Check your dosage: A critical review of “The Horrible Dr. Hichcock” (1962)

One of the great advantages of living in contemporary times–if not the primary advantage of living in contemporary times–is that we can lord it over the past. We can say: That’s how they did things then, and haw, ain’t they all losers for doing as such? In the realm of cinema, we can say: Look at them with their old characters and plot points, who did they think they were?

Which is exactly why we get to judge a movie like “The Horrible Dr. Hichcock.” Because we live now and not then. Although I have a feeling that if we lived then…well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Before Dr. Hichcock was horrible, he was just kinda creepy, using his position as a 19th century anesthesiologist to drug his wife and have sex with her while in a catatonic state. One night he overdid the dosage, and she didn’t wake up. Hichcock quickly buried her in the family crypt and skipped town. A few years later, Dr. Hichcock returns to his ancestral home with a new wife, Cynthia. When she starts poking around her new home, strange things happen, as they do in Gothic mansions. This leads Cynthia to suspect that her husband has a terrible secret regarding the death of his first wife, leaving her own future uncertain.

“Dr. Hichcock” is a psychological thriller, but if we are here for psychological depth, we will be disappointed. The movie is pretty boilerplate. It reads a bit like “Bluebeard,” which, cinematically speaking, has been old since Chaplin’s time. There’s not a lot of exploration of its macabre subjects, although perhaps we can chalk that up to necrophilia being pretty taboo…I was going to say back then, but it’s arguably pretty taboo right now too. Some things are just hard to make movies about.

So maybe we’re here for thrills, but those are likewise in short supply. The film meanders through its first act, plods through its second, and only really gets cooking during the third, when it actually feels like there’s a mystery to solve.

If there’s a reason to watch this film, it’s Barbara Steele. The producers must have realized this as well because, superficially speaking, she is decked out in the film’s best costumes and warrants the most visual attention for that reason. More profoundly speaking, as the wide-eyed bride (the second one), she is easily the most believable character on screen. She’s just as confused as we are, and she sells it with every foolishly inquisitive step. Any moments of tension are courtesy of her stumbling into things she ought not stumble into.

Robert Flemyng, as the titular Dr. Hichcock, is not bad either. He plays he role halfway between haunted and actually horrible, and brings about as much as he can to a slender part.

What we cannot see here is a Hitchcockian thriller. That kind of film would be subtle and introspective, but that ain’t this flick. Presumably the main character was named Hichcock to create a psychic link to the master of suspense. Alfred should sue. He can’t, of course, because the character is “Hichcock” without a T, no doubt a clever move to avoid a lawsuit. Also, since it’s not explicitly Alfred, for all we know it could be meant to recall Robyn Hitchcock (it’s not, but it could be). Finally, Alfred Hitchock is dead, and the odds of him acquiring legal representation are low.

At the end of the evening, “The Horrible Dr. Hichcock” isn’t quite the horrible film it promises to be. It looks all right, in an Italian “period Gothic horror” way. But despite the potentiality of its premise, it doesn’t do much. The most unnerving thing in the film might be that, despite the decade that passes between his two marriages, Dr. Hichcock’s cat doesn’t look to have aged a day. What’s its secret? We’ll never know.

The lame cult of Lovecraft: A critical review of “Curse of the Crimson Altar” (1968)

With H. P. Lovecraft’s birthday just passed, it’s a good time to reflect. Now that Cthulhu is a household name, it seems like if you want to say something is “Lovecraftian” all you have to do is slap some tentacles and a couple of consonants that should not be next to each other on it and call it a day. Heck, in the family-friendly “Minecraft” clone this blog finally got to download, there’s a Cthulhu reference on the second level.

There was a time when things weren’t that simple, but they were a bit weirder. In the 60s and 70s, movies and TV shows like “The Haunted Palace,” “Die Monster Die!” and “Night Gallery” weren’t just subtly Lovecraftian–they were at times uncertain of their own Lovecraftian nature.

One such movie is British film “The Curse of the Crimson Altar” (known as “The Crimson Cult” in the States). Cosmic horror aficionados have long tied it to the short story “The Dreams in a Witch House,” and there is reason for that, but it would be generous to call it an adaptation. I have a theory on that. So is it any good? Hold on there, octopus fans. I have a theory on that too. I have a theory on everything. I’ve got a blog.

Antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden) is looking for his missing brother. A fellow antiques dealer, he was up in remote Greymarsh, their ancestral hometown, looking for old vases and stuff. Manning arrives at Craxted Lodge, his brother’s last known location. There he encounters the stuffy lodge owner (Christopher Lee), an aging occult expert (Boris Karloff) and a crazy swinging’ party. The early-to-bed kind, Manning takes the lodge owner’s offer to spend the night. He starts having nightmares of a witch cult led by a horned goddess (Barbara Steele) that seem to have disturbingly more substance than mere dreams.

I wanted to say that “Crimson” shoots its cinematic load early–the film opens with a Satanic ritual, fully replete in chains, body paint and skimpy leather underwear, then transitions into an antiquing thriller–but the movie never stops trying. As soon as our hero starts investigating his missing brother, he runs into a flight of cars chasing a giggling woman who’s wearing a sheer unitard in what the film, with tongue firmly in cheek, calls a “sophisticated hide and seek.” When he gets directions from a strange after-hours gas station attendant, our hero arrives at the creepy lodge at the outskirts of town, which is hosting a Champagne-fueled swingers party with more body paint and underwear. To call this film a product of its time would be putting it mildly.

In case you weren’t paying attention, that’s a who’s who of 60s horror up there. Lee, Karloff, Steele. Michael Gough is lurking around as well, playing a stuttering butler who gets to Renfield it up around the Lodge. Every one of them does as well as you’d expect. Steele is in fine form, all stony menace, although surprisingly absent for much of the film. Lee does his best with a somewhat underwritten role, and Karloff is superb, bringing both warmth and sly malice to a stock absented minded professor character. “Crimson” was his last film released during his lifetime, and one would be a fool not to appreciate Karloff’s presence, even if the movie itself is much less solid.

The film’s conflicted nature is revealed in its soundtrack. The score–by Peter Knight, the guy who orchestrated the symphonic parts of the Moody Blues album “Days of Future Passed”–is lush and full and stirring, and consequently feels disconnected from a psychological horror film about witch cults.

Here is this blog’s theory. The story of “Crimson” is credited to Jerry Sohl, who wrote the aforementioned “Die Monster Die!” However, the screenplay is credited to Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, BBC jobbers who wrote for shows like “Doctor Who” and “The Avengers.” My guess is they took Sohl’s concept, which was probably closer to Lovecraft, and swung it up. Notably, during pre-production, the project was called “Dreams in a Witch House,” only becoming the splashier “Crimson Altar” later.

Does it make a difference that Sohl is from Los Angeles and Haisman and Lincoln were from London? Naw. Not even worth mentioning.

What we’re left with is a film devoid of creepy atmosphere and an ending that seems aware of what genre its going for but uncertain of how to get there. Likewise, the hero is one of the least genre savvy I’ve seen in a horror film. The stuttering butler tells him to “get out,” so what does he do? He goes to the local cemetery. The same night no less.

This is not a film to watch for its restraint. There is some atmosphere, but it’s courtesy less of the creepy mansion and more of the psychedelic dreams. The nightmare sequences are a real trip, all multicolored lamps and surreal trial sequences, that seem to have as much to do with cosmic horror as they do with the British TV series “The Prisoner.” The production for those moments is fascinating. Have you ever seen a witch trippier than Steele’s Lavinia? Dig those commanding ram horns.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the film is a much more grounded affair. The direction, by Daniel Haller, is workmanlike. One does get to see plenty of nipples–both male and female–which probably confounded the UK’s film rating board. As far as Lovecraft goes, there are traces of whatever the original concept was (the Karloff character is called Marsh; the “great god Pan” is mentioned), but at best this movie acts as a bridge between the damp chill of “The Haunted Palace” and the dark woods of “The Wicker Man.”

In one scene, a witch’s horned henchman, wearing naught but a leather-and-chain bikini, plays cards while the hero is urged to sign away his soul to the green witch. The hero refuses, and the witch summons her henchman to take him away. The henchman scowls and throws down his hand. I feel for you, big guy.

The ecstasy of Gold: News August 2020

Sorry for that missed weekend, Tonstant Weader, but there is a fair amount of news this time around. Let’s pretend we were getting everything into order.

First, I’ll get the shameless self-promotion out of the way. Two short stories of mine are upcoming in anthologies. The first is a weird philosophical musing in a collection of time travel stories to be called “On Time,” and the second is a tense psychodrama in a collection of thrillers to be called “Hookman and Friends.”

The good folks at Transmundane Press, the publisher of “On Time,” interviewed me not too long ago about my story. You can find that interview on their blog, which is conveniently also a WordPress blog. There will be more content from them in the future, which is fitting for time travelers, so keep your eyes peeled.

Righto, enough of that. There’s some not-so-me content coming to this blog in the next couple weeks. For one, the Xbox Live Gold account referred to in the previous post means that this blog has access to certain games for a month at a time. There must be something to review there. Right now, there’s an old school sci fi shooter, a “Minecraft” rip-off with dragons, uh, a brawler with mechs, something featuring dirt bikes… Naw, I’m not feeling these games. Maybe the shooter. Or maybe I’ll just check again in October.

Screw it, we’ll do some old horror movie reviews instead. It was just Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday, and H. P. Lovecraft’s is coming up. We’ll figure something out.

Finally, this post’s title does not just refer to Xbox gold. “The Ecstacy of Gold” is the name of a track from the soundtrack of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” that some of you might know because Metallica covered it at concerts. The original was composed by the great Ennio Morricone, who passed away last month. I feel like this blog should say something about that.

Morricone is most famous for essentially inventing the genre of Spaghetti Western music, but he also scored a number of thrillers and horror films, including “Exorcist II,” ”
“Ripley’s Game” and, perhaps most notably, John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” His impressionist soundtrack is an integral part of the themes and atmosphere of that film, and it is understandably one of horror’s greatest scores.

I think the story that best sums up my experience and opinion of Morricone comes from my viewing of the 1965 Italian thriller “Nightmare Castle,” a creaker that drags out all of the tropes of Gothic fiction without any depth, fun or a shred of budget to make it watchable. For me, the most notable aspect was the soundtrack. With its towering church organ it was as Gothic as everything else, but it had a certain elegance, inventiveness or quality the rest of the film was missing. I didn’t know who the composer was, so I looked it up. Of course, it was Morricone.

That wasn’t my introduction to Morricone. Far from it, his soundtrack for “Once Upon a Time in the West” already topped my short list of favorite film scores. What’s so special about that experience was it shows a Morricone score could elevate a mediocre film into something memorable. One doesn’t have to see his name to recognize his genius. That’s more than quality; it’s visionary. He will be missed.

Apocalyptic pest control: A critical review of “Vermintide” (2016)

Video games used to be a simpler lot, and I don’t mean in the days before VR headsets threatened to become commonplace or everyone online decided “The Last of Us” was the first truly “mature” video game, not to mention the days before RPGs brought tabletop complexity to the desktop, before Pong or before Donkey Kong. I’m talking about the days before I entered the world of Xbox Live.

This blog wanted to play “Vermintide” for a while now, but the Xbox had to be online for that to happen since the game is online only. That’s fine. My Internet kinda sucks for games so I normally have it off, but I switched it on and sat through hours of Microsoft updates. Once that was done, I fired up the actual game. It explained I didn’t just have to have Xbox Live but Xbox Live Gold, which costs money and I’d never set up because my Internet sucks.

I bought a Gold gift card, fired up the game again, settled into an overstuffed chair and scratched the silver crud off the gift card, only to realize I didn’t need to set up a Gold account because the game was mysterious working now. I was online, in character and fully functioning with no idea of why. Not one to question providence, I played for the rest of the night.

I tried the game the the following night, and it was back to telling me I couldn’t have access cos I didn’t have a Gold account. What? Later, I learned Microsoft made Gold membership available gratis to all Xbox Live users for a weekend. Nobody tells me these things. Had I been playing on the weekend? I didn’t think I was. Maybe it was a glitch in my favor? That would be a first.

Wasn’t this supposed to be a video game review? I think so. Well, is “Vermintide” good? Yes, actually, it is.

I know the title is really something like “Warhammer: The End Times: Vermintide: The Next Generation: Jungle 2 Jungle,” but I ain’t got time for all that. “Vermintide” is the important part, cos you’ll be dealing with tides of vermin. “End Times” kinda matters too, but that’s why the rest doesn’t matter. When it’s the end of the world, do you really want to deal with subtitles and colons?

The “Warhammer” part might be important for some people to create a sense of place, but the gameplay itself seems delightfully unconcerned with its own mythology (the voice acting and script effectively create a sense of play rather than seriousness; I think one of the “helpful tips” the game offers is the Dwarven word for “kneecap”). This blog only has fringe experience with the Warhammer franchise, but I’ve always liked what I’ve seen: downbeat, violent and unafraid to play up all the ugliest tropes of dark fantasy, with trace amounts of cosmic horror and body horror. Those experiences also seemed more plot-heavy than “Vermintide.” In this game, any semblance of plot is incidental to killing rats.

If “Vermintide” is taking an irreverent approach, it would fit the game’s compact and pragmatic philosophy. These heroes aren’t doing the sexy quests. They’re not guarding royalty or assaulting fortresses or battling mad deities. They’re killing rats, lots of rats, cos someone’s gotta do it even if it is the end of the world. It reminds me of the anime “Goblin Slayer,” which I will heartily recommend to any dark fantasy fan. “Vermintide” has that show’s same gritty pessimism combined with its roll-up-your-sleeves approach to wading headfirst into gore.

In truth, one could mostly cover “Vermintide” by only talking about its blood-soaked, quantity-over-quality combat. Enemies swarm you, and although most of them go down easily enough, they can overwhelm overconfident players. The game borrows a lot from zombie shoot ’em up “Left 4 Dead.” In fact, it borrows as liberally as it can without encouraging a lawsuit. The zombies are now rats, but they are horde rats, hunter rats, giant rats and rats with little World War I-era gas masks. They’re also rats that lose arms, legs and heads as they are hacked down in rivers of steel and blood. No doubt the titular tide is red.

Basing itself on a horror game was a smart move, since “Vermintide” uses atmosphere very well. The maps skew toward the claustrophobic, and once you’ve been swarmed the first time, even pockets of calm have a tense or edgy feel. The game environments are beautifully over-the-top in Halloween Gothic dressing, and skittering and tittering sounds are impressively utilized to set the scene and warn of impending attacks. The music is fine and fitting too, all heavy brass under sinister electronic stings.

The closest to innovation over “Left 4 Dead” is the character selection, since choice does matter a little bit to play style. The oblivious soldier of fortune is the game’s melee fighter; the cackling dwarf is its tank; the criminal pyromancer is support; the abandoned-her-post elf is ranged; and the unpopular-at-school witch hunter is balanced. I prefer the elf, then the witch hunter, then anybody but the dwarf. Nevertheless, everyone’s weapons respond with chunky satisfaction. Also, given that everyone is presented as a drunk, screwup or mercenary, it fits with the game’s philosophy. These aren’t the people you call for the glorious duties. They’re pest control.

All levels are co-op, which means you’ll either be playing with computer controlled bots or humans online. The bots are straightforward, dependable but easy to fool. Humans are innovative and intelligent, but prone to bouts of stupidity and selfishness. Regardless, despite there being nothing cosmetically different about beating a level with a band of fellow humans instead of bots, it always felt good. Until, of course, the game bugged out on me.

Maybe it’s my fault since it’s my Internet that sucks (have I mentioned that?), but the gameplay penalty for a lost game was harsh. It didn’t matter much if it dropped connection mid-level, but if it did so at the end, that carried special hazards. In theory one gets experience points, a chance for new equipment and a chance at some of the game’s currency when they put the time and effort into beating a level. However, if the server disconnected at the moment a level finished, I’d only get experience points. Or else I’d get nothing.

It was possible to remedy that somewhat by setting a level to “private” and hosting it for myself by myself, but that’s trading both the fun, and perhaps the point, of the game for stability. This is one of my biggest beefs with online play. Even if you have the right hardware, you can’t necessarily access the game because of intermittent connection through the fault of forces outside your wallet, like geography or atmosphere. You have enough access to see the game but not enough to get a credible experience. It’s bad enough for a free game, but oddly insulting for a paid one. Of course, I have only myself to blame. They warned me I needed the Internet, but I didn’t listen.

There’s another layer to this too. If-and-when Fatshark or Microsoft or whoever is in charge decides to quit, there will be no support for the game, and then no one will have access to it. I don’t know exactly how these things work; I just know that they do work (until they don’t). One of my biggest issues with online only play of this sort is philosophical. Players don’t pay for a game that they can play whenever they feel like it. They pay for access to it, sometimes monthly, and that access lasts as long as it does. There’s no sense of mutual ownership, and therefore collaboration, between artist and audience, between designer and player. The company has sole ownership of the game because it can destroy it whenever it wants.

But you probably don’t want to hear about any of that, Tonstant Weader. You want to know if “Vermintide” is worth it. This blog is still figuring that out, but for now, I will say this: You would think a game that’s just about killing rats would get tired. It does, but it takes a long time to get there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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