A little light playing: A critical review of “The Town of Light” (2016)

I know what you’re thinking. What is this? Snow ostriches and lever pulling? Crappy indie espionage games? I thought Idols and Realities was a horror blog. All right smart guy, you want some horror? Here’s “The Town of Light.” It’s another adventure game, but one with a heavy emphasis on story instead of puzzles, where the environment is a character and there are heaping helpings of psychological horror. That all sounds exactly like what this blog is about. This should be easy review, right? Not so fast, tonstant weader.

There’s a certain class of online games. The usual suspects were found on sites like Newgrounds, Armor Games and Kongregate, and you can bet that they’d get a write-up on Jay Is Games. These were dialogue heavy or simple puzzle-based games that were often stylish, atmospheric, thoughtful and unsettling. Also, they were short. They were flash games, after all. They didn’t have time to mess around. “Town of Light” feels very much like a long version of one of those, and that’s both a positive and a negative.

“Town of Light” seemingly sets us in the head of Renee T., a young woman who has returned to the now ruined asylum in the Italian countryside where she was once committed (look, there’s a picture of Mussolini). The asylum is devoid of patients or staff now, but it might house fragments of Renee’s identity. She doesn’t quite know who she is, and she has no connection to who she was. As night slowly falls, she will have to ask herself if the ghosts of the asylum are telling her the truth, or if she’s been lying to herself all this time.

And that really is it, people. In some ways, the game is very simple. Walk here. Pick up a thing. Walk back. Rinse and repeat. No quick time events or enemies to flee from. If we are to call “The Town of Light” an adventure game–and it certainly ain’t an RPG, hack ‘n’ slash or shooter–then we can return to our triad of atmosphere, story and puzzles to gauge how quality it is.

As far as atmosphere goes, “Town” does pretty good. Abandoned insane asylums should be spooky, and this one fits the bill. I’ve heard people rave about the environments in this game, and for the most part I’ll agree. The indoor environments are good. The lighting is appropriate–never bright enough to fully orient but always dark enough so one doesn’t know immediately what’s going on–and the rooms are filled to the brim with detail. There is unquestionably a sense of unease even if there isn’t any urgency. Despite the lack of environmental threats, you might feel yourself dreading looking around every corner

There are two problems. The first is the outdoor environments. Yes, that light is still pretty, and I adore that the game begins with access to a swing set you can genuinely use, but the trees in “Town of Light” suck. That is not an opinion. That is a fact. The first time I encountered them, I thought the foliage around the asylum was coming to life in an expression of utter Gothic horror. Nope. This was no haunting or hallucination. It was just the game acting up.

The interiors come with a caveat as well. They are well designed and one is able to interact with many things, but there is seldom a reason to do so. This is not just from a lack of jump scares (despite its tremendous sense of unease, “Town” resists the urge to do any kind of jump scares, and depending on your temperament that can range from admirable to annoying).

In order to advance, the game, you have to interact with very little of that deeply detailed environment. Also, although you can examine almost anything in the rooms, very little is gained from doing so. A box of syringes? Whatever. A phrenology bust? Old news. Some photographs? Vacation pics, I guess. Aside from a couple of documents that give one some hints at the running of the asylum, there is nothing to be learned from looking at anything.

Which brings us to the story. “Town of Light’s” is sensitively done, which is high praise. Reliable or not, Renee is our protagonist, and it’s not always that a game drags a character through so much crap and makes it believable. It helps that the topic of her mental illness is seriously handled. Mental illness is a topic that’s easy to screw up in any genre or medium, let alone horror video games.

“Town” replicates auditory and visual hallucinations in a way that is both frightening and real. When utilizing reality-warping sights and sounds, the game is surprisingly restrained. Not only does that ramp up the realism, it makes the moments when everything goes nuts all the more impactful. This is not a game that beats you over the head with weird noises or gooey visuals. It’s a cooler customer than that. Even if I felt like I didn’t know Renee–or could never know Renee, given how certain narrative elements are left unsaid–I never felt like I didn’t want to keep playing.

The final consideration is the puzzles, and that is the weakest part of “Town” because it doesn’t care about puzzles. In fact, it doesn’t seem to care that it’s a video game. It advances mostly by itself, with players no more than observers to see the plot along. It was a bad sign when the game told me, almost proudly, that I could press a button to get help at any time. I made a point of never pressing that button, so I don’t know how helpful it would have been.

Searching for clues felt as natural as blundering through hedge mazes, and the cues for triggering events were narrative, not environmental. They typically made more sense to Renee than they did to me. Once she was pressuring me to look at every pot in the kitchen. That urgency didn’t make sense, but I get that she’s of a nervous disposition. Worse was a set of documents that were hyped up like they’d be somewhere official, like patient records. They weren’t. They were in a random surgery ward.

In short, this was a game that got everything right but the game part. Solid atmosphere and an intriguing story are what “Town” has going for it, without much room left for interaction. Large passages were almost lacking player input, and their psychological impact felt accordingly diminished. That leaves this blog wondering why it had to be a video game. It might be important story, but not necessarily right for this medium.

This blog often asks: Why is this a movie instead of book? In the case of “The Town of Light,” this blog asks: Why is this a video game? We could not come up with a satisfactory answer. If I might be permitted a paraphrase, as Mark Twain (allegedly) said, it’s a good story spoiled by a game.

Chilly reunion: A critical review of “Syberia 3” (2017)

The first game in the Syberia franchise had the foresight to be released around one of the (numerous) times adventure games were (allegedly) on the way out. But “Syberia’s” literary story and dream-like atmosphere–and its robust sales–convinced the naysayers that adventure games were fine, for a few more months at least.

Unsurprisingly, a sequel was released two years later. More surprisingly, the third entry followed that by about 13 years. More than a decade and two console generations later, players could trek back to the mythical isle of Syberia. Except not really. I’m getting ahead of myself.

A decade in game industry time can be an opportunity for a franchise to improve graphics and absorb inspiration from other like-minded titles from along the years. It can also be an opportunity to lose touch. I won’t worry about getting ahead here. “Syberia 3” is definitely in the latter camp.

“Syberia 3” picks up where things left off 13 years ago, only no one’s aged. American lawyer Kate Walker is somewhere in Eurasia, kinda former Soviet bloc, trying to repay a tribe of dwarf shamans who rescued her from drowning in a river. She’s helping them move a herd of snow ostriches to its sacred breeding ground. That the size of the herd changes frequently gets no explanation.

Walker is useful to the tribe because she can move in modern society easier than they can, I guess. I’m less certain why the tribe is being pursued by an eye patch wearing Colonel Klink type and a hypnotist Nurse Ratched type. Walker is also being pursued by an American private detective, for reasons that are quickly forgotten by the narrative.

When it comes to adventure games, this blog looks for three things: atmosphere, story and puzzles, in that order. As far as atmosphere goes, “Syberia 3” never rises above OK. It creates some atmosphere with its music, Slavic sounding stuff that is pleasant but rarely more than background. The settings are hit or miss. Ruined towns and chilly forests are moody environments for sure, but their presentation is hampered by bad graphics and ugly blocking. A game with a bigger budget would have created a sense of place with detailed landscapes. A game with a more novel art direction could have done it with pure style. “Syberia 3” has neither.

You can’t blame the game for not trying. It opens in a mental institution. That’s always a nice touch. There’s a troubled sea crossing. This blog finds the ocean terrifying. There’s a series of increasingly abandoned Soviet ghost towns, sewers and amusement parks. This game does excellent Soviet abandonment. Unfortunately, there’s no sense of dread in the mental institution, no sense of danger at sea, and the abandoned locales keep getting filled up with people, robbing them of any sense of isolation.

“Syberia 3’s” story is pretty routine, and it never bothers to explore any of its potential. The paradox of both guiding and following a force of nature, a herd that travels like seasonal clockwork, could have been fascinating. As it’s presented here, it just boils down to: outcasts are going somewhere; bad people plague them, because bad people need things to do too; and our heroine backtracks and throws switches to keep everyone moving.

It might be all right if the characters we met along the way were interesting, but they’re poorly sketched out cliches. Even that might be OK if the voice actors could make trotting out the old archetypes fresh or fun, but that ain’t happening either. Early in the game, Walker notes that the scout master of the shaman tribe speaks excellent English. Her compliment seems arbitrary. Every character speaks flawless American English, regardless of how much gratuitous German is thrown into their dialogue. Were there no voice actors with Russian or German background? What about British? That’s who Americans usually hire when they can’t get real Europeans. These actors sound like the closest they’ve ever gotten to Eastern Europe is in old episodes of “Rocky and Bullwinkle.”

There are two exceptions. The first is New York voice actor Mike Pollock, who is serviceable as a drunk sea captain, a skittish border guard and one of the most unconventional looking and least effective private detectives I’ve seen in a video game. The other is Sharon Mann as Kate Walker. Mann has been playing Walker since 2002, so she knows what she’s doing and delivers most of her lines like she cares.

In fact, Walker is the only character worth caring about. She dresses like a steampunk goddess, which I appreciate. More than that, she’s dynamic, in part due to multiple dialogue options players can use throughout her adventures. My Kate Walker was direct and given to fits of wonder and amazement, but she could also be manipulative or sarcastic when she needed to be. Thanks to Mann’s believable delivery, it worked.

Finally, the puzzles. They’re fairly mediocre. They’re usually straightforward enough to bully your way through. Anyone who wants depth will likely be disappointed, since the main component in solving a lot of these is backtracking, followed by put-the-thing-on-top-of-the thing style trial and error. I liked one puzzle involving breaking down a door for its lateral thinking solution. Manipulating a crane was spatially rewarding. The deepest puzzle was probably a late game entry that required the most real world reasoning about sparking fires and channeling heat.

That’s probably not a good review. Three good puzzles in a game between seven and 14 hours long, with the rest ranging from filler to frustrating. I’ve seen reviews call this game terrible. I won’t quite go that far, but it isn’t great either. If this blog had to pick a word, it would be awkward. “Syberia 3” is awkward. Its backtracking is awkward. Its console controls are awkward, its camera is awkward, and that combination suggests puzzle games should stick to the PC.

Its uncertainty of its own atmosphere is awkward. The relationship between the spoken dialogue and the captions is awkward, since they don’t always match up. The mouth movements don’t always match up with the dialogue either, leaving the characters looking like they’re chewing more than talking. The chewing is awkward.

“Syberia 3” does one thing right, which is to indicate that the other games in the franchise will be better. A confession: I have never played any of the other Syberia games, which are supposed to have more steampunk, fewer ostriches, more concrete themes and more competent voice actors. As for the third entry, there’s not enough good, or suggestive of good, to make me excited about an upcoming release (which is allegedly in the works right now). There is enough suggestion to make me curious about the previous releases. Whether that’s a victory or not is the real puzzle.

A title too perfect: A critical review of “Past Cure” (2018)

Every now and again, a video game will come along and do something amazing, something that few games, maybe even no game, has ever done before. “Past Cure” is such a game. It’s a third-person shooter with elements of stealth and survival horror. Not only did it have that fascinating combination of genres, but it was also so buggy I wasn’t able to finish it.

In fact, I almost couldn’t start it. But we’ll get into that.

Produced by a studio in a part of Berlin that seems unaware the Wall came down in 1989, “Past Cure” puts you in the angsty shoes of Ian, a super soldier turned secret assassin. With the aid of his brother, Ian is hunting down the shadowy corporation that subjected him to a series of strange medical experiments. While the experiments gave him amazing powers of perception, they also fractured his mind and shattered his reality, and mysterious and frightening nightmares increasingly invade his waking world.

As a concept, “Past Cure” is fabulous: pulpy gunplay meets mind melting psychological thriller. You’ve got a haunted hit man as your main character, and some reality breaks that might be supernatural, a side effect of drugs or plain old insanity. For gameplay, you’re either solving metaphysics puzzles or shooting people. What’s not to like?

With stylish art direction and intelligent writing, a game like “Past Cure” wouldn’t even need that much of a budget. Well, the good news is “Past Cure” doesn’t look like it had much of a budget. The bad news is it doesn’t look like it had much art direction or quality writing either.

Ian’s world is divided into two realms: the waking world and the nightmare world. His waking world is blandly modern. It’s all generic parking garages and soulless office buildings. His house is pretty cool, but it doesn’t look like a place where someone who is hiding from the world–like a globetrotting killer with a vendetta against a corporate conspiracy, for example–would be hiding out.

The game is mysterious for the wrong reasons. Take that ultramodern house. Not only is it inexplicably avant-garde, but Ian and his brother live on top of an arsenal of guns, cool cars and blipping computers. There’s even a shooting gallery in their basement. Where did they get these wonderful toys? Who built everything? How were they kept quiet? The game never even attempts to hand wave it, and therefore, never earns it. As far as I know, Ian is just an itchy trigger finger with a tendency toward psychotic breaks. I guess he’s a multimillionaire too.

The nightmare sequences aren’t any cleaner. The first one is probably the best. It’s essentially a shooting tutorial set in what looks like an abandoned hotel. It’s trippy and it gets the job done, although it explains nothing about who Ian is. That’s fine. After all, it’s only the first sequence.

That lack of explanation becomes a problem in later nightmare sequences, set in sterile labs or rusty boiler rooms, where all we get are vague suggestions. Ian should have an idea, even a fear, of what’s going on. Even if he has trouble with his memory, the symbols in his own dreams should make sense to him. If they do, he’s not telling me. All he gives are cryptic hints, and that’s not explanation or even speculation.

If these sequences were structured like real dreams, they’d get crazier and more disconnected from reality with each encounter, but they don’t. Labs and boiler rooms aren’t that outlandish, even if they are spooky. In a good Silent Hill game, these locations would have some connection to Ian’s unique psychology. Here, they’re just spooky for the sake of being spooky, much like the shooting range was cool for the sake of being cool.

Maybe the game explains some of this in retrospect. Remember, I didn’t finish it. However, Ian doesn’t seem fazed by anything in the meantime, so I have no curiosity either. In fact, none of the characters, from Ian or his brother to the nameless thugs being stabbed in the back, sound excited to be in this game. One could blame weak voice actors or a shallow script. Take your pick.

Why didn’t this blog finish the game? Well, lemme tell ya. “Past Cure” didn’t foul up on the first couple levels. I was able to play through all the hand-holding bits just fine. Things really started to mess up when I hit the first level where things allegedly mattered.

It started OK, all crawling through parking structures and shooting at bullet sponges. But once I advanced beyond a certain load screen, all my ammunition disappeared. I restarted from the checkpoint, and I had negative ammunition. I restarted the level, and the room was replaced with a mysterious white void. Was I dead? Was Ian in heaven? Not quite. It was just a glitch.

I uninstalled and reinstalled the game. The system saved my progress, and the reinstall fixed the glitch. I was able to advance beyond the load screen through the shooty bits until I hit Ian’s nightmare realm, which was less shooting and more puzzles. The first one made no sense–how does jamming a crate into a wall supply an system of pulleys with electricity?–and the second one was worse. An endless wave of baddies, and the only thing to interact with in the room were a series of cages of unexplained origin.

Undeterred I looked up a couple walk-throughs of the game, only to find the level I was playing did not exist. Maybe it was a later addition, courtesy of some download, to make the game more “fun”? Anyway, I eventually figured out how to trap my pursuers in the cages, which made a kind of dream logic sense, I guess. I’m trying to cut you slack, “Past Cure.” You’re making me do all the work.

That puzzle was followed by an unskippable cut scene, which was followed by a boss who did not react to bullets or psychic assault, could not be dodged and killed me with one hit. The only way to return to this boss was to solve the puzzles with the cages again. And again. And again.

After half a dozen or so attempts at this, I said “no more” to “Past Cure.” I have nothing against unforgiving games and nothing against slow games, but those that are slow, unforgiving and suggest no psychological or artistic payoff are not for me.

I can’t say what happens next. Maybe Ian’s brother will end up betraying him. Maybe the woman in Ian’s dreams will end up being kidnapped, or maybe she’s already dead by Ian’s own hand. Maybe there’s some great revelation around the corner that will put everything into perspective. But I don’t have a sense of that now, and I have less of an incentive to get there.

When you strip away its thin plot and boring visuals, “Past Cure” leaves you with awkward shooting, an unsatisfying selection of guns, stiff controls and lame puzzles. Maybe I will finish it some day, but for now, I fear that “Past Cure” is beyond treatment.

I love cheap thrills: News July 2020

We here at Idols and Realities have noticed the days are grinding together too, Tonstant Weader. That excuses (if not forgives) any laziness in posting on this blog’s part, and it also allows for a nice transition to today’s news topic.

In an effort to help the economy in these troubling times, this blog went to the website of a certain unnamed video game supplier (it’s Gamestop. They won’t give me anything for mentioning them, but it’s Gamestop) with the intention of both pumping some credits back into the system and picking up a few games at the same time. Except we didn’t want to help the economy that much, because, you know, the wallet is only so thick.

Since we like nothing more than placing arbitrary restrictions on ourselves, this blog decided to only buy games that were, first, under $10 and, second, impulse buys–only games I had no intention of buying until I saw them, whether I knew about them beforehand or not.

Recounted alphabetically (to be fair), the games this blog ended up with were: a psychological thriller/third-person shooter; an atmospheric adventure game; a survival horror/walking simulator; and “Vermintide,” a dark fantasy hack ‘n’ slash from the Warhammer universe that requires an Internet connection. Well, my Internet connection sucks, so it might be unplayable. Wish I’d known that going in. This blog will leave it at the bottom of the list for now. Maybe I’ll end up figuring something out. Or maybe I’ll end up exclusively having helped the economy, which is its own reward, albeit not a very fun one.

Either way, that’s three or four weeks of review fodder. First on the chopping block will be “Past Cure,” which bill itself as a cross between “Silent Hill” and “Hitman.” I have my own thoughts on that, but you’ll have to wait a week to get them. If you like your thrills cheap and in video game form, stick around.

Strangely at the door: A critical review of “Turn of the Key” (2019)

If the last book was shooting for Agatha Christie, and the one before that was trying for Ira Levin, is this is Henry James? We’ve got a governess, a creepy house and something turning in the title. Everything checks out.

Anybody who knows me know that I hold “The Turn of Screw” in high regard, possibly the highest regard possible. It is one of the best ghost stories, horror stories and psychological stories every written. I have decades of literary critics to back me up too, so I’m not just a crazy weirdo defending some random pulp this time. “Turn of the Screw” is the real deal. So entitling something “Turn of the X” is a promise. How well does Ruth Ware’s “Key” fulfill it?

The novel begins with a series of increasingly pleading letters to a lawyer before plunging into the story of a young woman, Rowan to her friends, who takes a job as a nanny in Heatherbrae House. Heatherbrae is a Victorian mansion remotely located in the Scottish Highlands that’s outfitted with the latest smart house gadgets. Everything from the light switches to the shopping list is connected to one’s phone.

It’s all a bit unnerving for the new nanny, and it must have been for her predecessors too, since few of them kept the job more than a couple of weeks. But their reasons for leaving have as much to do with tricky and invasive tech as they do with the sinister history of the estate and the unusual family that lives there now. We already know at the start of the book that we’ll end up with at least one body. It’s just a question of how and when.

Gothic horror is a tricky one. It’s built out of a lot of cliches, just like any genre, but its cliches are older and more familiar than some other genres. In fact, it’s almost expected you’ll do some overwriting–a little hand-wringing here, a little gnashing of teeth over there. However, I am happy to report that Ware doesn’t overdo things much. She strikes a balance between good and over-the-top Gothic.

For example, one chapter ends with two little eyes shining in the dark before seeming to close shut. It’s a solid image and it’s well played. I’m less fond of another chapter that concludes with Rowan haranguing her past self, and methinks the lady doth protest too much:

“I look back, and I want to shake that smug young woman, sitting in her London flat, thinking she knew it all, had seen it all. I want to slap her face and tell her she doesn’t know what she’ s talking about. Because I was wrong, Mr. Wrexham. I was very, very wrong.”

Get that, Mr. Wrexham? She wasn’t just wrong or very wrong. She was very, very wrong.

That passage was actually so hysterical it made me stop and think: Hey, she’s composing this letter like a novel, with foreshadowing and dramatic pauses for chapters. People don’t normally do that, do they?

Although, to be fair, “Mr. Wrexham” is a pretty killer name for a lawyer in a Gothic novel.

There are also some good Gothic images, like mysterious sounds from the ceiling and a garden of poisonous plants. Also, the loss of privacy in a house with that much tech is considered, although surprisingly not as much as one might expect. There are some some twists doled out carefully, all of which follow a flow and logic that should satisfy the psychological thriller reader at home.

That said, there is one particular problem I have with the book. It’s purely subjective, but it neatly answers the question of how “Turn of the Key” compares to “Turn of the Screw.”

I won’t get into specifics, but as the novel drew to its conclusion, I started mentally noting the things I wanted explained; the things I’d be frustrated if I didn’t get explained; and the things I’d be OK with never getting explained. Guess what? They all got explained.

Along with its iconic setting and powerful prose, one reason “Turn of the Screw” is still relevant more than 100 years later is it plays things way too cool. It is probably the most successfully ambiguous ghost story in the English language; in fact, the only piece of media I can think of that’s comparable is Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” Enough is explained so that we can talk about something, but enough is left unexplained so that we can bring something of ourselves to a discussion.

The setting of “Turn of the Key” is clever and the prose is certainly readable, but the book has no interest in being impressionistic or interpretive whatsoever. Add in the lack of deeper themes and, in the end, “Key” is all Gothic dressing without much psychological depth. It’s fine for a pulp thriller but don’t expect to be haunted.

The more the murkier: A critical review of “The Hunting Party” (2019)

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested human beings can maintain about 150 different relationships, although we devote the majority of our social attention to only about 15. That’s why I like books and movies that focus on a few people. I’m a human being. I have a limited attention span. My trade off is, if you only give me a few people, I can really dig into them.

Lucy Foley’s “The Hunting Party” opens swimming with characters, as if the book is going to spread its attention among a spacious cast. However, it quickly pares things down to focus on a core group. This certainly helps it become a more effective read, although its merits as a thriller are still debatable.

The novel begins with a group of old friends, a decade out of college, spending New Year’s Eve at a remote mountain lodge in the Scottish Highlands. The first couple of nights are boisterous. Booze flows and friends reminisce. But soon old wounds are uncovered and rivalries revived, and one of the guests does not survive into the new year. With the lodge cut off by winter weather, and a killer clearly in their midst, tensions mount. No one, not even the friendly staff, seems above suspicion.

Once it’s got all of its character introductions out of the way, “The Hunting Party” focuses on a few characters: Heather, Emma, Katie, Doug and Miranda. That’s still five different narrators, but as the book gradually unfolds their distinct voices emerge. Miranda is critical; Katie is self-effacing; Heather is introspective, and their narration styles reflect this.

The side effect is that the other characters, who were initially somewhat indistinct, can remain pretty indistinct. I’m kind of OK with that, since one of themes of the book seems to be that we can never truly know who someone else is, even if we’ve grown up with them or worked with them for years.

There are mechanical issues. For one thing, the narrative puts everything in the present tense. Normally that drives me nuts, but I thought I was going to be OK with that too, since we were jumping from one character to the next with a regular rhythm. The present tense prose read like we were experiencing their thoughts in real time. The problem is, it’s not real time. The narrative jumps time as well as character, so the stuff that’s happening “now” is in present tense, but so is the stuff that’s happening “two days ago.”

That makes me ask questions like, which present is this–her present or his present? It’s not my present. Why not put this present in present tense and that present from two days earlier in past tense? Wouldn’t that be more organized? This wasn’t a deal breaker, but it definitely took me out of the action every time I thought about it.

And it’s not the time jumping that gets me. Actually, out of all the narrative quirks, the time jump is the nicest because it allows for the most interesting element of the book. The novel opens with a murder but is very careful not to identify the victim. Then it jumps back and forth to the investigation and to the events leading up to the murder, so it’s as much a who-got-dun-in as a whodunit.

But there’s one thing the time jumps can’t fix. “The Hunting Party” has some depth and some pathos, and the characters that are developed are played against each other effectively. But other than the murder we know will happen eventually, there’s not a lot of suspense. The book is fine as a psychodrama, but not that great as a psychological thriller.

In fact, readers expecting thrills and chills might find the tension to be a let down. Some new twist is uncovered every few chapters, but it’s usually a revelation about a relationship. At best, it’s a little soapy. At worst, it’s a little silly.

Also, the front cover promises that “everyone’s a suspect.” That’s just not true. I eliminated most of the suspects in the first third of the book. In fact, I had a pretty good idea who was gonna get done in and who was gonna done it by the time we entered the final third. The former was pretty logical and satisfying. The latter I figured out by a complete fluke. I won’t say any more than that. Maybe you’ll like it.

“The Hunting Party” is well written, with elegant prose and snappy dialogue and some appropriate themes that aren’t simply slammed over the reader’s head. But it falls short as a psychological thriller. It’s not thrilling enough, or intellectually piercing enough, to escape melodrama. It’s not bad at all. It’s just a little disappointing.

Family architecture: A critical analysis of “Psycho” (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” was released on June 16, 1960, and three days later, it was Father’s Day. In hindsight, this seems like a commercial misstep. After all, wouldn’t Mother’s Day have been a more appropriate premier for the mamma of all slasher films?

While the role of “mother” in the film is obviously filled by Norma Bates, the role of “father” is not apparently filled by anyone. It is a psychological plot point of
“Psycho” that Norman Bates’s father died when he was five, and the film is infamous for its lack of a positive male figure, let alone a male hero (Norman is an antihero at best, ultimately a tragic villain).

There is, however, an arguably masculine presence in the film that fills the role of father figure for Norman. It’s not a character but a setting. In “Psycho,” for better or for worse, Norman’s father figure is the house up the hill from the Bates Motel.

It’s not as far fetched as it might sound. Father figures don’t have to be biological fathers, and they don’t even have to be people we know. The archetype of “father” can even be seen in national abstracts. George Washington was called “the father of his country” and Germany in the 1930s was called “the Fatherland.”

While archetypes can do without biology, what they can’t abide is a vacuum. Father figures are fathers because they have a relationship with a child. In the same way, the purpose of a building is, in part, constructed through its relationship with people. Churches, hospitals or schools can be defined by architecture or equipment, but they are also defined by the types of people–ministers, doctors or teachers–who inhabit them and by how those people use the buildings for their specific purpose–worship, healing or instruction.

This is no different for dwellings. Popular wisdom says that homes are houses that are lived in, in other words, that have a relationship with a family unit. To quote the poet Edgar Albert Guest, it takes a heap of living to make a house a home.

In “Psycho,” Norma establishes that we’re supposed to be looking for figures who represent the darker sides of parental archetypes when considering the Bates family. As a psychic force, Norma does not nurture or help fulfill her child. Instead, she is seductive and stifling to the point where she overtakes his identity.

The darker attributes of a father archetype, some seen in a reversed Emperor tarot card, are that it is austere, separate, unreachable, unflinching and aged. These attributes can also be seen in the Bates house as it relates to the other characters and settings in the film.

That the house is aged is clear in its architecture. It is Victorian in style and looks like it’s from another century, giving it the appearance of something that’s been around for a while. This is especially clear when the house is compared to the motel below, whose clean lines and accessibility for cars and travelers give it a modern, if utilitarian, feel.

Photography also separates the Bates house. The exterior of the house is photographed infrequently and from a distance. Unlike the motel, it is never photographed up close. It’s also typically shot by itself, without other characters or structures as reference. When they are seen in a shot with the house, characters are either tiny to the point of insignificance–the silhouette of mother seen from a window–or shoved in a corner to allow the house to take prominence–Norman noticing the house from a window of the motel, with Norman cut off around the shoulder but the house fully framed by the window.

The house is also separate from the members of the Bates family. Although Norman has a room in the house, we see him primarily occupy the motel office. One might think that Norma occupies the house, so the house has a connection to her, but that’s not quite right. Norma doesn’t occupy the house. She occupies Norman.

The physical distance between the house and the motel gives the house the room it needs to keep an eye on things, so to speak. Whenever the house is seen from a character’s perspective, its age and distance give it a look of seriousness, menace and authority.

Authority is one of the positive traits of the father archetype, but its negative aspect is authority that has turned cruel or violent. Notably in “Psycho,” the motel is the setting of the murder of Marion Crane, which was in a kind of defense of Norman. The house, on the other hand, is the setting of the murder of the private detective Arbogast, which was done to cover up the previous murder and is therefore in defense of the entire family unit.

One of the lasting horrors of “Psycho” isn’t that there are no parental figures for Norman to cling to–it’s that there are, terrible archetypes that Norman has perceived for himself out of a need for parental guidance. Like bad parents, they elevate his worst nature, subverting loyalty into violence and responsibility into guilt.

When you think of buildings in “Psycho,” what are you likely to conjure up (remember, a shower is not a building)? You probably think of the gloomy old house on the hill, overlooking the tired motel and its timid caretaker. Perhaps you see the harsh outline of an indistinct figure in an upper window. That architecture is as iconic for horror cinema and Norman and Norma Bates. Even if we don’t call the house “father,” it makes up the missing third of the Bates family’s nuclear unit. Perhaps it’s time to bring the house home.

Double check the deadbolt: A critical review of “Lock Every Door” (2019)

The first thing one is liable to notice about the novel “Lock Every Door” is that its cover is pink. Not pacific dove pink or cotton candy spun pink, but aggressive pink, the kind of pink that will shove you into a wall and take your lunch money. Which is odd because it’s not a very pink book. But maybe that’s fitting, because between those pink covers is a novel that cannot make up its mind.

Our protagonist, Jules Larsen, has just picked up every New Yorker’s dream job: getting paid to live in the Bartholomew, a historic high-rise in the middle of Manhattan, where she can get spectacular views of Central Park and rub shoulders with the city’s quietly rich and famous. But when some of her fellow apartment sitters disappear, Jules starts investigating the building’s haunted history. The more she looks, the more she realizes her dream job is a waking nightmare.

Author Riley Sager put “To Ira Levin” on the dedication page, but once the story’s underway, he can’t decide if he wants the book to be “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Sliver” or even “The Boys From Brazil” (have fun untangling that, thriller fans!). Homage is one thing. Identity crisis is another thing altogether.

Part of the problem is that the book telegraphs a lot of things, and I don’t even mean the twist. I mean the moods of the narrator. Jules spells every single thing out to the point where I felt like the book was talking down to me. She repeatedly interprets things from a passive perspective–and then she comments on how passive she is. I get it. The world excludes her and is unforgiving, and she’s a weak and worthless person.

Except she doesn’t act weak and worthless. Far from it, she acts like a junior detective, going right up to strangers–who she’s been told not to talk to–and talks to them rather rudely about the building’s occult and bloody past. For someone who thinks she’s so out of place in the building, let alone believes she’s in a strange and dangerous situation, she sure behaves entitled.

And the twist? I shouldn’t say too much, but I will say this. The novel started with a decent amount of thriller intrigue. But when the twist arrived, it wasn’t that it was stupid, but it was a much more pedestrian twist than I expected, especially compared to the intrigue that built up to it. If given the choice between intriguing build up and a pedestrian twist, I will usually choose the intrigue thank you.

Also, the ultimately revealed villain is about as deep as a Saturday morning cartoon character, over-the-top in villainy yet curiously without presence. The motivations behind the disappearances aren’t quite as bad as “just because,” but they’re only a step or two away.

The novel is definitely readable, and the prose is pretty tidy, although there are a couple of spots that the editor seems to have missed. And, not to nitpick, but I liked Jules’s father’s clever platitudes until it dawned on me that they were paraphrases of other writers, like William Shakespeare and Ian Fleming. I like Shakespeare and Fleming, so I don’t know why that disappointed me. Maybe it just came across as more narrative uncertainty.

In fact, while we’re at it, what’s up with the title? I mean, yes, the book has doors in it. Some of them are even locked. But every one? Not even close.

Catch-up reading: News June 2020

I should probably be tooting my own horn here, seeing as how a comic essay of mine was recently published at Maudlin House, a small press that specializes in new form and experimental lit. Of course, my story–a piece of flash fiction tilted at some probably-fictional editor–isn’t exactly this blog’s typical subject, so I doubt you’d be interested in it, Tonstant Weader. Instead, I’ll be the bigger man.

Ben Umayam’s flash work “Hairy Monster,” also available to read at Maudlin House, is delightful. It’s either a thriller that’s slyly an immigrant story or an immigrant story that’s slyly a piece of pulp thriller. Either way, it’ll only take you two minutes to read, but its dark punchline will stick with you for the rest of the day–although it make you pause before getting back into a barber shop or salon, no matter how messy your quarantine hair has gotten.

Now that all that reading is out of the way, who’s up for some novels? As this blog alluded to in the past, we’ve been sitting on a big pile of junky thrillers from the library, from murder mysteries to stories of possibly supernatural high jinks. In the months of quarantine downtime, we’ve even read a couple of them, and we’ll be reviewing them this June.

Interestingly, each novel is set in an enclosed space–including an exclusive high-rise apartment, a cabin in the woods and a remote mansion–which seems relevant considering how this year started off. But before you ask, they’re all from 2019. I guess some people just know where things are headed.

Everyone’s invited: A critical review of “Sorority Party Massacre” (2012)

Let me say at the start, I don’t consider myself a feminist, largely because that word has become semantically loaded over time. However, even I have to wonder why “Sorority Party Massacre,” a film that is apparently about a sorority–a college club for women mind you–has two male names atop its cast list. Not even the sorority thriller from the 1950s did that.

This is a sign. Whether its a sign of social injustice or unfair media representation this blog will leave for someone else. For us, it is a sign that this is a movie that doesn’t quite know what to do with its subject matter. On its surface it appears to hit all the stops. There is a sorority, and there is a massacre. There’s not exactly a party, but the other two nouns are arguably more important for this type of movie. What’s harder to argue is how everything holds together.

The facts we can agree on are this: Detective William Watts (Thomas Downey, also an executive producer), an LADP cop with anger management issues, has been sent by his captain to see why his daughter, a UCLA student, has stopped answering his incessant phone calls. She was at a sorority function at Grizzly Cove, a lakeside community where everyone speaks with a Southern accent despite it being hours from Los Angeles. We also know she was murdered in the first scene, but the cops don’t know that. Yet.

Watts discovers the sorority is selecting is selecting a grant winner from among its membership, and the missing student was one of their number. As more sisters go missing or turn up dead, and Watts finds the local police force woefully ineffective, he takes matters into his own hands to crack the case.

“Sorority Party Massacre”–no relation to that other sorority massacre–is an unfortunately average movie. It bills itself as a horror-comedy, but it never seems to find its balance. Its first scene, a stranded college student being executed by a masked baddie, plays like a self-aware horror movie. However, the film quickly shifts to broad laughs and lots of skin, resembling a raunchy college comedy.

As a horror film, “Party” never does better than just OK. The murder makeup is good, and there is a kind of mystery at the film’s core. There’s also an ongoing theme of the sisters being dispatched in ways that reflect their worst fears, which feels disconnected. Killing people by their greatest fear is never rationalized by the film. It just happens to be convenient.

Unless the whole movie is about the dangers of fear, whether it’s the fear of loud outsiders entering a quiet community or a simple fear of deadly bees. Of course, one character says that fear of failure is abstract, then offers fear of dying alone as a more concrete fear. I’d say they’re both abstract. Maybe the movie’s metaphysics shouldn’t be examined too closely.

“Party” is probably more successful as a comedy. There are laughs, and while the movie tends to stick on certain jokes too long, you’ll see those jokes presented earnestly by a lot of familiar faces. There’s Kevin Sorbo! And Richard Moll! And Ron Jeremy? Yes, Ron Jeremy. And Leslie Easterbrook and Ed O’Ross. No reviewer seems to have had any complaints about the cast. Not only does the movie have a lot of cool character actors and cameos, everyone looks like they’re having fun, and that translates to the audience.

The photography is crisp, and a couple of shots are well executed, included an image of the sisters framed by windows seen from below by Detective Watts. However, the editing can be distractingly stylish, with jump zooms and Tarantino-esque visual effects.

The final product is about 10 minutes too long, and the ending is kind of a non-ending, although there is a suggestion for a sequel. That hasn’t materialized yet, and you’d have to experience “Sorority Party Massacre” for yourself to decide how necessary it would be. That wouldn’t be the worst experience, if you’re in the right mood for a raunchy comedy with low budget slasher aspirations.