The third week of October is where the Challenge really starts to feel like a challenge for me. Even if I’ve done well and mostly avoided stinkers, at this point I’ve seen so many horror movies it’s hard to really judge any just on their own merits. Films I otherwise might like sometimes seem fairly mediocre when viewed from the middle of the pack. On top of that, my mind has been going a million miles a minute and I’ve been sleeping very little while pre-producing my own horror short. Still, somehow, this week has been excellent for horror movie viewing. So here’s my list, from the afternoon of October 13th through now (early morning October 20th). First time views are in italics.
31 The Hound of the Baskervilles
32. Dracula: Prince of Darkness
33. Frankenstein Made Woman
34. Kiss of the Vampire
36. The Fog (remake)
37. The Loved Ones
38. The Gorgon
39. The Devil Rides Out
40. Jeepers Creepers 2
42. The Tenement
44. Leif Jonker’s Darkness
45. Lake Mungo
Like last week, I’ll be sticking with highlights and lowlights, and providing game suggestions where they occur to me.
The Hound Of The Baskervilles
Dracula: Prince Of Darkness
Frankenstein Created Woman
Kiss Of The Vampire
The Devil Rides Out
There’s so much Hammer in this week’s viewing, I’m just going to address it all together.
As a small child, I’d seen a bunch of Hammer on the Saturday afternoon Creature Feature that played on one of our local tv stations. But from the age of, oh, maybe ten until just the last couple years, I’d paid them very little attention. Some, like Curse of the Werewolf, were burned into my memory, but others, like The Gorgon and Dracula: Prince of Darkness, I could only recall after watching them again as an adult (in fact, so poor was my recollection of The Gorgon I counted it as a first-time view for this Challenge). This is a shame on a couple of different levels: one, because they’re incredibly important to the history of the horror genre; two, because they’re really charming, with their bright red blood and almost absurd disregard for anything other than pure entertainment. You’re going to get cleavage and blood, a naively old-fashioned perspective on good and evil, fantastic costumes, fun setpieces, and really charming actors like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee chewing the scenery together.
What I Would Do With Them? Ravenloft is pretty much Hammer: The Role-Playing Game as far as I’m concerned. Although ostensibly part of the gothic tradition, Hammer films are also kind of their own thing. They have action as well as horror (I’ve said elsewhere how Hammer’s Van Helsing is one of my favorite action heroes), they can be intensely weird (have you seen Frankenstein Created Woman?), and they often border on the fantastical (where do most of Hammer’s movies take place? Somewhere in Eastern Europe we’re told, but it’s just as much a fictional creation as Middle Earth or Westeros). And those things are Ravenloft to a tee; a world where a hero’s goodness can really stand out, where action is prized as much as intellect, and where every village is somehow horribly cursed (and yet no one ever moves away). Consider, for instance, The Gorgon; granted, Hammer mucked with the mythology a bit, but take your average garden-variety medusa, stick it in a mouldering castle, give it a tragic backstory, and bam, you have a great “gothic” villain to build a scenario around. And personally, I can’t wait to have my players battle a vampire on a frozen lake while the ice cracks all around them, a la Dracula: Prince of Darkness.
The Loved Ones
I’d heard a lot of good about The Loved Ones, and most of it was justified. It’s a solid, well-acted horror movie with a hint of the faery tale about it…a twisted story of teenage desire way out of hand. I hesitate to name it torture porn, even though by all rights that’s what it is, because that subgenre has been badly beleaguered in the public consciousness pretty much since its inception. But there have been many good torture porn movies over the years, films that take the form and do something interesting with it. This one rises above by really connecting us to our hero through the people he loves – and who love him – even while he’s chained to a chair in someone’s kitchen with his feet nailed to the floor (yes, it’s that kind of movie, definitely not the for the squeamish). At times, it even feels a bit like a family drama. If it has a flaw, it’s that it feels a bit padded, even at 80 minutes.
Chained has a lot in common with The Loved Ones. It too fits into the torture porn genre, while at the same time making overtures towards family drama. In fact, I didn’t even need to look to know that the director (Jennifer Lynch, daughter of David Lynch) doesn’t want people to think of it as a horror film, but oh look, here it is in the first sentence of the first review I came upon. It just has that air of pretentiousness wankery about it. Frankly, it would have benefited by taking a page from The Loved Ones and embracing its genre roots a bit more enthusiastically, because as it is, Chained never really rises above mediocrity, despite good performances (led by Vincent D’onofrio) and a handful of effectively creepy moments. At this point in time, we’ve seen its tricks a million times, and any originality it strives for is undone by the painfully contrived nature of its major plot points. I don’t recommend this film, as you can tell, but one additional warning: There’s a lot of rape in Chained…in fact, misogyny is pretty much the MacGuffin that makes it go. Unimaginative and on a whole, not good.
Jaume Balagueró is best known for [Rec] and [Rec 2], but I had yet to see any of his other films. That’s too bad because Darkness proved really enjoyable. In that, I seem to be in the minority; it has a 4% critic rating and 36% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which has to be some of the worst scores I’ve ever seen for a film with so much talent. To a degree, I can see why. The thread upon which the plot hangs – a cult of apparently distinguished Spanish folk that’s been around for at least forty years plotting the end of the world (or something) for no better reason than because evil is cool (or something) – is pretty flimsy. What exactly is in it for these cultists, who in their ordinary lives seem pretty successful and well-off? That’s never made clear (although it should be noted, this is a logical inconsistency with pretty much any Lovecraft cult, and that’s exactly what these people are). And the third act is heavily telegraphed. But if you can handwave those things, Darkness is beautifully filmed, creepy, and has a breakneck last few minutes with a lot of really grisly imagery. My friend Christianne reminds me that it has much in common with [Rec], in that it starts out in one genre, but then makes the leap to another (and she’s right). To me, it called to mind Argento’s Witch’s trilogy…although a more conventional narrative, it has a high style/low substance quality about it and a third act reveal reminiscent of Suspiria. Alas, Jessica Harper is no where to be found, but Anna Paquin makes for a pleasing enough heroine.
Leif Jonker’s Darkness
How The Tenement snuck onto my watch list I have no idea. Most likely I saw it on a page for werewolf movies, which I tend to haunt, and just added it sight unseen. To be sure, there are some clever ideas trapped in it; it’s an anthology, and a couple of the stories have really neat premises…like the aforementioned werewolf yarn, in which a man imagines himself turning into a wolf (to the detriment of his friends and neighbors). But it’s so plainly bad, just totally lacking in basic understanding of narrative technique, it’s hard to watch. In fact, it’s not even really fair to critique it; like so many horror fans (myself included), Glen Baisley’s love of the genre moved him to pick up a camcorder and make a movie (several, in fact, according to IMDB) with his friends. And to his credit, without lighting or sound or anything resembling cinematography or editing, he managed to get it into fairly wide release. That’s no small thing. But I’d like to see his ideas brought to life with something more than just setting a camera in front of the actors and pushing record.
Leif Jonker’s Darkness, on the other hand, is a great example of good, low-budget filmmaking. Granted, it’s a little short on plot and it’s more or less an excuse for one gory setpiece after another, but it’s not boring. Unlike a lot of working Hollywood directors, Mr. Jonkers understands what a tripod is, how to stage effective action scenes, and an eye for interesting imagery. It’s a shame he only ever made this one movie, because I’d love to see him tackle a story that isn’t just vampires tearing people apart. Maybe something out of Glen Baisley’s mind.
On a personal note, it was a good bit of timing to watch these movies just now. Thursday night I commenced principal photography on my own little werewolf movie, and while I sit here angsting (as I always do) about whether we got the shots we need, whether we had to compromise too much because of time constraints, whether I’m going to be able to piece it together in a way that’s both narratively coherent and visually interesting, they serve as a reminder of where I come from, what I want to do, what I should avoid, and what I can hope to accomplish with the limited resources in my possession. It was a really good reality check.
What I Would Do With Them? Ironically, there’s probably more to cull from from The Tenement than from Darkness, in terms of interesting game material. Darkness is a straight-forward zombie apocalypse movie (except the zombies are ravenous throat-tearing vampires, but hey, what’s in a name?); it might make for a fun All Flesh Must Be Eaten campaign when you’ve tired of standard zombie fare, but I’m not much of a fan of AFMBE, so meh. The Tenement, on the other hand, has at least two neat, EC-style stories that, if poorly executed on film, are still totally viable adventure seeds. One deals with a young mute girl who dances eternally to the music of her old radio…with her invisible dancing partner, who takes great umbrage to anyone “cutting in” on him. The other is the aforementioned werewolf story. There’s a certain structure to an EC story, one that anticipates the audience’s expectations and then tries to undermine it (which, of course, the audience is anticipating as well). It’s a bit of a game unto itself, but I can’t think of a role-playing game that’s really attempted that. West End did a Tales From The Crypt game some years ago, and apparently it’s still available in PDF; I bought it when it was first published back in the day, but could never bring myself to read more than a few pages. I don’t think I’m alone in that. Anyway, I’d love to see a game like that and if my brain were working better today, I might’ve attempted a mini-game of some sort. Maybe I’ll give it some thought this week.
Taking The Tenement and Darkness together also reminds me that I need to do a series on cinematic storytelling…what we can learn from it for gaming, and the ways it can leads us astray.
So at the end of week three, I’m up to 45 movies, 31 of them first-time views. It feels like I’ll hit my target goal of sixty again this year, and with a little luck might even set a new personal best. We’ll see!
So what have you been watching?