Flunking hell week: A critical review of “The Haunting of Sorority Row” (2010)

This is the first supernatural horror film this blog has reviewed during sorority thriller month, so it’s fair to keep some stuff in mind, specifically about what it means to be rational. Something that is rational is something that fits within the culturally defined concept of what is reasonable or comprehensible. Something rational isn’t necessarily correct. It’s just logical and structured and all that stuff.

A good ghost story does not have to be rational by the rules of the waking world. In fact, that might be detrimental. However, a good ghost story could be arational, that is, existing outside of the regular rules of our rationality. It’s not that it lacks logic. It’s just that its logic is different from ours.

Unfortunately, “The Haunting of Sorority Row” (no relation to that “Sorority Row” or that one) is not a rational or arational film. If I had to pin it down, I’d say it was irrational, starting with its release date. I’m putting 2010, because that’s how Tubi lists the movie (by the way, I’m still waiting for my check guys. Either pay me off or I’ll keep reviewing your movies!). However, Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database give it at least 2007. They don’t agree on everything, and their content is user generated, but they concur on most of the fine points here.

The point is, “Haunting” operates on its own logic, except when it doesn’t, and it’s up to us as audience members to put things together.

Samantha (Leighton Meester) has always wanted to join a sorority, for some reason, and she’s doing quite well through hell week: cleaning the stately halls of the house, silently serving the other sisters at a cocktail party, dumping her large-headed boyfriend. But the longer she stays in the house, the more weird and mysterious things happen. Maybe there’s more to the student who went missing last year, and maybe there are more than rushes inhabiting the house.

Despite throwing ghosts into the mix, “Haunting” is surprisingly tame. The murders are pretty mild and the homoerotic subtext is practically absent (to be fair, it is a TV movie–a TV movie from Canada no less). The sisters themselves are all pretty decent people. They’re mostly doe-eyed and happy to help. At their worst, they’re just kind of jerks.

Part of the problem is the sisters are all performed in about the same way. Everyone has the same lip glossed half smile. There’s a lot of shrugging too. I don’t know who to blame. The actresses are all young, but most of them have some thriller experience, mostly television. The director was the late Bert Kish, who had a couple of mysteries under his belt when he came to this project, but maybe it was him. I wonder, if only because he quit the horror genre and went for lighter stuff later.

See, the genre is pretty screwy too. It’s all over the place. The movie opens with a woman getting murdered in her car, then it cuts to the sorority house where we can hear a bunch of weepy confessions and jangly pop music. Or we can go from Samantha spying on her senior sisters in a surprisingly atmospheric moment to her breaking up with her woefully awkward boyfriend.

I’m not saying the film has to be all thrills all the time. A good thriller knows when to ease off the gas. I’m just saying it could be smoother. One of the girls gets ghosted while taking a shower. It’s filmed like a cheap version of “Psycho,” which is fine, although death by lukewarm water doesn’t make a lot of sense. Maybe that’s why everyone’s reaction to it is more disappointment than terror. They’re just as confused as we are.

The worst part is there’s some potential here. Not in the story or characters necessarily, but in the atmosphere. The set is great. The sorority house looks like an abandoned Tudor mansion (the film was shot at the University of British Colombia in Vancouver). It’s got dog-headed gargoyles, dirty windows and busted doors, something looks kind of like an old wine cellar. When it’s carefully shot from moody angles or in unsettling lighting, the house becomes the best character. It’s just not utilized as much as it could be.

The references to the supernatural that are supposed to build tension are treated as throwaway elements. There’s a twist that starts out kind of cute but ends up making no particular sense. There are so many missed opportunities for jump scares, and I don’t even like jump scares.

The point is “The Haunting of Sorority Row” will probably disappoint viewers who have an appreciation, or a high tolerance, for budget horror films. And viewers who don’t have those preferences probably won’t be watching a movie called “The Haunting of Sorority Row,” so why do they matter?

Declaring a major in slasher: A critical review of “Sorority Row” (2009)

Where do the people who write sorority murder flicks go to college? It looks way more fun than where I went. I didn’t go to big parties, get to drink and break things with impunity, and engage in awkward-free sex. I did spend a lot of time passed out in the library, skipped my graduation ceremony and drained my bank account. Oh well. I guess my trade off is I wasn’t stalked by a costumed loony with a fondness for sharp objects.

Still, if I had to join any of the Greek societies in a thriller so far, this blog would pick the one in “Sorority Row.” It’s not because death by tire iron is my preferred way to go. I think I’d enjoy the company, the cheap thrills and the clever comebacks.

When a sorority prank goes wrong, the sisters of Theta Pi end up accidentally murdering one of their own with a tire iron. They dump her body in a convenient location (it’s a mine shaft this time) and try to get on with their lives. But a few months later, the sisters find themselves being stalked by an unknown person with intimate knowledge of the murder. When the bodies start piling up, the they must quit squabbling and start surviving if they want to live past graduation.

The opening shot of “Sorority Row” appears to be one long take, showcasing the layout of the house and the major characters while appropriately obnoxious music plays. It is impressive, as deft as it is disorienting, and probably the smartest photography in the film. It’s also one of several clever callbacks to this film’s inspiration, “The House on Sorority Row.” Other nods include a scene of the sister drinking together, a shower scene, a basement scene and a certain bird-headed cane.

Actually, if I had to describe “Sorority Row” in one word, it probably would be “clever.” It’s very much in the “Scream” and “Urban Legend” vibe of slashers–self-aware, but not so self-aware that they sacrifice shocks or dissolve utterly into camp.

“Sorority Row” cleverly cribs from its predecessor, taking the general concept of sorority sisters being murdered after a prank gone wrong without feeling like it has to ape the original film’s tone or progression. The script (by sorta writing team Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger) is clever too, provided you don’t mind it traveling at 90 miles an hour while firing out acidic quips. I’m perfectly satisfied. Alpha bitch Jessica has all the best dialogue, and actress Leah Pipes delivers it perfectly.

In truth, all the sisters are well portrayed, even if they aren’t all great characters. Bookworm Ellie doesn’t do much more than stammer and second guess herself, but Rumer Willis is fine in the role. Margo Harshman likewise can’t do much with one-note party gal Chugs, but her portrayal is so easy-going that she quickly becomes downright endearing.

Good girl Cassidy (Briana Evigan) has a little more depth courtesy of some brooding, but it’s really Jessica and Claire who come across as the most complex. Jessica has a satisfactorily developed side story to go with Piper’s fantastic delivery, and Jamie Chung plays Claire as someone grappling with her past while seeking room to grow (although she can’t fix a hot tub to save her life).

There’s also Carrie Fisher as a house mother with a shotgun, but I don’t have to tell you that’s an awesome combo. You should be able to guess.

Hey, I just realized, most of those actresses are from California. Fisher is from Burbank. Nice.

While “Sorority Row” inherits “House on’s” fun thriller concept and its depiction of a tight, believable sisterhood, it drops some unnecessary baggage, including the first film’s inconsistency. “Sorority Row” doesn’t wonder whether it’s an atmospheric mystery story or a psychological horror flick. It’s a slasher, no question. Every now and again the script tries to make some clumsy point about regret, responsibility or sisterhood, but it usually sticks to black comedy and mayhem, stabbings, blood, explosions and more stabbings.

The film gets to the deadly prank much faster. Swapping the site of the first murder from a swimming pool to a mine shaft is less iconic perhaps, but it makes more narrative sense. So does adding a quick title card to announce that eight months have passed between the prank and the rest of the murders.

The film is never interested in creating much of atmosphere, let alone one that’s psychologically unsettling. Sure, everything is kinda grayish-brown and grainy, but that’s not atmosphere. That’s a limited color palatte.

There’s a moment in the third act when the sisters return to the house to find the party they started has ended. The camera movements are leisurely and the sets are mostly empty, and there’s a real sense of desolation and detachment. That and the opening are the only sequences worth watching for visuals alone, but we aren’t really watching this for its intelligent images or layered atmosphere, are we?

“Sorority Row” opens with young women in loungewear and heels, and one psychologically disturbed young man, dumping a body down an abandoned mine shaft. This is an exploit. Its shocks come from tight pacing and jump scares, and once they start, they almost never let up. The climax lasts a little longer than it needs to, and the revealed killer doesn’t even try to make sense, but by the time you’ve gotten there, you’ve been through about 90 minutes of smooth genre sailing. That’s a lot less of an investment than a four-year education.

Familiar campus grounds: A critical review of “Sorority House Massacre” (1986)

A word of warning. If you plan to watch “Sorority House Massacre,” don’t start by researching it on Wikipedia. Some genius there decided to put the twist ending in the first paragraph of the plot description. I mean, it happens before the events of the film, so it makes chronological sense to write it that way, but it kind of kills the narrative. Not that genre fans won’t see what’s coming.

Beth (Angela O’Neill, trying to look haunted while wandering around in a denim jacket) is having a rough week. The aunt that raised her like a daughter just died, and her dark mood is making it hard to fit in at her new sorority. She also keeps having bad dreams and disturbing visions of dolls and knives. At the same time, a troubled young man threatens to break out of a nearby mental institution. Their connection will be revealed at an impromptu party thrown by her sorority sisters–which isn’t good news for anyone attending.

I’m not sure why I’m OK with “Massacre.” It might be because it’s very representative of the era. This blog tends to be forgiving of things that dive headfirst into their own time and genre: the 1930s old dark house picture, the 50s sci fi flick, and here, the 80s slasher.

Viewers can expect “Massacre” to be pulpy 80s horror from the minute it starts, with its drippy titles and synthesizer theme. There’s airheaded gals and guys with varying degrees of big hair being lined up for murder. There’s a picture of Sting on a wall.

Perhaps the most charmingly outrageous example is a scene when the sorority sisters start playing dress up with an absent member’s wardrobe. Shot like a low budget music video (director of photography Marc Reshovsky has extensive music video credits), it’s an excuse to show off some skin and contemporary fashions, mostly neon-colored jumpsuits. It also wouldn’t be played straight in a movie shot in any other decade.

On the other hand, maybe I’m OK with the film because it makes an honest effort. The photography and editing is very much in the pulp vibe, driving the whole thing forward at a great pace. The atmosphere is occasionally dream-like and surprisingly detailed if you take the time to look, producing some of the most unsettling moments of the film. In fact, the script–while relying on a lot of conveniences to get by–isn’t afraid to tackle intriguing psychological topics like dreams, deja vu and coincidence.

Which is not to say the whole thing slides by like a greased monkey. Effort will only carry you so far. All that psychological intrigue? It’s presented, but it’s not explored in any meaningful way. Rather than celebrating the weird, the film kind of takes it for granted like an “intro to psychology” course, which is just as reductionist as explaining everything away.

Another thing that’s missing is a whacky killer, which is a must for any 80s slasher film. There’s a killer, and he’s crazy, but he’s got no threatening mask or hideous scars, and he offers up no goofy one-liners. He’s just a dude in a turtleneck, a scowl and a sensible shirt. He also uses a hunting knife, which isn’t very interesting. And the murders themselves are pretty straightforward too, just stab-stab-stab with no sense of style. They are, at least, gleefully violent. You can’t fault the film for failing to be visceral.

In many ways the movie is frighteningly unoriginal. It was written by director Carol Frank, who had worked previously on “Slumber Party Massacre.” People who’ve watched both that “Massacre” and this “Massacre” say they’re pretty similar. I haven’t had the pleasure, but I do agree with those who say the film is reminiscent of other period slashers. The structure is very much like John Carpenter’s “Halloween,” right down to the killer POV shots. The sense of dream-like logic might also remind viewers of the Nightmare on Elm Street Franchise.

Looking back on “Massacre,” the “Sorority House” one, it’s actually kind of a bad movie. The dialogue is bad. The acting is bad. And if you don’t like synthesizers, I have some bad news about the soundtrack too. The film teeters on the edge of boring a couple of times, occasionally feeling like a better lit version of one of those “teens wander around a haunted house for 90 minutes” movies. The saving grace might be that it isn’t 90 minutes long. It isn’t even 80 minutes. For better or worse, everything is wrapped up before you know it.

In fact, maybe that’s why I’m OK with it. It’s a bunch of 80s style and some violent knife-ups shoved into a little more than a hour of celluloid. It’s over-the-top, on time, under budget (the film counts Roger Corman as a producer) and probably un-PC. If you want to see someone get knifed through a fake tepee in a hurry, then this is your movie.

There’s also that dream-like atmosphere, which has its own rewards. Linda, the house’s resident psych major, informs her sorority sisters that they can’t properly analyze Beth’s nightmares using a pop psychology dream dictionary; real dream interpretation and analysis is highly individualized to the dreamer, and it can’t be readily found in a book written for a universal audience. The scariest part of “Sorority House Massacre” might be that it has its Freudian philosophy right when so many other films get it wrong.

Wasted years: A critical review of “The House on Sorority Row” (1982)

Between the rising costs of higher education, college scandals and now the coronavirus shutting down expensive campuses, a lot of the trappings of the university experience are starting to lose their luster. Perhaps this could be solved by something internal, like a reevaluation of university purpose, or something external, like potential students migrating to community college, trade school, travel or other forms of post-high school experience (at least until those become just as expensive and scandal ridden).

Either way, wouldn’t it have been easier just to have everyone who wanted to join a Greek society watch “The House on Sorority Row”? It could serve as a primer on what could go wrong, although I’m not sure who’d learn more: prospective members of sororities or film students.

Seven sorority sisters preparing for their last big bash of the year are stopped by their house mother, Mrs. Slater. The group hatches a plan to prank her and get her out of the way for the night. But the prank turns deadly, and the sisters have to switch from party planning to covering up a murder. Then, when some of them start turning up dead, they realize that Mrs. Slater might might have survived and be out for revenge.

The real trip about “The House on Sorority Row” is that it’s not that bad (stunning review on my part; I bet that quote would look attractive on an advertisement). There are a number of admirable qualities about the film for thriller fans.

The concept is cool, and I don’t just mean the cover-up. Writer-director Mark Rosman has said he wanted to do something female-centric, and he pulled it off. Everyone important–the good good guy, the bad good guy, the prime suspect–is female, and the final girl only resolves the mystery by casting off her masculine assistance. At the same time, the film doesn’t dwell on it. It just plays out that way, leaving it organic.

Also, the cast is completely appropriate. Well, maybe not the frat guys at the party, who look like they’ve been in college for more than four years, but the sisters are great. They’re cute and you get to see some of them unclothed, but that’s not what I mean. They feel real. They look like real young women on the cusp of adulthood, not like actors or models. They behave real too. It’s easy to accept the ignorance of frightened young people–which is no doubt why they’re often the targets of colorful serial killers–and these women feel like frightened young people.

Most important, they feel like a unit. That’s thanks to some good editing and blocking, and a lot of solid performances. Standouts rightly include the two leads, Kathryn McNeil as the do-gooder amateur sleuth Katherine and especially Eileen Davidson as the magnetically mean alpha gal Vicki.

The pacing is good. The movie unfolds carefully, but never so carefully that it gets in the way of the tension. One thing that even detractors of the film have noted is that it places a premium on suspense over gore. The shocks might not make you squirm, but they still pop.

There are a lot of nice touches scattered around as well. The camerawork is not flashy, but it’s smart. Attention is paid to the framing of mirrors, hallways and doors, which gives the visuals a homey look that fits the setting perfectly. The music (by horror/sci fi composer vet Richard Band) is pleasant, sort of impressionistic, and it knows when to settle down let the murders happen. Finally, I like the cane. Every killer needs a gimmick, and the cane is not bad.

So “House” has a good concept, a good cast, good pacing, smart photography and soundtrack. Nice cane. The parts are all good. What’s not to like? The whole. Somehow, the whole of “House” is less than the sum of its parts. I’m going to blame the third act, which is where things fall apart.

All the best pacing is in the set up of the film, where all the relationships, motivations and alibis are seemingly on display, leaving it feeling like a classic mystery. It’s telling that the first few murders are relatively sedate. Don’t get me wrong. They’re cool to watch. The most tense scene takes place in a bathroom, but its depiction of the actual murder is pretty mild compared to its build up. But these aren’t straight slasher murders, which would put an emphasis on increasingly creative killings. They’re mystery murders, which put an emphasis on tension.

Nevertheless, the film forgets all its whodunit trappings in the final act and decides it actually wants to be a choppy slasher flick. Not only does this kind of ignore the tension, it leaves a lot of the red herrings scattered around in the first two acts still scattered around.

The film tries to tie things up with a twist, but it’s sort of a non-twist, one that relies on the goofier imagery from earlier in the film–the x-rays, the toys, the clowns–and a “because we said so” attitude. Everything works because the movie just says it does, not because it’s following its own internal logic, which leaves me feeling confused. Even a lurch into trippiness at the climax can’t save the film. Instead, it feels like another tacked on element: unnecessary at best, unwelcome at worst.

Of course, my opinion doesn’t matter. The culture has already decided for us. “House” is a cult classic slasher, one with unquestionable reach. It spawned a remake, is referred to in the Scream franchise and seemingly influenced the first season of “Scream Queens.” If that wasn’t enough for you, take another listen to the generic new wave band playing the party. One song features the lyrics: “You think I’m jealous? / Of course I’m jealous. / I’m 50 shades of green.”

That’s right. “Fifty Shades of Grey” is just another “House on Sorority Row” knockoff.

Hold my beer: News May 2020

You’re probably wondering why we reviewed that movie, all out of the blue, last week. Well this blog figured that, since we were forced to miss spring break this year, it would be nice to bring some of that spring break spirit to our review-scape. And what’s more spring break in spirit than the sorority? By which, of course, I mean the sorority thriller?

All through May, this blog will be reviewing only films that have “sorority” in their title. In addition to “sorority” neatly capturing the campus feel, there weren’t nearly as many movies with the word “fraternity” in their title. Maybe that’s sexist, but it’s the world we live in. That means we’ll be reviewing both “Sorority Row” and “The House on Sorority Row,” but we’ll miss out on such classics as “Hell Night,” “The Initiation,” “Delta Delta Die” and “The Coed and the Zombie Stoner.” Regardless, I suspect that both this blog and its readership will survive.

By a strange coincidence, all the films we’re reviewing are also available to stream for free on Tubi, which isn’t compensating me in the slightest. In fact, given this blog’s reputation, they should probably be paying me to not review their films. Now there’s a monetization idea…

What’s that you say, tonstant weader? Spring break happened months ago, and it’s way too late to be doing something like this now? Look, Roger Corman’s birthday was at the beginning of last month, and we didn’t remember to review one of his films until the end of April, so what’s your point?

Besides, time is a construct, one that is largely socially perceived. That should be obvious by now, given how much time we’ve spent indoors and how the days have blurred together. If nothing else, that should be your one metaphysical takeaway this year. Class dismissed.

Sister doin’ it for herself: A critical review of “Sorority Girl” (1957)

In the transitional cinema of the 1950s and 60s, nobody knew value like producer-director Roger Corman, whether that value was in a script, a concept or some stock footage of the same Gothic mansion burning down over and over again. So what did it mean when he wanted a re-write? It meant he’d just read the script for “Sorority Girl,” a ho-hum coed crime thriller. The most shocking thing about the final film is that it has some interesting features, largely courtesy of Corman himself, but even the pope of pop schlock could only do so much.

Well-heeled-but-unhappy Sabra Tanner (Susan Cabot, a frequent Corman collaborator) is one of a small group of sorority sisters living on the campus of a Southern California university, but she doesn’t fit in with her sisters. Maybe it’s because she’s secretly scheming against some of them. Maybe it’s because she’s not so secretly scheming against some of the others. Either way, Sabra’s psychological manipulation, threats of blackmail and sexual games threaten the loves and lives of her sorority sisters, at least for now.

It’s easy to get your hopes up for “Sorority Girl” because the title design–by Bill Martin, another Corman collaborator–is pretty good. It’s a series of charcoal sketches showing increasingly grotesque figures and nightmarish backgrounds, looking like something Rod Serling might point out in at the beginning of an episode of “Night Gallery.” It’s when the film actually starts that one realizes something is amiss.

The script for “Sorority Girl” is, in a general sort of way, terrible. Sabra’s main motivation for doing things is that she’s evil. She’s not getting any money out of her machinations. She’s not getting a better grade. She does make a pass at another student’s boyfriend, but she’s not even interested in him. Her only sources of pleasure seem to be insulting her mother and beating pledges with a sorority paddle.

With that kind of setup, you’d think there would be at least a halfhearted attempt at psychodramatic development, but the movie is only about an hour long. That makes it simple to watch, but not easy. It would be easier if there was a character you really cared about on screen, but no. Sabra’s enemies are less developed than she is. Her sisters can be summed up as the political one, the pregnant one and the human doormat. There is an effort to give them life outside of Sabra, but it’s too late little too late, and all of her interactions with them feel according contrived.

Her mother, played by Fay Baker, is a little more interesting. The film appears to show her in a bad light, since we witness Sabra call her out for being cold and tell her all she wants is love. And Mrs. Tanner is awfully cool toward her daughter, but can you blame her? Sabra is clearly an awful human, and any right thinking human being would be cool toward her. This muddying of some “sins of the mother” excuse is about as complicated as the film gets, and even that is over in a flash.

Everything is tied together by some occasional narration from Sabra, which doesn’t make much sense. It would would suggest the film is told from Sabra’s point of view, but it leaves her POV from time to time to check on other characters. There’s also no consistency to when the narration happens, which leaves it feeling pretty arbitrary (narration in films is sometimes indicative of last second meddling, so maybe Corman got some of his re-writes?).

Other than the inorganic script and bland characters, the film offers a forgettable soundtrack, choppy editing and a blatantly low budget. The big school weekend out is shot on the same tiny patch of beach Corman used for every film he shot, and the restaurant where Sabra meets her mother looks suspiciously like someone’s house. I guess most of the budget was sunk into the new Thunderbird she drives.

So why would anyone want to watch this? For one, Cabot plays her character well, much better than this film deserves. Whenever there is a genuinely crisp bit of dialogue–typically in one of Sabra’s barbed conversations with her mother–it’s almost always coming out of her mouth.

Also, there’s Corman. If there is enough merit for the movie to squeak by for genre fans, it’s thanks to him. There are a couple of notably well blocked shots during Sabra’s fights and paddlings. In particular, the finale at the beach is staged like a real thriller. Even if the cast is dressed in overstuffed bathing suits, their mass movements and eerily locked step feels more like an alien invasion than a weekend out. When Sabra pleads her case before them, you almost feel that she is the lesser evil. Almost.

Wikipedia calls this film a noir, which I guess is because it bears a passing resemblance to the “rich are different from you and me” noir of the dense Hollywood murder drama “Sunset Boulevard.” It’s got the LA poolside setting, the pulp narration and the hints of violence. But other than that, it has more in common with quick exploitation pictures, largely courtesy of a sorority paddle.

A pair of puzzles for puzzlers: Critical reviews of “ID: INVADED” and “In/Spectre”

Somehow, despite my busy social schedule, I have been able to successfully watch more anime. Fancy that. Even better news for this blog, there’s been a healthy amount of “weird detective” shows lately. Two of them, “ID: INVADED” and “In/Spectre,” wrapped recently, the former mixing mystery with sci fi and the latter mystery with fantasy.

Intriguingly, both shows appear to ask questions about why we solve mysteries anyway. Every good whodunit is a whydunit as well, with some insight into human nature. “ID: INVADED” is the more straightforward show, and it attempts to have tidier answers. On the other hand, “In/Spectre” takes a more impressionistic approach, and it makes an interesting case for why metaphysical philosophers might not make the most satisfying detectives.

In the not too distant future of “ID: INVADED,” an elite team of detectives dive into the reconstructed minds of active serial killers to search for clues to the murders’ identities and locations. However, one of the prerequisites for diving into a killer’s psyche is that the divers be killers themselves, leading to some strange bedfellows. Combined with the mysterious background of the diving machine itself, and it becomes clear that there is more going on than catching a killer a week.

Where “INVADED” really shines is its set pieces. The reconstructed minds of the killers are diverse, often more interesting than the killers themselves, and they each follow a logic unique to themselves. They range from dissected rooms and houses that float in a void, to a white picket fenced property where gravity is reversed as it falls through space, to a train that appears to loop on an eternal track.

The mysteries themselves are at their best when they tie into the logic of their related world. The mechanics of the diving machine are kind of interesting. The detectives who dive into the worlds lose all memories of their lives outside, but they take on the identity of a “brilliant detective” tasked with solving the death of a young woman named Kaeru, who is less a character and more a catalyst to spark the investigation.

Sometimes the mysteries require leaps of logic that seem a little like cheating to this audience member, but, I dunno. I’m not the brilliant detective. I do recognize that the show is not very interested in its own science, and there’s a lot of hand waving going on. In truth, “INVADED” is really nothing you haven’t seen before, assuming you’ve seen brain layer busting thrillers like “Inception” and “The Cell.” If you want to stick to something more anime, then imagine something shooting for a “Ghost in the Shell” vibe, only with less style and control. Or maybe too much control.

“INVADED” is predictable, sometimes painfully. There is a character who eventually double-crosses everyone else, but it seems like most people in the audience figured that out in the first episode just because that was the character most likely to betray everyone. All the brilliant detectives are going to fit your stereotypes of anime heroes: a guy with weird hair who has a tragic backstory; another guy with weirder hair who used to be a villain; a young woman looks like a 12-year-old boy.

In fact, the characters in general don’t act like people. They act like players in a production, everyone reading familiar lines clearly defining the roles of detective and killer. If there’s some suggestion that there’s not much difference between the two, that’s just because they’re both barreling toward the same goal.

Coupled with Kaeru-as-catalyst, there is a sense of determinism hovering around the show. If “ID: INVADED” wonders why we solve mysteries, it seems to decide it’s because we have to. We can call it justice or destiny or the fate of a “brilliant detective,” but in the end, we seek solutions because it is the natural, even correct, thing to do.

That might leave the show feeling a little stiff, you can always console yourself with its solid production values. It’s well paced, the animation is well done, the J-rock score is appropriate, even if it’s all a little expected. Oddly enough, there is a more flexible emotional center of the series, although you don’t realize until the end that it’s…but that would be telling. The show with more heart is “In/Spectre,” although that heart comes with some quirks.

As a girl, Kotoko Iwanaga was kidnapped by supernatural creatures and held captive for days before being released, minus an eye and a leg. Now a young woman, she acts as their goddess of wisdom, presiding over what passes for legal disputes in the realm of aging snake gods, fire elementals and souls, modern and ancient, who haven’t moved on. Eventually she crosses paths with Kuro Sakuragawa, a young man who seems a little too unfazed by her supernatural companions. As the two of them grow begrudgingly intertwined, his connection to the mystic will be revealed.

“In/Spectre” is offbeat, and not just because its heroine is a girl with a glass eye and a wooden leg. It’s offbeat in its mashup of mystery, fantasy and slice-of-life. It mostly pays off because the central characters feel well-rounded and right. They don’t act like people–again, they’re pretty anime, with Kuro acting standoffish and Kotoko self-conscious about her petite frame–but they act like how people want to act, saying all the cute and clever things lovers imagine themselves to say on their best days.

In a way, its mashup of folklore and psychoanalysis recalls the underrated anime “Mononoke,” only less psychologically unsettling and far less stylish (that’s an essay for another day). Which is not to say the show is totally straight. While “In/Spectre” plays it pretty safe with its animation, there is just a hint of style, almost enough to get it started on looks alone. It also isn’t afraid to sport some pleasantly eccentric flourishes in its soundtrack, with a dorky metal intro and swinging closing theme.

But the real treat of “In/Spectre” comes from the way its heroine solves mysteries. Rather than locked room murders, Kotoko treats them like ciphers or puzzles. She resolves them by talking them out, using logic to arrive at a solution that is psychologically satisfying.

As a result, the biggest issue with “In/Spectre” is that its pacing is all over the place. It starts quickly, acting like it’s going to be a monster-of-the-week show, but the series suddenly grows dense and dialogue heavy. Rather than being quietly built up over the course of the series, the narrative of the big bad spans 10 episodes, and Kotoko uses about three of them to resolve its mystery.

For less patient viewers–or anyone who really just wants a genuine horror anime–this probably won’t be rewarding. However, if you’re into that kind of thing, it can be a lot of fun to watch. I guess I am into it, because I found myself have fun tracing her logic, and I even surprised myself by how well I kept up as I played along at home.

Given Kotoko’s thought process, the question of why we solve mysteries is presented like a problem, one that is resolved with: because it’s fun. Finding a solution to a puzzle is fun, more fun than the solution itself, and the best solution is not necessarily the correct one but the one with the most engaging and elegant chain of logic. That might not be an answer that would please a detective, but for a philosopher, it rings true.