Monday, November 19, 2007

Borderland (2007)

Note: This review is part of my coverage of Horrorfest II.


I guess you could call this a somewhat more sophisticated version of the "torture porn" story of international tourists becoming victims of a sadistic cult. And it's actually supposed to be based on true events. In the story, three young men cross the Mexican border for a vacation, and one of them is abducted by a terror cult to be used as a sacrifice for their rituals. With the help of an ex-cop who had a previous run-in with the cult and survived, the abductee's friends make a point to retaliate, and against all odds, actually manage to bring the cult to its knees, though not without sincere casualties and awakening the beast within.

Despite the torture-y subject matter, I'd be more tempted to pair this movie with a title like Midnight Express than Hostel, because it seems to focus more on the idea of being up against sinister forces in an unfamiliar land, and the measures that are necessary to survive them, than about the actual torture and sadism. If anything, though, it's probably a cross between the two.

By all accounts that I can mark, it's a well-made film, that seems able to affect its audience. It's also a very human story, about some inhuman deeds that went down, and for real. The Mexican setting is enriching, and the characters are interesting. The violence serves its purpose, and the cult symbolism is intriguing, particularly the "re-heading" treatment, and of course the main ritual. I'll say that this was a very good film.

Crazy Eights (2006)

Note: This review is part of my coverage of Horrorfest II.

Crazy Eights

This movie was a bit of a mindfuck. Some of it had a kind of Silent Hill atmosphere, with the broken down sets and the hints of bizarre medical experimentation. It also reminded me somewhat of last year's The Abandoned, with the whole idea of the characters trying to solve an important mystery about their childhood, only to apparently meet their doom.

From what I can piece together, the idea is that the main characters are members of a group of 8 people (the "Crazy Eights") who were tested on as kids, in some kind of unsavory scientific experimentation, that may or may not have something to do with autism and instilling the kids with a sense of guilt. None of the characters remember any of it, but one of them dies just after uncovering a trunk of items that was buried by the kids as a time capsule - apparently waking up some kind of psychological horror in the process. The characters gather at the funeral, and at the deceased's last request, they take a look at the trunk. They then get themselves trapped in an old condemned house in the middle of the forest, which hides a rundown medical laboratory of some sort. As they try to find the way out, things get weirder and people start dying as they gradually remember what happened to them when they were children.

As I understand it, the eight managed to escape from the testing facility, placing the smallest girl in a trunk for hiding. They promised to come back for her, but when they did, it was too late. Now they have that guilt on their consciences, and it seems that the ghost of the girl has made a point to seek redemption by taking the lives of the remaining 7 in the group.

As it stands, I was a little disappointed that they didn't dig more into the childhood experimentation, instead of this guilt trip they introduced. However, there may be more to this sordid little tale than is at first apparent. It's clear that the scientists were doing experiments involving the brain, and quite possibly the manipulation of thoughts, or even realities. So did this whole ordeal happen as is, or was it some kind of test set up by the experimenters? The odd and confusing ending seems to suggest the latter. This film definitely demands at least another viewing, and perhaps a bit of discussion to unlock. I like a film with a challenging concept, but maybe there could have been some better explanation provided. Still, this movie was very interesting.

Nightmare Man (2006)

Note: This review is part of my coverage of Horrorfest II.

Nightmare Man

A married couple gamble on a mask of the fertility god to improve their love life. Turns out the mask is hideous, and worse yet, harbors a demon. The wifey starts going crazy, and it soon becomes less than clear whether this "nightmare man" is a real killer or just a figment of her imagination. Or is it both?

An early portion of the movie, where the wifey is trapped in the car with the Nightmare Man lurking about trying more to scare her than to kill her, was in a way reminiscent of Penny Dreadful from last year's Horrorfest. Then there's a hilarious sequence which cuts back and forth between the wife running through the forest, trying to get away from the Nightmare Man, and a group of four young adults in a forest cabin playing erotic truth or dare. The scene climaxes quite literally with screams that could easily be attributed to either pain or pleasure. The rest of the film takes place at the cabin, as the wifey and the foursome try to make sense of what's happening, and whether or not the Nightmare Man is real.

I'm not an expert on "camp" movies, horror or otherwise, but this one definitely gave off the impression that its point wasn't to scare its audience, but simply to entertain them. Yet, I enjoyed it. Instead of being stupid, the movie was actually entertaining. And even having said all that, it still managed to pack a few scares, like making the masked face in the dark scary again. I'll always be more drawn to the completely serious movies, but I'm willing to toss this one into the bin of "fun movies".

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Tooth And Nail (2007)

Note: This review is part of my coverage of Horrorfest II.

Tooth And Nail

This one's a winner. I didn't even remember what at all this film was about when it came on, so I wasn't sure what to expect, but I was impressed with what it had to give. It's a post-apocalypse story, which is a good start in my mind. But it has a unique approach and appeal. Mankind hasn't been completely wiped out, and there was no massive apocalypse, by way of explosion, deadly disease, monster mutations, or anything like that. We simply ran out of gas. No cars, no electricity, no heat. People went crazy, life became survival, and many died. People ran south, for the warmth, but the crowding and the fighting over supplies makes it a danger zone. This story focuses on a group of mostly young adults, "The Foragers", living in a hospital up north, where people are scarce, and their fatal run-in with a group known as "The Rovers".

After saving a young woman from these Rovers one day, the Foragers become their next target. Turns out the Rovers are a band of cannibals - and dressed for the part. Their appearance, attitude, and hunger label them as Vikings, savages, barbarians, beasts among men. They all wear hides and armors and other intimidating battle gear, and they all carry brutal killing weapons. They come out at night, usually taking one life per day, to feast on. Humans keep fresh better when they're alive, you see. But it's only a matter of time before they eat you to the last one. But the Foragers' attitude is, "if they want dinner, they're gonna have to pay for it."

Among the Foragers, there's Darwin, the professor/leader, the old man of the group. He's smart, and knows how to keep things in control. There's Viper, the man with a hot temper and a distaste for authority. Dakota, the clear-headed and able female. Nova, the young mute girl. And a few others. I like their names, they have a kind of sci-fi ring, but it's understandable. It's the post-apocalypse, society has crumbled, you can give yourself any fucking name you want, so make it something you like. The Rovers' names are cool (and appropriate) as well, like Jackal, Mongrol, Dingo, etc.

The setting and atmosphere is great; the characters are all mostly interesting; the sense of dread with the Rovers closing in for the feast, and the Foragers with practically no chance of survival, and the hunt itself, is all very exciting. Michael Madsen (you might remember him as Bill's brother in Kill Bill) does a great job as one of the Rovers. "This just isn't your lucky day, boy. And I got bad news for you, it's not going to get any better." "We can do this the hard way, or the easy way. It doesn't matter to me, but either way, I'll be gnawing on your bones by sun-up." And the ending is very thrilling, in a feel-good-but-feel-bad-about-it sort of way.

I was rooting for Nova the whole way. You could tell she had better instincts than any of 'em. And there's just something appealing about mute girls. They don't get into that whole stupid "talking" thing that humans think is so damn important. I always liked Newt in Aliens, and I was intrigued by Tiffany in Hellraiser II. Of course, with the mute characters, you always have to have that stupid point in the film where they finally say something, usually to much less comedic effect than was probably intended, but I can forgive them for that. It's really more the writer's fault than the character's, anyway.

So yes, this was my favorite film of the festival so far, and I totally recommend it. Very cool and very exciting post-apocalyptic horror film. Go and see it sometime.

"I'm going to kill you."
"Not if I eat you first."

Mulberry St (2006)

Note: This review is part of my coverage of Horrorfest II.

Mulberry St

This was an unsettling title. Very tense throughout, and conveys a real sense of place. It's in every aspect a New York City film. You can just feel the lifeblood of the city in it. A handful of characters are introduced, living much less than perfect lives in the city, before everything starts going to hell. Some kind of infection breaks out in Manhattan under the sewers, and it's spread from rats to people. The bizarre thing is that it turns people into some kind of ravenous rat creature. They gradually grow ratlike features and start feeding on human flesh. Kind of like an American 28 Days Later with rats.

You get to see people start to panic as the infection spreads; the news reports get more and more frantic before going out all together; and then the survivors are left to fend for their very lives trying to fight off the hordes of hungry ratpeople. Among the important characters there's a very serious female soldier returning from service, trying to make it back to her father (I believe) as the chaos spreads; the father, a pretty adept boxer with a courageous heart; a mother and son - the mother who works at a nearby bar; and various other tenants of the cramped apartment complex the story focuses on.

It's a very gritty film. I was kind of confused by a certain group of kids in the audience who kept giggling at all the scenes of brutal violence. Maybe they were high, maybe they just thought the idea of ratpeople invading New York City was too ridiculous (actually, doesn't it seem almost too real?), but I feel like we should be more concerned about the people that take that kind of material so lightly than those who surround themselves with it but treat it the way it demands. Some parts are humorous in a stark and natural way, but the film is very serious and no-nonsense. The ending is not happy. Just think what the government would do in that situation. The infection is confined to an island, and very few survivors are left. Better take the safe route out, right? Just don't tell the rest of the public about the unsavory bits.

Lake Dead (2007)

Note: This review is part of my coverage of Horrorfest II.

Lake Dead

This film was entertaining. Not great, but entertaining. Certainly better than Unearthed. I'd call it something of a cross between Friday The 13th (slasher set in the woods/camping) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (messed up family that preys on the unlucky who stumble into their web) - or any other film that does the inbred family horror shtick. As a slasher, it delivers on the sex, drugs, and the violence. The victims were your typical modern hotshot teens, and the killers were your typical messed-up inbred family. Though, if you ask them, they'll tell you that their blood is "pure". Apparently, nobody in that family ever passed genetics.

Well, it turns out the one that got away from the family had a couple daughters, and now, with the death of the grandfather, those daughters have inherited the family motel. They bring a handful of friends up for a weekend of camping to decide what to do with it (expecting to decide upon selling it), but instead, they get a crash course in genealogy. Mama has no intention of giving up the motel, and furthermore, she needs those daughters to continue the family line, to keep it "pure". All she's got left at the moment is the "Bruiser Brothers" (as I like to call them), Cain and Abel, and the slightly more human (at least in appearance) self-serving sheriff. The daughters are captured for breeding, and their friends are killed off until they manage to fight back and thin out the branches of the family tree.

Pretty straightforward. As I said, not great, but entertaining. I found it curious, for whatever reason, that although the sisters looked similar, both being blonde, they were clearly not natural blondes. I guess their dying habits run in the family. (oooh)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Deaths of Ian Stone (2007)

Note: This review is part of my coverage of Horrorfest II.

The Deaths Of Ian Stone

From the scant pre-press I heard, it sounded like this was the most interesting, original, and anticipated of this year's Horrorfest films. It certainly has a lot going for it, though ultimately I'm not about to judge it as a masterpiece. It's really a bit of a sci-fi/horror. The premise is that a man named Ian Stone finds that, for some reason, he dies every day, and wakes up the next day in a completely different life. Now this doesn't even hint at the sci-fi undertones going on. The reality is that Ian is a Harvester, though he's forgotten. The Harvesters are a race of entities that have a lot of power to manipulate reality. They usually appear to people in the form of a sinister shadowy figure, and they feed off of people's fear. Somewhere along the line, they got into feeding off of pain, and learned that the anticipation of a violent death is the greatest source of man's fear. So that's what they like to go for to get nourishment. Well, at least one Harvester has found a different emotion to feed on, and it's called love. He backs out of the game, but the Harvesters try to pull him back in. He'll have to regain his memory and extract enough power from love to be able to kill even the Harvesters, who are not supposed to be able to die. Who will prevail?

Something that bugs me about this film is how it feels like a thinly veiled warning against drug addiction. And I'm not sure if that level of symbolism actually enriches the film, or just cheapens it. More than once you see a "Say No To Drugs" advertisement "inconspicuously" placed in the film. The Harvesters' feeding on fear is described a lot like getting a hit, and their desire to get Ian back among their ranks, and to destroy the girl that has shown him a brighter existence, seems a lot like a group of junkies struggling to keep you in the habit, to deny you of the light they aren't strong enough to reach for themselves. Furthermore, as Ian weakens from life to life, having gone a while without feeding, he slowly gravitates towards a drug-adled existence. He starts out as a Hockey player - athletic, healthy. Then he becomes an office worker with an arthouse girlfriend - one step closer to the "hip" scene. He says he just quit "the pipe". Then he becomes an unemployed bum, even closer to the streets. Finally, he gets to be an actual junkie. And then he ends up an invalid strapped to a hospital bed, vulnerable to the Harvesters' torture. But of course love will make him clean in the end, and give him the power to conquer the Harvesters, to push them out of his life, and destroy their influence over him. Are you seeing the parable?

Anyhow, it was still a good film, all moral issues aside. The idea of living a different life each day, and dying every time is fascinating, and I feel like it could be used for an even better story, if taken in a different direction. Still, the Harvesters were pretty cool, with shadowy tendrils that form into thick blades. And I liked their vinyl outfits. They're no Cenobites, though. Some aspects of the movie had a vaguely Jacob's Ladder kind of feel. Particularly in the way the Harvesters shake their heads back and forth after they absorb some fear. And the whole feeling of knowing something's not right in your life but not understanding what exactly is wrong. It's no competition, however.

I don't know that there was any ultra-explicit material in this film. The whole thing had more tension and atmosphere, though, compared to Unearthed, which just kind of blasted you with a lot of sound and flashing lights during the action sequences, leaving you to guess what was actually happening (and not in the, "ooh, I can't see what he's doing, it must be terrible!" kind of way). Certainly, the moral of the story is well-adjusted enough. The only trouble with it being an "after-school special" is that most kids can't handle this kind of horror material. Oh well.

Unearthed (2007)

Note: This review is part of my coverage of Horrorfest II.


Unfortunately, this movie works a lot better on paper. It's an interesting story, but it comes off as being quite an amateur production. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but there's good amateur, and there's bad amateur. Let's take a look at what we're dealing with first. Here's the backstory: an alien was sent to collect DNA samples from all sorts of Earth life. Despite being a rather hideous creature, it supposedly lived in peace with the Anasazi tribe for awhile, until for some reason they tried poisoning it with a Uranium trailmix. The creature annihilated the tribe and somehow (I'm not clear on all the details) ended up encased in the Earth for many years. Until now, when it's been unearthed.

This movie owes a lot to Tremors (the setting of an isolated desert town attacked by an ancient monster), the X-Files (gooey alien in the desert with ties to Indian tribes), and the Aliens series (although the monster isn't nearly as similar to the xenomorph as you may have heard, it is true that one scene in particular was lifted straight out of Alien 3). It's too bad it doesn't live up to any of those titles. The action is way too hyperactive, the actors are less than convincing, and the shaky camera which starts out appropriately in the action sequences begins to seep into every scene. It really gets ridiculous. The shaky camera effect might be effective when you want the audience to believe the footage is being shot on a camera, for example by one of the characters. But when you're doing plain as day normal shots, pan & scan, anything, and it's all shaky as all get-out, it really makes you think that this was filmed by an amateur in somebody's backyard. The monster's CG motion shots were obvious, as well.

In addition to that, some things just seem hard to swallow. There's an apparently Australian roughneck archaeologist who, despite not being a criminal or a doctor, doesn't seem to have any problems tearing into a freshly dead body with a huge bowie knife, looking for alien worms. The truck driver who gets to be the first kill loves his dogs so much, that not only does he wear a t-shirt with his two dogs pictured on the front, but he also makes his dogs each wear a doggy shirt with a picture of his face on it. (Rolls eyes). Another thing that bugged me is how a single tanker sprawled across the road is able to isolate the entire freaking town. Maybe it's possible, but gee...I was pretty sure that road was a throughway, considering the trucker regularly passed through the town, not to mention the travelers who happen upon the town trying to get further west. Shouldn't there at least be a second way out? Curiously, the sheriff in this story is a 20-year old female alcoholic. She was involved in some kind of tragic accident where an Indian girl died, but even by the end, when they actually let the flashback play out, you're still not exactly sure what happened. Supposedly, she didn't kill the girl, but took the fall for it. Who was she trying to protect? Why would she throw her dream away for that? Needless to say, the whole town hates her and is prepared to vote her out of the job at the next town meeting.

I dunno what to say. The execution just doesn't do the idea justice. Yeah, it was interesting to see, but I would have to say that I don't recommend it, primarily for the shaky camera work alone. It's just the principle of it. Who watched this movie and okay'ed the shooting for it? The only answer is no budget. Well it's too bad they couldn't find somebody with a steadier arm. I'll bet the cameraman must have drunk as much as the sheriff character was notorious for. I feel bad ripping on this title, I mean it's not like it ruined my experience or anything, I still had fun. It's just that you win some and you lose some.

I know Horrorfest's "too graphic for regular audiences" claim has been debunked, and this movie is bad enough not to get a regular screening on that basis alone, but if I had to pick out a reason why this movie might be deemed "too graphic" it would definitely be for the explicit scenes of evisceral gore - human and bovine.

Horrorfest II (2007)

Note: This review was originally posted on Myspace. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

Night 1 - Setup: Waterfront Theatre was nice. There was a lot more cars on my way out (around 10) than on my way in (around 6). I was surprised that the screen dedicated to Horrorfest was such a small room. I counted only 85 seats. But, to be fair, there were less than 15 people in each of the two showings I caught tonight. Hey, I like smaller crowds, but I hope a) Horrorfest doesn't go out of business, and b) the Waterfront doesn't join the Destinta in believing that Horrorfest isn't worth the commitment. There was at least one other group, a woman and a younger girl, who stayed on for both of the showings I saw, and one person at the end of the second showing I caught commented on the film using the phrase "this one", suggesting that she had seen other Horrorfest titles. Just exciting to know that people are getting into the festival experience and not just happening to catch one on a whim.

The Deaths of Ian Stone

Night 2 - My second day of Horrorfest was a lot of fun, and the average quality of films was definitely higher. There were also more people, this being a Saturday night. I got a chance to dine at Uno's, which is on the Waterfront. That was a treat, since Uno's is one of the best restaurants ever, and I don't often get a chance to eat there. Then it was an evening of three films to die for! And the best part - I think I've found my favorite for this year's festival! There's still three films to go, but I have a good feeling about this one. (FYI, my favorite from last year was The Abandoned).

Lake Dead
Mulberry St
Tooth And Nail

Night 3

Nightmare Man
Crazy Eights

Conclusion: I'm still gonna say Tooth And Nail is my pick for favorite. Overall, I had a great time at Horrorfest this year, and, it's kinda hard to tell but, I'm tempted to say the quality of this year's films was a little bit better than last year, despite what anyone might tell you. I've heard that the fest has been doing a lot worse than last year, in terms of box office sales, but I don't know all the details. I do hope that Horrorfest returns next year, though. It's great fun for a horror fan, and though the quality of the films varies, I have yet to be disappointed in the overall experience. So here's to next year!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Best Horror Movies of All Time

Note: This feature was originally posted on Myspace. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

The Best Horror Movies of All Time!

I wasn't a huge horror fan growing up. Other kids my age would talk about all these scary movies they'd watch - Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one I specifically remember them mentioning - but I was always out of the loop. It's not that I had a specific aversion to horror, it's just that, like many things in my childhood, the opportunity never really presented itself to me. And I wasn't really the type to carpe the diem.

At the ripe old age of 18ish, my horror obsession began to bloom (along with other things). It wasn't my first exposure to horror cinema, but it did mark a turning point where I slowly began to recognize my interest in the genre, and gradually began to associate myself with the term "horror fan". I like to attribute this change to the movie 28 Days Later, but in truth there were other films that played an important role. Still, seeing 28 Days Later was an iconic moment for me. It helps that I saw it in the theatre, and that it was such a damn good movie.

So enough of the background, whether you're already aware of my love of horror or not, you might be asking yourself, particularly at this time of the year, "what is zharth's favorite horror movies?" Well, you're in luck, because I'm about to tell you! Comments are appreciated. Feel free to make a list of your own, as well. After all, it's Shocktober, and this is what the month's all about!

Jacob's Ladder (1990)

Although this list isn't specifically in order, this movie tops it by default, being not only one of my favorite horror movies, but one of my all-time favorite movies, period. I first saw it on television one October during high school age. I actually missed the very beginning, but from the strobe light dance rave scene, I was hooked. The movie is just fantastic. The atmosphere throughout is beautifully creepy. The demons are so well done...the problem with a lot of monster movies is that the monsters are either not scary, or look obviously fake. The demons in Jacob's Ladder are both real and terrifying. Plus, the whole movie is very artistically shot. And the psychological angle plays with your mind, something I thoroughly enjoy when I want to be entertained. I liked this movie for a lot of the same reasons I later became attached to the Silent Hill video game franchise. Psychological demon horror. And the issues of life and death and what to believe, who to trust. Masterpiece. One of my favorite non-demon scenes is when Jacob is lying in the bathtub, and the camera ever so slowly pans outward. Beautiful.

Aliens Trilogy (1979/1986/1992)

Here's the bottom line: I had serious nightmares about xenomorphs throughout my childhood. Maybe I'm making a leap here, but it might actually have something to do with the insomniac symptoms I sometimes experience. There was a period when I was deathly afraid of being the last person to fall asleep. That feeling of being alone, like as if the people sleeping were as good as dead, or just nonexistant. It was rather frightening. Course, now I feel great comfort in being the only person awake or around at any given time. I do still have a bothersome fear of arachnids, however, and I'm not 100% sure if it's a result of the xenomorphs or vice-versa. Bottom line is, xenomorphs freaked me out.

I have only a vague recollection of watching Alien for the first time. It must have been a summer evening, because I remember it was light out pretty late, until after dinner. Alien came on, I think before it even got dark, and I watched it in the living room. I don't remember much more about that experience, but when I think back on the way I used to view the Alien films, I can feel the fear deep in my gut. Even if it's not an entirely pleasant feeling, I respect things that can make me feel so strongly. As much as it scared me, I don't remember ever actually hating the films. I quite loved the sequel. And was still very scared by it.

Nowadays, though it's still pretty creepy, it doesn't freak me out near as much, but I can still respect it as a masterpiece of sci-fi horror. It goes back to that whole believability thing. The sci-fi atmosphere - in that ship, on the planet, the aliens themselves - they don't look or feel like sci-fi toys. And the seriousness of it all - this isn't a bunch of geeks getting off to wild hallucinated fantasies of intergalactic travel and bizarre alien lifeforms - this is seriously scary shit. I've probably always respected that aspect of it, too, even if not always consciously. H.R. Giger absolutely deserves some credit here. I still consider the xenomorph to be the perfect lifeform - in terms of perfect terror.

28 Days/Weeks Later (2002/2007)

There are very few films that I can credit for single-handedly getting me interested in a whole new musical genre. 28 Days Later introduced me to "post-rock", via the Sad Mafioso portion of East Hastings, a song by Godspeed You! Black Emperor used in the film's best scene. A man wakes up in a hospital, apparently coming out of a coma. The building is completely abandoned. Not a soul around. It's quiet. The man goes outside. The whole city is dead. Like as if everyone had just vanished. The man walks through town, not finding any life or signs of life, but finding clues that something very terrible has happened. And he managed to survive through it, while unconscious. Only to waken to an empty, lifeless, post-apocalyptic world. Panic sets in. Then he finds signs of life. But that's when the true terror begins.

A truly brilliant movie, which raises the bar impossibly high for the sub-genre of zombie horror. Even so, the sequel was every bit as good. Maybe even better. And a third installment is planned for sometime in the future. I hope to one day be able to refer to "the 28 trilogy" alongside "the aliens trilogy", but until then, these are two truly great horror movies for my collection.

John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)

Quite possibly the greatest movie remake ever made. Stranded in an antarctic research facility with an unknown terror, likely not from this earth. That's a good start for a horror film, but what really makes this move unique is a combination of two factors, among other things. The first is the special effects. Some might say they went a little overboard, but I think the fx are not only iconic, terrifying, and memorable, but also suit the nature of The Thing perfectly. The other factor that serves this movie is the paranoia. Being cooped up for extended periods at the ends of the earth is one thing, but having to face a monster that has no true form, and can perfectly imitate other life forms, really tests your trust in the people around you. Any one of them could be a monster, and they wouldn't know, until it's too late. This is definitely my favorite of John Carpenter's films.

The Descent (2005)

Spelunking can be quite terrifying on its own, when things go wrong. Being stuck below the ground, afraid that your lights will run out, and that you'll be buried alive. Throw in an underground colony of carnivorous cave-creeps, and you've got yourself a horror movie. Better yet, The Descent boasts a nearly all-female cast. There's even a psychological aspect which parallels the descent into the earth with a descent into madness. This film is a sparkling jewel of modern horror.

Hellraiser (1987)

I only saw this movie and the first of its sequels a year ago, but I really dig its style. Sadomasochistic demons who are summoned from hell by solving a puzzle box called the Lament Configuration, to give the solver a chance to experience the ultimate in pain and pleasure. Awesome. These demons, the Cenobytes, are considered angels by some, demons to others. It's only a matter of perspective. Most well-adjusted citizens would consider them demons, however. The design of the Cenobytes (including the iconic Pinhead) as well as 'The Engineer' are awesomely creepy. Sometimes it just comes down to a matter of style, and I like Hellraiser's attitude. (P.S. You might as well throw in the sequel, Hellbound, as it's required viewing for any Hellraiser fan - I still, regrettably, haven't seen the rest of the titles in the series, though).

The Exorcist (1973)

I still remember the first time I saw this film. I was relatively young. I remember staying in the house, probably on Halloween night, maybe after trick 'r treating, and watching some horror movies that my mom had picked out for us. I remember watching The Exorcist that night. All I can remember thinking about it, after it was finished, was how gruesome it was. I didn't necessarily register it as a "good" movie at the time, but I was absolutely affected by it, and I respected its ability to thoroughly shake up the core of my being. I had never seen a film anything like that before. A lot of people praise this movie, and rightfully so. It manages to pull off the religious horror angle flawlessly. Very disturbing.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

A lot of people give this movie flak, but for me, the bottom line is that I thought it was terrifying. It might not be so scary if I sat down and watched it again, but first impressions are the most important, right? Being out in the middle of the woods, in the dark, and hearing strange noises, then having people disappear. That kind of situation speaks to me. Anyone who's ever been camping before, sleeping in tents, sitting around the campfire at night, particularly as an impressionable child, can identify with the fear that the Blair Witch Project invokes. And at its heart, it's an exhibition of the fear of the unknown. A true "let your imagination fill in the scary bits" kind of film. And even if it wasn't actually real, it did feel more real than most horror movies do.

Fire In The Sky (1993)

I don't know just how many alien abduction movies there are. In fact, I'd be willing to bet there are plenty more "space invaders" type alien movies than alien abduction types. But I suppose that's irrelevant. It seems to have cooled off mostly, but there was a period of time, I wanna say it was focused around the 90's (probably concurrent with the X-Files phenomenon), that a specific kind of alien scare was prevalent. The fear of being abducted, taken right out of your bed at night, and being subjected to horrifying experiments while in the presence of strange beings that look almost like man, but different enough to freak you out. And the fact that all of this could even happen without you remembering it, until those memories resurface, perhaps during hypnosis. Yeah, it's pretty far-fetched, but there was a time when it didn't seem so unreal. At least not to me. And it was, at one time, one of my biggest fears. Once again, I don't know if seeing Fire In The Sky prompted that, or if the movie was so frightening because of that fear, but the end result is that this movie terrified me more than most I saw during my childhood. I couldn't even look at the aliens for fear of their faces haunting my dreams. And the most unsettling part is that the movie was allegedly based on a true story...

Jurassic Park (1993)

I know it feels more like a "big Hollywood action/adventure" type movie than a horror movie, but if Jaws counts as horror, then so too does Jurassic Park. Besides, at least for a child, Jurassic Park was pretty darn scary. It was also one of the films that I saw the most times in the theatre. I don't remember what the count was, but I must have seen it at least 8 times while it was still running. Dinosaurs can be pretty scary, and this is probably the most well-made dinosaur film I've ever seen.

Carnosaur (1993) [and quite possibly its sequels]

It would be unfair to list Jurassic Park and not mention Carnosaur. Carnosaur is almost certainly scarier, but I didn't have the advantage of seeing it at the same young age I saw Jurassic Park. Even though its budget can't compare to that of JP, Carnosaur is pretty damn awesome for a B movie. And its dinosaurs are first and foremost horror creatures, and only secondarily prehistoric lifeforms. I need to watch these movies again.

And at this point, the horror titles start coming up in your memory faster and faster - too fast to comment on them all - and you realize that you've probably listed the cream of the crop already anyway. So I'll finish it with a brief Honorable Mentions list.

Honorable Mentions:
Black Christmas (1974)
Halloween (1978)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Friday The 13th (1980)
Carrie (1976)
The Shining (1980)
Night of the Lepus (1972)
The Amityville Horror (1979)
Ju-on/The Grudge (2002)

I hereby reserve the right to glaring omissions.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Silent Hill 3

Note: This review was originally posted on Myspace. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

A teenage girl's day at the mall turns into the worst nightmare imaginable. First, while snoozing in a café (Happy Burger), Heather has a horrific dream about a hellish amusement park. Then, a suspicious detective starts stalking her, mentioning her past. Demons show up, and after running into a strange woman named Claudia, who babbles on about gods and paradise, and Heather's true self, the mall is plunged into a nightmarish darkness. If that weren't enough to ruin your day, the subway has also been infested with demons, and the train leaves Heather off at an unknown, locked station, forcing her to travel through some underground passages and an office building before making it back home...


...only to find out that her dad has been murdered. Then, on the way to Silent Hill, to put things right, the truth is revealed. Heather is the reincarnation of Alessa, the girl from the first Silent Hill whose purpose was to birth a god. She is the baby that Harry Mason was given in the game's ending. Harry took her away from that hellish town, but seventeen years later, cultmember Claudia Wolf is anxious to bring her back and commence the ceremonies. So Claudia enlists the help of a detective named Douglas, who only gets caught in the middle of things. Douglas is responsible for reuniting Claudia with Heather, thereby initiating the whole fiasco, but he was just Claudia's pawn, and ends up being Heather's only real friend in the ensuing battle for all mankind. The fourth character in the story is an independent cultmember named Vincent, who seems to have his own disagreements with Claudia's methods.


SH3 is a bit of a mix between old and new, conjuring up the memories of the previous SH games while creating new memories to add to the legacy. Among the locations, the Brookhaven Mental Hospital, a classic from SH2, is revisited here, as well as the Lakeside Amusement Park, which is explored much more in depth than it was in the first game. However, at least half the game occurs nowhere near the town of Silent Hill - a first for the franchise. (Rest assured, even the non-Silent Hill locations are sufficiently nightmarish). This unfortunately denies us, as players, the pleasure of getting to excitedly explore new outdoor areas of our favorite ex-resort town. Another byproduct of this situation is that much of the game feels a bit more linear than in the past, going directly from one area to the next (why does the church have a door leading to a tunnel that directly connects to the amusement park?), instead of being able to carouse about the town looking for open buildings. While this is a decided disadvantage, the linear aspect of the first part of the game is actually a nice experience, since the plot at that point is that you're trying to get home from the mall. You start the game with your house key, and you just know that your travels are eventually gonna lead you there. From the mall to the subway, through the sewers, and out through an office building next to your apartment, your journey leads you back home. But even after you get to Silent Hill and finally get to move about the streets, the options are depressingly limited.

Brand new locations include the mall (nice choice), subway station, an office building (nice chance for a variety of decor, from a dance studio, to life insurance, to auto parts, and more), and appropriately, a church. The Silent Hill atmosphere is fully intact in this game, from the graphics, to the music and sound effects, and the moments of sheer terror we Silent Hill fans have come to expect. One thing I sincerely missed, though, was the sirens that mark the transformation from Silent Hill to Silent Hell, if you will. Those sirens are iconic, and I really missed them. Instead, we occasionally get this creature allegedly named Valtiel, who looks like Pyramid Head without the characteristic pyramid helmet, climbing on walls, turning a valve. I'm not entirely sure what purpose Valtiel served, but he was never used for more than effect. That is, he never attacks you, and isn't even directly referenced by the game. So he freaked me out at first, but after realizing that he's harmless, I didn't mind him so much. He's certainly no Pyramid Head.

New techniques: Silent Hill 3 offered two new gameplay additions. One is the block (at least I don't think it was featured in the earlier titles). I didn't use it a whole lot (run seems to be a more effective option), but it was useful against the Memory of Alessa boss. The other new addition is the beef jerky. A rather clever idea. You can pick up beef jerky throughout the game, and place it on the floor to distract some of the demons. I suspect it only works on the more animalistic and lower to the ground enemies. Truth is, I didn't really use it that much. It did come in handy during my play-through when I made a point not to kill any enemies (except for bosses). The jerky was essential in at least one of the hallways in the Nightmare Hospital, to distract those annoying lizard things that love to get Heather on the floor...I think they're called Slurpers. A pleasant image, indeed.

Speaking of monsters, the monsters were pretty good in this game. The first ones were generically creepy (the fishy ones), and the tall lumbering things with huge arms were rather intimidating. The dogs were cool, with gruesomely split heads (I can't imagine how they're still able to bite and howl...) - annoyingly fast, though. The wasps pretty much freaked me out for quite awhile, before I got the nerve to actually kill one. The fact that they can fly - meaning they can move across pits, coming from directions you wouldn't expect to be attacked from - doesn't help. Nor does the freaky grating sound they make with their blade-things. The ambling, lizard-like, floor-crawlers were equally disturbing and frustrating, particularly when they attack in numbers. Getting pushed flat onto the ground in the middle of an ambush is not pleasant. The fatsos were interesting. I believe they're officially referred to as "Insane Cancers". The way they lie on the floor, seemingly lifeless until you approach, is unnerving, even when you know what's going to happen. They take a lot of pain, although I worked out a way of killing them with consecutive thrusts from the katana (my favorite weapon), which saves ammo and damage - it's somewhat less effective on harder action levels, though. I think the only monster I'm leaving out is the type that shows up in the church and looks like the roof boss. I guess they're your typical late-game addition to the bestiary - formidable and feisty.

One aspect of the game that was a little iffy was the voice-acting. All the parts reek of over-acting, in that cheesy game-dialogue sort of way. At least it's not like I play Silent Hill for the FMVs. The game held a certain bland sense of humour, which in some cases I enjoyed. But ending the game with the line, "don'tcha think blondes have more fun?" ...this is Silent Hill, I remind you. I have to say I preferred the alternate ending (possessed). It was definitely more of a "Silent Hill ending", even if it was less believable. Vincent actually made one joke in the game that I wish was true. He's talking to Heather about all the killing she's done, suggesting that she's enjoyed it. Heather asks if he's talking about the monsters, to which Vincent replies, "they looked like monsters to you?" That could have led the game into a psychological direction akin to the second game, but alas, it was only a joke. In the game's defense, the in-game text used to describe items you come across really captured Heather's personality, I think.

Extras (this section obviously contains spoilers about the different kind of extras you can unlock in the game)

I was pleased with the extras in SH3. As for the extra weapons, you can unlock a beam saber, a flamethrower, and the Unlimited SMG (Sub-Machine Gun). Of the three, the Unlimited SMG is probably the least cool, but actually the most useful. It stops enemies in their tracks pretty well, and makes the bosses considerably easier. I feel like I didn't really give the flamethrower a fair chance, but although it's really cool, I didn't find it to be particularly useful. It's just too slow and too weak, and the range is rather pathetic. Considering that my favorite weapon was the katana, the beam saber was a dream come true. Basically it's a green lightsaber. It still has the shortcomings of the katana - short range, not so hot in an ambush - and though I'm pretty sure it's supposed to be stronger than the katana, it does require a couple seconds to activate each time you use it. Though there is a trick to get it open on the fly.

The other significant extra feature in SH3 is alternate costumes. After beating the game, you unlock an option on the title screen which lets you type in passwords to acquire new costumes for Heather to wear in-game (including FMVs!). Those passwords can be found in a number of ways. A handful of costumes are "Silent Hill 3 Originals", and their passwords are uncovered by beating the game under certain conditions (like killing no enemies, or achieving a 10 star ranking, etc.), or otherwise found within the game, or given in the official strategy guide. There's also a wide range of promotional costumes for various video game magazines, websites, and such, who gave out their passwords in their own medium, though all of those have since been conveniently compiled for the SH3 costume collector.

I automatically love it when a game featuring a female protagonist offers an option for alternate costumes (TR outfit modding anyone?), but I was disappointed that the vast majority of the costumes were simply color/pattern variations of the jeans/sleeveless shirt outfit. Though the jeans/shirt outfit was a considerable change from the standard gore-tex jacket/miniskirt/boots outfit. Still, despite the monotony of outfits, SH3 redeems itself with the Transformation costume. You aren't gonna believe this.

Beat the game twice, and you get the Transformation costume. Equip it in-game, and you will be treated to a hokey transformation animation showing Heather morphing into magical girl Princess Heart. No joke. Then you get to traipse through the darkest, dankest corridors of hell-on-earth as a justice-fighting, love-redeeming magical girl (mahou shoujo)! And that's not all! There's actually a fourth extra weapon you can unlock, called the Heather Beam, which uses up stamina to shoot energy balls and sprites from Heather's eyes. Use it with the Transformation costume equipped, and it becomes the much stronger Sexy Beam! You can even shoot beams from your eyes like Superman! And here's the best part - go on a rampage, killing demons with the Sexy Beam, and you can get the "Revenge" ending. Like the UFO ending in Silent Hill, and the Dog ending in Silent Hill 2, the Revenge ending is a rather bizarre joke ending which showcases the creator's unexplainable sense of humour...


Silent Hill 3 lives up to the Silent Hill name, and if you enjoyed the first two games, I can't imagine you not enjoying this one. Still, I'd like to see the outdoor portion of the game series not vanish altogether. I've heard that Silent Hill 4 is even more of a departure from the traditional formula, but I have confidence that it'll work out well. I can't wait to play it. I'm really grateful for the Silent Hill franchise - I have not before or since played a video game that is quite as scary. Realms of the Haunting is a close second, but where RotH's horror leans toward a mythical bent, Silent Hill is just pure hell. As an adult who no longer fears the dark (in general), Silent Hill freaks me out much more consistently than any of the horror movies I love to watch. I simultaneously look forward to, and dread, my next foray into the world of Silent Hill...

Endgame Stats

Sunday, October 21, 2007

30 Days of Night (2007)

Note: This review was originally posted on Myspace. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

A roving colony of vampires invades the solitary town of Barrow, Alaska, during it's annual period of 30 days of darkness. On the day of the last sunset for a month, preparations are made. Cell phones are stolen and burned. Every last sled dog is butchered. The only helicopter in town is junked. The townspeople are trapped for the month. The Sheriff doesn't know just what's going on yet, but it doesn't look good. Soon, the power is cut, the phone lines dead. People start disappearing, then some of them turn up brutally murdered. Then all hell breaks loose. Will anyone survive the vampires' 30 day fiesta? A truly great plot for a horror film. And 30 Days of Night delivers.

The vampires were really cool. They looked creepy, but also believable. They also had a bit of an international look, which solidified the idea that these vampires were probably culled from all sorts of civilizations throughout the globe, and throughout time. Their language was an impressive addition to the experience. Guttural, even orcish in nature. But it sure beat having the vampires speaking normal English.

The human characters were also interesting. Many of them had endearing backstories which enhanced their contribution to the plot, and upped the emotional ante. The story focuses on the ruined but possibly rekindling relationship between the two human leads (sheriff and girlie). Ultimately destined to end in tragedy.

I really liked the vampire leader. He was intelligent, and philosophical as well, in his own vampiric fashion. I also like the way the sheriff managed to inadvertently present himself to the vampires. He ends up decapitating one of the converts, and the vampires find the body, and examine it, and you can tell they're probably thinking, "there's somebody here who knows how to fight us." The scene with the UV lamp of course enhances that impression. And then there's the final brawl.

Cool scenes: when the vampire chick gets sunburned, ruining her "beautiful" face, and the vampire leader says "what can be broken, must be broken" before he presumably destroys her. Also, after the dynamite explosion, when the vampire leader, instead of getting pissed off, calmy explains, "when man meets something he cannot destroy, he destroys himself instead." Also, I have to give the movie kudos for not shying away from killing off a little girl (converted, of course).

The finale was exceptional, right down to the last moment. Overall, the movie was consistently scary, and the secluded blizzard town atmosphere served as a perfect setting for such a horror story. One thing that puzzles me, though it doesn't really bother me, is the sheer volume of blood spilled, considering that this is a movie about creatures that you wouldn't expect to waste blood. Maybe they can afford to be picky, I dunno.

This next point doesn't have much to do with the film itself, specifically, but it got me thinking. The action in the film is presented in that choppy quick-edit style that seems to be in vogue in horror these days. It's a style I first really noticed when watching 28 Days Later how many years ago. I can't quite come to a conclusion whether I like it or not. On the one hand, I like the fact that it attempts to recreate a psychological, panicked state, resulting in a visual that might be more akin to what you would actually experience were you in that situation. On the other hand, I can't help but say to myself, "just show me what's there, already! Quit jerking around and let me look at the damned thing!" Ah well, it certainly doesn't keep me from enjoying a film, and if nothing else it sets today's films apart from yesterday's (I wonder what people will be saying about that technique decades from now); I'm just kind of anxious for someone to come up with something altogether new and even better.

But as for 30 Days of Night, I very much enjoyed the film and I recommend it! If you're looking for a scary vampire flick, or snowed-in survival horror, don't miss it!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Welcome to the NHK (2006)

Note: This review was originally posted on Myspace. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

Warning! This post contains major spoilers, including end spoilers. I suggest you watch the series first, and then read this review.

hikikomori ni youkoso

What is this series about? Basically, it's about a hikikomori (the Japanese term for a modern trend in social reclusion among young adults), and his trials and tribulations as he attempts to overcome his condition with the help of a mysterious girl. I have to say this series was just great. For once it's a character that I can really, truly, honestly identify with - however unfortunate that is...

The main character is a guy named Satou, who is somewhere around the age of 24, a college dropout, and going into his fourth year as a hikikomori. He lives (exclusively) in a small apartment in Tokyo, living off an allowance his parents supply him with. The first episode was a perfect introduction to his character, and the circumstances of his lifestyle. When a solicitor comes to his door, he takes a chance on opening it and ends up meeting a beautiful young girl. Satou doesn't know it yet, but it turns out that the girl, Misaki, has been watching Satou for a while, from the vantage point of her aunt and uncle's mansion on top of the hill, and has her own reasons for wanting to help Satou. She meets up with him in the park at night, and eventually gets him to sign a hand-written contract outlining the rules of her "project", which is to cure Satou of his hikikomori ways.

Naturally, Satou is suspicious, and suspects a conspiracy as usual - this side of him was obviously influenced by one of the two important figures from his high school life - Hitomi, the female upper-classman who convinced him to join the literature club, which just ended up consisting of the two of them playing cards to pass the time. Hitomi appears to be a clinically depressed individual with obsessive paranoid delusions about conspiracies. There's obviously some chemistry between Hitomi and Satou, but it never seems to get the justice it deserves. Well, that's life.

The other important character from Satou's high school days is an under-classman whom he attempted to save from some bullies once (mostly to impress Hitomi). Satou ended up getting beaten up as well, but the under-classman, Yamazaki, appreciated the gesture all the same. So by cosmic coincidence, it turns out that Yamazaki is living right next door to Satou in the apartment complex in Tokyo, attending classes to become a game creator. Though, Satou doesn't figure this out until he finally gathers the courage to bang on his neighbor's door and tell him to turn his music down for once. A potentially traumatizing confrontation unexpectedly turns into a friendly reunion.

Turns out Yamazaki is a major otaku and figure collector, his walls lined with anime, manga, and game-related items. In what begins as a huge ploy to deceive Misaki into thinking he's not a hikikomori (not realizing that she already knows better), Satou and Yamazaki decide to design their own computer game. Of course, the only realistic option for them, considering time and resources, is to create a galge (a less obvious term for eroge - basically an erotic dating sim). And so the fun begins. For inspiration, Yamazaki first gets Satou addicted to all of his favorite eroge, then introduces him to the wonder, the splendor, the beauty of Akihabara with all of its otaku stores and maid cafés. And for even more inspiration, Yamazaki unlocks the world of internet porn, and Satou apparently develops a loli fetish. While we're on the topic of uncouth hobbies, Satou later gets seriously addicted to an MMORPG, but this time, Yamazaki plays the savior by teaching him the hard way that people in those games are not who they seem.

All the time, Satou and Misaki are meeting nightly in the park for "hikikomori recovery tutoring", but their "relationship" develops rather slowly. One thing I didn't really agree on about Satou's behavior was how much he seemed to ignore Misaki. Suspicions and conspiracies and insecurities be damned, if I had a savior like Misaki (if only), you can bet I'd pay more attention to her. Then again, these kinds of things can be confusing. I guess it doesn't help that she keeps calling him things like "trash", "failure of a human", and "lower than a stray dog". But it turns out she has her own psychological problems to deal with. Don't we all.

There was a rather somber arc (heh, even for this series) midway through the series where Satou and Hitomi go to an "offline meeting" where depressed individuals meet to die together. I didn't really want to see these characters die, but I was a little disappointed in the resolution to the arc. I just don't see Hitomi being happy with that jerk Jougasaki. "I love you", "I need you"...if you care about her so much, pal, then why is your work more important? At least he acted like an upstanding guy when he found out what Hitomi was planning to do. Still, "I want to marry you", "those were the words I was waiting to hear", just doesn't convince me. Furthermore, after the recovered would-be suicidees were brought in, the guy that came in lecturing them about the trouble they would have caused had they jumped, and the families all worried about felt so phony to me. But I guess I don't know much when it comes to suicide. I'm glad they didn't shy away from the topic in this series, though.

As much as I hate to spoil - though I've already spoiled the midway climax - this review wouldn't be complete without discussing the series' outcome. Does Satou ever recover from being a hikikomori? Well, yes, it would appear so. Obviously, there are some deep-rooted psychological issues to be concerned with, but he does eventually get a job. Of course, that's not until Yamazaki moves away (forced to drop his dreams of being a game creator and go home to take over the family farm), Hitomi goes off to start a family, his allowance gets canceled due to his father's forced retirement, and he even forsakes Misaki and her help. Oh, and the game he and Yamazaki were working on gets finished, but flops, and Satou realizes he doesn't cut it as a "creator". So, with no money, and nobody to fall back on, he eventually takes that step out into the world and ends up with a job conducting traffic. Unfortunately, that's the straw that breaks Misaki. Turns out she's just about as miserable as Satou, and her only purpose in life was being needed by Satou, the one person she found who was more pathetic than she. So with Satou doing okay on his own for once, Misaki's life no longer has any purpose.

The buildup to Misaki's attempted suicide was beautifully depressing. The whole scenery of it was amazing, with the snow, and the one song during the scene in the park, when Satou walks out on Misaki, it's like an acoustic guitar strumming some minor chords...I want to learn those chords. I still don't quite understand how things got resolved. Misaki obviously wasn't just trying to get some attention. She was ready to die, even despite Satou's attempts to stop her. And yet, they managed to work it out. Somehow. But I am glad they did. I still think Satou should be more honest about his feelings, though. Unless he really doesn't have them... That would be sad.

"Question: Why would someone want to continue living as a hikikomori?
"Answer: Because his clothing, food, and housing are guaranteed. Since he always finds a way to get by, he can afford to continue living as hikikomori. In hindsight, living as a hikikomori was a luxury in itself. Without clothing, food, and housing, you don't have any other choice but to work unless you're prepared to die."

"What to do from here on out, how to improve my life... I actually know the answer. I've read around two hundred books on self-improvement. I've even thought about writing one myself. I know everything."
"I'm scared."
"I'm scared of changing my way of life. If I do, I feel like something unexpected will occur. ...I know things can't continue like this forever. But... I also want to remain like this. I don't want to log out. Although I know it isn't realistic, I keep thinking that suddenly, one day, a surprise will occur and everything will resolve itself."

Human Pathos

For me, this series works on two levels. It was great fun to watch. And it's also probably one of the most important series I've watched. There's no question I'm a NEET, and even though it's primarily a Japanese phenomenon, I don't feel that it would be a stretch to describe myself as a hikikomori at this point in my life. Maybe I'm not worst-case scenario, but the problem is there. Although, I don't like admitting to problems because doing so instigates a push towards a solution, and the solution is precisely what I'm afraid of. See the quote above. Still, despite one's desire to be unique, it is comforting to associate oneself with a group, because it helps to know that you're not the only one dealing with a specific type of problem. It's kind of like the ancient practice of naming a demon to strip it of its power.

But where does it go from here?

"In dramas, there is an introduction, development, turn, and a conclusion - a burst of emotions and closure. Our lives will always be filled with a vague uncertainty."

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Tomb Raider Chronicles

Note: This review was originally posted on Myspace. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

"Lara Croft
Once And Future Adventurer"

My issues with this game are: a) it has the same downfalls as The Last Revelation (particularly in forced perspectives and cinematic reveals); b) the level-loading times are patience-testingly long; c) which is compounded by the fact that for some reason when you die, it automatically loads the title screen instead of assuming you want to load a game, so that when you die, you have to go through two painful loading screens instead of just one; and d) the final level has way too many annoying bugs...

If you can get past all of that, it's actually a pretty fun game. Clearly a lot shorter, and not quite so epic as LastRev, since the different episodes are unrelated, but fun. Plus, you get back that location variety as well as alternate outfits that were missing from LastRev. Winter Camo for the Russian levels, Young Lara for the Halloween episode, and a shiny Catsuit for the industrial levels (and, of course, the classic outfit for the Roman levels).

The setup of the plot is actually pretty neat. Lara is missing and presumed dead after the raid of LastRev, and some of her closest friends gather together after the dedication of her memorial in order to tell stories of some of her more secretive past adventures. First you get to run through the streets of Rome, and eventually the Colloseum, searching for the Philosopher's Stone. Then you get to infiltrate a Russian submarine to recover the Spear of Destiny from some undersea wreckage. Then you have a rather unique Halloween episode, where young Lara follows a priest onto a haunted island. Finally, you get to sneak into Von Croy Industries, Mission:Impossible style, to steal the Iris back from some androids (that's right).

Overall, the levels and locations felt sort of like an amalgam of previous tomb raiding memories and experiences, doing justice to the 'Chronicles' title, as well as adding some new features and experiences. New moves include tight-rope walking, parallel bar swinging, and limited hand-to-hand combat techniques. I'll say a few words about the individual locations (this section may contain some spoilers):

Rome (The Streets of Rome/Trajan Markets/The Colloseum)

These levels kind of felt like a dry Venice (TR2), with a little bit of the original greco-roman levels from the first game thrown in. The Colloseum was pretty cool. This time around, you got to fight gladiators as well as lions. You didn't get to explore the Colloseum proper, though, so it's not like you can even compare it to the first game's Coliseum. It was definitely interesting to see Pierre and Larson (from the first game) back, and as funny and stereotypical as ever. Larson being the dumb cowboy, and Pierre being the snooty Frenchman. Nothing too serious, but a generally good time. Pierre's downfall was pretty ruthless, though, but very clever (with a few puns of its own), and true to Lara's original badass image (as opposed to CD's modern 'delicate' Lara). Helmet Head was freaking annoying to kill.

Pierre: You were kicked in the head by a horse, oui? So the brain doesn't work correctly?
Larson: How'd you know about that?

Pierre: Come, let us get off this roof, and I will buy you a milkshake.

Russia (The Base/The Submarine/Deepsea Dive/Sinking Submarine)

Imagine TR2's Offshore Rig set in TR3's Antarctica, with a tiny bit of TR2's Maria Doria levels thrown in on the side, and that's what the Russian levels are like. The Russian Admiral actually turns out to be a pretty sympathizable character. Exploring the submarine was pretty fun. The Deepsea Dive portion was disappointingly short, though. The Sinking Submarine was also fun to explore.

Black Isle (Gallows Tree/Labyrinth/Old Mill)

This little episode was surprisingly original, and interesting. First of all, it's the first set of full levels with young Lara, unlike the Training levels in LastRev. Second, because Lara is young, you have no weapons, so you have to think of other ways to avoid enemies. Third, the whole thing was like a Halloween theme park, with all kinds of classic baddies haunting around, from werewolves to will o' the wisps to skeletons to deranged forest spirits to a [literally] heartless talking hanged man to an apparition of death to a seahag to a headed horseman/perturbed demon... Really neat levels.

Von Croy Industries (13th Floor/Escape with the Iris/Red Alert!)

Beside the annoying bugs in the final level, these levels are mostly fun. Some stealth stuff, partly reminiscent of TR3's Nevada levels, as well as a setting reminiscent of the City portion of TR3's London levels. Crawling through vents and sneaking around is fun, though this isn't quite Metal Gear Solid, and the stealth tactics aren't quite as reliable. The guy talkin' to Lara on the headset, telling her about the layout of the building and et cetera, is extremely annoying though. He tries to be all hip and cool and everything, and he just comes off as being obnoxiously annoying. And you can even tell in the tone of Lara's voice that she thinks the same way. Eventually, you start wishing he would just shut up and let you figure things out for yourself, for what it's worth.


As for the "tombiness" of Tomb Raider Chronicles - very low. But by this point, you kind of start taking for granted that Lara rarely raids tombs these days, and just accept it for what it is. For that reason, this game could never compare to the original, and it doesn't quite have the legendary levels that two and three boast. Still, for a light-hearted (despite the gloomy nature of the storyline - mourning Lara's death) adventure through some vaguely familiar, and some newer, areas, this game delivers an enjoyable distraction from your own boring life (at least until the bugs get you).

Endgame Stats:

Time Taken - 7:27:43
Distance Travelled - 34646m
Ammo Used - 2683
Health Packs Used - 42
Secrets Found - 28/36
Saves - 330

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Tomb Raider - The Last Revelation

Note: This review was originally posted on Myspace. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.


The fourth installment in the hit series starring Lara Croft. Now this is interesting, because this is where I lost contact with the Tomb Raider series originally. I played the first three games when they came out, but then I sort of got distracted away from the series, and ignored it until just a month or so ago, when they remade the first game (Tomb Raider Anniversary). Since it was a remake of the incredible original, I couldn't pass it up, plus I figured it would be a good way to reintroduce myself to the series with something familiar, while meeting the modern Tomb Raider engine at the same time.

As it was, after playing Anniversary, my interest in the series was rekindled, and I played through the three games I own. Then I bought the next two games, and I'm playing through the fourth one now, for the first time ever. This game was supposed to be a return to the tombs, after the city-like, industrial, and open-jungle levels of the second and third games in the series. Last Revelation was also originally supposed to be the final Tomb Raider game, as Lara Croft supposedly dies at the end. It's also considered the last of the classic titles, as the fifth game was a half-assed cash cow (I hear), and the sixth game took some huge risks and failed miserably (I also hear). Then Core was replaced by Crystal Dynamics, and we get the modern Tomb Raider, Tomb Raider Legend, with an all-new game engine. That's the history of it anyway...


Nonlinearity - You can pass freely between levels, and in some cases, you have to in order to collect items and open gates to move on to yet more levels.

Poison Effect - The screen dilates and contracts on the vertical and horizontal axes, really screwing up your perception of direction and distance - impressive and effective.

Laser Sight - You can combine the laser sight to select guns in your inventory (why not all of them?), adding a new element to combat by allowing you to target a specific spot rather than just pointing your guns and shooting.

Shimmy Around Corners - This is a useful addition that seems like it should have been implemented awhile ago. Now, when you're hanging from ledges or climbing on ladders (or ladder-like surfaces), you can actually maneuver around corners without having to be on foot (as there is often not a floor to stand on in those situations).

Torches - Being able to pick up and light torches in this game was a really cool addition. It was also a nice alternative to lighting flares, as the torches lasted pretty much indefinitely (unless you drop it in some water). It would have been nice if you could use them as a weapon, though. It just seems like it would be natural to kill a mummy by lighting it on fire with a torch. But alas, I had no such luck.


Loading Times - I can understand the loading screen when you pass between levels, but stepping into a room within a level and having the screen freeze for five seconds before continuing really interrupts the game flow.

Forced Perspective - In some areas of the game, the camera changes from its usual spot behind Lara in order to accentuate a certain aspect of a room or focus on something within the room. This is useful and at times essential to the gameplay, but in the earlier Tomb Raiders, you have the option of hitting the Look button to move the camera back to its default position behind Lara. For some reason, in this game, you can't shake the camera out of its predefined position in these specific areas, leading to some really disorienting and frustrating sections where you can't choose where to look.

Cinematic Reveal - Every time you throw a switch, or sometimes just when you enter a particularly special room, a cinematic follows where it shows you a door opening or it shows off the room or something to that effect. In previous games, when this happens, you're still in control of Lara, and you can hit the Look button or pull out your guns in order to kill the cinematic and force the camera back to Lara. In this game, you just have to sit there and watch the cinematic, even if you've seen it already. Plus, there are a lot more cinematics in the game, reminding me of Elysia's comment on TRA, how every little thing has to be handed to you in a cinematic, instead of allowing you to discover it yourself. Honestly, I thought a lot of the disappointing changes in TRA were the result of CD's handling of the series (CD replaced Core after the sixth game), but now I'm starting to wonder if the disappointment of TRA stems from CD trying to replicate the disappointing aspects of later TR's and apply them to the pure and unfettered original game...

Locust Swarms - The piranha in TR3 were annoying, but you could stay out of the water. The scarab swarms in this game are annoying, but at least you can escape them by getting high off the ground. But the locust swarms cannot be evaded. When they come, all you can do is try to outrun them, as they peel away your health, until they run away. All I want is some way to evade them. Like if lighting a flare (glo-stick) would make them stay away, or if you could kill them somehow. I just don't like hearing that locust swarm moving in and knowing there's absolutely nothing I can do but suck it up and prepare a medikit.

Lack of Alternate Outfits - Okay, it's not a fundamental part of the gameplay, and even the fantastic original game stuck with one outfit for the whole journey, but after the exciting alternate outfits in the second and third games, it's a little disappointing not to see some new ones in this game.

Lack of Croft Manor - I can forgive this game because they have a rather original training level, where Lara is 16 years old and being instructed in the ways of tomb raiding by her mentor, but I still can't help feeling nostalgic for the old Croft Manor.

City Levels - A return to the tombs, indeed. The bright, sandy Alexandria areas were interesting and fun to play, but the dark Cairo levels started to bore me. It was interesting that they kind of went for almost a horror vibe, but it just wasn't right for a Tomb Raider game. The alien scares of the Antarctica levels in TR3 were effective, but this was a little...blah. Plus, I've never been hugely fond of vehicles in Tomb Raider, but they've been an integral part since the second game. I'd just rather explore at a slow pace on foot than zoom by a bunch of areas with my foot on the pedal.

Inventory - I really don't understand why they got rid of the three-tiered circular ring-style inventory of the previous games. It was unique and one of Tomb Raider's trademarks. In this game, you just get a regular line of items that you can scroll through left or right. And there's only one tier. It was really nice having weapons/health/flares on one level, special items (keys, etc.) on another level, and system controls (sound, video settings, load game, save game, etc.) on yet another level. In this game, everything is confined to a single level, and when you get a lot of items, it's annoying having to scroll them all back and forth like crazy, mainly to go from using medikits to saving games, to choosing ammo types for weapons, to looking at what special items you carry, etc. It's maddening. And the options and exit game commands weren't even in the inventory. You have to press 'p' (for pause) to get to them. I went halfway through the game before I figured out how to exit to title! And the bloated inventory is particularly annoying because halfway through the game, you pick up 5 special items that you just hang onto for the rest of the game. I just really don't see the justification for getting rid of the ring-style inventory...

Endgame Stats:

Time Taken - 17:32:03
Distance Travelled - 97975m
Ammo Used - 10144
Health Packs Used - 63
Secrets Found - 53/70
Saves - 754

Level Impressions:

(This section contains spoilers!).

Cambodia (Angkor Wat/Race For The Iris)

This was a nice training/beginning to the game. You get to control Lara at age 16 as she is shown the tomb raiding ropes by her mentor Werner Von Croy. The race is a lot of fun because you can try to beat Werner to the Iris, but you have to be good!

Valley of the Kings (Tomb of Seth/Burial Chambers/Valley of the Kings/KV5)

These levels were pretty cool. Kind of half tomb-y, half desert-y. A good introduction to the mood/setting of the game. The sphinx in Tomb of Seth and the rotating room in Burial Chambers were particularly cool. The vehicle section in the last two levels of this group had me feeling so-so, though, since I'm not a huge fan of vehicles in Tomb Raider.

Karnak (Temple of Karnak/Great Hypostle Hall/Sacred Lake/Tomb of Semerkhet/Guardian of Semerkhet)

These levels were fairly good. They were definitely reminiscent of the Egyptian levels in the first Tomb Raider game, particularly the Khamoon levels. Of course, they weren't quite as wonderfully architecturally designed, unfortunately. The game of Senet in the Tomb of Semerkhet was pretty fun (after I remembered to read the tablet stating the rules...). I like how you have to go through a bunch of extra chambers to beat the level if you lose the game. The Guardian of Semerkhet was creepy (until you saw he was just an ornamented live bull), and added a new aspect to the gameplay, as you had to use him to grant access to certain areas.

Desert (Desert Railroad)

This was a really fun level. It takes place on a moving train in the middle of the desert. I saw the cutscene leading into this level, and I was saying to myself, I really hope I get to play on the train! And I did! It definitely reminded me of Indiana Jones, in whichever movie it is where they're fighting on the train. I just wish there had been more to the level.

Alexandria (Alexandria/Coastal Ruins/Catacombs/Temple of Poseidon/Lost Library/Hall of Demetrius/Pharos, Temple of Isis/Cleopatra's Palaces)

This was probably my second favorite location in this game. The earlier sections are very sandy and desert-y, but the later underground levels are very tomb-y and actually somewhat reminiscent of the greco-roman levels from the first Tomb Raider game (a Temple of Poseidon, in Egypt?). The nonlinearity played a huge part in this location, as most of the levels were connected in various ways to each other. The Catacombs were pretty good. Not quite what I was expecting, but effective nonetheless. They were more vertical than horizontal, but that added to the feeling of "going deeper". The Lost Library had some pretty frustrating puzzles, which is probably a good thing. Pharos, Temple of Isis was probably the second biggest 'woah' moment for me in the game. I was a little confused about where to go from the Coastal Ruins. I knew I was missing something in the Catacombs, but I found an underwater passage in Coastal Ruins that led to this huge underwater cavern with the entrance to some giant underwater palace. I was totally impressed. And the hammerhead shark was a nice addition. I was just like, woah! And the best part was that I didn't even think I was supposed to be there, so it felt more like a discovery than just moving onto the next area. You know what I mean? Cleopatra's Palaces returned to that very sandy Egypt feel, but the beautiful plants scattered about also made me think of the gardens of Palace Midas from the first Tomb Raider game. All in all a pleasant level to explore.

Cairo (City of the Dead/Chambers of Tulun/Citadel Gate/Trenches/Street Bazaar/Citadel)

These were without a doubt my least favorite levels of the game. Dark, city levels. Kind of like the London levels of TR3 in atmosphere, but nowhere near as intricate or interesting to explore. Plus, they were all part-vehicle levels. The turret guns were annoying. Somebody could have told me that shooting them in just the right spot causes them to explode. The locust swarms were annoying. The giant dragon was pretty creepy, but kind of unexplained? I just really lost my patience with these levels, and was really anxious to get them behind me.

Giza (Sphinx Complex/Underneath the Sphinx/Menkaure's Pyramid/Inside Menkaure's Pyramid/The Mastabas/Great Pyramid/Khufu's Queens Pyramids/Inside the Great Pyramid/Temple of Horus)

I'd have to say this was probably my favorite location in this game. Which is good, because you want the game to end on a good note, right? The sphinx was cool, but it was the pyramids that really grabbed my attention. I had so much fun climbing up the side of Menkaure's Pyramid, and then when I saw the many-times-larger Great Pyramid, I was awe-struck! That was my biggest 'woah' moment from the game. Less of a wow!, and more of a wo-o-o-ow. Inside the pyramids was pretty good, though I feel like the tunnels and chambers could have been better if they were a little more claustrophobic. The lightning/thunder effects on the outside were cool. The giant scorpions were awesome, and creepy. Temple of Horus, being the final level, was slightly disappointing. Basically a single puzzle repeated a few times, then the boss chamber, which wasn't the most impressive boss chamber in a Tomb Raider game. There were some traps on the way out, but considering that this is The Great Pyramid, it still doesn't hold a candle to The Great Pyramid of the first Tomb Raider. And then the ending is, well, depressingly arbitrary. I can't believe that after all that happened, Werner is suddenly a good guy again, and I can't believe that after coming all that way, Lara can't make the last few steps out of the pyramid before it collapses. ::shrugs::

Overall Impressions:

This was overall an enjoyable game. There were some new additions that added to the Tomb Raider legacy, but I feel like there were many more new additions that pushed Tomb Raider away from the classic feel and more towards the modern feel. I still haven't played the other later TR games, but I really get the impression that CD used some of the less enjoyable ideas from this game when making Tomb Raider Anniversary, instead of sticking to what made the first game what it was. The levels themselves were pretty good, but already give off a slight feeling of in-intricacy. The nonlinear fashion of some of the level sets was really cool, but it felt like they used that as an excuse to make each level itself less intricate. Some of the levels were actually pretty small, serving as just a few traps or puzzles connecting this area and the next.

Final verdict: I just can't rate this game as highly as the first three in the series. It definitely had its moments, which will not soon be forgotten, but a pervading sense of deterioration is already palpable, and knowing the extent to which modern Tomb Raider has gone, I can't help but let that put a little poison into the experience. Still, it was mostly a fun game to play.