonists (there aren’t many happy endings here) and gigantic cosmic beings from the space between spaces.

In fact, I’m fairly sure the only thing missing is Cthulhu. But you can't have everything.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Horror Season - The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

I have a secret I must confess... Before two months ago, I had never seen The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I know, I know, it’s inexcusable. You’d think I might be able to find the time for a nigh-on forty year old horror movie, but I’d always been putting off watching it for one reason or another. As far as classic horror goes, this had always been at the bottom of my list, buried under a heap of 80s slasher fluff and vintage zombie movies that I’m still playing catch-up with. Exactly why I’d steered clear of Chain Saw all this time, though, I’m not so sure. Maybe I was worried about finding it badly dated, or perhaps it was simply because I wasn’t too impressed by the short clips I’d seen on all those “Top 50 Horror Moments” type shows.

Well, whatever the reason... I was wrong. And now I’m kicking myself.

If my viewing was anything to go by, then Chain Saw has lost absolutely none of its power to shock. Watching it had a funny effect on me, like as if I was suddenly transported back into the early seventies. The film’s visual style is of course directly responsible for this (although we shouldn’t forget those classic hair styles the characters rock). It has a dirty, almost documentary quality to it that sets its style far apart from similarly themed films which strived for a more cinematic event. The camera never shies away from zooming in and capturing every grimy detail in extreme close-up, whether it’s an artful display of human bones made into furniture, or the gnarled face of a rotting corpse.  Here, everything feels uncomfortably natural. And that’s where the horror comes from – we soon realise how something like this could actually happen (and yes, it was indeed loosely based on the same real life incidents that inspired Psycho).

But this realism isn’t merely limited to the film’s harrowing atmosphere, oh no. The Texan cannibal clan contains some of the most deranged and utterly convincing horror antagonists of all time. I’ll get to the big guy in a moment, but the remaining three unnamed family members are just as memorable. The ‘Hitchhiker’ is a worryingly unstable hotbed of insanity, with his jittery nature even going so far as to make me nervous; the ‘Old Man’ uses his elderly innocence to hide a truly sadistic and repulsive nature; while ‘Grandfather’ comes across as an affront against nature - there’s no way that thing should live, and yet it does! Somehow, ghastly just doesn’t quite do this deranged family justice.

Of course, Leatherface deserves a special mention. Physically enormous, smeared with dry blood, prone to cross-dressing, and wearing someone else’s face as a mask, he’s nothing short of terrifying. And that’s putting it lightly. This guy is like the complete antithesis to Michael Myers, and when I say that I certainly don’t mean to make it look like I think one character is more frightening than the other. See, Myers is scary because of how cold and calculating he is. His singular, shark-like desire to hunt something down and then emerge from the shadows to kill it, coupled with the fact that we knew next to nothing about him (SHUT UP, there were no druids involved) resonates fear. Leatherface, on the other hand... is scary simply because he charges straight at you, crying out with those bizarre animalistic noises, while swinging a freaking chain saw over his head! And he never slows down. EVER.

It’s enough to make a little poo come out.       

The ears of many a gorehound would no doubt prick up at the slightest mention of this film, so the degree of violence Chain Saw has to offer has always been a popular topic of conversation (in some circles, anyway). Usually, such a discussion about the level of bloodshed will involve Person 1, who hasn’t seen the film, asking Person 2 (who has) about just how violent it is. Person 2 will then respond, telling Person 1 how there is in fact very little in the way of blood and guts on show.

This is true. And yes, for a horror film with a title like that, the violence is surprisingly lacking in graphic details. But that does not for one instant mean Chain Saw isn’t brutal as all hell, because it most definitely is. While the meat hook-hanging and chain sawing leaves a lot to the imagination, there’s still a disturbing amount of realism to the proceedings. Your mind easily fills in the blanks. And when Leatherface brings that hammer down on one unfortunate victim, you can feel it crack the guy’s skull open, bringing him down like a sack of bricks. Even more horrific is the sight of the decaying Grandfather sucking blood from the tip of our heroin’s finger, like some kind of pathetic vampire leeching out for a little more energy. There’s no mistaking it: this is one gruesome movie.

It’s hard to find a real fault to pick on. I suppose the cast of victims are mostly forgettable, but in a way their sheer generality adds to the picture’s grisly sincerity. And even if you can’t remember their names, the terrible and believable experiences each of them has to endure will surely stick with you for some time. There is a chance you may find yourself smiling during the more chaotic moments, such as when Leatherface becomes enraged and does his ‘chain saw dance’ (something the splat-tastic sequel would make downright farcical), or during the carnage that ensues when the family decide to let Grandfather try out with the hammer at dinner, but I feel this just works to the film’s advantage. Much like The Evil Dead, Chain Saw holds, deep down, qualities of an extremely dark comedy.     

Sure, today’s generation of so-called Horror Kids may find the whole experience a little tame compared to the past decade’s worth of torture porn flicks, not to mention the movie’s own increasingly wacky and gory succession of sequels and reboots, but this is still an undisputed horror classic and a true landmark for the genre, with a serrated edge that has not been dulled with time.