Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Horror Season II - 'XTRO'

I'd always intended to end the month with some sci-fi, but my original plan was to review John Carpenter’s The Thing. I figured an essay deconstructing its iconic combination of nail-biting suspense, Dean Cundy cinematography, Rob Bottin’s groundbreaking gore effects, that Ennio Morricone score; and memorable performances from Keith David, Wilford Brimley and Kurt Russell’s facial hair would make a fitting Halloween send-off.

But where’s the fun in that?

Three years ago on an otherwise ordinary day at their family cottage, Sam Phillips (Philip Sayer) vanished in a brilliant flash of light and wind turbine special effects right in front of his son Tony. Having since relocated to London, Tony and his mother, Rachel, have moved on with their lives, with Rachel now seeing another man, Joe. She believes Sam simply walked out on them, but Tony, stricken with nightmares of his father’s disappearance, isn’t so convinced. Then, without warning, Sam shows up one afternoon claiming he can’t remember anything from the past few years. To Tony’s delight (and Joe’s eternal frustration), Rachel allows Sam to stay... but he’s not the man they once knew. Now altered by some terrible otherworldly force, Sam has returned home with the darkest of intentions.

A low budget British production, Harry Bromley Davenport’s Xtro was released in 1982 – right during the whimsical height of E.T. mania. The film’s tagline, ‘Some extra-terrestrials aren’t friendly.’ tells you all you need to know about its marketing strategy. And as a gruesome response to Spielberg’s family-friendly classic, you can expect many grisly surprises.

There have been some mixed messages over its UK debut, however. For one thing, it was never censored, and for another, its VHS debut was never technically deemed a ‘Video Nasty’, despite finding itself caught up in the whole ridiculous affair and temporarily banned in a few select cities. By and large, Xtro had a pretty smooth time of it, most likely due to the BBFC’s relaxed attitude towards anything that incorporated sci-fi or fantasy (barring any giant maggot rape).

Even so, the film has gained its fair share of well-deserved infamy. Mostly due to the early portions dealing with Sam’s return home, which I have thus far glossed over. Spoilers and all that ahead.

Sam doesn’t just reappear. One night, the mysterious... bright thingamabob (looks like a giant scalene triangle) that originally took him away emerges over the countryside and deposits an alien creature. This thing could best be described as an inverted lizard man spider cat (me neither), and it’s not long until the twisted organism finds a passing couple (of which, the man’s mullet I must applaud) to kill. Or rather, they hit it with their car, get out to investigate and much dumbassery ensues. 

    That's one ugly deer.

So far there’s no obvious connection between Sam and the monster, but then it happens across a woodland cottage and its sole occupier: a young woman. Uh oh. Before you can shout “John Hurt!” it pins her to the ground, extends a rather phallic-looking tube from one glistening orifice (oh H.R. Giger, you have so much to answer for) and clamps it over her mouth.

When she wakes up next to the creature’s decomposing remains, you’re fully expecting her to explode or something else that’s considered generic in this field of cinema. But it's so much worse. There’s a crunch as her belly rapidly expands, making her collapse in agony, and (here we go) a sudden torrent of gore floods from her nether regions, following which... Sam pushes himself out. Fully grown. Placental fluid all over the shop. I just saw a woman give birth to a thirty plus year-old man. Complete with umbilical cord chewing!  Look, this film’s not great, but no one can take that away from it.    

Mentally scarring first act aside, Xtro is not a straightforward Alien rip-off in the vein of creature features like Forbidden World and Titan Find. It goes for a more subtle approach... so much so, that scenes where Sam is apparently reintegrating himself into his old family life play out like your basic awkward EastEnders scenario. This feeling is only heightened by some amusingly wooden acting and fits of melodrama. It reaches boiling point when, after an intense dinner session, Sam lobs a wine bottle at Joe, who flips out with his priceless delivery of: “You crazy maniac... you’re outta your fuckin’ MIIIIIND!!!” Line of the movie. 

Gets me every time.

But it’s not always amateur hour. Philip Sayer just about carries the whole picture as Sam Phillips. We know something nasty’s going on, but we aren’t immediately sure of his true motives. So Sayer does a superb job of balancing Sam’s innocent side with the malevolent alien lurking within, constantly keeping us on our toes. Sayer tragically lost his life to cancer in 1989, but were he still around, I’m sure he’d be impressed by the steadily growing cult following Xtro has since attracted.

The only other thespian of much note is future The Living Daylights Bond girl Maryam d’Abo, making her film debut. She plays the Phillips family’s maid/babysitter, and since it was early days in her career, all she has to do here is take her clothes off a lot and be cocooned. That’s all I got.    

The family values stuff is interspersed with sci-fi tangents, mind you. If nothing else, Xtro poses the following question: What do you say when your son catches you eating his pet snake’s eggs? Not even Sam could think up a decent excuse (though I guess his mouth was still full of mangled reptile embryos), but he does use it as an opportunity to convert the boy to his alien cause via blowing bubbles under his shoulder (you can’t write this stuff). 

   "Aren't I lucky, I got a chunky bit!"

Then it gets weird... er. The film’s spoilerific trailer promises aliens “bearing powers of black magic from deep space” and it wasn’t lying. Whatever this mysterious race that abducted Sam actually is, they have supernatural traits. This first becomes apparent when Sam accidentally melts a public phone to gloop with his bare hands, but we aren’t shown its full potential until these abilities are transferred to Tony. What does he do with them? He creates a dwarf. Nay, he creates a clown dwarf. How about that, I found something more unnerving than Peter Bark.

 Well... at least there's no incest this time.

This little (sorry) addition to the cast – who, if IMDB is to be believed, would go on to play an Ewok – proves surprisingly valuable to Sam and Tony’s evil scheme, as we’ll later discover, but he’s not the only helper Tony conjures. One subplot concerns their snooping neighbour, Mrs. Goodman, who lives in the apartment below. Earlier on, Tony’s snake gets loose and finds its way into Goodman’s salad. She bashes it to pieces and returns it in a plastic bag filled with blood ‘n’ gore (superb people skills). This pisses Tony off, so he reacts in a perfectly reasonable manner by sending his now man-sized favourite action figure down to kill her.

Really, this thing comes equipped with a bayonet rifle and door breaching mines! It launches a full-on assault against the old woman, who dives for cover under her sofa. The soldier tracks Goodman into the living room, but can’t quite find her. Who knows, she might even have lived through this, had she not gone and demonstrated Prometheus levels of character stupidity. I don’t care how close those knocked-over chocolates are, when you’re being stalked by frickin’ Action Man, you don’t reach for them! Of course, the soldier notices her hand scrabbling for the chocs, and plunges its bayonet deep into the furniture. As she squeals, her blood spurts out in thick streams over the delectable treats; and in a morally questionable way, I feel like justice has been served.

I’m starting to lose track of why this is considered a bad movie by so many. Everything I've seen this far has been totally inspired and demented in the most imaginative of ways. And as the inhuman father and son team’s plot comes to fruition, Xtro only gets more messed up. There’s a whole sequence where d’Abo’s boyfriend is chased through the flat by a miniature tank – the blasts which he somehow evades – only to run into, of all things, a panther. Just... sitting there. Wait, what genre is this, anyway?!           

Buh, alright, I’d better wrap this up. As the climax nears, Rachel takes Sam back to their cottage in an effort to buck his “amnesia”, but it only leads to spontaneous romantic high jinks between the estranged couple. While Joe rushes to the cottage with Tony, Sam goes a bit Jeff Goldblum circa 1986, shedding his human skin to reveal his hideous true form just in time for a finale filled with more bright lights, wind turbines and at least one melting brain.

It feels a little rushed, if I’m honest (budget constraints taking their toll, perhaps?), but packs in some frightening imagery; and with only one last shockingly bleak scene to go, it’s all over for Xtro. Two completely unrelated and generic sequels followed in 1990 (The Second Encounter) and 1995 (Watch the Skies), both directed by Davenport, who has since talked up plans for a fourth entry, which he hopes will go back to the original’s surreal roots.

Well, whatever happens, there’s still nothing quite like where it all began. It’s a sick, twisted excursion to the realm of genre-bending sci-fi horror, and as such, it’s carved out a disturbingly unique personal niche. It may feel every one of its thirty years (though I dare you not to dig Davenport’s own creaky electronic soundtrack), but each time I revisit Xtro, I find something new to admire or be utterly revolted by.

Granted, it's mostly the latter. 

Happy Halloween

Friday, 26 October 2012

Horror Season II - 'The Zombie Dead'

AKA: Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror

Bruno Mattei’s Zombie Creeping Flesh is hard to top in the trash stakes, as I reluctantly noted last year. But let’s face the facts; it was only a small portion of the festering Spaghetti Zombie sub-genre. There's more... so much more. 

One of the nastiest little footnotes in Italian cinema is 1981’s The Zombie Dead, directed by Andrea Bianchi. With a title like that, you would immediately expect a conventional and uninspired exercise in the lowest common denominator pleasing extreme, and that's exactly what you get. I mean, it was either this or The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue, but that actually has a degree of class! So no.

First things first: my DVD is part of the Beyond Terror label, known for releasing grunge like this at a budget price. Although I should point out how the Beyond Terror brand only applies to the outer casing. Opening it reveals a repackaged Vipco disc. Before they went bust, Vipco were pretty much the name in bringing classic horror to UK shelves. Their ‘Vaults of Horror’ range from early last decade was popular among British collectors, but most releases were of a dubious quality and often censored.

As luck would have it, Zombie Dead is not cut at all. In fact, this disc marked the film’s uncut UK debut, with over ten minutes of gory goodness restored (the censors went to town on this one). The transfer isn’t anamorphic, but at least it’s still presented in the correct widescreen aspect ratio. No extras to speak of, but if you’re a fan, then chances are you’ve already imported Shriek Show’s Blu-ray from the States. I can’t comment on that release’s overall quality, but I’m sure a polished turd metaphor can be worked in somewhere.     

Credit where it’s due – Zombie Dead doesn’t waste any time (or, by extension, have any notion of suspense). It opens with a most magnificently bearded Professor who reads a book, is struck with a revelation, heads down to a nearby dig site, hammers a chisel into a wall and, hey presto, zombie apocalypse. It happens so fast, the guy might as well live directly above hell.

After having his face chewed off, we’re introduced to the other characters. I’ll be able to remember very few names, but there’s foppish guy, 60s starlet wannabe, nympho mistress, Italian porno dude (it’s possible) and a married couple who’ve brought their son Michael along. A bunch of promiscuous socialites, they’re friends of the professor who’ve come to stay at his mansion for a weekend of fine dining and fornication... such is the summation of Zombie Dead’s first twenty minutes.

Soft core padding aside, the absolute worst part of it all is Michael. Rest assured, this film has gained a hefty cult following, but it’s not due to the zombie disembowelling shenanigans. Nuh uh. For the uninitiated, Michael is a young boy... played by a thirty year-old vertically challenged man named Peter Bark (who has since dropped off the face of the earth).

With his saucer eyes, ridiculous toupee and that high-pitched dub job, Bark’s already terrifying enough. But just to crank up the creepy, Michael is close to his mother. Very close. As in: ‘daddy is my competition’ close. It all kicks off when Michael walks in on his parents at a non-PG rated moment, and remains a constantly uncomfortable subplot throughout.   

Meanwhile (thank Christ), the zombies begin to leave their underground tombs. They don’t make a big groaning deal out of it, and prefer to walk in silence while the film’s dated synth soundtrack blares over their mass exeunt. It looks like the undead equivalent of a Monday morning commute to work. Frankly, I’m not convinced many of the actors can even see through their masks (slash caked-on mud), which might explain their careful approach to scaling knee-high ledges. 

 Careful... easy does it...

While all this is underway, the film’s patchwork editing style becomes alarmingly obvious. It cuts from various frolicking in the mansion grounds, back to the Professor’s two servants being terrorised by a sudden surge of exploding light bulbs (maybe the undead menace has a degree of outer body Evil Dead force). Butler guy looks on with bemused curiosity while the maid covers her face and screams in horror! I mean, it’s weird, yeah, but not Anthony Perkins shower-stabbing you scary.

Soon after, we abruptly switch to Michael’s father showing his wife how to fire a gun down in the professor’s cellar (full of many priceless archaeological finds, no doubt) while their son sulks between shots. Already, so many questions... why does he have a gun? Did he bring it? Is this normal vacation luggage for him? Why here? Why now? Why rope your wife into it? Why let Michael wander around in range of the weapon? What are you even aiming at!?   

Oh that’s right, zombies. Now he’s got something moving (albeit a shambling mess of basic motor skills) to shoot at. As per tradition, the cadavers’ first appearance results in utter confusion because nobody on the Professor’s guest list saw Night of the Living Dead. For his ignorance, Michael Sr. becomes the first to have his spleen forcibly removed (leaving the door, lest we forget, wide open for his son’s incestuous desires).

To be fair, he does get a few shots in. Nowhere near the head, of course, but it’s all a learning curve with these dingbats. In a neat touch, Bianchi’s crustier brand of zombies don’t bleed the red stuff when maimed. Instead they’re filled with a vile, brown liquid that sloshes out from newly formed orifices like, well… use your imagination. Yeah, you got it.

Following numerous outdoor escapades, one involving a bear trap (again with the questions), everyone rushes inside to hold out for the night. So it’s your basic undead siege movie, then? Not quite. These zombies aren’t your basic walking corpses. They’re crafty. They actively look for new ways to get inside the mansion, initially raiding the garden shed for pointy tools to hammer the doors with, before climbing the building’s pillars to execute a sneak attack (really); and those not on the offensive patiently wait outside for someone to make a mistake.

Case in point: the maid is dispatched upstairs to check for open windows. Of course, she finds one and cautiously goes to close it. While reaching outside, we see a zombie lurking in the bushes. Clutching something pointy, its arm raises slowly, almost as though its... aiming. Then SHWUMP – her hand gets nailed against the wall in a startling display of undead accuracy! Incredulously, she forgets about her other arm, and can only look on, screaming, as the stealthy posse of zombies lurking below raise a scythe up above her head and slowly bring it down, sawing through her neck.  Teamwork!

When it isn’t being so brilliantly inspired, The Zombie Dead is quite happy to recycle memorable bits from certain other shlock masterpieces, such as the obligatory ‘rising from the earth’ shot featuring a zombie with one maggot-infested eye socket that evokes a similar moment from Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters. It some territories this was even marketed as a sequel to Fulci’s film, a feat that probably would’ve been quite easy given the number of ghouls with whole worms dangling from their decayed skulls. It’s either that, or fake eyes about the size of a toddler’s fist. 

 OR mad scientist hair.

And when a rotting arm pulls one female character face-first through a broken window – the shards of which slice apart her face – it’s hard not to be reminded of a particular ‘splinter to the eyeball’ kill from the aforementioned Euro classic. But in a final, amusing touch, the zombie pulls too hard and ends up flying backwards still clinging onto a chunk of her scalp. Sounds dark, and believe me, it might have been had the zombie not careered into the night like he’d just lost his balance on a step-ladder!          

Meanwhile, some of the more canny undead have finished scaling the outer walls, leading to Zombie Dead’s big, set-piece action sequence! It mostly involves one traumatised victim poking her shambling attackers away with a spear before the MANLY MEN rush in with swords to save the day in a perpetual orgy of decrepit heads being smashing open in slow motion.  

It’s right around now when the incest factor reaches its most unpleasant stage (as if it was ever bearable). After a brush with death, Michael decides to, oh no, how do I type this ... make his move on mummy dearest, as it were. This is usually such a family friendly blog, so I won’t go into too much detail over how he smothers her with kisses and runs a hand up her skirt while lamenting those long-gone breastfeeding days urrgrawthisistoomuch.    

To the surprise of absolutely no one living or dead (it might not even be acting), mama smacks Michael away in disgust. He doesn’t take it too well, and runs off to get himself eaten in the bathroom. Hurrah! Unfortunately, I’m not sure how his mother will react, despite their erotic differences, and, yeah, upon discovering her mutilated son, she goes full Betsy Palmer and bashes the liable zombie’s brains out over the bathtub. Hurroo.    

Enough of that – the devious corpses have procured themselves a battering ram (!?), which makes short work of the front doors. What survivors remain flee to the hills and take shelter in a deserted village (I don’t know where this is meant to be). Naturally, they’re far from safe, and a final twist of Shyamalanic proportions lurks just ahead, topped off with Freudian awkwardness from beyond the grave! Yes, Michael isn’t quite out of the picture; and what he ends up doing would only ever be out-icked by Castle Freak (someone just crossed their legs).

Is The Zombie Dead, or Burial Ground (hell, whatever name you may call it by) an utterly reprehensible slice of exploitation filmmaking? Well, why do you think I picked it? Between the terrible acting and dubbing, the wildly varying quality of zombie makeup, the copious chunks of gore, the shameless amount of naked flesh on show, and that unmistakable aroma of European low budget sleaze, it makes for one hell of a cinematic case study. For all of the above, I would recommend you relinquish those higher brain functions and just... go for it.

Underage dwarf incest notwithstanding.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Horror Season II - 'Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness'

Konami’s Castlevania franchise is one of the longest running and most famous videogame series still in existence. Having begun in glorious 8bit style during the late 80s, the Belmont clan’s vendetta against a certain vampire overlord has continuously evolved, regressed, innovated and shot itself in the foot many times over the years. The late 90s marked a turning point for the horror saga, as gamers were introduced to not one, but two bold new stabs at renovating the Castlevania brand.

First up was Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, a 2D sidescroller released in 1997 for the original PlayStation that largely dispelled with the linear gameplay set by previous instalments by incorporating RPG elements and the now familiar ‘Metroidvania’ game design. A sleeper hit, Symphony became so popular that it’s often considered the be-all and end-all of anything remotely ‘Vania by fans (I’m more of a Super Castlevania IV man myself).

Then, in 1999, the series’ first foray into 3D was unleashed: Castlevania 64. It should have been a spectacular debut on Nintendo’s console, but to the shock of many, it proved less popular than the technically less ambitious Symphony of the Night – hardly the result Konami was hoping for. All leads pointed to a rushed development and premature launch, essentially leaving Castlevania 64 unfinished. Whether or not this criticism was taken on board, Konami produced a follow-up within the same year. Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness was a ‘Director’s Cut’ of their first attempt that promised to right past wrongs and finally give us the complete 3D Castlevania experience.

I’ll type it now: Legacy of Darkness isn’t great. Clumsy gameplay, rubbish graphics and an unfocused difficulty curve are all sadly present and correct… but it remains my earliest horror gaming experience, so I cling to it with sickening nostalgic affection. This was also my introduction to the series; without it I may never have discovered the earlier (and, yeah, much better) Castlevania games, so I’ve got to give it that at least. 

Set several years before the events of Castlevania 64, you don’t play a whip-cracking Belmont descendant in Legacy of Darkness (henceforth abbreviated to LoD). Instead, you are the lycanthropic man-beast Cornell, who returns home from adventures abroad and finds his village burned to the ground by the inhuman forces of Count Dracula. Cornell quickly discovers that his adoptive human sister, Ada, has been kidnapped, and that she will soon be used as a sacrifice to fully resurrect the Prince of Darkness. Following the scent of her blood, the werewolf begins a fraught journey into the very heart of evil to rescue her. 

My synopsis may have been a tad melodramatic, but it is quite the excursion to Dracula’s lair, with plenty of stage diversity along the way. Your first port of call is a moored ship overrun with lizard men and reanimated skeletons (the little Jason and the Argonauts fan in me was thrilled) where you’re attacked by a loogie-yacking sea serpent. Slay the beast and thou shalt continue into the forest and encounter goblins, zombies and vicious man-beasts, after which the ominous castle wall awaits (where the doors lock of their own volition depending on what time of day it is... yeah). Keep on trekking and you’ll eventually reach the many tower stages, with each ascent possessing its own unique theme (e.g. ‘Tower of Sorcery’ or ‘Tower of Execution’). Naturally, it wouldn’t be Castlevania without a maddening ‘Clock Tower’ level right near the end that’s clearly been designed as a method of testing the density of that wall you’re sitting nearest.

One of the more memorable areas is simply titled ‘Villa’. It’s technically more of a mansion, and delivers plenty of old fashioned horror thrills, like ghost-ridden libraries or stained glass window knights breaking into life. It’s also here that you’ll first be confronted by vampires. At my initial tender age, I found their introduction – complete with a graphic close-up of one’s fanged and bloodstained 64bit visage – to be quite mortifying in a fuzzy, low-rez way. Things get goofy when you head into the hedge maze garden, though. Once outside, you’re set upon by motorcycle-riding skeletons (and not the cool kind). Dealing with them remains one my most surreal memories, but it’s quickly offset by the terror that’s waiting deeper in the maze: a clanking, patchwork Frankenstein’s monster with a chainsaw for one arm who absolutely cannot be killed. Run away. 

As a side note, I’m not sure how all this is meant to fit inside the city walls, but then again, I don’t know why there’s roast chicken hidden in dissolvable lanterns (?), so I shan’t start questioning logic now.    

But this being a 3rd person adventure game released at the turn of the millennium, you can always count on each new location to supply its own torturous dose of platforming! These days, we love to complain about quick-time-events and regenerating health, but lest we forget, we once had to face a much greater horror – the camera. Oh, we’d have a time and a half finding the perfect viewing angle that wouldn’t guarantee a plummeting demise. This affected even the best that console generation had to offer (yes, Mario 64 included), but Konami made it extra painful in LoD. Warning bells should start going off when you realise how there are, in fact, four different camera modes. There’s ‘Action’ mode for general movement, ‘Battle’ to help target enemies, ‘Boss’ to get a better view of the giant buggers, while last and by all means least: ‘Auto’.

‘Auto’ kicks in when you approach a platforming area. The camera zooms out so you can more easily tell where you need to jump and clamber to, or at least that’s the idea. On paper, I bet it seemed like a great idea, but the view you’re given almost always makes it difficult to gauge how far/close you are to a safe landing or two broken legs. Couple that with the already clunky controls, and it’s like the game wants you to swan dive into that chasm. Still, nothing compares to how you’ll feel after finally making that leap... only to be knocked into poisonous water by the lizard man you couldn’t quite see (MOTHERFU-).

LoD also dates back to a time when proper, cinematic stories were still hard to come by in gaming. Not every other title wanted to be the next Bioshock, and most of us were happy to continuously progress from A to B before finally killing whatever lurked at C. What’s surprising, then, is how LoD does boast several memorable plot points beyond the whole “They took his sister... now he’s taking them down!” Seagal shtick.

Little touches stand out – like the young boy Cornell protects after his father is turned into a ravenous vampire, or the well-dressed salesman who also happens to be a demon from Hell declaring how slow business is down there (depending on how much you spend, you may even need to fight him later). Then there’s Ortega, a fellow man-beast and old rival of Cornell’s who’s betrayed their kind for the unlimited power promised by Dracula. He’s not in the game much, but the path to your inevitable confrontation with him is an enjoyable subplot. There’s more here than simply thwacking creatures of the night!

Okay, okay, it is mostly about thwacking creatures of the night... often with extreme prejudice. In addition to Cornell’s claws and weird, err, sonic boom attack (I guess), there’s a small collection of secondary projectile weapons to find. Each of these could be temporarily levelled up for a more powerful end result, but you likely won’t bother with the meagre throwing knife even with the extra oomph when there’s holy water and boomerang crosses to play with (as every Castlevania head case will attest to). Still, I always had a soft spot for the trusty axe which, if fully charged, would strike its target with a ginormous bolt of lightning upon impact in a hilarious display of Norse Deity-styled overkill.

Indeed, between Cornell’s weapons and his ability to change into a more powerful wolf form, it doesn’t take much to kill the supernatural nasties of LoD. You’re far more likely to die during one of those aforementioned platforming incidents than from the business end of an animated suit of armour’s sword. The bosses are mostly pushovers too. Whether it’s a giant skeleton bounding around on all fours or a two-headed, fire breathing snake, it’s just a case of hammering the kill button. Plus, if your health does drop too low, you can always pause the game at any time to consume a whole Sunday roast. How would that even work, anyway? Oh, sorry, would you give me a minute to eat this and recover my strength? Well thanks, that’s very kind of you! No... you can’t have any.  

Fittingly, the end encounter with Dracula provides a climactic challenge. You ascend the steps to his keep at the castle’s highest point, wherein there’s the obligatory pre-ultimate confrontation plot revelations, and the fight is on! Similar to another popular virtual villain, Ganon, Drac’s attacks haven’t changed too much over the years, so long-time series followers will already be prepared his teleporting trickster methods. But it’s still a pain having to balance: A) Looking for him, B) Evading his fancy shockwave/fireball/suction assault, and C) Getting close enough to actually land a blow.    

Whittle his life down and, in a series staple, Vlad transforms into his ‘true self’ (which, going by Castlevania chronology, he’s got at least twenty of). In this instance, he takes the guise of a muscular and seemingly blind winged demon with marble skin, whose chest opens up to reveal the Dark Lord’s face (no prizes for guessing the weak spot). It’s a tough battle, even with ready-to-eat roasts stuffed down your trousers, as the gruesome sumbitch spams you with flaming boulders, icy shards, electrical discharges and screaming souls of the damned! And all in a ridiculously cramped arena that gives you little room to hop, jump and skip over the crap he chucks your way.

You’ll sweat blood before it’s over, but persevere and Dracula will fall. Again. But it doesn’t end there! Defeating the Count unlocks three new playable characters! Well, one new guy – little Henry all grown up and back to rescue kidnapped children in his own mini quest – and the two main protagonists from Castlevania 64 in their original (if spruced up) adventure – Belmont heir Reinhart Schneider and little girl witch Carrie Fernandez. Yep, it’s the same game as before, just with a few minor additions (new music, stages and boss fights with a giant spider queen and the gorgon Medusa) there to hopefully convince buyers that LoD wasn’t just a sneaky cash grab... ‘cept it kinda was.  

If, like me, you hadn’t bought Castlevania 64, then this pseudo-prequel / extended edition would represent good value for money, much like a proto-Game of the Year release. Today, I’m sure Cornell’s quest would be released as overpriced downloadable content for us all to whinge about on the internet (after, you know, buying anyway).

Like I typed, Legacy of Darkness was far from brilliant and, looking back, an unfortunate misfire on Konami’s part. There would be more middling 3D experiments to come on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox systems (not to mention one rather woeful attempt at a Wii fighting game), further cementing the notion that this was one series which didn’t need an extra dimension.

But all good things, etc. Konami eventually handed MercurySteam, a little-known Spanish developer, the reigns to their darling horror opus... and gold was at long last struck in 2010 with the release of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, a critically acclaimed reboot that simultaneously reinvigorated interest in the series and paved the way for future instalments.

Castlevania’s Nintendo 64 history may be looked back on with some trepidation (Cornell’s adventure in particular is something of a curio today), but it made its mark and, for better or worse, added to a rich gaming mythology now over twenty years in the making... and which looks set to continue for quite some time.