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

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

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

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

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

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

This game, “Coil,” is something different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Certain images and concepts appear throughout the visuals and narrative, like evolution and memory, progression and regret, constrictions and divisions, eyes and understanding. Is it a spoiler to say that one fulfills the second puzzle by dividing to continue? Perhaps it reveals something mechanical about the game, but it’s designed in a way that feels organic to the gameplay. It might spoil something narrative, but that might depend on how you interpret the story. Check some comments sections. Given some of the discussion on the game, there seems to be an interpretation for every player.

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

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

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

Regardless, it is worth noting something. In an era so expectant of trigger warnings and spoiler alerts, a game like “Coil,” which gestated in the Wild West days of Flash, would have lost something from the extra layering. Those trigger warnings might actually be spoilers – unless they aren’t at all. It would depend on the interpretation of the completed product, the finished game. An impressionistic reading of “Coil” could be lost on platforms that don’t allow the singular crudeness and eccentricities that Newgrounds, Flash, and the deleted and rapidly forgotten web did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game enough: Best games of 2020

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

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

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

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

Maneater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deliver Us the Moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remothered: Broken Porcelain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gap year: Best films of 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfounded rumors: Best anime of 2020

This blog already said that, out of all the mediums available, we found anime to be the most accessible last year. While we didn’t see an anime for ages in the lineup, there were some very pleasant surprises. A few of them actually. In fact, 2020 might have been more quality than 2019 simply because of how tricky it was to pick a favorite.

Despite my more dedicated viewing habits, you won’t see everything on this list. Things I didn’t get around to include globe-trotting crime thriller “The Great Pretender,” historical mystery “Moriarty the Patriot,” disaster saga “Japan Sinks,” cyberpunker “Akudama Drive” fantastic noirs “No Guns Life” and “Dorohedoro,” or supernatural dramas “Wandering Witch: The Journey of Elaina” and “The Day I Became a God.” Phew. Sorry about that. Feel free to get mad at me in the comments if I screwed up and missed out.

Don’t take the top spot below as the clear winner. As usual, the best will be one of the first few, with quality decreasing in an impressionistic sort of way until you reach the bottom, which is probably the worst of the year. So what was the best?

Gleipnir: Probably this was the best anime of 2020. It captured that old school vibe I always appreciate: sexy, cheerfully violent and gross, with some decent visual flourish. On the surface its plot of “people with superpowers try to find the magic coins before everyone else does” is pretty familiar, but dig underneath and you’ll find good pacing, solid fight animation and multifaceted characters making decisions with real consequences. As a whole the show is intriguing, occasionally thoughtful and unafraid to embrace darkness. “Gleipnir” is easy to pick up, but it’s the depth it offers that will keep you coming back. That combination of accessibiliy and intelligence should please a variety of fans.

Magia Record: Or maybe this was the best anime of the year, although I’m admittedly a sucker for all things “Madoka Magica.” It helps that this show – a kind of sideways sequel – features just enough of the original cast and crew to intrigue without overshadowing the new story. That new story was penned by the old design team, who also handle the direction, and the result is as visually interesting and intricate as before. Also, Claris is back to do the ending theme. I’m satisfied. Like its predecessor, it’s a magical girl show. The writing is a little less sharp, but it’s still offbeat, and a sense of impending tragedy surrounds the proceedings. It ends on a cliffhanger that certainly feels as messed up as the original show, but it’s a different kind of messed up, and isn’t that what we want from our sequels?

Talentless Nana: Actually, maybe this was the best anime of the year. Pulpy and high concept for sure, and the show’s plot starts to fall apart the minute you begin analyzing it, but we’re not here for that. We’re here for intrigue, mind games and character interactions, and those are first order in this teenage sci fi murder drama. One always knows what’s coming, but how we get there is surprising while never feeling illogical. Plus, Nana as an antihero is pretty neat. She’s cold-blooded for sure, but she makes mistakes and feels the weight of her actions. The animation is fine and the music is fine too. The melancholy pop song that closes the show is perhaps my favorite ending theme of the year.

Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun: I promise this will be the last anime that was maybe the best of the year. It was definitely the most surprising of all the potential bests. The others were hyped up in one way or another, while this was a horror-comedy about the ghost of a boy haunting a girls bathroom and the thirsty female high school student who becomes indebted to him. And yet, the first few episodes were decently atmospheric. Not just in the animation, which is gorgeous in an art nouveau kinda way, but in the story as well. It’s cute rather than creepy, gleefully immature and pervy, but paced so there’s always the sense of something dark lurking underneath. Then in the eighth episode, the show starts grasping for depth and consequence. I wouldn’t tell anyone to watch seven episodes of something for a payoff, but if you aren’t already scared off by the concept, you should give it a shot. The voice acting is good, and eccentric pop culture references are scattered around (I swear there was a music cue meant to recall “Twin Peaks” somewhere), so you can always focus on those in the meantime. The last episode falls a little flat, but by then, whatever. I’d watch another season.

In/Spectre: This is probably too high on the list, but I have a soft spot for weird and supernatural mystery stories. If you don’t, you’ll no doubt find the plot and pacing get draggy as the season drives on, since it goes deep into the armchair logic of its metaphysically-inclined detective. But if you like that sort of thing, you will be entertained. It doesn’t hurt that the two leads are a classically awkward couple. The cute animation and design, and the playful soundtrack help too.

My Next Life as a Villainess: Some of my betters have described this as a novel and welcome take on the isekai genre. I’ll take their word for it. From my point of view, it’s a harmless fantasy-comedy about reincarnating into your favorite dating game as the femme fatale. Our heroine is clueless, and the show is at its best when she’s whacky or cringey. There’s nothing special about the animation or soundtrack, although the theme song, a power pop song that veers into opera, might be the most fun opening of the year. The show never quite takes advantage of its “Groundhog Day”-esque if-one-could-do-it-all-again theme, but that’s not what it’s trying to do. I mean, I didn’t watch the last two episodes, so maybe everything changes in the climax, but I doubt it (update: I might be utterly wrong on that. If I am, tonstant weader, I owe you a critical review). This show isn’t trying to titillate either. There’s an episode called “Things Got Crazy at a Slumber Party.” I watched it. Things didn’t get that crazy.

Woodpecker Detective’s Office: An intriguing mystery series set at the turn of the last century, where real poets are the detectives, “Woodpecker” never quite lives up to its concept. Part of what hurts is the show can’t decide what it wants to be. Is it a dark detective show? A serious melodrama? Cute poets doing cute things? It’s all those things, but because they never have the time to gel, it’s really none of them. The series frustrated me because, despite never hitting the mark, the writing would show occasional flashes of brilliance. Maybe it’s a case of style conquering substance. No complaints about the expressive and appropriate animation.

The House Spirit Tatami-chan: The misadventures of an unemployed household goddess from the country who moves to a cheap apartment in Tokyo so she can … I don’t remember if she has a goal, actually. Sporting bargain animation and lasting two minutes a pop, this is the most widget series out of everything on the list. In that category, it’s hard to complain about it since it does everything it sets out to do: lampoon contemporary Japanese culture, force out some immature humor and have a kickin’ funky theme song. If that sounds somewhat shallow, it would only take a dedicated viewer one hour to get through the entire season, so don’t complain too much.

Higurashi: When They Cry – GOU: If you told me at the top of 2020 that a pervy comedy about a ghost in a high school bathroom would be a better horror anime than the sideways sequel to “Higurashi,” I don’t know what I would have said. But that’s what last year was like. I still haven’t finished this (the season is ongoing as of this writing), but it plays like a safe riff on the 2006 series. You know the drill: school kids frolic in rural Japan until someone they know goes nuts and murders them all. Rinse. Repeat. “Higurashi GOU” lacks both the highs and lows of the original, which includes that series’s edge and psychological depth. It gets a little more intriguing and intense and it goes along, so while the 2021 continuation might end up resulting in a competent scare series, it’s probably too late for it to be a masterpiece.

ID:Invaded: A sci fi detective drama about future cops who dive into the reconstructed minds of killers. It’s cool to see those minds being rebuilt and picked apart by the detectives, but outside of their dreamlike environments, the show is a fairly routine police procedural. In case the brevity of this review wasn’t clear enough, this show is competently produced and fun enough in the viewing, but pretty predictable and quickly forgotten after the credits roll.

Hatena Illusion: I’ve already admitted I didn’t finish every show on the list so far, but I did finish “Hatena Illusion.” Why? Out of all of them, why? This bills itself as a kind of mystery-comedy with elements of professional magic and supernatural hand waving, and I guess the target audience is girls? It still has a ton of fan service, right down to the episode that ends with female characters of various breast sizes hot tubbing together. Between that and the endless winks at anime fans, it almost comes across as pleading. Was that the point? Why is this anime producing so many questions? If anime is nothing more than cute escape, I guess that this is the best anime of the year. It has stiff animation, a laughable script and a presentation that is almost artful in its stupidity, and yet I kept watching. It must have been doing something right.

Darwin’s Game: Imagine the high concept of “Gleipnir,” except drained of all the intelligence and interesting visuals. That’s “Darwin’s Game.” The first episode is the most engaging, with a lot of goofy curveballs flung at the viewer, and then it simply cannot live up to it for the rest of the series. The characters are mostly dull and shallow, with the few interesting ones getting shoved to the side or killed. The pacing is pretty bad, illustrated in part by a few too many endings, so the intrigue never sticks. At least the animation in some of the fights is pretty good, and about as well choreographed as your average kung fu flick.

Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045: Do you remember when “Ghost in the Shell” inspired things like “The Matrix”? Well, this edition in the franchise features a black suited and sunglasses wearing secret agent named “Smith” who definitely does not look at all like Hugo Weaving. I guess we’ve come full circle. If you’re an anime fan with an internet connection, this blog doesn’t have to tell you about this show’s janky CGI animation. We can add that the direction is generic, there are plot holes one could drive a truck through, and, while this might be petty, I don’t like the Major’s design. She looks like a child. All the classic “Ghost” voice actors are back for the dub and they’re as good as ever, so you can always stick to that if you’re a fanatic. There are some intelligent exchanges scattered around the script, and the intrigue does pick up in the season’s second half, but it takes forever to get anywhere interesting. I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, so good luck with this one. The most engaging part of the show is appropriately the ending credits, which feature a perfectly chilly song by Mili.

Sing “Yesterday” for Me: Beautiful, fluid animation cannot save this absolutely boring melodrama, which goes nowhere and goes there for episode after episode. I tried to get through this one more than once, and I gave up every time. Maybe it gets better, but I don’t think so. Some choice lines cannot save the plodding script, which squeezes the bite out of everything. And that gorgeous animation is wasted on dishwater dull characters that don’t seem to care about their circumstances, leaving me to feel the same way.

Please accept my fond excuses: News March 2021

Hey there, tonstant weader. Sorry for the break. Just taking care of some personal stuff. Nothing intertwined with the geopolitical landscape; just personal stuff. Trust me, you wouldn’t be interested.

I will say this. Someone needs to tell the neighbors that dog shit does not go in the blue recycle barrel. That’s for recyclables. It says so on the lid. I understand that the color coding might be difficult for some people to grasp, seeing as how there are more than one colors to remember. At best you’re being really hopeful that your dog’s shit is, somehow, recyclable. At worst, I’m pretty sure it’s illegal.

I think. I don’t know. I’m not a lawyer. However, I am apparently powerless to control my surroundings. Whatever.

Greetings all. It’s your favorite D-list media reviewer who reads way too much into thrillers. The Golden Globes happened relativey recently, so I guess it’s the time of year when this blog will go through its best of 2020 lists. Anime fans take heart, cos your list is coming up first. Anime was one of the most accessible mediums in 2020, so we went a little nuts.

That list will likely be followed by the movies – the ones we were able to see. Trust me, the list is nothing like last year’s, which was unnervingly exhaustive. We still got in some quality thrillers though, so if you’ve been dying to see what you should have seen, stick around.

Last will be video games, which is definitely going to feel a little shrunken. Maybe we should say “selective.” I’ll explain when we get there. Suffice to say it’ll be closer to a compound review than a best-to-worst list, but there will still be some things to talk about.

I take a couple of months off to return and tell you I’ll be doing something I do every year anyway, but then I don’t actually do it – I just tell you about it. That’s not very satisfying. I’m sorry.

What else can we talk about? There was an anime I had been thinking of doing an episode-by-episode analysis of, but in order to do the sympathetic reviewing-episodes-in-the-order-they-aired-10-years-ago thing I should have started in January. I dropped the ball that no one knew I was carrying. I’m still figuring out what to do with that one.

In the meantime, I found some creaky old horror movies and creaky old mystery games that are worth a few words. I sense a month of retro reviews in the not too distant future.

And, hey, we’re truly in a new decade now, despite all those line-cutters who put together “best of the decade” lists in 2020. I, who so well know the nature of your soul, recognize that’s what you’ve been waiting for: the same list but in 2021. So maybe that’s coming up too.

That’s all I got. What are you hoping to accomplish in 2021, tonstant weader? You can comment below. Or just wait until I get back with some actual content. Either way.

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.