Last week I talked about what the October Horror Movie Challenge is, and gave you a rundown of some of my favorite films from the last couple challenges. This week we’re into the challenge proper!
I’m writing this on Friday, so what you’re getting are my views for October 1rst through the morning of the 5th. For those who are curious, first time views are represented by an italicized sub-heading.
The Brides Of Dracula
I believe in getting things started on the right foot, so I picked a “can’t miss” film. Brides of Dracula is one of the most popular of the Hammer vampire movies, even though Dracula himself doesn’t appear in it (and is only mentioned twice). It’s a great, fun film, with your typically beautiful Hammer sets and Peter Cushing bringing his talents to the role of Van Helsing. Speaking of Van Helsing, remember that terrible action movie vehicle starring Hugh Jackman a few years back? I remember people scoffing at the idea of Van Helsing as an action hero then, but that wasn’t Stephen Sommers idea. No, Van Helsing has been busy being badass for a loooong time. In Brides, he jumps over tables, swings from chains, physically battles vampires, hangs from the blades of a windmill, and purges himself of vampiric infection with hot iron and holy water! Seriously, dude is awesome. If there’s a weak spot, it’s the vampire himself; Darren Peel’s Baron Meinster has quite a bit of mien when he’s playing sauve and charming, but once he starts vamping it up, something just doesn’t sit right. Maybe it’s the fact he’s blonde, I dunno. At any rate, this was a fantastic way to get the Challenge going.
What Would I Do With It? Though clearly a gothic check out its Kickstarter here). Still, that’s a long way off (although we may get a sneak peek by Halloween via an introductory scenario…all because I bugged them for it :p ). Dark Harvest: Legacy of Frankenstein is interesting for its detailed Romanian setting, but it’s a bit more steampunk than I want, and the game system doesn’t excite me. If you’re into the Fate-esque style of play, there’s Castle Blackbird (a Lady Blackbird hack), which looks cool and is free to download. In truth, I feel inclined to design something of my own, and even started tinkering with my own Ravenloftish hack for Dungeon World a few months ago, but that doesn’t do any of us any good right now. So in the meantime, I simply leave you with the most exhaustive resource for gothic fantasy adventuring on the net, Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque (content warning for nudity, violence, and discussions of Romani people within the context of the Gothic tradition). Jack Shear knows gothic, and between his website, the the two volumes he’s written for his own fantasy setting, and (especially relevant to this post) his new supplement for Gothic Earth, dude has produced an amazing amount of content for your gaming needs (particularly if your needs are OSR in nature).
In a completely different vein is Tesis, a film about a film student who inadvertently stumbles onto a snuff movie ring in her own department while preparing her thesis on violence in cinema. This is a suspenseful stalker flick, a clever whodunit, and a meta horror film. Perhaps even more post-modern than most of us realize, in that it seems to be talking about the torture porn subgenre years before the term was even coined, though what it’s actually doing is leveraging urban legends and the strange zeitgeist that existed around films like Faces of Death to create a powerfully creepy universe for the characters to roam around in. Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you will think you see a lot more here than you actually do; it shows just enough to make the skin crawl, and then sells it with the reactions of its very good cast. It’s longish for a horror movie – over two hours, where standard philosophy says to not go over the 90 minute mark – but if I think it could stand to lose maybe fifteen minutes, it’s good to remember that’s a purely subjective call on my part. Regardless, it’s a heck of a ride.
What Would I Do With It? This is a tough one. It’s heavy on investigation, so maybe something in the Gumshoe line? But even so, I think it’s a bad target for porting into a game. The material is certainly ripe enough: A weird secret society that runs a snuff business out of the basement of a major university is pretty creepy and cool. But it’s an immaculately plotted film, with layer upon layer of mystery, and while that works well in the cinema, in gaming it’s known as railroading. Of course, some people are okay with that, and more power to them, but I don’t think I would enjoy playing a game that’s structured like Tesis.
Okay, so I’d been putting this off for a long time because even though cinematic mayhem is my thing, and this movie promised a lot of it, I’m really not that interested in tons of scantily clad women being leered at by the camera. Imagine my surprise when I found myself actually being entertained. Yes, the breasts and butts are all there, and yes, it’s mostly tasteless (like the rest of the film). But director Alexandre Aja’s intent seems to be to push it to the level of parody, and I think it mostly works on that level. There’s probably room for debate on that subject, but how is the film otherwise? Well, it has a fun cast who don’t always get to do much, but still elicit smiles (I’m always charmed by Parks &Rec‘s Adam Scott; just gotta throw that out there). The prehistoric piranha creations are kinda cool, in a fake-looking special effects kind of way. And the movie barrels along so fast you’ll probably be surprised when the credits roll. There’s almost no plot here, and a lot of what happens is variations on setpieces from Jaws and its sequels (apropos, given that this movie is a remake of a movie that deliberately set out to exploit the Jaws craze of the 70s), but it still squeezes fun out of them. Also, as a wannabe horror filmmaker, I’m absolutely agog at the sheer amount of practical FX that on display in the massive beach massacre scene…it’s an orgy of human chum on an epic scale, and it had to be hard to get it all to come together. Which brings us to the director, who is of special interest to me simply because I think he should be great, but up until now, he hasn’t been. Alexandre Aja has shown incredible skill within the horror genre – he can build tension, he can establish mood, he can block a scene, he can handle actors, he can coordinate complicated special effects – but he has yet to make one movie that I unabashedly love. His problem seems to be getting everything to hang together as a coherent narrative; Haute Tension falls apart because its ending doesn’t play fair with what’s gone before, The Hills Have Eyes stumbles because of one egregiously bad scene of needless exposition, and Piranha…well, maybe Piranha works a little better because it’s so just so ridiculous…but it truly and utterly ridiculous. It feels like this guy should have an unlimited upside, but for some reason, he keeps falling short. Maybe his next announced project, Horns (with Daniel Radcliffe), will be the one that really does it for me.
What Would I Do With It? One of the central setpieces involves several people trapped in the middle of the lake on a sinking boat, with the piranha closing in on all sides. I’d probably take that as my inspiration and use the Frozen mini-game I designed last week.
Curse Of The Werewolf
I can’t talk too much about Curse Of The Werewolf because I’m actually slated to essay it in an upcoming book (look for it next year some time!). What I’ll say is this: This film represents one of my earliest forays into horror – the image of the werewolf coming for his prison cellmate, and the look of horror on that man’s face, is permanently burned into my brain – and it was nice to finally revisit it after all this time. It didn’t disappoint either. This is a classic monster movie, with a nice slow burn building to the reveal of the monster in the third act. It’s a doozy too, one of my favorite werewolf designs ever. It’s Hammer film, so you can expect the sets to be gorgeous, and it introduces some werewolf mythology that at the time was new to the cinematic world. And now I think I’m saying too much. Check it out, you know I like it.
What Would I Would Do With It? Like Brides of Dracula, this really puts me in the mood for some Ravenloft. See the discussion above for where that leads me.
May has been one of my favorite films since it first landed on video. It’s one of those movies I desperately wish I could have shared with an audience in a theater, and that I’ve recommended to pretty much everyone who hasn’t already seen it. It’s about a weird, lonely girl who desperately craves to be loved and touched, and the lengths she’ll go to make that happen; it’s an idea we’ve seen done a bunch of times, but director Lucky McKee and actress Angela Bettis really nail it. Also, it has one of the finest, creepiest, most understated final shots in recent horror movie history.
What Would I Do With It? Some people look at Monsterhearts and say, “well, it’s not really horror.” And I get where they’re coming from. A lot of the source material for Monsterhearts, despite its supernatural trappings, is really melodrama, or romance. But May is Monsterhearts too, and unabashedly so; she’s an almost spot-on portrayal of a ghost who just doesn’t happen to be dead yet, and when she goes all Darkest Self on those she blames, it’s well and truly horrific. So yeah, this is Monsterhearts all the way, and a really good example of how the darkest end of that spectrum might look.
I got to thinking about The Ruins last week when writing my Frozen mini-rpg. The set-up is similar; several friends (one of whom happens to be played by Frozen‘s Shawn Ashmore even) are trapped atop a mysterious Mayan ruin. They’re surrounded by violent locals who, for some reason, won’t allow them to leave. That reason quickly reveals itself, though: The flora infesting this particular ruins is carnivorous, and infectious; it crawls under your skin and sucks your blood and makes you part of it. It can even mimic noises it hears to lure prey to it. And that’s the whole movie; these young people trapped in this scary, isolated location, trying not to become infested with parasitic plants, or get gunned down by Mayan guardians. It’s a nasty little flick too; of all the major studio horror releases of the last twenty years, this has got to be one of the redder ones. It does not play nice, and that’s actually kind of a relief considering the generic approach mainstream American filmmaking takes to its genre fare. Definitely creepy and cool, if you have the stomach for it. Scott Smith adapted his own novel for this movie, and while I haven’t read The Ruins yet, his book A Simple Plan is one of my favorites (the movie adaptation is also good, but not as much so as the book).
What I Would Do With It? Once again, I’d use my Frozen mini-rpg from last week to play out this scenario. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize that game would work great for any number of horror scenarios that involve isolation and people turning on each other. It’d probably work great for Night of the Living Dead too.
This one’s not getting much ink from me. Dude gets killed in Afghanistan, but he comes back from the dead once his body arrives home. His slacker buddy helps him feed his hunger for blood by killing off criminals and bad guys (mostly people of color). Some other stuff happens too. It felt like it was trying to be a Judd Apatow film if Judd Apatow made horror movies. And as bad as that might sound to some, it didn’t come close to hitting the mark. Not good.
What Would I Do With It? Nothing. Nothing at all.
This one’s also not getting much love either. It’s an indie film vaguely based on the story Pickman’s Model, but it chooses to go the most boring route ever with its Lovecraftian elements (i.e., the mysterious voices are the great old ones using Pickman to influence our world from beyond. yawn.). I get that this was a very modest production by people who probably just really wanted to make a Lovecraft film, but it doesn’t really work.
What Would I Do With It? Nada. I could probably come up with something, but I feel like that would be too much effort.
This represents the third turkey in a row for me, but it’s hard to really blame the movie. It is Troma, after all. Still, I think Poultrygeist proves to be more execrable than their usual fare…or maybe I really am just getting old. Anyway, this about a fast food chicken join built on a Native American burial ground, and the one kind of amusing thing that happens is that a whole crowd of fast food customers turn into some kind of weird undead were-chickens at the end. As interesting as that might sound, do not watch this.
What Would I Do With It? You know what’s great about seeing a bunch of movies I didn’t like? It really saves my word count when I get to the “What Would I Do With It?” section.
Son of Frankenstein
I needed to cleanse my palate after the last one, so Son of Frankenstein it was! I’d actually never seen this, but it came highly recommended to me. And with good reason; with Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lionel Atwill sharing the screen, their combined presences alone should spell entertainment. And it did. The short version: Frankenstein’s son returns to his father’s estate, discovers the monster in a coma being lorded over by a watchful Igor, and resolves to awaken the creature. He succeeds, but Igor has other plans, using the monster as the instrument of his revenge against the villagers who tried to kill him. Fun, fun stuff, and always a pleasure to see these actors again.
What Would I Do WIth It? The earlier discussion of gothic horror has some place here too, but this is a Universal film, and a sequel to a sequel of one of their flagship characters. As such, we’re starting to inch into that monster mash territory that they became so famous for, and that’s gotta be a subgenre of its own. It seems like it would be pretty well-represented in gaming too, what with the eight million World of Darkness monster splats, plus all of their imitators. Its staginess, and focus on characters being blustery towards each other rather than action or combat, suggests a larp. That’s not really my thing, but the idea of live-action game where the characters are all iconic 2figures matching egos with one another sounds pretty cool. I bet someone could put together something really kickass working from those principles.
Night Of The Living Dead
This happened to be on Turner Classic Movies the other night, and while I had no plans to re-watch it this month, there’s also no good reason to turn it off when in the midst of the Challenge and not already watching something. In many ways, this movie represents the bridge from the “old” horror movies we’re all familiar with and the “new”, at least in my mind. It’s a reinvention of an old trope for a new age; even its choice of protagonists signifies that this is something new (and how sad is it that over three decades later, the casting of a black man as a hero still feels “risky” and “new”?). It’s a great film, still scary after all these years.
What Would I Do With It? I said above, I could do this with my Frozen mini-rpg, but since this would be the fourth such attempt to get away with that answer, I feel like I owe you something more. As noted last week, though, my zombie rpg fu is rather limited. There have been attempts over the years to focus design in the direction of the human tensions, but everything I’m seeing right now really zeroes in on killing zombies and not much else…and that’s just not that interesting to me. So once again I put out the call to you…talk to me about zombie rpgs.
When we discuss great werewolf films, Romasanta usually gets passed over. In fact, most people don’t know it exists. But it’s really fantastic; beautiful locations, solid acting, and a great period feel. The story circles the character of Manuel Blanco Romasanta, a real-life figure who in 1853 confessed to killing thirteen people while in the form of a wolf. He’s Spain’s first known serial killer, and he would have been put to death, except that his outrageous claims of lycanthropy spurred medical interest in his case and led to the commuting of his sentence to merely life imprisonment. At any rate, he died shortly after arriving in prison under mysterious circumstances, and the film uses all of this drama to create a highly compelling story. I want to say it plays as a kind of 19th century version of Law & Order, but that diminishes it entirely. Still, you have to admit, a period police procedural/courtroom drama does sound like fun, right? Also of note, this has the absolute best werewolf transformation scene put to film since The Howling.
What Would I Do With It? It’s pretty far afield, but I’d probably use this as inspiration for a Whispering Vault adventure. Though it probably looks antiquated by now, Whispering Vault is one of my all-time favorite games, and the only game I know that explicitly combines the elements of investigation with passing judgment and enacting sentence upon its villains. Manuel Romasanta could easily be an Unbidden; the movie already suggests he’s a monster barely contained by the human flesh he wears, which fits perfectly. And his need to render the fat of his victims into soap (which he would then sell) is exactly the kind of horrible, creepy obsession an Unbidden would have. Player characters in Whispering Vault transcend time, hunting their enemies across all eras in Earth’s history, so even the period elements are accounted for. Crap, now I really want to play Whispering Vault. I wonder if I can squeeze that it into my busy October schedule?
So werewolves are my favorite monster ever and after Romasanta, I was still feeling the lycanthropic fever, so I popped in Kibakichi. It’s basically Yojimbo, except instead of warring gangs of humans we have humans versus Yokai. And Kibakichi, a werewolf samurai who wanders into the middle of the struggle, suddenly finds himself at its crux by virtue of him being part man and part monster (and totally badass). It’s a strange film because not only does it feature a samurai werewolf, kappa, weird spider yokai and other monsters, its final battle also becomes a bit of a man-in-suit throwdown as Kibakichi and another weird monster tear apart the little village around them. Oh, and it has all the head-chopping, blood-geysering fun you’d come to expect from a Lone Wolf & Cub style chanbara flick, so there’s that. I actually didn’t remember this movie being as much fun as it is; it’s definitely cheesy, but it scratched my weird monster itch.
What Would I Do With It? It seems like there might be a Monsterhearts hack in here somewhere. Lots of different monsters who desperately wish for a place of their own, but by necessity need to hide from the humans who would slaughter them? Yeah, maybe. Possibly also a game of Kagematsu, except Kagematsu is actually the werewolf samurai Kibakishi. There wouldn’t even need any hacking to make it work.
So that brings my total to thirteen movies, six of them first time views. It’s a bit disappointing that among my first timers, only Tesis and Son of Frankenstein have really stood out, while at least half have made me want to perform Italian-style eyeball violence upon myself. Ah well, such is the way of the October Challenge.
So what have you been watching? Tell me all about them in the comments.
- The discussion of “gothic” is a little complicated, and is really really beyond the scope of this column. For decent introductions to the subject matter I refer you to Jack Shear’s writing (linked in the main article) and, interestingly enough, GURPS Screampunk. In summary, my gothic, your gothic, and Hammer’s gothic might all be different gothics. ↩
- I’m counting inspector Krogh as an icon; though most people won’t know him by name, he’s easily as interesting as any other character in Son of Frankenstein, and the figure of the determined police inspector is a worthy archetype in the genre. ↩