The wrong exit: A critical review of “Detour” (1945)

This blog would hate to call anyone the “ultimate cult thriller director,” but there are cases to be made. Case in point: Edgar G. Ulmer made two films that are recognized as undervalued representatives of their respective genres. The first is “The Black Cat,” a 1934 horror film whose offbeat and porous narrative paid more attention to unsettling atmosphere and psychological games between its iconic actors – Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi – than it did to its conventional leads. It is well worth a watch for horror fans, and it definitely deserves its own review some day. But that’s not what we’re talking about right now.

Nossir, we are talking about “Detour,” a 1945 film noir that is also quite interesting. However, whether it is a quality film or not is debatable. It’s a little movie trying to be a big movie. A bunch of my betters have suggested it’s waiting rediscovery, and while I’m inclined to agree, it’s not necessarily for the same reason. “Detour” might worth seeing, not because it’s so bad it’s good, but because it’s so bad it’s charming.

By the way, the film is in public domain, so you can watch it most places online, but anyone who misses that delightfully public access/old school horror host cringe can watch it here.

For those in a hurry, “Detour” tells the tale of a dour New York pianist hitchhiking across America to catch up with his girlfriend who’s fled to Los Angeles. Somewhere in the Southwest, he climbs into a car with a doomed man. After switching from hitchhiker to driver – and taking on the original driver’s identity – he picks up a young woman who has some killer baggage of her own.

To be fair, “Detour” has a couple of things going for it. It sports some thoughtful, mature camerawork and a suitable soundtrack for a film about an accomplished pianist, which is particularly impressive in its nightclub scenes. However, as far as things that are clear successes, that’s about it.

There is an ambition hanging over the film, but it’s an ambition that is almost never precisely satisfied. Part of the film’s failures come down to the editing and continuity, which are awkward and self-defeating. There’s also the script, which seems like it’s in a terrible rush to get wherever it’s going. “Detour” is less than 70 minutes long, and while that makes it a breezy view, the film never has the time to ruminate on its themes or characters in a comfortable manner.

Both of those flaws can be attributed to the notable lack of budget – film stock costs money, after all, and this movie was notoriously cheap. Of course it’s debatable whether the low budget can account for the awkward script and editing, but it can account for the clumsy matte shots and cheap sets. However – and this is where the charm bleeds through – budget can excuse but never fully explain some of the film’s quirks. Why does it look like the leads wander through the Gypsy camp from “Cry of the Werewolf” while walking home from the New York nightclub? Who knows. Unfortunately, a lack of funds can’t excuse the dialogue, chewy performances and aimless narration, which are so full of overcooked metaphors to sound like a pastiche of film noir rather than an earnest effort.

The biggest problem of all is Ann Savage as Vera, the hitchhiking femme fatale. She should have entered the film much earlier than she does. Savage is by far the most compelling component of the movie, and as soon as she appears, every minute that she was absent seems wasted. Her sharp movements and dark eyes are mesmerizing, and her shifty magnetism elevates the tawdry dialogue to literate pulp. She’s a perfect foil for Tom Neal as the stiff, sad sack pianist. Once she’s on screen, it feels like an integral part has been restored, rather than added, to the film.

That is “Detour” in a nutshell. It is an elegant movie with an ugly skeleton. The components of a good film – continuity, script, performances, competent lighting – aren’t here, but there is an ambition hanging over the result. It’s found in the atmosphere, which is foreboding, fatalistic and nihilistic. Even if the expected narrative doesn’t work out, that atmosphere does. There’s a dirtiness to everything, either by design or default, and little makes narrative sense, but that just gives the proceedings an oddball, dreamlike quality that is fully watchable.

Ulmer ain’t here, so no one can say how much of the film was that bad and how much was intentional (the ending was allegedly shoehorned in to please the censors, so an argument could no doubt be made that the ham-fisted narration and hacky editing followed suit). Regardless, it is worth a watch for fans of the genre who have an hour or so to burn. Just be prepared for a bumpy ride.

To be continued: News June 2021

I’m sorry tonstant weader, we screwed up again at least as far as the anime fans out there are concerned. I intended to do a wrap up of both “Higurashi Gou” and “My Next Life as a Villainess,” since I finally finished both series not too long ago, as a sort of double review. The problem is, neither series ended up being particularly full review-worthy beyond what I’d already said, and now we’re in the middle a slew of retro thrillers.

That’s still going on, by the way. Expect more Bela Lugosi. However, to fill some time and tie up some note-quite-as-retro loose ends, here’s the best this blog could muster.

Let’s start with “Higurashi Gou,” the retread of anime’s classic time-bending high school horror. I had previously complained that this “Higurashi” was playing things a little too safe. To its credit, the series started getting increasingly downbeat and definitely gorier in its second half (episode 15 in particular stands out). While it might have been more for shock value than for probing deeper psychological themes, the darker atmosphere and a couple of late game twists meant that things felt riskier and more compelling.

Then the story blundered into melodrama for the conclusion. Episode 23 in particular felt pretty soapy, with a lot of family drama attempting to resolve itself. Episode 24 – the series finale – fared a little better but still sported some theatrics. Was it necessary for everyone present to step on a particular research professor’s notes to make a point? Probably not.

Still, the final episode did a decent job of contextualizing the psychology and adult problems of a certain villainous character who has often been a little cartoon-y. On the other hand, said character was still a bit fan service-y in said episode. One could complain about that if one desired, but I will reserve judgment.

I was ready to give the series a pass for going out on a dark, confusing note, but I saw a fat “to be continued,” presumably in July 2021. Fuck a duck. Just when I thought we’d had a complete story, we get left hanging. Worse, we get left hanging on purpose.

I’ll admit a partial failing on my part. An appreciation of “Gou” might be improved by an appreciation for the broader Higurashi/When They Cry franchise lore. A lot of the images and reveals are likely given depth or interest by an “aha! That particular item!” attitude. To be honest, while I count myself a Higruashi fan, I’ve never cared too much for the broader lore. Heresy? Maybe. For my own part, Hinamizawa syndrome could be parasitic, chemical, supernatural or extraterrestrial for all I care. What fascinates me much, much more – and what I did not see so much of this time around – is the masterful breakdown of human weakness apparent in the original anime, especially in certain cycles from the first season.

Shion did nothing wrong, by the way.

We should pivot.

One of my betters – I don’t remember the blog – hinted at something metaphysical, or at least meta-narrative, when it came to the conclusion of “My Next Life as a Villainess.” So I finished watching it. I didn’t get it. Which is not to say the series was a big let down, unworthy to those already interested in a show about reincarnation into a romance game, only this time you’re the bad guy, er, gal. If you’ve made it that far, you can make it to the end. Catarina’s constant and comic ignorance is consistently amusing (I will never understand the toy snakes though). It just wasn’t what I had been led to believe.

To be fair to notions of meta-whatnot, the 11th episode started like a back-to-the-real-world reversal of the series so far. The way it’s done is pretty boilerplate for an anime, but it can stil be fun to watch. In this case, it ended up being somewhat absurd, which was fine for the series. I would never advise anyone to take the advice of this blog, but the bottom line is that “Villainess” did OK in the long run.

There were some hiccups. The show lied about certain things, or at least it got garbled about its character interactions. And it got a little convoluted, if not outright convenient, at points. There’s another “to be continued” moment at the end – of course there is – but it feels tacked on, as if someone decided to add it last second. While that seems like something to complain about, it means the overall story still feels complete, something that can’t be said about “Higurashi.”

It’s probably my fault. My expectations were all off. I would definitely recommend “Higurashi” first as a thriller fan to a thriller fan, but I’d have to admit that “Villainess” at least ends. Something to consider when playing 2020 catch up. But whatever you decide, don’t watch “Japan Sinks.” I did get around to it, and it was… It probably does deserve its own review at some point.

Either way, that will end the anime reviews for the moment. Was this really news? I finished watching some anime over a long weekend? It was news for me.

We’ll get back to the black-and-white movies – with one exception – for the rest of the month. After that, there might be some game reviews in the pipeline, but I don’t have too much in mind. If you’ve got any suggestions on something I should be watching or playing or reading, and ultimately writing about, dust off that comment section, tonstant weader. I’m always happy to hear from you.

More bark than bite: A critical review of “Cry of the Werewolf” (1944)

Who doesn’t love a copycat, er, copy-wolf? The logical consensus on 1940s hairy horror film “Cry of the Werewolf” is that Columbia was trying to cash in on the recent lycanthropic successes of “The Wolf Man” and “Cat People.” Considering its name, one would expect Columbia’s effort to follow Universal’s tale of wolves and men rather than RKO’s narrative of cats and Simone Simon. However, “Cry” goes for the less obvious choice, ultimately having more in common with Val Lewton’s film. Both films feature an urban setting, a heavier emphasis on a psychological rather than Gothic atmosphere, an undercurrent of female sexuality, and creative use of light and shadow due to budget constraints.

Interestingly, “Cry” is not the first female werewolf movie (nor is it “Cat People,” wolves aside). It’s a 1913 silent called, rather creatively, “The Werewolf.” Wikipedia even tells us it was the first werewolf movie on record. Wikipedia also tells us the film is lost, having been destroyed in a fire about 10 years later. A likely story. Has anyone seen the “Cigarette Burns” episode of “Masters of Horror”? I sense a werewolf movie conspiracy.

But that’s for another blog post. “Cry of the Werewolf” opens with a gratuitous narrative crawl about how nothing is truly unnoticed or forgotten by cultural memory. It’s a promising, albeit convoluted, start, but don’t pay too much attention. The film could have gone straight into its first scene, a tour of a museum dedicated to psychic research and occult history. It’s well photographed, atmospherically lit, and entertainingly set and blocked, not to mention the tour is led by the very watchable character actor John Abbott. That cool introduction is interrupted by a thoroughly unnecessary flashback, which is also well shot but features the tamest werewolf ever caught on camera.

The plot, in case it wasn’t clear, is a little disposable. A “Gypsy princess” who can apparently assume the form of a wolf kills a researcher before he can finish writing a book about about the secrets of her tribe. When the researcher’s son shows up to finish his father’s work, he gets mixed up in the perplexed police investigation into the occult killing. He’s also finds himself caught between the interests of two young women: his late father’s secretary and the alleged killer herself.

“Cry” is an uneven movie for a few reasons. Despite being less than 70 minutes long, a lot of it feels unnecessary or at least uncomfortable. The dialogue keeps teetering between Gothic horror and pulp detective. The gumshoe stuff feels off in a werewolf movie. It doesn’t help that a lot of it is trying too hard to be funny. I know that humor and horror have always gone hand in hand, but the humor in “Cry” is never fitting for that genre. It’s not bleak or subtle. It’s just goofy. That’s fine in an Abbot and Costello mashup, but it’s not so funny here.

The Gothic stuff is a little more adequate, but even that has problems. This was supposedly Columbia’s first shot at a popular horror film, and it feels like the movie threw everything “horror” it could think of at the screen to see what landed, regardless of how well it went together or how developed it ended up being. There’s the Gypsy princess/werewolf combo, voodoo dolls and occult crime, and the secretary is from Transylvania. Of course she is.

I’m not sure who to blame. One of the writers, Griffin Jay, had some horror experience beforehand, but with titles like “The Mummy’s Hand,” “The Mummy’s Tomb” and “The Mummy’s Ghost” I’m not feeling like serious and subtle horror was his thing (his first credit on IMDb is a Three Stooges short). On the other hand, co-writer Charles O’Neal wrote the very subtle Val Lewton produced “The Seventh Victim,” and ultimately worked on the underrated sci fi/horror flick “The Alligator People.” Huh.

The werewolf transformation is suitably subtle though, at least at first, all told through shadow. Maybe it’s just me, but I appreciate werewolf movies where there the werewolf looks like a wolf. I’m probably wrong. My favorite werewolf movie is “Company of Wolves,” and that might not even be a werewolf movie.

I feel like I’m talking about every film but this film. The acting is mostly good. Abbott as the tour guide is affable, and he gets one of the most unsettling moments in the film. Nina Foch does well as the princess, managing to capture about as much complexity as the script allows her character. Fritz Leiber is natural as the old researcher. Al Bridge has a fun turn as a weird mortician (he pronounces “secretive” as if it means “something that secretes something”). Barton MacLane plays the chief investigating officer with the proper amount of grim resolve. Just don’t pay attention to his men in uniform.

That said, the weakest links are Stephen Crane and Osa Massen as the two leads, the researcher’s son and the secretary. There’s no trace of chemistry between them. Crane in particular is pretty wooden. He seems merely a little unhappy that his dad just died, and it’s never a good sign when the wicked seductress is trying to corrupt some guy named “Bob.”

However, I con’t condemn the film’s love triangle outright. Again, the two sweethearts are pretty anemic, but Foch is fine. Her performance gives “Cry” the hints of feminine sexuality – presented as a complex of allure, danger and destiny – that could not be found in the more male-dominated horror films around it (remember, this was decades before “Ginger Snaps”).

Some of the images are pretty solid too. There’s some moments in the opening tour sequence and some clever photography around the Gypsy camp (which is set up in… Griffith Park? Where does this film take place anyway?). The most thrilling set piece is likely a cat and mouse moment in the labyrinthine darkness beneath a mortuary. That has good shot composition, appropriate lighting, the dialogue shuts up and the erratic editing takes a breather. It’s too bad the film can’t regain that atmosphere in a later scene where the power goes out at the occult museum.

That’s the problem with “Cry of the Werewolf.” It’s not enough any one thing. It’s not enough Gothic horror or psychological horror. It’s not enough atmosphere or humor. It’s not enough good or bad. It can’t decide what it is, and neither can this blog. There’s enough there to make it worth a look for the curious, especially considering the slight running time. If you’ve already watched “The Wolf Man” and “Cat People,” and you’re itching for more old school lycanthropy, this might do the trick. If you’re expecting a waiting-to-be-rediscovered prize, you’ll likely leave a little disappointed.

The kill count of ’33: A critical review of “Night of Terror”

Plenty of pre-Code horror films took advantage of the lax rules, whether tackling taboo subjects (Tod Browning’s “Freaks”), queer sexuality (James Whale’s “Old Dark House”) or good old fashioned violence (Merian C. Cooper’s original un-cut “King Kong”). These movies married intelligence, subtlety and quality filmmaking to their envelope pushing, and as such they are fondly remembered.

This blog can announce with relative certainty that “Night of Terror,” a 1933 murder thriller starring Bela Lugosi, is not one of those films. Instead, it feels old and awkward. If anyone remembers it today, it is for gross gimmicks rather than quality. But there’s a reason this blog will quietly champion the film. We’ll get there though.

First, “Night of Terror” is effectively the story of a young scientist preparing to test his serum that makes people not need oxygen, whose attributes the film never bothers to explain. The scientist intends to test the serum on himself, which requires him to be buried alive. Unfortunately, before he’s in the ground, bodies start piling up. Police are searching for a maniac – dubbed “the Maniac” by the press – who has been killing random people at night. And on the eve of the experiment, he’s picked the scientist’s mansion as his stalking ground.

The movie doesn’t waste a lot of time, so I won’t either. The very first scene has two attractive adults (it’s too early in the century for them to be sexy teens) necking in a car. The Maniac pops up behind them, raises his knife, and bam. They’re both dead. Less than two minutes in and we have two bodies. We almost see it too. It’s pretty stagy and kinda hokey, but holy crap, that is impressive speed.

But that’s just the first scene, you think, and probably not representative of the whole film. The plot gets rolling, things slow down, you think you can relax, and bam. At the nine-and-a-half minute mark, there’s another body. And another at 20 minutes. What is this film?

To be fair, the movie never quite recaptures these opening scenes. Once it gets going, it will feel pretty familiar, albeit in a forward looking way. Some of the movie boils down to “people wandering around the old Rinehart Estate,” which predicts a lot of the haunted house flicks of the 1950s and beyond. There’s even a twist ending and a “no spoilers” gimmick that would have made William Castle blush.

The film might be at its best when its looking back. Some of the photography and edits recall silent film aesthetics, and they’re fine. A few images are quite striking: clever lighting on a staircase, good angles of Lugosi, a well-blocked scene of men carrying a coffin. It’s interesting to note that the cinematographer, Joseph A. Valentine, started in silents and closed his career photographing a couple of superb thrillers, including “The Wolf Man” and “Shadow of a Doubt.”

Where the film is not at its best is the narrative. The film credits three writers (two for screenplay, one for story), and none of them have much to say. Anyone expecting a clever whodunit will probably be disappointed. The intricacies of the plot don’t try to make sense. Does science really pay so well this guy can afford a mansion? What’s up with his family? The ages and, uh, marital relations seem all wrong. I can’t tell who is whose brother or niece or fiance. The servants are Gypsies with turbans? Most of the gags were old even then. And none of this is getting into what seems problematic 90 years out: the crime reporter’s aggressive pursuit of the heiress, the stereotypical Black chauffeur, and I’m surprised no one yet has suggested the Maniac is coded as Jewish.

But you don’t even have to be insulted to see the stereotypes. The plot is a collection of every cliche you can think of: an old dark house, creepy servants, a seance, weird science with plenty of test tubes, stuffy Continental professors, a fast-talking crime reporter, a clueless cop, a crazy-cos-crazy killer, police sirens and bad driving. My least favorite are the one-sided phone conversations. You know the ones, where we only see one of the characters talking so they have to repeat everything the other person is saying for the audience.

Those phone calls come courtesy of Wallace Ford (from the aforementioned “Freaks,” which I had forgotten) as that fast-talking crime reporter, and this feels like a good place to talk about the acting. It’s not good. Ford is energetic. I’m not a fan, but maybe you will be. Of course, I find most of the performances bad. Cliches and stereotypes can be watchable in the hands of the right cast, but this ain’t that cast.

If you need solid performances, this blog can recommend two. The first is Sally Blane as the young heiress. She’s fashionably costumed, which I always find interesting in a contemporary film, and gives her role enough personality that she come across like a person and not a prop.

The second is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Bela Lugosi as Degar the mystic butler. Lugosi is not merely the most notable actor in the picture because of his name. He probably knew he was in a bargain film – the rumor is this was strictly a “for the paycheck” gig for him – but he still moved like he meant it. Don’t pay attention to his dialogue. Classic thriller fans will know it all already, and Lugosi delivers it all in the same deadpan baritone. Instead, watch the way he moves his body and holds his face. The concern he shows his wife in particular feels genuine. As a whole, his performance is easily the most compelling thing on screen.

But the real reason anyone would watch this film, the only reason it should be remembered, is the pre-Code murders. There are a couple of sexually suggestive lines dialogue and a certain box of cigarettes that probably wouldn’t have gotten into the script two years later, but it’s really the murders that are the draw. There are imminent threats of danger, smatterings of blood and pointy objects, and we see about as much of it as the times (and the budget) would permit.

In fact, the Maniac might be the first serial killer in the movies, or at least the talkies. He’s kind of got a costume, he leaves a calling card on his victims (newspapers because crazy), and there is a body count of eight when the movie’s over. The running time is a little more than an hour, so that averages out to roughly one body every seven minutes. That’s impressive, even by today’s standards.

In a scene, Lugosi offers one of the mansion’s guests a newspaper. The guest rejects it. “There’s nothing in the papers,” he says.

“Nothing… but murder.” Lugosi retorts. You tell ’em Bela.

Beyond its years: A critical review of “Puella Magi Madoka Magica” (2011)

We screwed up, Tonstant Weader. I got my dates wrong, and I missed the technical 10-year anniversary of cosmic-horror-by-way-of-magical-girl anime “Puella Magi Madoka Magica,” whose original run concluded in April of 2011.

To be fair, this blog has yet to meet a Madoka product it didn’t like. This retrospective review was always going to be at best biased and at worst a foregone conclusion. The original series still stands as one of our favorite anime; the subsequent movie (the one that’s not a recap of the series, not that there’s anything wrong with that) is a worthy successor; and the side-story-sequel series was one of our favorite shows of 2020.

But everything has to start somewhere. What makes “Madoka” worth talking about 10 (plus) years later? To put it simply, “Madoka” is a series that defies expectations about what a magical girl show could be in terms of story, visuals and sound.

Less simply, “Madoka” is the story of the titular Madoka Kaname, a regular 14-year-old student in a regular Japanese city. She and a friend are offered a chance by a cat-bunny-thing to become magical girls – individuals who must tirelessly fight surreal creatures called witches – in exchange for having their dearest wish granted. When the girls express skepticism, they are paired with a senior magical girl to show them the ropes, all while being shadowed by another girl with unknown intentions. The deeper they get into the adjacent reality of magical girls, the more they realize they don’t know anything about reality itself.

“Madoka” is what you get when the writer of your new magical girl show had previously penned a kinda pervy visual novel that is one of the most stealth H. P. Lovecraft stories ever written (seriously people, “Song of Saya” is my favorite video game I’ve never played). Screenwriter Gen Urobuchi covers familiar ground regarding responsibility and “be careful what you wish for,” but he also taps into the fallout of escaping reality through fantasy, living with the trauma of individual decisions, what it truly means to be selfish or selfless, and cosmic acceptance.

The characters are deep in a slow-burning way. The show is called “Madoka,” but Madoka herself is hardly the most interesting character. She’s fine, a pleasant presence and useful entry to the world, but she’s joined by brooding and complex Homura, motherly but guarded Mami, and brash softie Kyoko. I’m a Sayaka Miki man myself: self-embarrassed and self-destructive, a brave face that hides romantic naivety and personal weakness, good intentions that grasp for nobility but often end in tragedy, and the unshakable guilt that follows a subconscious willingness to hurt other people.

Whoa, that got dark. Weren’t we just discussing a cartoon about 14-year-old girls?

Still, as the show itself notes, girls of that age might be the most emotionally appropriate actors – given the ups and downs of adolescence coupled with the particular pressures on young women – to stage a deep psychological drama.

If you are curious but still skeptical, at least watch until episode three. Every Madoka fan will likely agree with that assessment, although it’s nice to know that even after that, there are still moments ahead. Episodes seven and eight had similar gut punches for this viewer, but you might get more out of six or nine or 10. The series is flexible in its darkness and revelations, and more than that, it’s tight as a tourniquet. Also, it’s worth noting that “Madoka” has one of the best in-universe explanations for the “chosen one” archetype this blog ever seen.

After narrative, the most striking thing might be its visuals. Ume Aoki’s character designs are distinct from much of the other anime around at the time, particularly in the ultimate use of color and shading, light and shadow. There is often a dreamlike quality, regardless of whether scenes are taking place in the mundane world or the fantastic.

Special mention must also be given to design team Gekidan Inu Curry for handling the stylized witch sequences. The result looks like the 2D characters are interacting with an acid-drenched multimedia collage. Accordingly, each encounter resembles a cross between a late game boss battle and a Hieronymus Bosch triptych, and this blog is hard-pressed to think of something similar (the 2007 series “Mononoke” perhaps?).

That leaves us with sound. The series composer was Yuki Kajiura, who had previously provided the excellent soundtrack for the introspective fantasy “.hack//SIGN.” “Madoka’s” equally eclectic soundtrack sports intense mashups of rock and orchestral instrumentals, but also medieval flavored pieces to hint at timelessness and mystery, acoustic pieces to suggest self-reflection, and atmospheric percussive movements to keep things plummeting forward.

It doesn’t hurt that the opening and closing themes are fitting as well. The show opens with a pleasant J-pop song by duo ClariS, and then closes with a swirling vocal-heavy metal track by trio Kalafina, suggesting the darkness ahead (compare to “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” which opened with a catchy J-rock track, but closed with offbeat and laid-back covers of “Fly Me to the Moon”). Cleverly, the closing track is something a little more poppy for the first two episodes, right until consequences emerge.

Every time someone says series X was the first to do something, it’s only a matter of time before someone else argues series Y did it first, and someone else argues series Z beat them both. I will not say that “Madoka” was the first dark magical girl series, but I will say that “Madoka” is probably the first magical girl series to tell the story it did, and to do so while looking and sounding just so, with every element reinforcing the tragedy to come.

I love me my first season of “Higurashi,” but “Madoka” might be the best stealth horror series in anime. It is a perfect storm of suggestion and psychological depth, and it does not quite look or sound like anything before or since. That singular mixture is precisely why the series has kept viewers engaged for more than a decade.

Winding down: The death of Flash and a critical review of “Coil” (2008)

It would be overly cynical to say the death of Flash Player at the start of 2021, along with the decline of websites like Newgrounds, Armor Games and Kongregate, represents the end of weird games online. Indie gaming has arguably never been more accessible, with platforms like Steam, Gog and itch.io offering a cornucopia of eccentric and inventive games.

Still, there is something to be said for the gaming environment that Flash permitted. The software gave any user with grit the ability to create animations and games, and the sites that hosted the subsequent media were largely free of the quality control and content restrictions that come from sites with a modicum of gatekeeping and hand-holding. That was probably nowhere more obvious than Newgrounds, which showcased both the no-holds-barred allowance of the young web and primitive media editing software, and added the drama of jamming all the interested parties together in one place. To a get a sense of it, this blog recommends watching some Newgrounds retrospectives by the let’s play channel OneyPlays.

It’s not fair to say that the death of Flash will kill indie gaming, but it seems fair to say that a game whose concept is to kill TV legal personality Judge Judy with stick figures, or a “Guitar Hero” rip-off whose purpose is to get a bar bimbo to sleep with either Jesus or Satan, would probably not gain a lot of traction on Steam. Such was the manic freedom Newgrounds in the 00s.

Another side to this “everything the traffic will allow” attitude was a flourishing of oddball art games. While the normies were waiting for the polish of traditionally released titles like “Braid” and “Limbo,” those of us without disposable income or a reasonable connection to the outside world were blazing through browser based platformers and puzzle games like “Company of Myself” and “Every Day the Same Dream,” “Eversion” and “From Primordial Egg,” even spilling into “No One Has to Die” and “My Father’s Long, Long Legs,” as well as pretty much anything by Gregory Weir (what were your favorites, tonstant weader? I liked “The Majesty of Color” and “Babies Dream of Dead Worlds”). Those were games whose attention to atmosphere and melancholy themes often left them sitting somewhere between avant-garde and weird horror. Which is precisely the kind of game I want to talk about today.

“Coil” is a 2008 game by designer Edmund McMillen and programmer Florian Himsl, the duo who’d go on to make “The Binding of Issac” once respectability caught up with them. I will also mention multi-instrumental musician Kaada, whose contributions are every bit as vital to the final game. To gain some perspective on the Newgrounds mashup of art and edge, the trio also released the fixed shooter “The C Word: A Game About Love” later that same year. It sported a stylized spinning penis blasting Art Nouveau vaginas with STD-related powerups, all to disjointed doo-wop music.

This game, “Coil,” is something different.

“Coil” is a point-and-click puzzle game, which is both as good and as bad a description as one can get. The game appears to trace the gestation, birth and sexual development of an extraterrestrial life-form, but be warned. “Appears” is about as solid as one can get with describing “Coil.” Everything in it appears to be rather than strictly is, and relating the game’s alien visuals, psychologically confounding writing or curious soundtrack might not help. When the narrative is so weird and purposefully broken, it’s hard to say you’ve given away anything by revealing everything.

What follows is a sort of phenomenological appraoch to “Coil,” a transcript of the gameplay, narrative and music of the game. That narrative will be presented like poetry below. Note that it was in all caps to begin with, but this blog doesn’t want to look like it’s shouting at you. Regardless, that means some words that should have been emphasized might not have been. We’re trying to play fair. You’ve been warned, tonstant weader.

“When she awoke from the coil / time didn’t wait for her / it just watched her whimper
As it / crushed / her ego
Cracking her / just enough / to reach inside.”

Immediately following this message, players take control of what looks like a sperm seeking an egg. Upon beating out (sorry) the other sperm, one enters an egg and witnesses cells split from one into many. The color palate is simple, blue and gray The music, an expansion of the start menu music, is melancholy and murky, all muted horns and harpsichord notes in a minor key.

“He whispered / as she was divided
This will make you remember / that I’m part of you
Each cell is marked by my name / you can’t ever leave me / I’m all that you have.”

The next puzzle has us sorting jumbles of cells by color – red, green and blue. The cells never stray far from the translucent orb in which they’re contained, but they gravitate toward the middle and shudder as we approach them.

“When he released her / she could feel his wet hair run through her fingers / as she descended into the darkness / his face, distorted by their distance, faded into the night.
She was alone
Yet she could still feel him inside her / the feeling was comforting and familiar / but his presence scared her
She knew he was still there, watching her / just out of the light / waiting.”

The next puzzle features a lot of firsts. It’s the first time the music has changed. It’s the same musical theme, but the sounds are cleaner and clearer now.

It’s also the first time we’re on the multicellular level. We’re in an aquatic environment rather than an embryonic one, and we’re controlling what looks like a wad of pink chewing gum with red eyes nestled in a transparent orb. We’re plunging though an increasingly dark depth to a seabed, and the challenge lies in guiding our wad down past the alien jellyfish and amoebas that are fighting to go up. We can be pushed up, but not infinitely – there is a top and a bottom. Once we reach the latter, our wad embeds itself in the sand.

“She would find herself reaching out to others / taking small pieces of them with her as mementos / these are the things she felt were important, / the things that made these people significant.
Every aspect of her being was composed of others. / Her arms grew stronger with every embrace / and lips grew fuller with every kiss.”

On the sea floor, the chewing gum has apparently settled down. We control a spaghetti strap tentacle emerging from its bubble. Two other creatures, which resemble the offspring of a jellyfish and a rib cage – with H. R. Giger for the midwife – flit about. We are in competition for balls of jelly that look a bit like fish eggs or frog eggs, and fall from above.

“She would lead them to him
Watching as his hands reached / out to pull them away, their essence / consumed and nothing remained.
She would fantasize what it was like / to feel his hands on her body / penetrating her and draining / her into nothing”

The next puzzle is an odd one mechanically – even for this set up. The screen is split. On the top is the pink blob, looking larger and more complex, still inside its transparent bubble, except now the bubble is off the sea floor and has sprouted short tentacles to propel it through the water. The lower screen displays a somewhat symmetrical collection of fantastic organs – kidneys, intestines, perhaps even a womb.

By stimulating the organs in the lower screen, we can manipulate the organism in the top. We guide it through the water and angle it so it can consume small dots floating around it. With each one we consume, a new bubbly blob – apparently containing a smaller organism that looks very familiar – appears in the hollow of the “womb.” If it sits too long, it will be absorbed.

“But time did pass.
They fell into one another at first glance. / Their fingers intertwined as they walked.
This wasn’t what she was used to / but from here on things wouldn’t be the same
And even though the longing lingered / for once in her life she forgot about him”

The music shifts once again to the clearest rendition of the theme. Interestingly, this is the only version of the track that will not repeat if you let it play out.

We control one of two creatures that resemble the organism from the top screen from the last puzzle. They are airborne, clumsily bobbing through a cloudy yellow sky. They shoot tiny projectiles at each other, and perhaps it is coincidence, but the projectiles look like tiny arrows; when they hit their targeted creature, they subtly exploded into playing card hearts. With each strike, the creatures inside the bubbles grow bulkier, like they’re sprouting armor, and their “eyes” disappear.

“After the dust settled / and everyone had moved on / once again she was alone / and she only had herself to blame
If she had of just embraced her feelings when they called to her / maybe she wouldn’t have taken in so many / of the things she later grew to hate.
And maybe it was time to change
So she closed her eyes, / pushing out every aspect of everyone she’d take in / back into a world she never asked to be part of.”

The final puzzle has us control one of the creatures from the previous puzzle, still flying. It is now night, and the surface of a massive body of water is below. What was a shrunken pink thing before is now eyeless and squashed against the skin of the bubble. As the creature flies, it expels something small and circular into the still water below.

“She could feel him in the room with her / her eyes darted around searching for movement / in the darkness frantic and confused
Her breathing became fast and shallow / as her eyes welled up with tears.
He was here, and there was nothing she could do to stop him.
She was scared
Scared of all the things she would be leaving / scared of how she would be treated / scared of what she had done

“As the room grew dim / she could feel his hand reach out for her / touching her / in a way that was comforting and familiar
She was leaving
As he picked her up he pressed his cheek to hers. / ‘From here, there is nothing, just as it was before'”

The final line is hard to make out. The black tentacles that have framed the screen throughout the entire game have risen slightly, and they obscure the text. It is possible that phrase repeats below the swirling decor.

And that’s it. So what was “Colil” about? Time? Death? Assaut and sexual abuse? Good old fashioned alien babies? It is hard to say, which is no doubt the point. “Coil” is a game that is designed to get players thinking, and that isn’t defensive hyperbole. The lack of any kind of instruction or guidance – even on how to enact a new game, let alone play it – suggests that players are supposed to explore and think things through. Notably, it’s impossible to lose “Coil” from a gameplay standpoint. Since practical completion is a given, psychic victory is presuably found somewhere else.

And there are so many avenues to explore. The name of the game is coil, and loops, spirals and constraints are featured in gameplay. Likewise, the story seems to relate a repeating pattern. Colors seem important too. Dull to primary to golden sunset to chilly night. If nothing else, they suggest a journey.

Certain images and concepts appear throughout the visuals and narrative, like evolution and memory, progression and regret, constrictions and divisions, eyes and understanding. Is it a spoiler to say that one fulfills the second puzzle by dividing to continue? Perhaps it reveals something mechanical about the game, but the puzzle is designed in a way that feels organic to the gameplay. It might spoil something narrative, but even that might depend on how you interpret the story. Check out some comments sections about the game. Given some of the discussion on it, there seems to be an interpretation for every player. Those interpretations range from head-scratching to disturbing, a reminder that whatever you think “Coil” is about, it’s likley a more uncomfortable subject than those typically found in traditionally released games (although not impossible to find).

Is it even correct to call the individuals puzzles “puzzles”? They are a bit simpler than classic puzzle game puzzles, but it feels wrong to call them levels. Perhaps minigame is the most appropriate mechanical term, but it loses something in the way of depth. There is nothing like traditional characters or a coherent story in “Coil,” so although we might be meant to see a commonality between the playable sequences, they are connected by atmosphere and association rather than by narrative. Is the creature in any one puzzle the same as the one from the previous puzzle or the next? Not necessarily. It appears as though the events are happening sequentially because that’s how we play them, although it’s arguable they’re happening simultaneously instead (recall how the dots ejected by the organism in the final puzzle correspond to the dots from two puzzles prior). For all we know, they’re happening a thousand years apart. It’s an interesting stretch of what we, as players, are willing to consider and put up with.

And that really is the key. Make no mistake, “Coil” cryptic and frustrating, and I would not want all games to play like “Coil.” However, I am glad “Coil” exists, in part because I enjoy its experience, but also because it shows what a game can play like if it chooses to. I’m happy to put up with any number of routine or cliché games for an interesting one, even if it’s a bad one. “Coil” is not cliché, routine or bad. Rather, it is a fascinating example of what designers can put together when they have the freedom to explore the games they want to make, and it remains one of my all time favorite indie games.

The death of Flash has not made “Coil” inaccessible. The game is still available through McMillen’s “The Basement Collection,” a grouping of his flash games on Steam (although notably “The C Word” is absent). Besides that, all games on Newgrounds are still technically available, although they require an extra download and browser extension, itself a form of gatekeeping by time and effort.

Regardless, it is worth noting something. In an era so expectant of trigger warnings and spoiler alerts, a game like “Coil,” which gestated in the Wild West days of Flash, would have lost something from the extra layering. Those trigger warnings might actually be spoilers – unless they aren’t at all. It would depend on the interpretation of the completed product, the finished game. Arguably a full spoiler of the esoteric gameplay – like this blog post, for example – spoils less than a trigger warning. A game like “Coil” is not about its narrative or gameplay, but rather about its seamless marriage of images, sounds, mechanics and player interpretation. An unmarked spoiler tells you what happens in a game without the experience, so that experience is still waiting for you; a warning or a marked spoiler – another form of gatekeeping – feeds your expectations, assumptions and biases. For better or worse, the experience has already begun, and for some players, already ended.

The final product of a game is a collaboration between designer and player. What we as players think about a game – and what a game gets us to think about – are as much a part of the experience as the mechanical limitations of platform or gameplay. Some of the experience is also found in how we approach a game. In this case, not only its off-putting content, but an impressionistic reading of “Coil” could be lost on platforms that don’t allow the singular crudeness and eccentricities that Newgrounds, Flash, and the deleted and rapidly forgotten web did.

Want to see a magic trick?: A critical review of “Nobody” (2007)

The year 2007 gave us a couple of psychologically interesting thrillers – “Zodiac” springs to mind, and I still have to see “The Man From Earth” – but perhaps none was as head-spinning as “Nobody.” It’s been billed a surreal neo-noir, and it was exhibited at an H. P. Lovecraft film festival. How could this blog not review this film?

Wait, when I said I wanted to write about “Nobody,” did you think I mean the one that just came out? You don’t know this blog very well.

“Nobody” – the 2007 one – is an offbeat movie in every way. It’s an utter indie, without any polish to suggest even a whiff of studio backing, and it looks great. It marries a film noir aesthetic to a speculative and metaphysically flavored narrative. It features a couple of actors whose faces might be familiar, but any of them will likely take a minute to recognize.

“Nobody” plunges us into the night-drenched world of a black-clad assassin. He’s finished hit job that feels rotten. It feels worse when he thinks he’s being stalked, and it feels weird when he returns to his safe house – a largely unoccupied hotel – only to hear that he’s already checked in. But don’t worry. He has the entire night to figure out what’s going on.

One of the greatest strengths of “Nobody” is how lucid it is of its limitations. Like an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” it is keenly aware of what it can and can’t do technologically to tell its story. Accordingly, everything looks smarter and more appropriate than movies that cost 23 times as much.

The locations, costumes and lighting are all correctly pushed to the limit, and the result is about ideal. The movie knows when to glow and when to bask in shadow. The sets – a seedy hotel, a gritty urban alley, to a mothballed ship and a snow-chilled forest – are period perfect, and feel natural and necessary for this constructed world.

Except, maybe it’s not period perfect, because, while there is a film noir vibe, there is a can’t-put-my-finger-on-it timelessness to the proceedings as well. Between the design and the lofty themes, it feels a bit like Alex Proyas’s existential sci fi thriller “Dark City,” and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that film was an influence on this one.

Those themes are lofty indeed, and likewise feel necessary for the plot, even if they’re anything but natural: time and punishment, identity, existentialism, absurdism, even Hinduism. A look at this film’s IMDb user reviews indicate how many interpretations there are of the film, as well as divisive it is. However, love it or hate it, everyone agrees the movie makes no fucking sense.

Admittedly, given the impressionistic nature of the plot, it can come across as a bit much – unnecessarily esoteric at best and pretentiously pointless at worst. But think of it in terms of atmosphere rather than narrative, and the presentation feels right. The story is told frequently through detail shots (again, the film is mindful of its technical limitations, but there are a few long shots and vanishing points snuck in, mostly courtesy of hallways). Likewise, the image of Costas Mandylor as the assassin Mortemain in shoe polish makeup, black gloves, a fur coat and a slouch hat says everything it needs to, and would be iconic in another world (a world where this film had a bigger advertising budget).

It helps that there are so many cleverly layered moments and lines of dialogue that refer back to the overarching themes, not to mention a lot of it is darkly funny. Two crooks are described as “born to watch cement dry.” Two different crooks bicker about chopping through a sheet of ice to bury bodies. A mute mobster is nicknamed “Sweet Talk.” How can you hate that?

Plus, the film is not afraid to show a little gore. It doesn’t have buckets of blood or anything, but it has more than one might expect from an artsy thriller. That machete? It’s going to be more central to the plot than you realize.

Besides, the film never pretends like it has a coherent or traditional structure. It’s not a three-act story. It’s not even a riddle, where’s there’s an expected solution. It has more in common with classical Greek paradoxes or Zen koans, where meaning takes second place to the process of seeing things through.

Despite the divisive plot, the acting is universally praised. This blog will echo that. Mandylor is great in the stoic lead role. He’s a big man, and I like that. It’s nice that he’s not a stick or a body builder, and it feels correct for the role. Ed O’Ross is great as the endlessly expressive mob boss Rolo Toles.

I could say some bad things. The guy playing the hotel manager chews the scenery a little more than I’d like. The music is pretty stock too, I guess, but even there I’ll allow a kinda cool drum run that takes up the climax.

I’ve seen this film compared to “Miller’s Crossing,” “Memento” and the writings of Franz Kafka, and all those comparisons are flattering and fair. “Nobody” ain’t gonna change the film industry. I mean, clearly it isn’t. It’s had more than 10 years to do so. Writer-director Shawn Linden is a cool guy, but he doesn’t exactly have a long list of projects to his name – although his creature feature “Hunter Hunter” was released last year, so he’s got that.

“Nobody” is a budget title, and it’s designed more for atmosphere than reason, but I like it. I’ll make it easy for you. This handy link should tell you where the film is streaming at any given moment. If this movie sounds interesting to you and you aren’t allergic to budget productions, but you still aren’t thinking of watching it when you get a chance, the only person you can blame is in the title of the film.

What a wonderful way to start the day: News April 2021

Happy Easter. Nobody’s reading this. What marvelous freedom I have, tonstant weader. Freedom will sort of be the name of the game this month. Well, not quite, since we’ll be tying up some loose ends of our own device that we’ve meant to tie since the start of the year.

But that’s just news about this blog. Why should I only talk about us? We’ve got to expand our jounalistic horizons. What if I included some news about the wider world of thriller fiction? Specifically, what if I had a couple of literary submission opportunities from trusted sources for all the interested parties?

First, for those who’ve contemplated that trees might be secretly out to get us, Jersey Pines Ink will soon be looking for horror, fantasy and sci fi stories concerning the topic of trees. Stories can be no longer than 2,500 words, and the deadline hasn’t been anounced yet. You’ll have to keep an eye on their website for updates (click submissions).

Next, Oddity Prodigy is currently considering urban fantasy for its upcoming “Beneath the Yellow Lights” anthology. ‘Round this blog, we call that low Gothic, the fantastic entering the realm of the everyday. Light horror elements are OK – think Neil Gaiman – but cool it on the sci fi or high Gothic for now. Word counts are 2,500 to 5,000, give or take a sentence. Deadline is July 31, 2021, but don’t take my word for it. Check out their page for more information.

Now that that’s out of the way, what is coming up on this blog for the rest of the month? We still have that spate of retro film reviews, and I feel a certain anime analysis coming on. But before all that, I want to say something about the death of Adobe Flash while it’s still vaguely relevant (it’s not any more, but cut me some slack), and I want to review the film “Nobody.” Gotta keep up with the times, tonstant weader, even if we’re a few days slow.

Game enough: Best games of 2020

The last year gave us a lot of enforced downtime. Accordingly, one might be excused for thinking this blog, an all purpose consumer of thrillers, might have found time to partake in certain interactive video sports that were released in 2020: the Lovecraftian experiences “Call of the Sea” or “Transient”; quirky little titles like “Carrion,” “Pumpkin Jack” or “Citadel”; big budget names like “Cyberpunk 2077,” “Doom Eternal” or “Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope.

Why is every one of these roundups starting with a list of everything I didn’t see?

To all that I said a resounding negative. No way I spent my dwindling cash flow on that stuff. I didn’t even play indie “Risk of Rain 2,” although that has less to do with it being a sequel to a game I’ve never played and more to do with it being a co-op game to play with friends. Forget friends. We’re in this together, me and I.

Still, I did play a couple of titles, and I’ll relate them below. As always, the better experiences are first and the lesser experiences are the last. However, while this functions as this blog’s best of 2020 for video games, it’s also like a compound review, given how few games there are. Whatever. No one’s reading this anyway.

Maneater

The title of “Maneater” – man plus eater followed by a lil’ shark maw – is unexpectedly precise. You are a shark in this game, and you can consume the flesh of man. “Maneater” positions itself as a sort of predator simulator, “Jaws” with a sense of dark humor. Effectively it is a platformer without the platforms, a diving and swimming experience rather than a jumping one, with some mild RPG elements and a little bit of power fantasy thrown in for good measure.

It doesn’t feel that way at first, when you’re a baby shark paddling through murky shallows and fleeing from alligators. But the goal is to complete enough game appointed tasks, typically eat so many of this fish or that, until you earn the experience necessary to tackle the alligators. Once you’re big enough to do so, you can break out of the shallows and enter the ocean, where a buffet of exotic fish, aquatic predators and foolish humans awaits.

You might be expecting me to say that that’s the whole plot, but you’d be wrong. Believe it or not, there’s a little bit more to “Maneater.” Your nemesis is the Cajun fisherman Scaly Pete (effectively voiced by Carlo Mestroni), and his poor relationship with his son is on full display. There’s some hints about his own poor relationship with his dad, so there’s a bit of “sins of the father” in the subtext. It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s a more emotional core than one might expect.

Regardless, the developers aren’t expecting you to play “Maneater” for its story. The majority of the gameplay is focused on a rabid collect-them-all mentality. Go to location X on the map and eat 10 of target Y, or kill target Z, which is identical to all the other Z-creatures out there except it has more hit points.

In order to do so, you have a rapidly evolving number of tools at your disposal, from simple bites and dashes early on to…more complex bites and dashes later on. You might not feel your game style progressing as the game does. The shark handles well from the beginning, perhaps a little too well, with tight controls and aggressive cornering. I occasionally wished there was a targeting or lock-on system, but I always found a way to munch on whatever needed munching. If anything evolved, it was how fast the shark could swim, how high it could jump and how hard it could bite, indicated by the increasing amounts of blood, destruction and mayhem on screen.

The game’s atmosphere takes a backseat to its gameplay, but it does its job well enough. For one thing, the dark comedy is fine, even chuckle worthy from time to time. A great deal of that is due to narrator Chris Parnell’s deadpan delivery. The humor is dampened a little by repetition, and occasionally quips triggered by different environmental cues will pile on top of each other, but for the most part it effectively joins the background oceanic swirl.

The environments are well presented. There’s a decent amount of variety, considering you’ll spend most of your time underwater. Some settings – like cluttered sewers and decommissioned water parks – are surprisingly unimaginative, but the open seas and colorful coral reefs are detailed, appropriate and quite pretty.

“Maneater” is also delightfully gory. You have to invest a couple of hours in it, but you’ll go from a shy shark pup nibbling at passing fish to a sea monster, measured in the double digits, who can sink gun boats as easily as inner tubes. Make no mistake, “Maneater” is a more gamer friendly version of the time sinks available on phones. However, it’s a fun time sink, a pretty time sink and a blood-stained time sink, where you get to fling humans 20 feet in the air before biting them in half. I see nothing wrong with that.

Deliver Us the Moon

Why would anyone want to go to space? If the zero gravity controls of “Deliver Us the Moon” are to be trusted, the experience is absolute crap. All that “down and up are relative” and “you have to push off of something” physics can make puzzle solving more frustrating than the puzzles themselves.

“Deliver” is a sci fi flavored adventure game about the not too distant future, where a moon base has been able to provide cheap energy for a starving earth. When the base goes dark, the planet is plunged into an economic and environmental collapse. Humanity cobbles together enough of a space program to launch a single person – the player – into orbit. Their mission is to get to the moon and figure out what went wrong, or at least turn the power back on.

The plot of “Deliver” tries to lean more on the science than the fiction of its genre, and there’s a lot of psychological consideration for the strain of being a moon-person. However, the ensuing drama, while initially mysterious, probably won’t fool anyone who’s read Arthur C. Clarke. Likewise, the acting teeters somewhere between acceptable and community theater awful.

Regardless, the atmosphere is well presented and possibly the best part of the game. Your space explorer is apparently alone, and the empty rooms and flickering corridors of the moon base have a chilly and isolated feel. It’s not quite the too-late-to-the-party atmosphere of the first “Bioshock” or the something-terrible-is-about-to-happen of “Alien: Isolation,” but it feels right for a title that positions itself as a slow-paced and thoughtful mystery. It’s helped by an appropriate score, which is minimalist piano for the most part.

There’s also almost enough useless stuff in the abandoned lockers and board rooms to make it seem like this was a space station populated by people, and not just a set created by a game designer with everything put there for the player. It’s still a little sparse for a once bustling base, and I don’t believe someone living on the chalky surface of the moon would put pictures of said surface above their bed, but I’ll assume the team was working with a limited budget.

The puzzles are mostly smart. They feel part of their environment and seldom obtuse, accessible without being handed to you. That’s not entirely right, because the instructions are sometimes given to you, but it’s done in such a way that feels natural. They’re mostly put-the-things-in-the-right-order puzzles, so they might not please the chess masters out there, but they come across as something you’d find on a sci fi moon base. I won’t complain.

I will complain about the puzzles that take place in zero gravity. You’re typically tasked with figuring things out like an engineer. That’s fine. It feels right and proceeds logically. But then you have to do it with molasses controls and bizarre environmental hazards, like lasers and an esoteric game over I have to assume is the character succumbing to space madness. The game is fine as an atmospheric light puzzler. It is poor as a first-person platformer.

I’ll also complain about the artificial time limits imposed by running out of oxygen. What kind of astronaut goes into space without bringing oxygen?

If you can get over these hurdles, “Deliver Us the Moon” is a cute and slow-paced sci fi mystery. Ultimately, it’s as meditative as its title suggests, atmospheric, average but admirable.

Remothered: Broken Porcelain

Tell me, tonstant weader, have you noticed how a lot of giallo films start largely grounded in reality, like they’re going to be relatively normal mysteries, but by the time of the climax they’re throwing mutant dwarfs on unicycles popping out of swimming pools at you?

Survival horror game “Remothered: Broken Porcelain” is a sequel. And since both it and its predecessor were inspired by the Clock Tower games, themselves inspired by giallo films, it feels like we’re being seated halfway through the movie. Everything looks grounded, but the swimming pool is already bubbling and we’re expected to know what’s going on already. There is an effort at explanation courtesy of a wall of text at the beginning, which is about as subtle – and compassionate to the reader – as an atom bomb.

“Broken Porcelain” is about Jennifer, a young woman who has been kicked out of an all-girls boarding school for unexplained reasons that hint at psychological trauma. Except the school is really an inn, and she’s mysteriously the only patron, trying to figure out why the staff have gone nuts. Except the inn is really a…never mind. The story of “Broken Porcelain” is remarkably patchwork, thanks in no small part to some strange editing choices, with gamers stranded trying to figure out which parts are worthwhile. I suppose that gives everything a hallucinatory quality, but it also makes it hard to care about anything happening on screen.

As a hero, Jennifer can’t even use a phone properly. Her hobbies include stopping and reading everything OUT LOUD while various killers are chasing her, as well as trying to defend herself when caught through awkward quick time events. As far as slasher protagonists go, on a scale of one to 10, she gets a “I wouldn’t bet on this one.”

I’ll cut her a little slack since the puzzles are not great. They seem to hinge as much on manipulating the enemy AI as they do on looking for clues, collecting items and flipping elaborate switches. Which is fine, I guess. It’s not my preferred style of puzzle, I’ll admit, but in this case I’d like it more if the NPCs didn’t bug out on me to a noticeable degree. I found myself reaching for a walkthrough less to see how to proceed and more to see why I hadn’t proceeded yet.

The strongest element of the game is its atmosphere. The design feels appropriately period – it’s set in the 1970s – and everything looks rundown, dirty and ominous. The score sounds like it would fit right into a retro horror flick. Dark and shadow are well used, and the glimpses of light are interesting too, since they only turn on when you get close to lamps… Unless they’re actually only visible when you’re close to them, and it’s less like atmosphere and more like another bug. Hmm.

“Remothered: Broken Porcelain” might be best summed up by the message that appears when you want to load a game. “Do you confirm your action?” it asks. It sounds like its attached to something with great weight or terrible psychological baggage, but I think it’s just a bad translation.

Gap year: Best films of 2020

I had a hard time figuring out what to give the top spot to this year, but not because of the great selection.

It probably didn’t help that this blog missed out on all the big movies. No blockbusters like “Tenet” or “Wonder Woman 1984.” No art pictures like “Nomadland” or Hollywood candy like “Mank.” Not even genre-as-message-picture “Promising Young Woman.” But if I had seen one or all of those, I’m not sure if my opinion would have changed. Nossir, there was little I was excited to see on screen in 2020.

Of course, I did watch a few films, and I found a couple to comfortably call the best . As per usual, those are at the start and the worst are at the finish line. Feel free to let me know where I missed out, where I got it right and, more likley, where I’m horribly wrong. See you there, tonstant weader.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things: If the purpose of a movie is to produce conversation, then perhaps “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” was the best movie of 2020. This tale of a young woman meeting her boyfriend’s parents for the first time and feeling that things aren’t quite right is a psychological drama/thriller by way of both Kubrick’s “The Shining” and Aronofsky’s “Mother!” Maybe a little of “Ghost Story” too, or maybe all of them. Maybe none of them. It ain’t for everyone, but the curious will find a talented cast reading intelligent dialogue to handsome visuals. It’s a little long, the pacing is slow and the ending is admittedly formal. The narrative is broken too, but that’s kind of the point. The naivete of romance, the tragedy of aging, letting go of the past or fantasizing about a future that could have been… I’m not even sure I liked it, but this feels like one that’s worth a discussion.

The Call: Of course, if the purpose of a movie is primarily entertainment, then “The Call” was the best movie of 2020. Its physics all fall apart if you think about it too much, but as a stylish thrill ride, this time travel murder flick is simply great. Clean photography, interesting visual effects and a good sense of place make this more than worth a watch. Also, and I won’t say too much – not that genre fans won’t figure out the twists anyway – Jeon Jong-seo’s performance was perhaps the most enjoyable in a thriller this year.

The Vast of the Night: And if the purpose of a movie is just to move, then perhaps “The Vast of the Night” was the best film of 2020. It certianly might be the most underrated. Everything about it moves well: its clever script, its nimble photography, its young cast. It does get a bit murky at the climax, but what doesn’t? A low key retro sci fi thriller by way of “Coast to Coast AM” for all the radio fans out there. I dig the Southwestern digs.

Gretel & Hansel: From the opening, this film blazes by at a breakneck pace. That sounds like a compliment, but it’s not. The film can’t decide if it’s dark fantasy, psychological horror or black comedy. It finally takes a breath in the second act, which is coincidentally when it appears to settle primarily on psychological horror and when it starts to become actually engaging. Even if the film can’t escape its first third, the photography and color palette are practically peerless – it is Osgood Perkins in the director’s chair after all, and he might be effectively riffing on “The Witch” – the script has some clever lines, I like the performances and anachronisms, and there are some interesting and atmospheric images. Mabye it’s a little high on this list, but I’d watch it again, if only for the colors, dude.

Enola Holmes: Too many endings, but not too bad getting there. A period crime adventure thingy, it’s handsomely produced, sports a solid cast with good chemistry, and is built on a script that’s pretty aware of what it can and can’t do. There are some loose ends, but I assume Netflix is figuring on a sequel. Most of the thrills, laughs and logic feel earned. I don’t understand the necessity of the choppier edits and multimedia bits, but someone must have thought they were a good idea. I also don’t understand the constant fourth wall breaking, but at least it’s consistent. Were we going for Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” or “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother”? I suppose it’s its own beast.

The Lodge: The slow-burning and wintry look and feel of this psychological horror flick are just right, but the script is not quite there. It’s a few minutes too long, for one. It’s also kind of reductionist – cults are bad and crazy people go crazy – so it never feels like it has a lot to say. The performances accordingly lack depth, but they’re perfect for what they set out to accomplish. It’s pulp, but it’s pretty pulp. Just stick to those detail shots. You’ll do fine.

Sputnik: A political science fiction thriller, if you will, that is surprisingly upbeat… for a Russian movie anyway. Well paced, well lit and photographed, and convincingly acted for the most part. Kinda goofs up with the motivations in the last 10 minutes or so, but overall an atmospheric and interesting spin on the “Alien” narrative.

Goblin Slayer Goblin’s Crown: It’s basically a long episode of the TV series, so you get what you pay for. Do you want to see a violent cartoon about a man in D&D armor promising a young woman with PTSD that he’ll kill all the goblins everywhere forever, and it’s somehow ridiculous, touching, tragic and badass at the same time? Here’s your movie. Good music. Acceptable animation.

Invisible Man: Solid scares and special effects, and a haunting performance from Elisabeth Moss gird this psychological thriller. The updated spin on the H. G. Welles novel is interesting, but credibility is stretched from the start and pretty much snapped beyond repair by the climax. I would have preferred something subtler. Still, crisp photography and a moody color palette carry the tense and often emotional narrative along.

Underwater: Sweet, another “Alien” clone. I mean that sincerely, by the way. This is the kind of thriller I like: controlled and claustrophobic, with tons of well photographed detail shots to break up the action. Pros include organic dialogue, decent performances, excellent lighting, fine monster design and natural suspense. Cons include some unnecessary narration and some generic music. It never quite has the oomph it needs to pull it out of the “bargain pulp” category, but it’s still a bargain.

Palm Springs: Probably the biggest movie I got around to watching. Harmless fantasy-comedy with an obvious “Groundhog Day” feel. Deadpan performances and an irreverent script keep the first half fun, then it gets a little slow with sentimentality. Despite the irreverence, it’s just a romantic comedy with weird fiction dressing after all. It glances at its existential themes rather than examines them, and some of its conclusions feel unearned, but there’s enough fantasist flourish to make it worth a watch.

Tesla: Sort of a metanarrative biopic of the titular inventor. The shot composition is occasionally awkward but more often interesting, and the sets are moodily lit and dressed (think Peter Greenaway lite). Great performances across the board. Too bad the script, while intriguingly constructed, fails to ever settle on a central point.

The Burnt Orange Heresy: This is categorized as an art crime thriller. It is a crime thriller, but only in the second half, and even then the thrills aren’t effectively felt until the last 20 minutes or thereabouts. It has the art thing right off the bat though, so you can look forward to that. Pretty in a workmanlike sort of way, well acted by a talented cast (with a quality surprise performance by Mick Jagger). The literate script probably worked better in the spacious format of the novel.

The Devil All the Time: An autumn stained backwoods noir. The moody landscape is sensitively photographed and populated by well performed grotesques straight outta Flannery O’Connor. A powerhouse cast plays with the layered narrative, which touches on faith, hubris, humanity, responsibility and destiny. Sometimes those layers threaten to devolve into melodrama, but for the most part the ensemble keeps things interesting. In fact, this might be a more interesting film than a good one, but we need a little interest here and there.

Open 24 Hours: The script is cliche – pulpy and playing with some interesting psychological thriller concepts at best, and tolerably trashy at worst – the score is routine and the special effects are just passable, but they’re married to some unexpectedly solid performances, great sets and locations, and wonderful editing and shot composition. Too bad it overdoes things in the climax.

Debt Collectors: A familiar but fun comedy crime thriller about beating people in the head and taking their nice things legally. It’s a sequel, and nothing’s as fresh the second time around I suppose. Or maybe I just miss Tony Todd. Still, the film’s promises are simple, and it delivers on them.

The Babysitter Killer Queen: Another sequel that’s more of the same, in this case more over-the-top splatter, more neon and more hyperactive comedy-horror. The cast is as attractive and game as ever, but the goofiness threatens to crush the high concept this time around.

Rogue: Who woulda thunk a movie featuring Megan Fox as a mercenary with flawless makeup fighting CGI lions in sub-Saharan Africa would be kinda silly? The film could have tried to meet me halfway. The script, by director M. J. Bassett and actress Isabelle Bassett (correct, related), is as uneven as a dirt road, with the tone changing from cracking bad one-liners one minute to grimdark action the next. There’s even a moral at the end. The cast is a mixed bag at best, with the villains probably having more fun. If you do watch it, stick around for the occasionally interesting camera angles and the well designed burning farm set.

Rebecca: Director Ben Wheatley tackling the same topic as Hitchcock seems like a great idea, and the resulting psychological drama looks good, but it does not move right. I’m not sure why, but I have a suspicion it’s the editing (normally Amy Jump handles that for Wheatley, but she’s absent on this production). Or one could blame the script, which cannot quite merge romance and thrills. It’s not the music though, by the ever reliable Clint Mansell. But don’t be a goof like me and think that one song is by Fairport Convention. It’s Pentangle.

Shirley: Yet another weird fiction biopic, this time of psychological thriller writer Shirley Jackson. Well performed – it’s Elisabeth Moss again, so no duh – but muddled. Between the poorly scripted characters and the murky photography, it’s hard to care about much on screen.

Dolittle: What a cast. What a pointless movie. This fantasy-adventure-comedy-creature feature-kitchen sink flick is not the worst, despite the box office and reviews, but anything that has a farting dragon as a plot point is not going to make a short list of the best. Even the natural charisma of both Robert Downey Jr. and Antonio Banderas can’t make this truly watchable. Still, it has the distinction of being the last movie I watched in a theater.

The Last Thing He Wanted: A jumbled and ultimately dull political thriller. Anne Hathaway effectively inhabits her thankless role (the cast as a whole is the film’s best feature), but even she can’t make me care about her character or comprehend her situation. Maybe the book was better.

The Dinner Party: Definitely rough around the edges. This feels very influenced by 2019’s “Ready or Not,” but it lacks that film’s solid sense of humor. It wants to be weird and atmospheric, but the slow narrative and endless outside references leave it overstuffed, draggy and divorced from reality. It doesn’t help that the actors err on the side of over-the-top. It’s about theater people, so maybe it’s supposed to be theatrical?

Homewrecker: A very indie (the cast and crew are a little incestuous) dark comedy thriller. It fails pretty squarely as a thriller, but it might do a little better as a dark comedy. There are a few chuckles spread throughout the brief runtime, the ending has potential and the two leads (Precious Chong and Alex Essoe) do the best they can with a script that grows increasingly silly. However, the movie as a whole is surprisingly… normal. It should have been weirder if it wanted to stand out.

Monstrous: Imagine a psychological thriller with a missing person plot that takes place in bigfoot country and milks its setting for atmosphere. “Monstrous” is not that movie. We get a Sasquatch-vision roadside murder in the first scene, and from then on an awkward lesbian road trip thriller with a violent climax that is, oddly enough, trying to be tender. In case you couldn’t tell, the screenplay, by lead actress Anna Shields, is pretty awkward as well. The pacing is nuts, and the characters don’t behave like people, although maybe they behave like bigfoots. At least the indie rock song selection is pleasant and the photography is nice if you like rural East Coast.

Mrs. Serial Killer: Sometimes my betters make snap statements, like when they say “Mrs. Serial Killer” was the worst film of 2020. For me, that’s not a warning. It’s a challenge. After all, who’s the expert here? Well, they might have been right. Interesting lighting and photography can’t save a ridiculously scripted, strangely acted, uncomfortably blocked and poorly edited thriller that never takes full advantage of its own high concept. And does Jacqueline Fernandez really seem like she’s be both married to and murderously devoted to Manoj Bajpayee? I guess that’s just me being petty.