How (not) to survive the holidays with family: A critical review of “A Tale of Two Sisters” (2003)

Not to toot my own horn, but you, tonstant weader, who so well know the nature of my soul, probably recognize that I’ve seen a couple of thrillers in my time. So when a film that I have seen more than once gets me to beg the characters on screen not to look under that cabinet – that nothing good can come from doing so – it is entirely possible one might have an effectively scary movie on their hands.

I said I was going to try and end the year on a high note.

Enter “A Tale of Two Sisters,” a psychological horror/haunted house movie that is one of the best of them. It has something for every fan of the genre. You like slow burning and atmospheric? We got you covered. You like jump scares and loud noises? We got you covered too. You like movies that appear to have made the mainstream without ever having actually made it? Keep reading.

The film opens with – go figure – two sisters, long-haired Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) and short-haired Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young), who have returned to their family’s summer house for some rest and relaxation, neatly fitting into this blog’s “home for the holidays” theme. However, between the distance of their father (a solid performance from Kim Kap-soo) and some passive aggression from their stepmother (a layered performance from Yum Jung-ah), they’ll have a hard time settling in. Not to mention the fact that the house seems haunted by some frightful and disturbing past. The more Su-mi plays detective and defense for her sister, the more it seems that little is as it seems.

That’s admittedly vague regarding the story (the script was by the director Kim Jee-woon), but the film is honestly something that must be reckoned with in its viewing. Much of the experience is in the atmosphere. Right off the bat, viewers are greeted with the dulled images of a TV movie, but take heart. From the first scene set in a sterile hospital, the muted colors only emphasize that nothing in this film is ever going to be friendly.

Everything is carried by mood and subtext. Character interaction and body language, rather than monologues and exposition dumps, guide the narrative. This is a deep and subtle film, and that’s apparent in the visuals. The shot composition, blocking and set decoration are where one should be paying attention (the cinematography was by frequent Kim collaborator Lee Mo-gae). A clock, a television set, a pair of mirrors, a faucet, everything is photographed with frightening intention and meaning. The editing and pacing are intelligent, purposeful and reward careful observation.

A good test of a psychological thriller is whether or not you can comprehend–even feel sorry for–every main character, and this film passes with flying colors. The sisters have their own thing going, with Su-mi wanting answers and Su-yeon wanting to be left alone, and it would be easy enough to stop there. However, Kim’s script bothers with dad and stepmom as well, who are desperate to understand and desperate to fit in respectively, and both believably so. That’s also thanks to the solid, sometimes painfully so, performances of everyone in the cast.

The film is thoughtful, but that’s not to say it lacks thrills. For example, there is a scene in which a character raids a refrigerator for a late night snack. You would think it’s the kind of scene where they’ll close the refrigerator door, and a jump scare will be suddenly standing next to them. It isn’t, but you might wish it would have been that easy when the scene actually unfolds.

Some quibbles: The use of sound is not particularly creative, although it is appropriate and effective. The score is serviceable, if not memorable. The lighting is never the best. It’s usually passable, but sometimes it seems obviously shot day for night. Of course, that arguably enhances the overall uneasy feeling the film creates.

“Sisters” is as moody and Gothic as get out. Old houses, family secrets, hints of incest and necromancy, the gang’s all here. Stepmom keeps saying the house is a character, but she’s wrong. It’s the family dynamic – not the house – that is the real “hidden” character of the work. The family is twisted and self-swallowing, like an ouroboros, and its true nexus is not revealed until the end of the film, or maybe not until a second (or third) viewing.

This is not a thriller to watch if you want to see sexy, brainless teens being slaughtered in creative ways. This is a thriller to watch if you want to see atmosphere on a sensible budget, a complex and nuanced story about flawed people, and a restrained mind screw in artful fashion.

“What in hell’s name made us get to this point?” a character asks toward the end of the film. “Don’t you get it yet?” I’ve seen it twice, and the answer is still: I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to watching it again. Happy New Year.

Holiday horror on a budget: Critical reviews of “Santa Jaws” (2018) and “ThanksKilling” (2008)

What’s a holiday feast without a second helping? As promised, this blog has two more holiday flavored horror flicks, each one made on a modest budget. If yesterday’s films were the attempts at serious entree, then consider the following a comedic dessert. The films I ended up watching were each mixes of comedy and horror, albeit with the yuletide decorations still in tact. Arguably we’re still considering films that look to home for the holidays–it’s just that home is now occupied by supernatural fish and vengeful birds.

First up is “Santa Jaws,” which starts out strong with credits in front of glass ornaments falling through sea water. It’s a simple image, but, like the title, it says everything it needs to.

Cody (Reid Miller), comic book artist and juvenile delinquent, wishes he wasn’t home for the holidays when he gets in trouble for making a rude cartoon at school. However, he lucks out when one of his stocking stuffers turns out to be a magic pen that projects whatever he draws into the waking world. So the first thing he draws is a killer shark with a Santa hat. Of course it is. The beast comes to life in a local lake and starts targeting his family members, because what would Christmas be without family?

Jake Kiernan’s script reads like a solid, clever-if-not-intelligent pulp thriller. It has a premise that’s through the roof, some goofy and well-paced murders, cheesy dialogue, and an overall sense of fun. As a whole, the plot isn’t much more than it’s 20-foot title, but it moves fast enough that everything takes a while to wear thin. Surprisingly, the uncle who is an arrogant corporate type is not a heartless, artless asshole, so kudos to the script for bucking that expectation. There’s still a moral about family togetherness and shades of a romantic subplot, so don’t think you’re getting away from any of that.

The script and performances are workmanlike (I like Scott Allen Perry and Haviland Stillwell in supporting roles); the camerawork and editing are likewise clean, and there’s at least a sense of purpose to them (the film was directed and co-edited by Misty Talley, and photographed by Matt Bell; both worked on 2016’s “Ozark Sharks”). In the end, “Santa Jaws” is probably not going to crack your holiday top 10, but it is an entertaining, Syfy Channel-level monster movie.

All right, the last three holiday horrors have grown increasingly passable, but this blog wants something more, something truly distinct. What can satiate this yuletide thirst? Maybe Thanksgiving.

I’m sorry Tonstant Weader. I screwed up. The last budget holiday horror this blog watched was turkey day instead of jingle bells, but the end result was definitely unique. “ThanksKilling” was another supernatural creature feature/comedy-horror mashup. It’s stupid and surreal, but it fills some vacuum within me. I’m not entirely sure what that vacuum is, or if I even knew I had it before I watched the movie.

As best as I can summarize it, the plot of “ThanksKilling” is this: A squad of airhead college students–a jock, a slut, a hillbilly, a nerd and an obvious final girl–are heading to someone or other’s house for “Thanksgiving break.” Unbeknownst to them, a killer turkey hand puppet, the reawakened product of an old Indian curse, is stalking them. Will they be plucked off one by one? Or will they manage to beat the stuffing out of their foe?

At first glance, “ThanksKilling” does not look like a keeper. Its video and audio are clearly subpar, the special effects are budget at best, the script doesn’t care about believability, and it sounds like the actors are making up the dialogue half the time.

That’s what I would say if it were the exclusively case. As it stands, the first scene is both presented in a hyperreal style and sports a pilgrim woman who is fully clothed except for her generous bust. So right away, whether you’re looking for stylization or titillation, this movie seems to have you covered.

What follows is, again, pure pulp, but it has a clever script and smart photography. There is some sort of vision at play here, starting with the stylization of the opening scene and leading to the snappy dialogue and bucolic editing of the turkey-basted murders.

Those murders are relatively tame compared to genuine slashers, but at the same time, the film recognizes its meager budget and doesn’t try to overplay its hand—unless there’s some comedic purpose. For example, the killer turkey murders a victim off-screen, but he wears said victim’s face as a grotesquely stitched mask for a few scenes. Do we care? No. It’s a turkey puppet wearing a skin mask. It’s funny.

All right, so a movie about a centuries old mutant turkey puppet gone stir crazy isn’t necessarily going to advance the genre. But it can still entertain, and do it all in a little more than an hour. In fact, that might be the greatest strength of this film. Like a good dinner guest, it knows not to overstay its welcome. Horror fans with a sense of humor should be satisfied. “ThanksKilling” is like a perfect holiday meal–not necessarily nutritious, but fun, filling and not a bite too much.

Holiday horror on a budget: Critical reviews of “Unholy Night” (2019) and “Mrs. Claus” (2018)

Happy holidays, Tonstand Weader. We all can use a gift-me-up this year, and what’s more gifty than a double feature of holiday horror? A double-double feature of holiday horror. If we play our cards right, there’ll be two reviews of twin films this weekend. This blog is notorious for delivering…most of what it promises, so let’s see if we let everyone down this Christmas.

I mean, of course, keep our Christmas promise.

First up is the holiday horror anthology “Unholy Night.” Not the 1929 murder mystery “Unholy Night,” although that might have been more interesting. I’m getting ahead of myself.

The “Unholy Night” we’re talking about today concerns Lilly (co-writer and co-producer Jennifer Allanson), a put-upon nurse working the red-eye shift at a hospital one Christmas Eve. Although she’s trying to get to her mother’s place for a holiday dinner, she finds herself paired with an old man for the evening. Her charge carries a scrapbook that holds mementos from weird crimes of Christmases past, and he gradually shares them with her. The hour grows late, and Lily is torn between leaving the hospital and hearing the next story from the old man’s book.

That sounds like an interesting premise, and it is. There are hints of psychological horror, cannibalism and slasher setups to come. The problem is “Unholy Night” fails to grasp what it means to be a good horror anthology.

For example, the movie doesn’t have the right amount of stories. I admit that sounds pretentious, but ask yourself: How many stories is the “right” number to have within a horror anthology? Four seems pretty solid, right? Maybe three? In this film, there are two stories that come out of the old man’s book. Two-and-a-half at best, since there is an intro story, but any thriller fan knows it’s going to be tied to one of the other stories. That connection is so forced into the narrative that it can’t even be called a twist, which is another failing at how to construct this sort of story.

The writing is pretty bad, although the cast looks like they’re having fun. Everyone on set with some media experience seems to be a horror fan, so this was probably a labor of love, but perhaps they adored the spirit rather than the psychology of the genre. For example, there’s ample gore, but it’s both overdone and poorly done. Look, I don’t want to tell anyone how to make their movie, but if you can comfortably fit your budget in a tube sock, you might want to drop the fake body parts. If I can tell they came from a Halloween store, so can everyone else.

This blog is frequently a champion of bad thrillers, so it probably says something when even I admit this film is bad. I’ll say some nice things for a while. I like the lighting, but I’m a sucker for sets that use a particular color–green, red, yellow–as an anchoring element. The shot composition is a mixed bag. The directors and/or cinematographers (Randy Smith is sometimes both) favor extreme closeups, which can either be uncomfortably effective or just uncomfortable.

The writing sort of gets a little better as the film marches on, but it’s ain’t ever exactly Charles Dickens. The flashes of psychological dread and unease in Lily’s wraparound story are intriguing, not to mention the elf mannequin is nicely weird. Unfortunately, the more of those elements I saw, the more of them I wished there were–more build, more atmosphere, more clever punchlines, and less reality TV spoofs and fake severed fingers. If you’re itching for a recent holiday horror anthology flick, I’d suggest “Holiday Hell” instead.

Let’s pivot and go with something a bit more stable, like the yuletide slasher “Mrs. Claus.” Danielle (Hailey Strader) is not going home for the holidays–she’s going homecoming, which is a clumsy way to say she’s joined the sorority where her sister was violently murdered 10 years ago at a Christmas party by a disgruntled pledge who later hanged herself. But the past is the past. Danielle isn’t going to let anonymous emails threatening her life, nighttime visits by the campus police and a growing body count damper her holiday spirit.

“Mrs. Claus” is a sorority slasher centered on the relative of a hazing victim, no doubt a familiar plot for anyone who pays mild attention to this blog. The identity of the killer is not that hard to figure out, and a subsequent, campy twist is unsurprising. There’s some character actresses with horror cred (Brinkie Stevens and Helene Udy) for the nostalgia viewers. There are a few other familiar character types in the cast too, including the loose ‘n’ busty student, the campus radio host fascinated by true crime, and the “oh so smooth” frat boy. Thank goodness for those frat boys, actually. Since they’re supposed to look and behave like asses, when they overact, it brings a touch of levity to an otherwise stiff production.

If you can put up with low budget, “Mrs. Claus” hits the marks in the most passable way possible. The killer has a funny rubber mask and does holiday themed murders–strings of Christmas lights and prop candy canes are utilized nefariously–but all that’s countered with poor pacing. There are, I kid you not, pages of dialogue dedicated to wondering if Santa smokes weed, which abruptly transitions to a moment of tender emotional intimacy. Mark D’Errico’s score sounds like it would be at home in a slightly atmospheric first person shooter. The gore is still overdone, but it comes across as a little smarter than “Unholy Night.”

The most positive thing this blog can say is that Daiane Azura, as a don’t-get-too-attached-to-her college girl, comes off OK, or at least she inhabits her role like there’s some concern about her own agency. The character actresses do the best they can with what they have, as do the less experienced members of the cast. I feel comfortable blaming Troy Escamilla (writer, director and producer) and Derek Huey (cinematographer, editor and other producer) for most of the shortcomings film. It’s harmless horror, but you’ll likely be reaching for the eggnog halfway through.

Between the two films, if you had less than 90 minutes of your life to burn away forever and couldn’t watch both, which would I recommend? “Mrs. Claus” would offend you less as a consumer of media, but this blog would probably say “Unholy Night.” It is the worse film, but it has more heart, if that makes sense.

What’s that? If I were to recommend a not-so-recent holiday horror anthology instead? Well, 1972’s “Tales From the Crypt” of course. Ho-ho-ho.

Light classical: A critical review of “The Vision of Escaflowne” (1996)

I remember when the anime “The Vision of Escaflowne” (“Visions of Escaflowne?” whatever) was going to air on Fox Kids. Its blend of high fantasy and giant robots appealed to my middle school mind. Or maybe it was just the name–what the heck is an escaflowne? Either way, I missed the first episode. Luckily, I had a playground friend who watched even more cartoons than me and could fill me in. Thus informed, I watched a few episodes of the show before being distracted by whatever also came out that year.

When the show popped into my adult mind the other day, I started researching it out of curiosity and learned a couple of things. First, I hadn’t technically missed the first episode. Fox Kids cut that out of the lineup due to violent content. Second, the show was sometimes described as “dark fantasy.” All this put together sounded pretty awesome, so I spent some time with the show.

“Escaflowne” follows a pretty standard pattern. A girl named Hitomi is accidentally transported to a steampunk/fantasy land where everyone conveniently speaks Japanese (or English if you’re watching the dub). The land is in a state of constant and increasingly nightmarish war, so naturally she gets mixed up in the affairs of a brash young king, a rogue knight, a delightfully villainous and scenery chewing mad man-child pilot, and some old guy strapped to an H. R. Giger-style throne. Also, Atlantis for some reason.

The uncut first episode starts out surprisingly tame. It’s about a girl who runs high school track and occasionally glimpses flashes of a more fantastic reality. This was too much for Fox Kids? Then, in the second half of the same episode, a swordsman tumbles onto the running track and fights a dragon. And by “a dragon,” I mean “a squat grotesque that resembles a dying lizard or toad.” And by “fights,” I mean “pops its eyeball like a pus-laden zit.”

Ah. I think I get it now.

“Escaflowne” is not a constant parade of violence, blood, attempted assault, collateral damage and torture, but it does not shy away from any of those elements either. In the first couple of episodes, a number of good characters you’d expect to hang around are systematically killed. Later in the show, a lesser villain is introduced who feels like he might hang around for a couple of episodes. Nope. Instead, the good guys shove him off a cliff, and the camera hovers over his body for a minute to make sure he’s dead.

As much fun as dark fantasy violence is, it’s just one part of the narrative. It gets a little more stage time than space opera-esque political intrigue–sanctions are mentioned at one point–but neither element is as prominent as the romance. As the show evolves, that’s what it really ends up being about, which is fine I guess. Things are told from the POV of a high school girl, and the cast includes gallant knights, so it might be weird if it weren’t romantic. The show tries to treat relationships seriously, so it works for the most part. Besides, every time this blog started to get bored of the raging hormones, something violent or trippy would pop out (I swear, one episode toward the middle reminded me of the head spinning Russian sci fi flick “Solaris”).

Despite her inability to make up her mind, I like Hitomi as a protagonist. She starts off kind of a mess, but she’s just been plucked by a cosmic claw machine off Earth and plopped onto a planet where dragons and robots coexist in constant combat, so I think it’s fair to cut her some slack. Her love triangle is a harmless enough hoop for her to jump through–although I do wonder how she keeps her school uniform so clean on a planet that clearly lacks washing machines.

As a protagonist, Hitomi is probably more realistic than interesting. In fact, “Escaflowne” does not offer much in the way of originality. It does a little philosophizing about luck, destiny and gravity, and a little psychoanalyzing about relationships, trauma and childhood, but much of that inexplicably falls away for an ultimate message of “war is gross.” Not to sound crass, but that’s hardly an innovation. Everyone from the Greeks to Gundam has hit that beat. The philosophizing and psychoanalyzing from earlier were stronger, but they hardly delved as deep as “Evangelion” did the year before.

Nossir, if one were going to watch “Escaflowne,” it would be for the presentation rather than the content. The look and feel of the show is largely unlike anything before or since. I don’t mean the animation, which varies in quality from episode to episode. Sometimes it’s pretty fluid. What I mean is the design.

The environments and character designs are a delightful mashup of all sorts of sources, and the result genuinely feels timeless. Where else or when else are you going to find steampunk mechs, corpulent dragons, Renaissance Italian architecture, World War I helmets, Blade Runner pyramids, ruined jungle temples, eerie doppelgangers and twin sister cat girl assassins who almost make out, all side by side? The soundtrack is likewise eclectic and eccentric, mixing stark atmospheric pieces and driving rhythms with sweeping orchestral movements. It’s good, but Yoko Kanno worked on it, so that’s probably a given.

Everything is helped by the repeated images and breakneck pace–apparently the show was trimmed by a few episodes from its original intended run, but the trimming was done in such a way that nothing narrative was lost. It can feel like you’ll be lost if you miss an episode–if you miss two minutes you can feel lost–but the trade off is it feels like there’s something new every second. This is definitely a point in the show’s favor, since everything looks so intricate and there’s hardly time to notice any flaws, particularly in the first half of the series. The second half, when things start to slow down, is when the show feels less interesting. Or maybe it’s just weepier. At least most of the conveniences that drive the plot are contextualized and the violence returns for the last episode, although the show definitely animates one-on-one duels better than sprawling battles.

“The Vision of Escaflowne” is everything you’ve heard it is, perhaps even a little less, but it’s still pretty to look at. Everything about it seems familiar but different, and while this blog knows its copying something, it can’t quite figure out what (the show was a flop in Japan, so maybe it left everyone scratching their heads a little). Between the steampunk airships, the fantasy swashbuckling, the high romance and bloody low blows, the closest I can think of is the John Carter of Mars novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs (if John Carter were a high school girl). It’s weird, tonstant weader, but good old anime weird, where the characters had thick outlines, the images were needlessly violent just to succeed on television, and everyone had a nose. It’s not a classic, but it is light classical.

Black Friday Blues: News December 2020

I think we can all agree that 2020 kind of sucked. It wrecked havoc with the health and finances of people across the country and the globe. Being a professional writer means working from home is always an option, but even freelance work has been spotty. The lack of paid writing meant I had more time to focus on my literary writing, and I ended up with something to show for it. Accordingly, as weird as it is to compose some shameless self-promotion right now, I definitely have the opportunity to do so. I hope I am sufficiently grateful for it.

If you haven’t found an oversized stocking stuffer for everyone yet, this blog has some recommendations for all your thriller fans who can read. You can probably guess they’re all anthologies featuring stories written by me: the time travel collection “On Time” for the sci fi fan; the murder anthology “Hookman and Friends” for the slasher reader; or the retro styled “Scary Stuff” for the pulp horror connoisseur.

On the other hand, if you just want some fast and free Yuletide entertainment, you can read a couple of my pieces online. My slightly surreal psychological thriller “Worse Than Wolves” can be read at The Fabulist Words & Art. It is technically a Christmas story–admittedly one that may or may not involve werewolves–so this is the most appropriate time of year to read it. Likewise, introspective sci fi-flavored short “Life After Roswell” can be found in PDF form in the September 2020 issue of Red Planet Magazine’s archive.

Also, a guest post I wrote about unconventional time machines in fiction just ran at the Transmundane Press blog. Somehow, I managed to name-drop H. P. Lovecraft in it, although one of this blog’s specialties is getting Lovecraft name-dropped into everything. Feel free to give that a read.

All right, farewell to all that. What’s on the schedule for the next couple of weeks? This blog has a gift bag of Christmas horror movies to review when we get closer to the holiday itself, not to mention a firecracker of a haunted house flick to send out the year, all keeping up the purposefully-poorly-sketched-out theme of “homecoming.” But before we get into those, there might be one more anime series review post. Dark fantasy instead of murder thriller and decidedly retro instead of contemporary. Unless I decide to do something completely different. Either way, thanks for sticking with me, tonstant weader. Read you next year.

Everything new is old again: A critical look at “Higurashi” (2020) so far

This blog has pondered in the past the fairness, relevance and even necessity of comparing remakes and reboots to their progenitors. However, comparison seems this seems inescapable with “Higurashi: When They Cry Karma,” which this blog will call “Higurashi” 2020 for simplicity’s sake. Not only is it an animated version of a visual novel, it could also be considered a reboot of a 14-year-old anime.

For those not in the know, the Higurashi franchise begins with an episodic visual novel 2002. With no plot arc choices or dialogue trees, players were reduced to readers solving a disjointed, supernaturally flavored mystery. This was static even by visual novel standards. Perhaps the most apt description of the games was put forth by the UK Anime Network:
“Higurashi” is a game only in the most abstract sense of the word.

I’ve never played the games, but I have seen the first season of the 2006 series–or maybe it’s better described as the first series; I was never clear on that–and it is a deceptively violent masterpiece of psychological horror. Any discussion of “Higurashi” 2020 will involve the 2006 series, as well as the original games. One may ask, even if they’re both based on the same source, why would is it necessary to compare them? Well, the new series uses the same voice actors as the old series, so it’s basically begging for it.

Funimation, which is streaming “Higurashi” 2020, right now, describes the plot as: “Mysterious goings-on have disrupted life in a small town.” That is technically correct, but it’s a bit like saying the plot of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” is: “A young man encounters nosy guests and unexpected challenges while running a motel.” A more complete plot would be:

Mild mannered high schooler Keiichi Maebara (or middle schooler, whatever) leaves the city for his family home in Hinamizawa. The rural town appears sleepy, but it hides a secret under that facade, a secret that seems to change depending on who’s looking. Whether its a serial killer, a criminal organization running the village or the centuries-old cult of a demonic deity, Keiichi and his peers–all local girls with their own issues–will have to solve the mysteries or be consumed by them.

In comparison to its 2006 predecessor, this “Higurashi” is much more direct. I don’t even mean more accessible, because the show is still mysterious. It’s just much more direct about things. It gives its information in a much more direct way, sometimes sooner or sometimes just more of it. Images and lines of dialogue appear to have been added or reshuffled to make the narrative a smoother affair.

This blog is not a fan of the directness. There is more to “Higurashi” as a psychological thriller than its twists and screwy narrative, but part of its fun is wading through all that. Anything that clears its purposefully muddy waters doesn’t help it.

There’s still plenty of spooky atmosphere though, most of it courtesy of the voice actors. Admittedly Soichiro Hoshi and Mika Kanai as Keichi and Satoko respectively do not sound like teenagers any more, but the performances themselves are all strong. Satuski Yukino is especially good as the diverse voice of the Sonozaki sisters, and Chafurin’s work as Detective Oishi is as easy on the ears as ever.

Something else that’s notably new is the animation style. Even people who liked the 2006 series usually agree that its weakest point was its animation, which was frequently simplistic or generic. In 2020, the animation is still pretty generic, but at least it’s more detailed. Smatterings of CGI, which often look ugly in the middle of traditionally animated works, is relatively seamless. And sometimes when it all comes together, the result is quite pretty, as in Rika’s deftly smooth ritual dance.

While it’s easy to see this as an improvement, this blog is not entirely convinced. The animation in “Higurashi” 2006 could be erratic, but it was free to lurch from goofy and ugly to monstrous and memorable. “Higurashi” 2020 has yet to sink to lows of 2006, but the cost is character.

There is another 2020 show that we can compare to “Higurashi” 2020, and that’s “Magia Record.” It’s cosmic horror instead of psychological horror, but it’s also a kind of reboot that utilizes some of the old talent; it’s also from a favorite franchise of mine, making me approach it with the same blend of excitement and skepticism. Unlike “Higurashi,” however, it did something a little different with its characters and themes, developing an independent identity and driving away my skepticism. “Higurashi” hasn’t, and I’m losing my skepticism at a much slower rate.

Shoot, this probably sounds like I don’t like the show. That’s not quite right. “Higurashi” is still a good story, and this particular presentation of it is fine so far. It’s got excellent vocal performances, a solid opening theme, and plenty of atmosphere and violence and blood. However, almost everything about it–from its original cast to its more direct approach to its improved-but-still-generic animation–feels frustratingly safe. If this “Higurashi” wants distinction, it will have to take some chances.

A walk in the art: A critical review of “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice” (2017)

It’s probably fair to say that video games don’t suffer from the mystery science ghetto the way they used to. In fact, that’s an interesting question. What do you feel more comfortable admitting to your normie peers: that you like video games? that you like horror movies? or that you like Japanese cartoons about young men in fantastic settings who inadvertently surround themselves with groups of sexually hungry young women?

As interesting a question as that may be, it’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice,” a game that developer Ninja Theory sold as more than a game. It was an experience, one that took mental health and authentic medieval history seriously. That’s fair, but it’s also fair that “Hellblade” is a hack and slash dark fantasy game. Achieving a balance between those concepts might be a thankless task, but it’s one the game itself set out to do, and the developers have no one to blame but themselves.

“Heckblade: Shenmue’s Sacrifice” concerns the story of Senua, who is not a Viking but has come to Viking Island to save her dead lover’s soul from Hel, the Norse goddess of hell, unless of course she’s just having a psychotic break. Either way, she’ll navigate the island with the company of the myriad voices in her head, but she’ll have to face demons, seemingly from without and within, before she can achieve her goal.

In the conceptual balance alluded to before–the balance between experience and game–“Hellblade” exceeds at experience. Everything good about the game is experiential, and the environment one experiences is good indeed. From the minute one starts playing, the visuals and sound are just about perfect. A narrator announces that Senua has reached “the land of mist and fog,” and players can practically feel the damp and chill along with the character. Every environment of “Hellblade” is rich and painstakingly crafted.

Players who want to examine every nook and cranny of the environments will find some Dark Age design to observe. Additionally, the lighting and sound shift, sometimes not so subtly, in relation to Senua’s mood and perspective. Sometimes things are pretty and calm, as when Senua is optimistic or energetic; other times they’re dark and stormy, as when Senua hears a grave legend or unhappy prophecy. Regardless, this environmental flexibility always feels natural and never intrusive.

If “Hellblade” functions at all as a psychological horror game, it’s here that it does best, creating engaging and atmospheric environments that range from spooky forests and abandoned settlements to screaming hellscapes and beached dragon ships rotting into the ground. There is a constant sense that things are forgotten and falling apart, and it is a testament to the game’s design that the mood always feels fresh.

The sound is likewise fitting. On the ambient side of things, forests hum, swamps plop, fire crackles and swords clank, but it’s the voices in Senua’s head that draw the most attention. Well placed and well acted, they seamlessly blend into the experience. Also, since the game has no tutorial, the voices shout out advice. That’s a nice touch, although it can grate after a while.

The presentation is great, but unfortunately “Hellblade” suffers as a game. Remember how we said “from the minute one starts playing”? Well, that was a lie. The minute one starts playing is actually after a minute and a half of cutscene, which is fine, but control is leashed for another five and a half minutes. One can just barely adjust the camera while Senua paddles past the credits. Maybe you think that’s creative, but I’m pointing it out because it’s indicative of the game’s attitude toward the player.

“Hellblade” wants you to experience something, and it wants you to experience it the way it wants you to experience it, dammit. There is no room for innovation or interpretation. The game is aggressively linear. Maybe it will comfort you that everything you encounter has a purpose, but this blog was somewhat disappointed when an abandoned house that initially appeared to be atmospheric ended up being part of the game’s narrative structure. It was just a vehicle to find a stupid rune in the dirt.

All “Hellblade” is divided into two parts: puzzles and combat. The puzzles mostly involve trying to find depictions of runes in the landscape to unlock doors, and the combat involves using light attacks, heavy attacks and blocks to fight off spooky Viking warriors. At first the puzzles were so tame that this blog longed for more combat. But as the puzzles got slightly more complex, it became increasingly clear how repetitive combat was. And no, it did not mix things up to throw increasingly more Vikings at Senua. Considering how visually creative the game is, it’s surprising that it never varies in its range of enemies–barring one encounter with a spectacularly bestial boss rather than a humanoid one.

It also doesn’t help that the camera is eternally fixed behind Senua’s shoulder. It’s tolerable during puzzles, but in combat it allows enemies to spawn randomly behind her. The voices in her head try to warn her against such hijinks, but I’d rather play without the hijinks. Besides, Senua needs all the breaks she can get. Everyone in the game is yelling at her, from the various voices to a guy who looks like “Songs From the Wood”-era Ian Anderson. Her development as a character consists of standing around cross-eyed and getting the crap beaten out of her.

Still, it’s the narrative hand holding that gets to me. For example, “Hellblade” taps briefly on the fourth wall at the beginning. The chief voice in Senua’s head appears to address you, the player, to invite you in, which is when the game actually starts. Is it possible that you are also a voice in Senua’s head? It’s an interesting idea, one that is given no further consideration by the game and, considering how linear things are, seems thoroughly unlikely. I’m not one of the competing voices because I ultimately have no influence on Senua’s actions. Only her environment and the developers do.

Another thought. To what degree are mental illnesses temporally bound? If mental illness has certain biological or genetic markers, it’s fair to say that biology and genetics change over time. Also, mental illness is defined by the society around it. What is considered shameful in one culture might be celebrated or ignored in another. Definitions expand and contract. A mental illness, through biological, genetic or societal means, might evolve or even go extinct.

Accordingly, is it anachronistic of Ninja Theory to consult modern mental health experts about Senua, her motivations and experiences? Ninja Theory definitely did research on both psychological and historical fronts, and the goal was presumably to strike a balance between the two. It’s a noble effort, but one side or the other would end up suffering, and historical accuracy takes the hit. Upon closer scrutiny, “Hellblade” is a game that speaks to its audience–who is more familiar with contemporary psychiatry–than it does to its characters–an eighth century party of one.

Also, why is there a run button? Given Senua’s middling pace, I had that thing pressed all the time. In fact, why are there any run buttons in any video games? One would figure by now we’d have learned that if someone is leaning on a joystick they want the character on screen to run and we shouldn’t bother dedicating a button to it, but I guess not. Whatever.

I’m straying, and perhaps being critical, but “Hellblade” sets itself up as a work of art, and artwork invites artistic criticism. Ultimately, “Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice” is not as original as it thinks, but it is beautifully designed and relatively accessible, a moody and engaging think piece. Too bad it’s not quite as good as a game.

Haunted for the holidays: News November 2020

Happy Halloween, everybody. Are we about two weeks too late for that? No, we’re 50 weeks early. There’s never a bad time to say Happy Halloween, tonstant weader.

Well, maybe you shouldn’t say it at a funeral. But outside of that context, there’s never a bad time.

Admittedly, this blog was a little late on Halloween hijinks, with our final Universal monster review missing both All Saint’s Day and Hallow’s Eve. I have a reasonable excuse, as I was solidifying a few writing projects. It ended up being a surprisingly busy start of the month, and there are a couple of items of personal note.

For those who are after the more literary stuff, please see my news feature “West LA Gothic,” where I delve into the lost Los Angeles haunts of writers like sci fi fantasist Ray Bradbury, thriller stylist Raymond Chandler and psychodramatist Tennessee Williams. From now on, my greatest literary claim to fame can be that I debunked a rumor about William Faulkner’s beachside rental.

For those who want a horror story, my short fiction “Worse Than Wolves” was published on Friday the 13th, arguably the second spookiest day of the year. It’s surreal and just in time for the holidays, since it details a weird encounter at a family Christmas get-together. The good folks at The Fabulist found it reminiscent of David Lynch, and I will gratefully take the comparison.

With that in mind, it seems reasonable to talk about the weeks to come. Thanksgiving is literally days away, and the Santa Claus season will follow sooner than you think. I don’t know how it is for you, but this blog has pretty much canceled traditional holiday plans for this year. Instead of doing a regular “home for the holidays,” we’ll be doing what we do best: ignoring social reality and living vicariously through thrillers.

There will no doubt be a quick news post in December for some last second shameless self-promotion, but I’m thinking we’ll be posting reviews of various homecoming thrillers from different media until next year. What will that look like? I’m playing the medieval psychological horror hack and slash “Hellblade” right now and that fits the theme of “homecoming,” assuming homecoming is understood at its broadest definition. There’s also the new “Higurashi.” We have to talk about “Higurashi.” So you can definitely expect those.

And w can fill in the rest later. Timeliness is not my specialty, but I do take requests. What says horror and homecoming to you? Let me know. I’m not going anywhere soon.

Not out of breath: A critical review of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954)

After World War II, it seems like the horror market dried up for a while. The popular opinion is that, by the 50s, the public was sick of horrors and looking for something more optimistic. Arguably some film noirs kept the spirit of surreal thrillers alive, but when the atomic bomb came down and all eyes looked up toward the space program, cinema followed.

The Wikipedia page on Universal monster movies only reports Gill Man and Abbot and Costello movies for the 1950s. This blog has its own beef with that page–it doesn’t have the silent “Hunchback of Notre Dame” or James Whale’s “The Old Dark House”?–but the message is clear. It doesn’t take a seasoned cultural critic to recognize that in 1950s western cinema, horror was out and sci fi was in. Traditional vampire and wolf man movies vanished for a while, and even when they came back, they were clumsily crossed with atom age science, as in the howler “I Was a Teenage Werewolf.”

For this reason, it seems like the “Creature” movies, with their ancient, monstrous webbed toes dipped into the pools of paleontology and anthropology, were an effort to view the old Gothic horror formula through the new sci fi filter. How well did that effort work? Let’s dive in.

“The Creature from the Black Lagoon” starts with a grasping claw gaping out of a wall of solid rock (serious question: is “Jurassic Park” modeled on this at all?). This relic of an apparent missing link between man and fish prompts a hastily constructed expedition of scientists with swimmer bods to trek into the Amazonian rain forest to search for more fossils. Once they’re cut off from civilization, and the body count goes up, they find that their quarry is not as extinct as they suspected.

“Creature” is harder to fit into this blog’s reviewing mold of movie-Gothic thriller-horror film because it does not display the obvious Gothic trappings of its predecessors, but we’ll give it a shot. At least the first question is easy to answer. “Creature” is a good movie, well made and entertaining.

Anyone with a knowledge of ecology will note the Amazon looks suspiciously like Florida, but it’s well shot either way. The direction, by (appropriately) sci fi film vet Jack Arnold, is solid. The camera is active, the production is clean, the performances are believable. None of the characters and performances are particularly complex, but standouts include Nestor Paiva as the cigar chomping boat captain and Julie Adams as the team’s only lady scientist. In fact, I might like Adams more than any other Universal horror heroine. I like her big eyebrows, her form-fitting tops and generous bottoms, and her sense of actual agency. It would have been easy enough to make her a prop, but this film made her a character with actions and motivations.

Accordingly, Gill Man’s fascination with her comes across as, maybe not as profound, since I think the creature is just looking for a convenient place to lay his eggs, but at least relatable for an audience. The Universal films always tried to make the audience understand the monster, and “Creature” is no different. The bottom line is I’m attracted to Kay’s character, so it makes sense that both the bickering male leads and Gill Man would be too.

And before anyone gets on me about being sexist, we see plenty of toned, tan male bodies and chest hair too, so everyone has something to look at. Personally I think Mark is cuter than David, but he’s kind of a dick, so I guess it evens out.

The underwater stuff was handled by James Curtis Havens, and special mention must be made of his contribution. Underwater sequences in thrillers can be a bit dry, if you will (if memory serves, “Mystery Science Theater” once referred to underwater chase scenes as the drum solos of movies). You’ll get none of that in “Creature.” The underwater photography is elegant, sometimes strikingly pretty, and often pumps up the thrills with the creature carefully shot through gloomy weeds. Can anyone deny that Adams swimming right side up above Gill Man swimming upside down is an iconic horror image?

While we’re at it, Herman Stein is the uncredited author of Gill Man’s three-note theme riff. Hard to deny that’s iconic too. It’s more bombastic than I normally like, but well timed to the images on screen and never feels out of place.

Much of the film’s success is due to its effectiveness as a thriller. It is perfectly paced for suspense. The story/writing credits are all over the place, but at least one name is Harry Essex, who worked on high concept crime thrillers like “Kansas City Confidential” and thoughtful sci fi flicks like “It Came From Outer Space”; the editing was by Ted Kent, who’d been chopping up Universal monster movies since “Bride of Frankenstein.”

Notably, Gill Man isn’t overexposed–sometimes he’s just a claw at the window or suggested with bubbles–so his menace feels real. He doesn’t mess around either. Gill Man drowns people, claws them in the face, laughs at being set on fire. By the end of the film, he’s killed at least five people and disfigured one, making him one of the most dangerous monsters we’ve watched all month.

It also helps that Gill Man functions like a real creature. He gapes at new sights and gasps for air when he’s out of the water. Little touches like that elevate Gill Man from an animal–or just a guy in a suit–into something believable.

However, in case it wasn’t clear, “Creature” is not a particularly profound movie. It does not mine any Gothic depths or probe any aspect of human psychology. It acts like it’s going for something grand and cosmic, with an introduction sequence that quotes the book of Genesis over images of the big bang, but it never really goes beyond that.

Likewise, you’d think that with its paleontology, missing links and old relationships between team members there would be something about the past’s influence on the present, but that never materializes either.

Whatever. The fact is that more than 20 years out the Universal crew was still making effective monster movies. They didn’t all have to be Abbot and Costello vehicles, and they weren’t just rehashing “Frankestein” and “Dracula” either. They could still do solid thrills. “Creature” proved that, for at least 80 more minutes.

Something tragic about that man: A critical review of “The Wolf Man” (1941)

There are many mysteries on display in “The Wolf Man.” Like, how is it that when Lon Chaney Jr. turns into a wolf he looks like a werewolf teddy bear, but when Bela Lugosi becomes one earlier in the film he looks like a regular small wolf (or a medium-sized dog)? Also, when Chaney starts to transform for the first time he’s wearing a white undershirt, but when he’s a werewolf he has a dark button-up. Why? Did the werewolf think it was going to get cold, or did its latent sense of decency kick in?

All right, I’m being a bit facetious. The real mystery of “The Wolf Man” is how the film cannot make up its mind. Is it a murder thriller? A Gothic fantasy? Something in between? The result is a film that, like its titular character, is slightly awkward, but fascinating all the same and more than a little tragic.

It is easy to get distracted by the makeup and forget that, at its core, “The Wolf Man” is a family drama. The plot concerns Larry Talbot (Chaney), who returns to his family’s rural mansion in Britain after spending years in California. His father (Claude Rains) remarks that it was only the death of his brother that brought him back, although the eye of local girl Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) is what apparently keeps him there. However, a deadly encounter with a wolf and a Gypsy fortune teller (Bela Lugosi) will send Larry on a crash course with supernatural forces he does not understand.

If we ask “The Wolf Man” our big three questions, we might find ourselves coming up a little short. Not on whether it’s a good film. It’s fine. It might lack some of the eccentric character of its predecessors, but it’s a solid product. The film is only about 70 minutes long, and its breezy pace helps it easily pass over a couple of continuity errors and stock performances.

The photography is clean and at points elegant when it meshes with the chairoscuro lighting. The sets are dressed well. The soundtrack is a bit bombastic at points, and leaves this blog longing for the cautious soundtracks of “Frankenstein” and “The Mummy,” but maybe you’ll like it.

The cast is fine. Standouts include Rains, who does very well as the conflicted family patriarch, taking some dialogue about God and eternity and stuff that could have been off-putting in another actor’s mouth and making it sound weighty and organic. Lugosi also gives some haunted gravitas to a disappointingly brief role.

It’s as a Gothic thriller that the film shows some weaknesses. The atmosphere is fine, all snarl trees and fog machines on the moors, but the themes don’t line up. In a “real” Gothic tale, lycanthropy would be the Talbot family curse, and Larry would be shielded by his father and locked in an attic somewhere. But that’s not the case in “The Wolf Man.”

Larry is an outsider, and the film reminds us of it constantly. He’s an American in a British town. The only people who believe Larry about his condition are the Gypsies, perennial outsiders. By the way he speaks, it’s clear he has less education than his peers and family members. When he enters a church, a brilliant tracking shot scans the pews as everyone else turns to look at Larry standing by himself. Larry hasn’t been locked in the attic of the family estate. He’s never even seen the upstairs.

The film’s handling of the battle between good and evil, which seems like a natural for a Gothic tale with its Jekyll and Hyde connection, is more modern in its obscurity. Is good and evil all black and white, or is there some gray? Are we destined to our dark ends, or can psychic trauma be healed? The film displays all these viewpoints, but it’s careful to never answer the questions directly.

As a whole, the film is surprisingly ambiguous. For example, Chaney plays Larry like an overgrown child. How much of his aggression is a product of his lycanthropy and how much of it is natural? Is Larry’s father really trying to help his son? He is definitely chilly toward him, and not without reason, perhaps the village doctor is right when he says the man cares more about the family reputation than his son’s mental health. Even the final shot shows Gwen burying her face into her fiance’s shoulder but calling Larry’s name.

Accordingly, the Gothic trappings feel almost like a gimmick, which help us as modern viewers address whether “The Wolf Man” still stands as a good horror film. I don’t think it does, but that’s because it’s trying to be the wrong kind of horror film.

“The Wolf Man” achieved fame and notoriety for its special effects and iconic transformation scene, but now that looks as dated as its matte backgrounds. What if we’ve been remembering “The Wolf Man” for the wrong reason? What if it was actually a pioneering example of psychological horror?

In fact, imagine a “Wolf Man” that dropped the shots of Lon Chaney in a fur suit tiptoeing through the moors but kept everything else–the spooky atmosphere and occult murders, the probing questions about sanity and humanity, the dysfunctional family drama. Suppose the nature of Chaney’s condition were also kept ambiguous, and the film focused on the creeping dread of not knowing whether you were human–a man or a monster, sane or insane.

Wait a second, did I just describe Val Lewton’s “Cat People”? Oh well. Maybe Lewton was onto something when he said Universal’s idea of horror was nothing more than a werewolf chasing a woman up a tree.