Thursday, November 19, 2009

The X-Files: I Want To Believe (2008)

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

Now, if you told me that it's been a decade since I stopped watching The X-Files, I'd actually be inclined to believe you (whether I want to or not). Come to think of it, the first X-Files movie (Fight the Future) was released in 1998. WAIT, IS THAT EVEN POSSIBLE? I was a high school freshman in 1998. O_O


I wanted to see this, the second X-Files movie, when it came out a summer or two ago, but it spent like a week in theaters (curse you, theaters), so no go. But I just watched it. And it was pretty good. Whatever you might say about the premise, I wasn't expecting it to be classic X-Files, just on account of the time lapse alone. But, I thought it was a successful homage to classic X-Files. As a movie, it didn't have the kick and the epicness (nor the aliens) of the first X-Files movie, but I enjoyed it. And it felt like a good finale to the franchise (regardless of whether or not it will be).

Mulder and Scully have moved on - together, but on. Neither of them work at the FBI any longer. Scully has pursued her dream of being a doctor - a real doctor - and Mulder has secluded himself like a hermit in a remote house in snowy...West Virginia? Or somewhere. His work room is pasted with news clippings and actually looks pretty much like his office at the FBI looked (complete with the iconic poster). Also, he's apparently wanted by the FBI for his crackpot theories. Or something.

Well, just when you thought you were out, the FBI has a way of pulling you back in. And yes, certain themes in this movie, while they may or may not have been overtly meant as such, they did have a vague Milleniumistic flavor. It seems that in this movie, Mulder and Scully, who have finally gotten together (and I do mean together), face many of the problems Frank Black and his wife faced - the dilemma of "retirement", in Mulder's case, and whether he can truly ever escape the demons that led him into the field, and whether or not the two of them can keep the darkness that their previous lives repeatedly confronted them with at bay. Et cetera.

So, the FBI wants Mulder back (and they can only get to him through Scully) for help in one specific case, where they have a psychic (who also happens to be a priest and a convicted child molester - on top of whether or not to believe his abilities, there is the question of should we believe his visions, considering his character, and where the visions may be coming from - the attic, or the basement, so to speak) helping them track down a fellow FBI agent gone missing. Eventually, it all leads to a black market organ trade/stem cell research group operating incognito on abducted (and thus quite unwilling) human subjects.

So there's a lot going on, and there's a lot of interpersonal dynamics between Mulder and Scully, and though they may not have the pizazz of their younger selves in the same roles, they are actually quite interesting to see, in a sort of "ten years later" capacity. You don't get to see that with all of your favorite characters. And there are enough nods to classic X-Files fans, also. Mulder's introductory speech is classic Fox Mulder, and though he shaves later, I think, while different, the beard look actually suited him. And his sister does come up briefly as a topic of concern. Scully is still battling with her religious devotion, and its conflict with her skepticism. And another classic character makes a triumphant (if brief) return (and no, I'm sorry, but it's not Krycek...).

I don't think there's a whole lot of point in continuing to ramble on, so I'll stop there. I'll still need to watch the rest of the TV series at some point, as it is the best [English] television show I've ever watched; though I kind of lost interest around that point that Mulder dropped off the cast list. But I had other things going on in my life at that time as well. At any rate, this movie was a satisfactory coda to the series.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Fourth Kind (2009)

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

I want to say that The Fourth Kind is not perfect, but I found it to be both effective, and terrifying. And it is, without a doubt, essential viewing for alien abduction enthusiasts. The story focuses on psychologist Dr. Abbey Tyler's personal experiences with the paranormal in her home town of remote Nome, Alaska, where several individuals had allegedly been abducted in their sleep on multiple occasions. The film opens with a frank scene featuring Milla Jovovich, who steps out of her character (she plays Dr. Tyler) and explains the role of the film, as a dramatization of actual events (supported by some supposed actual footage), the point of which is to present the facts of this strange case - allowing you, the viewer, to come to your own conclusions as to what, ultimately, to believe.

And this is the unique approach of this film. Instead of going documentary style and presenting almost exclusively archival footage, or, on the other extreme, going complete dramatization as if to say, 'here is, essentially, what happened', this film mixes the two - going so far as to juxtapose them simultaneously at times. There are scenes where the screen is split, with archival footage being shown on one half, and the corresponding dramatization on the other. In my estimation, the goal of this approach is to drive home the point that the dramatizations are faithful reproductions of the archival footage (perhaps to build firmer trust in the dramatizations), and to constantly reinforce the audience's acknowledgement that these events are true.

We'll ignore whether or not the archival footage is truly real, or also staged, as - though certainly up for debate - the viewing of the movie depends on the assumption that that footage is indeed real. Skepticism on that subject is certainly warranted when discussing whether or not the movie is "real", but allowing that skepticism to taint your suspension of disbelief during viewing is bound to decrease the effect, and your enjoyment, of the film.

Personally, I found the constant bashing over the audience's head of "this is real, this is real" to be highly suspect, actually decreasing my belief in the veracity of the film's claims. One would think that, even despite the skepticism surrounding the issue, if it were true, they wouldn't have to try quite so hard to convince you. Even so, I thought it was a unique approach, and it was interesting to compare the depictions - archival versus dramatized.

Begin Spoilers!

A few words about the plot. Through patient interviews, Dr. Tyler comes to the realization that something strange is going on in Nome, and that it may be related to her husband's recent death - he was apparently murdered in his sleep. Multiple patients report similar symptoms involving difficulty sleeping, and recollections of a white owl watching them from a window - and sometimes inside the room - while in bed. Dr. Tyler decides to try hypnotizing one of the patients to uncover the truth about these strange incidents, and during hypnosis, the patient comes to realize that what he saw was not an owl - and he subsequently goes into a fit of extreme terror. The realization of what he's been experiencing causes him to take drastic (and irreversible) measures in order to prevent it from happening again - and to the rest of his family.

Tension mounts as the good doctor discovers that she's been having the same experiences - and suspects that her husband had them also before he died - and the local sheriff begins to suspect her of foul play, considering the hysterical results of her patients' therapy - which brings up the conflict of wanting to put a face to one's fears at the potential risk of not being able to face up to that terrifying truth. Believe me, the idea of a thing being so terrifying that a person would rather die than live with the knowledge of it is indeed profoundly disturbing (and very Lovecraftian).

The movie tries to take a more or less "realistic" approach to the story - which fits in line with its attempt to convince the audience that it's all true. As a result, even with the dramatizations, which do take some liberties, for effect - although some of the archival footage itself is downright terrifying - we don't get to see (clearly) any actual aliens, nor do we get an exciting scene aboard a spacecraft. In other words, the movie doesn't take us with the abductees, but only shows the results of their experiences from our, Earthly, perspective.

This is disappointing, to be sure, but it would be wrong to think that this film doesn't offer any goods. I was kind of perturbed by the way that they blurred the line between hypnosis and actual abduction. Hypnosis is supposed to just be a memory of the abduction, but here, it's almost portrayed as a repeat occurrence of the abduction. Which is odd because that would almost seem to support the theory that alien abduction is all in the head - which is contrary to the film's obvious purpose of putting forth the alien theory of these occurrences.

Anyway, since from a realistic perspective, it's easier to video-tape hypnosis sessions than actual abductions, it works in the context of the film, but I did find it strange that they used hypnosis almost as a call for the aliens to do their thing. The ole, "I have to talk with them, put me under!" trick. Anyway, we do get to see some terrifying stuff, including plenty of screaming, vague hints of painful medical experiments (again, more from the "see the effects, imagine the causes" angle), some levitation (though not as impressive as seeing a guy lifted up through a beam of light into a spacecraft), and we even get to hear the alien(s) voice, as it relays some very disturbing messages (initially in ancient Sumerian).

End Spoilers!

Altogether, what this adds up to is a very good movie, which nevertheless leaves me feeling a bit unfulfilled, as in, wanting more. All the more reason to pair it up with other alien fare, for an even better entertainment experience. There are a lot of films about extraterrestrial life - the search, contact, etc. - but few, that I am aware of, that deal directly with this specific style of alien abduction phenomenon. I recommend copious viewings of classic episodes of The X-Files - especially (but certainly not exclusively) Duane Barry, of which I was reminded multiple times while watching The Fourth Kind. But, ultimately, for the double feature, I would pair it up with no less than the ultimate title in alien abduction terror - Fire In The Sky.

(Recommendations for other alien abduction movies that I may not have seen are greatly appreciated. ;)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Close Encounters

Note: This compilation was originally posted on Bridge To Better Days. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

In anticipation of the nightmares I am going to be havi--er, I mean, the impending release of The Fourth Kind (as in, Close Encounters of), I have put together a short playlist featuring a few of my favorite (rock) songs dealing with the topics of space aliens, interstellar travel, and extraterrestrial contact:

Jimi Hendrix Experience - EXP
Billy Thorpe - Children of the Sun
Steve Miller Band - Serenade (From The Stars)
Foreigner - Starrider
Fleetwood Mac - Hypnotized
Robin Trower - For Earth Below
Ten Years After - Here They Come
The Rolling Stones - 2000 Light Years From Home
Pink Floyd - Let There Be More Light
The Byrds - Mr. Spaceman
Robin Trower - Day of the Eagle
Jimi Hendrix - Third Stone From The Sun
Black Sabbath - Planet Caravan
Pink Floyd - Is There Anybody Out There?
Roy Buchanan - You're Not Alone

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Horror Movies For Halloween

Note: This collection of mini-reviews was originally posted on Bridge To Better Days. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

October 31st wasn't any different from the rest of the days in October for me, but for me, Halloween isn't a day, it's a month. And that month is Shocktober. In addition to playing a vaguely horror-related game - Pathologic - for the entire month (and I still haven't finished it yet), I spent the whole month watching horror movies, as is my custom. So now I'm going to list all the horror movies I've watched over the past month, and maybe say a brief word or two (or three hundred - cuz, you know, it's me we're talking about here) about each one:

Cannibal Holocaust (1980) - The goriest movie I've ever seen. Do not recommend it to animal lovers. If you can get past the gross-out factor, though (and while it is over the top, it does serve a purpose to the story), it does have some redeeming factors - including a commentary on journalistic exploitation (which some would argue is ironically weakened by the film's own exploitative nature). This is the ultimate "jungle savages" flick.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) - Good movie. For its reputation, it's surprisingly chaste compared to modern gorror standards, and yet, it still manages to be genuinely frightening. The bone room is terrifying, the final girl's ordeal at the dinner table is excruciating, and Leatherface's chain saw dance in front of the setting sun at the end of the movie is CLASSIC.

The Hills Have Eyes (1977) - I actually saw the 2006 remake of this film while it was running in theaters. I think both versions are good, and pretty creepy - the newer perhaps a bit more intense, though. I remember the rape scene being more disturbing in the newer version. Still, I like the older version and it stands on its own. "We'll be french fries - human french fries!"

Day of the Woman a.k.a. I Spit On Your Grave (1978) - A writer-ess from the city gets raped by a gang of country bumpkins and exacts murderous revenge against them. Although ostensibly a feminist's wet dream, the exploitative nature of the film arguably demeans that (what is it with everybody being against exploitation, anyway?). The lead actress in this flick is not only stunningly gorgeous, but actually quite naked for a significant portion of the film, including crawling around in the forest. You might think I'm sick for saying that, what with all the brutal rape going on, but it wasn't the rape I was admiring. It's just unfortunate that, with public morals the way they are, the only way I can get my desired dose of flesh is packaged with either hardcore sex, or violence. Best line: "suck it, bitch" (the second time you hear it ;).

The Last House on the Left (1972) - My experience of this movie was poisoned by a later realization that I probably viewed a censored version of the film. I read comments about it being incredibly intense, but I found it rather tame (likely due to the lack of cut scenes). Still, compared to the later version, it was a cakewalk. It still had its moments, though - like when they actually made the girls strip in the woods. Great '70s feel to it. "My parents work in the iron and steel industry - my mom irons and my dad steals."

The Last House on the Left (2009) - Because of the tameness of the vintage version, I decided to give the brand new remake a watch. The actress in the lead role was totally gorgeous, which made the rape scene all the more disappointing. Because they hardly even stripped her. :-( And, believe it or not, the articles of clothing they did take off had a tendency to magically reappear in the next shot. >:O Anyway, it was pretty intense, the worst parts being not the brutal murders, but the impromptu medical procedures (the dad character is a doctor). Yeah, the medical stuff always gets to me. For some reason, sewing a nose back on is a lot more disturbing to me than slicing it off in the first place...

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) - Great film. It's very unassuming, and not like your typical serial killer suspense thriller. It's like a behind the scenes look at the life of a serial killer - absent any kind of overbearing moral agenda (in either direction). It just presents you with this killer - who could actually be a decent guy if it weren't for his bloodlust - doing what he does. "Well, I guess I love you too..."

My Bloody Valentine (2009) - Modern remake of an older film about a miner/serial killer who wields a mean pick axe. The movie itself didn't jump out at me, but I made a point to see this version for one specific reason - the much hyped nude scene. One of the characters is fully nude for like a whole 5 minutes. Verdict? The actress was very "porno chic" (and I say that in the nicest way - though it just isn't my style), but other than that, I give the scene two thumbs up - that includes the actress for doing the scene (I read that it was actually her idea to do it completely nude), as well as the guys behind the cameras for going along with it (not because they wouldn't want to - I mean, come on - but because most people would be too much of a pussy to stand up against the censors for a scene like that). I just hope (against hope) that scenes like these become more common place in a wider variety of films. The only thing that bugged me was what the trucker said after his naked "date" followed him out of the motel room and into the parking lot - "put some clothes on before some kid sees you." *facepalm*

The Brood (1979) - Brought to my attention by some guy I forgot, The Brood is a David Cronenberg film - if that doesn't mean anything to you, then forget it. Admittedly, the actual film experience was far tamer than I was expecting based on the hype, but it was still a good movie. About some brood of murderous children incarnated into flesh by a fringe psych practice ("psychoplasmics", I believe). The birthing scene is pretty icky, but most of the rest of the creepiness factor comes from the juxtaposition of children and murderous violence.

The Fly (1986) - Thinking of David Cronenberg got me remembering that I had never seen (or at least not within memory) his remake of The Fly. I'd seen the old Vincent Price version, and the remake's sequel, but not the remake itself, which is highly (and rightly) acclaimed. Very good, and really got me thinking about the (admittedly fictional) logistics of teleportation (as well as its risks). "I'm saying, I'll hurt you if you stay..."

The Evil Dead (1981) - The extent of my familiarity with this cult classic (regarding it and its sequels as one) has been a few recycled quips (to great effect) in Duke Nukem, and a couple minutes watching a scene from Army of Darkness before switching the channel in disgust (at the slapstick, not the gore). I had read that the first movie was more serious (which indeed it is), so I decided to watch it. I liked it. It manages to be pretty scary, and the over the top gore fx are impressive.

Evil Dead II (1987) - I had read that Evil Dead's sequel was sort of an overlap to the original movie, with some stuff added in, and having watched the first one, I couldn't withhold my curiosity about the inevitable comparisons, so I watched the sequel. It was a lot campier, to my disappointment, but it still had some redeeming qualities, such as some of the fx, and certain aspects of Bruce's - er, I mean Ash's - growing caricaturization; that is, the parts that managed to be cool instead of just plain silly.

Army of Darkness (1992) - And, having come this far, I couldn't resist watching Army of Darkness, just to round the experience out. The slapstick still bothered me, but it was slightly more tolerable in the context of the whole film. Interestingly, I remembered some of the plot points, as well as certain quotes, from an Army of Darkness Doom mod I've played. I have to admit, though, that the immortal quotes (such as, "hail to the king, baby") were more entertaining in Duke Nukem, when they had already become legendary (and were spoken in such a manner), rather than here in this movie when they're still nothing more than cheesy dialogue. :p I was also surprised to find out that this movie was an inspiration for Peter Jackson's later filming of The Battle At Helm's Deep in his silver screen Lord of the Rings adaptation(s) - but the similarities are blatantly obvious, even down to some of the orc - er, skeleton - yells. It's just weird for me to draw such a connection between a silly movie like this and a serious movie like LotR...

Dead Alive a.k.a. Braindead (1992) - Speaking of Peter Jackson, he also did this film, which is notable for its ridiculous - no, make that ludicrous - overabundance of gore. The film itself was kind of so-so for me, and some of it was just grossness for the sake of gross-out. But I cannot deny the sheer brilliance of, for example, the lawnmower scene. Just watch it. Words are not necessary.

Shaun of the Dead (2004) - I had been told this was a really good movie, and supposedly one of the best zombie movies ever. And despite it being a comedic parody of the zombie genre, I decided to watch it anyway. It was indeed entertaining, and a very well accomplished film. I can see why so many people love it. I still prefer serious zombie flicks, though, despite my ensuing decision to go on a zomcom binge:

The Return of the Living Dead (1985) - Since having seen Night of the Living Dead, and reading about the split between the "Dead" and the "Return" sequels, I've been curious about both. The Return titles take themselves far less seriously, but they (well, some of them, at least) do have some things going for them. Return of the Living Dead is funny and entertaining without becoming too silly, and the style/approach of the zombies is very iconic - foggy graveyards, hands reaching out of the ground, etc. The soundtrack to this film is also great, with a lot of rocking tracks. It's very much an '80s movie, but I say that in a good way. I liked the assorted cast of stereotypically punk kids - especially Trash, the girl with an erotic obsession with death, who does not hesitate for a second to strip naked and dance on top of a tomb. "Do you ever fantasize about being killed?" Also, Tarman, the first zombie that comes out of the canister, is by far one of the coolest looking (and sounding, and moving) zombies I've seen, from a stylish (rather than strictly scary) perspective.

Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988) - Part II has that late '80s, cusp-of-the-'90s feel to it, with younger kids in one or two of the lead roles, and more of a neighborhood-wide setting compared to the more claustrophobic first. Also, some elements from the first movie are recycled here, including two of the characters (played by the same actors), who are reinvented (rather than continued) to lesser effect. It was okay, but not as good as the first - although the foggy grave-rising effect remained in top form.

Return of the Living Dead III (1993) - III is not only atrociously submerged in '90s-ism, but it also tries to take itself far too seriously - and that's coming from me - trying to be some kind of dramatic love story where one of the lovers happens to turn into a brain-feasting zombie (although she fights her urges, very hard). Riverman was an interesting character, but ultimately I'd call this one a flop - even the "kickass" sadomasochistic garb the zombie girl dons managed to miss the mark for me...

Dawn of the Dead (1978) - Night's true sequel. I have utmost respect for Romero's original zombie trilogy - now that I've actually seen it. The best part is the sense of the advance of the zombie apocalypse from one film to the next. As everybody knows (right?), in Dawn, our heroes hole themselves up inside a large indoor shopping mall. I guess it's supposed to be a social commentary about consumerism (which I sympathize with), but still, I can't help thinking that if I was in their situation, with an entire shopping mall (and all it's included goods) at my fingertips, that would be a pretty sweet way to live.

Day of the Dead (1985) - I think I liked Day even more than Dawn. Reminds me most - of the three - of 28 Days Later. The early scene in the abandoned city is great. The military guy is a real jerk, but as a character, he's great fun. Dr. "Frankenstein" and his tamed zombie Bub are excellent - the concept of tamed zombies has a strong tendency to misfire (from a serious, rather than a comedic, perspective), but here it's achieved perfectly.

Land of the Dead (2005) - Good concept, entertaining movie, but ultimately disappointing as a Romero film. It turns out I have a hard time taking a film starring John Leguizamo seriously. :shrugs: Also, I know the film hinges on blurring the line between the living and the walking dead, but I don't think the zombies were "zomby" enough. Especially the lead one, who learns faster than the others - as has been noted elsewhere, he looked more like a modern movie vampire (the monster kind, not the emo kind), than a zombie. Ah well.

Suspiria (1977) - Interestingly, I had seen Suspiria's sequel Inferno the same time I first saw Night of the Living Dead (I had picked it up on a whim), so I thought it an appropriate match to watch this after having caught up on the Romero series. Suspiria is a Dario Argento classic which makes full use of the audio and visual aspects of the film medium. Lights, colors, great spooky music, and a creepy story about a witches' coven that runs a dance school. This movie has a fantastic atmosphere, and is the kind you can just put on at Halloween and it'll set the mood perfectly.

Profondo Rosso a.k.a. Deep Red (1975) - Since I liked Suspiria so much, I decided to pick up another Dario Argento classic. Deep Red wasn't as visually stunning for me, and it drags on a bit long, but it's a good classic murder mystery, with some surprising turns, and the use of music in the suspenseful pre-murder scenes is just plain kickass.

Paranormal Activity (2007)

Zombie Strippers (2008) - Going from the title and description, I was expecting this movie to be terrible - and it pretty much was - but, it was a lot more watchable, and had a lot more redeeming qualities, than I was expecting. Okay, I find the concept of a movie that takes place in a strip club intriguing. Don't judge me. Of course, I don't find decaying flesh to be attractive (I swear), but there's a certain novelty value to the idea of stripping zombies. "That chick is cold as the dead flesh of a stripping zombie." The goth chick was pretty hot, until she began to rot. Low point: the V-Cannon...

Outbreak (1995) - More of a Hollywood action-adventure thriller (have you seen the cast list?) than a horror, per se, but there's undoubtedly a horror element to a good deadly virus outbreak plot. Plus, it relates to the theme of that game I mentioned that I'm still playing, so it's relevant to my current preoccupations. I enjoyed the movie, and it was actually quite intense at parts, like the very end.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Paranormal Activity (2007)

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

Do you know that feeling you get sometimes, when your blood chills, and your skin gets all tingly? It's not a feeling of action, like when something attacks you and you feel compelled to act, but a feeling of frightened anticipation. Your senses heighten and you start breathing rapidly, as you scan your surroundings. You know there's something there, and you know it is a threatening force, but you don't know exactly what it is, or even what it has the ability to do.

When I was a kid, scary movies scared me. Alien gave me recurring nightmares, and The Exorcist made me feel ill. I am a huge horror fan these days, and I love watching scary movies. Scary movies entertain me. But rarely do they genuinely scare me. When I watch Alien now, I still very much enjoy it, and I can appreciate the details that make it not only a very good, but a very scary movie. But it no longer gives me nightmares. It doesn't cause me to feel nervous at night when I find myself in a dark hallway.

I don't need to be genuinely scared to enjoy a scary movie. Scary movies have all sorts of merits above and beyond that. But a movie that actually manages to genuinely scare me - me, a mature (well, that may be debatable) adult - that's something special. And there are few things that genuinely scare me in movies. When I see a movie, I know it's fiction. It's usually easy for me to engage my suspension of disbelief and get absorbed in the movie, but when the credits roll, I disengage, and I understand that what I just saw wasn't real - it was a fantasy. So I don't remain frightened of the serial killer or the ugly monster as I leave the theater and return to my real life.

But there are some themes, some images, some concepts, that are genuinely scary to me, such that engaging in that fear in the theater touches on some real fear inside of me, that exists and remains regardless of the fictional nature of the film. Two things that do this to me are ghosts and aliens. And not just any ghosts or aliens, but specific portrayals of ghosts and aliens. Few images alone have the power to touch that nerve of primal fear in me, and one of them is the stereotypical shape of a grey's face. I don't know why, but it frightens me. Of course, accompanying that face is the whole folklore of alien abduction - being snatched out of your bed and having painful medical experiments performed on you against your will in an unfamiliar, even unearthly, location. Whether or not I actually believe in such encounters is a moot point - the idea of it genuinely frightens me.

The other thing that scares me is ghosts. Not CG ghosts and elaborate special effects, but the idea of the unseen undead. The fact that they have abilities above and beyond the realm of what we understand to be possible, and that we can't simply nail them down into a certain visible form and say - here, this is a ghost, become familiar with it so that we may no longer be afraid. It is that primal fear of the unknown.

I love creature effects. I love over-the-top creature effects. Even when it doesn't look realistic, as long as it looks awesome, I love it. But monsters are gross, they're not scary. They can be ugly, they can be disgusting, and their presence can be scary, but there is a world of difference between a physical beast standing before you in all its ugliness, and an ethereal form that you cannot see or touch: a thing of great evil hiding in the shadows; one that is not restrained by the limits of physical reality, but is able to manifest at will in the form of your darkest imaginings, by avenue of not having a form. It's not that it becomes what you fear, but that you fear it all the more because you cannot pin down its fearsomeness. It transcends fear.

There's been a lot of hype about Paranormal Activity, and also an inevitable backlash. Usually, in these cases, the best course of action is to see the movie and decide for oneself what merits it may have. Of course, advertisers know this, and are not above playing off of that formula, artificially injecting hype into a project. Artificial hype inevitably leads to backlash, thus fueling the scenario. But then, wary consumers are hesitant to support the lie. Not knowing if the hype is true or not, you just have to take a risk.

I took the risk. And it paid off. I can tell you this: the hype surrounding Paranormal Activity is true. It's the scariest movie I've seen since before I stopped being the little kid who was afraid of the dark. But what's also true is the fact that not everyone will be scared by it. If you're not scared by the brand of fear that Paranormal Activity employs, then you're likely not to think much of the film.

It's not a "good movie" in terms of having great characters, an intriguing plot, lots of action, etc. Paranormal Activity isn't really a "movie", it's more of an "experience". It's similar to The Blair Witch Project. If you thought The Blair Witch Project was scary (and I did), you'll like Paranormal Activity. If you thought The Blair Witch Project was stupid and very un-scary, you probably won't like Paranormal Activity. If you enjoy watching 'haunted house' and 'ghost hunting' programs on television, you'll enjoy this movie.

I don't believe in ghosts. I don't even think those ghost hunting programs are usually all that convincing. But the concept scares me. Being in a dark house at night, hearing strange noises, evidence apparently suggesting the presence of another being even though physically it would be impossible. I don't believe those programs, and I don't think their ghosts are real. But they do scare me. I can place myself in a frame of mind, where my imagination allows for the possibility of such impossibilities. And it terrifies me. The idea of being in a room all alone, but not actually being alone. Sensing a presence that cannot be seen or felt. A presence that knows just how to get a rise out of me by making a loud thump here, a quiet whine there. That's the sort of thing that gets the hairs on my arms standing. And that's the kind of scare that Paranormal Activity delivers.

So forget about the hype for a minute, and just think about the concept. A couple who video records evidence of a haunting, which progressively gets worse as the nights pass. You already have a pretty good idea if it's the kind of film you'll enjoy, or be scared by. You won't be grossed out by over-the-top creature effects, that's for sure, but if it's the old-fashioned 'bump in the night' that terrifies you, you'll be sure to have a few nightmares after seeing Paranormal Activity.

P.S. The audience reaction was great. I haven't experienced an audience reaction this good since Grindhouse - and that was more a reaction of entertainment. In this case, it was a reaction of fear!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Your Personal Nightmare

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

As promised, here is the follow-up to my previous post on Silent Hill Origins. This post discusses game completion, so if you'd rather discover some of the game's secrets on your own, you might want to skip this entry until after you've played the game.

Let's start by looking at the stats for my second play-through:

Total enemies killed using melee weapons: 188
Total enemies killed using firearms: 1
Total enemies killed using fists: 58
Total items collected: 330
Number of map views: 7
Number of times saved: 13
Distance walked: 21.97
Total game time: 4:26:50
Total flashlight use time: 0:23:48
Number of game completions: 2

Total game time was cut in half from my first time, down to just 4.5 hours. Saves were reduced to almost a third of the previous number - showing my increasing confidence and knowledge of the game. I made a conscious effort not to view the map (although I still instinctively picked the maps up, and doing so results in an automatic view - that counts six (Town, Hospital, Sanitarium, Theater, Motel, Othertown) plus one extra view when I accidentally pressed the wrong button), and to keep my flashlight off as much as possible. You can walk right past most demons with the flashlight off (if the room is dark), and they won't attack you, but of course, it can be hard to see things lying around (and some rooms are just really really dark). I also focused on just using melee weapons/fists (I was kind of undecided/confused about which to choose) - however, that one firearm kill is none other than The Butcher, whom I was too afraid to fight up close, considering his lethal Great Cleaver.

As you may have suspected, all of these special conditions I fulfilled for the express purpose of earning accolades, which I briefly mentioned in the previous post. Extras in Silent Hill Origins are separated individually, such that you can earn them one (or more) at a time, and you get to keep the bounty on successive play-throughs (instead of just the next play-through). Previous Silent Hills gave rewards for high star rankings (abolished in this game), the best reward reserved for the nigh impossible ten star ranking. In Origins, you can work on the different accolades independently, instead of having to satisfy all the right conditions in a single play-through.

For example, there is a Sprinter Accolade, for beating the game in under two hours, and a Daredevil Accolade for beating the game without a single save. Previous games would require a minimum number of saves *and* a low completion time (along with myriad other requirements) for the ten star ranking, but this way, you can play the game through once, focusing on speed, saving as much as you want in order to perfect your timing, and then play it again, taking as much time as you need to beat it, but without saving your progress. Afterwards, you'll have both rewards in the subsequent play-through!

Well, that's exactly what I was planning on doing, but I started my sprinter run and I just thought to myself, "I don't feel particularly threatened", so I just didn't save and made it my daredevil run as well! Here are the stats for that run:

Total enemies killed using melee weapons: 4
Total enemies killed using firearms: 0
Total enemies killed using fists: 23
Total items collected: 88
Number of map views: 21
Number of times saved: 0
Distance walked: 6.66 Km
Total game time: 0:57:52
Total flashlight use time: 0:03:04
Number of game completions: 3

Zero saves, and completion in less than an hour (taking the shortcut joke ending). That 6.66 Km walking distance did not go unnoticed. Flashlight time under 5 minutes(!). Focused on killing with my fists (albeit with the help of the powerful Moon Gauntlets - although you have to be careful to only knock the enemy down and not kill it with the gauntlets so that you can stomp it and get a "fist" kill, since the gauntlets count as a melee weapon).

My overall conclusion for this game in comparison to previous Silent Hills is that it's fairly short (although I remember the original Silent Hill being relatively short as well), and, as much of a sting this is, not quite as scary as the other games. Still scary, just not as. Now let's talk about some of the cooler Extras:

Each accolade earns you an alternate costume, and some of them get you an additional special item. I'd say the majority of the costumes are kind of boring, but there are some cool ones.

Acquiring the "good" ending gets you the Savior Accolade, which comes with a nifty leather outfit, and the previously mentioned Moon Gauntlets, which are quite powerful - I was surprised when the final boss of the game took three whole punches to defeat!

The "bad" ending nets you The Butcher costume, which is pretty cool (bloody clothing), and The Butcher's Great Cleaver.

The UFO Ending (a joke, and a Silent Hill tradition), gets you the Tesla Rifle, which is a gun that shoots lightning. It's not super-powerful, but as it's supposedly powered by moonbeams, it never runs out of energy, and is quite cool to use. The "spacesuit" costume is unremarkable.

The Sprinter Accolade, achieved by beating the game in under two hours, gets you a costume which looks unappealing (sweats), but allows you to run nonstop without running out of breath - thus quite useful for running down those long streets of Silent Hill.

The Stalker Accolade, for playing in the dark with the flashlight off, is perhaps one of the coolest. The costume is a "black ops" uniform, and the accolade also includes a pair of night vision goggles, which are quite useful indoors. Get used to the characteristic green vision, and you'll be able to hunt demons in pitch black, knocking them out before they know what hit them. Particularly good for sneaking past demons without getting attacked, in order to save time and ammo.

The Fireman Accolade is also pretty cool. At the beginning of the game, there's a sequence where you come upon a burning house, and have to save the girl (none other than Alessa) inside. If you do it really quickly, you'll earn the accolade, which gets you a neat fireman costume and a powerful Fire Axe.

Take your choice, do you want to play through Silent Hill as a Fireman, a black ops agent, or a bloodied serial killer? The dog costume (Daredevil Accolade) and the Mexican wrestling outfit (Brawler Accolade) are amusing, but ridiculous. The latter is earned by defeating most enemies with your fists. As alluded to, there are also accolades for defeating most enemies with melee weapons, and with firearms. And there are a couple others.

WARNING: Plot spoilers ahead!

And now let's talk psychology. If you don't want to read major plot spoilers (for this game, as well as Silent Hill 2), then don't read any further. One of the coolest things about Silent Hill is the concept of the town personalizing your inner demons, and manifesting them into a[n apparently] physical form, to h[a]unt you down, until you uncover whatever deep revelation the town intends for you, or come to terms with a certain traumatic event in your past. For example, it is said that Alessa is afraid of dogs, thus explaining the dog monsters in the first (and third) game. Also, the schoolhouse boss in the first game was a monster from a scary story found in the school's library (The Monster Lurks). In Silent Hill 2, James is pursued by the assassin Pyramid Head, which can be said to be a literal embodiment of his [repressed] guilt about putting his wife out of her misery. Similarly, in Silent Hill Origins, it is revealed that Travis Grady may have a split personality - unknown to the side of him that we control in the game - as a result of the trauma of his parent's deaths in childhood, that manifests in the form of a brutal serial killer (The Butcher). Travis' unexpected layover in Silent Hill, in addition to his interactions with Alessa, serve to dredge up the childhood trauma he's repressed, and force him to confront his alter-ego. In a very real sense, it is a healing journey - although success (and survival) is far from guaranteed. This is what I love about Silent Hill.

Two recurring species of nightmare in the Silent Hill games are the demonic nurses, and the "straitjackets". The former represent a not uncommon fear for many people of doctors (and it's no coincidence that much time in Silent Hill is spent in a number of different hospitals). The straitjackets - lumbering figures with limited capabilities for aggression (though that doesn't hamper their intent) - can be said to represent personal feelings of self-imprisonment, and feelings of weakness and inability to cope with one's problems. The enemies that show up in Silent Hill Origins take forms that represent Travis' fears and insecurities, and in some cases Alessa's also. The "carrion" demon - an oversized, disfigured, stumbling half-roadkill beast - represents Travis' guilt over animals killed during his career as a truck driver. The "twoback" beast that stalks the motel mocks Travis' sexual insecurities, which are suggested in dialogue elsewhere. And of course, the malformed figures of Travis' parents, whose deaths traumatized him as a child, constitute two of the bosses/obstacles on Travis' journey of healing.

End spoilers! It is safe to read below:

You have to admire a game that inspires psychoanalysis on this order. But what tickles my inspiration bone, is the idea of personalized nightmares. What if you - yes, you - were to visit Silent Hill? Is there a monster lurking in your subconscious, waiting to be recognized? What kind of nightmares haunt you, and what form would they take as you cautiously, nervously wander the foggy streets of Silent Hill? I ask this question, and I think the answer would be most intriguing, however it's not only an incredibly personal question (and revealing your fears and insecurities always comes with the risk that others could take advantage of that information - then again, all the better for you to confront them, right?), but it's also asking you to shed light on something that may well be hiding in the darkest corridors of your mind; perhaps a place you'd rather not go. But Silent Hill has a way of calling you, of pulling you into a trap which forces you to do just that, if you would survive.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

10 Iconic Horror Films

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

Now that I've got my mind on Halloween, I simply can't get it off. Not that that's a bad thing - Halloween being my favorite holiday of the year and all. Have I told you yet the story of how I got into being a horror film fan? Well, today's agenda isn't to discuss my favorite horror films, but to discuss 10 (because 10 is a nice round number, and perfect for a list) of the most classic-est most iconic-est horror movies of the past half-century. If you're a horror fan, you've probably seen these movies so many times that you're either absolutely sick of them, or completely fanatic about them. And if you're not a horror fan, this might just be a good place to start...

Psycho (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock is rightly regarded as a master filmmaker, and Psycho is one of his most popular (and iconic) films. While it may be dated by today's standards, it's one of the classic examples of a suspense thriller, featuring a disturbed psychotic as the antagonist. You don't even have to have seen the film to recognize the gory (for its time) shower scene (and accompanying score) - that's how iconic it is!

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Before George Romero, zombism was a voodoo curse that wealthy white imperialists contracted warlocks to cast on deceased (or soon to be) sharecroppers in order to acquire cheap slave labor (and you probably think I'm kidding!). Romero resurrected the "ghouls" as brainless rotting re-animated corpses, slave only to their hunger for living flesh, whose prodding slowness is made up for in sheer numbers. This film is a dark, paranoid, survival horror (and still surprisingly good for its age) that (re)defined the subgenre.

The Exorcist (1973)

An intense, draining experience of a movie about an innocent little girl suffering from demonic possession, The Exorcist is the end-all be-all (the alpha and the omega, if you will) of religious horror. I was first exposed to this film while still in the single digits (presented to me by my mother of all people!), and back then, its effect on me was more of disgust than impression - though you could say it had its effect. Interestingly, I recently re-watched it, and, being disavowed of religious superstition, yet still quite frightened of hospitals, the part of the film that made me most uncomfortable was the extensive medical testing our little possessee has to endure. If I might make a recommendation, don't bother watching this film on cable TV, as it's guaranteed to have its teeth removed - and for a film of this caliber, that's akin to blasphemy!

Alien (1979)

I've said it before, and I will say it again - Ridley Scott's Alien is the epitome of sci-fi/horror. The construction of the film is, in a sense, Poeific, in that all the elements, from setting and filmography, to score, to characters and character relations, to creature design - everything works together to create a truly frightening atmosphere. The horror is genuine: at once terrifyingly familiar (primitive body horror), and mysteriously alien. And speaking of which, H.R. Giger's design for the titular xenomorph has become a true horror icon (its frightfulness only mildly diminished by the recent crop of crappy cross-over cash-ins).

Poltergeist (1982)

Paranormal ("ghost") movies tend to be hit-or-miss. Despite its connection to Steven Spielberg (burn), Poltergeist manages to scare, helped in no small part by a big special fx budget - possibly in contrast to the idea that ghosts, being largely invisible, don't require much in the way of elaborate fx (although that's probably just a cop-out). Poltergeist and its sequels managed to plant quite a few specific scenes of terror into my young head which had a habit of haunting me from time to time. And ever since this movie came out, the world has been awakened to the very real supernatural peril of building on top of ancient Indian burial grounds. Don't believe me? I dare you to try it. Yeah, that's what I thought.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre should need no introduction. And I probably say that because despite hearing about it again and again, I'm still not sure I've actually seen the original version (although I do recall watching a modern take on it). But who can forget the stories of how the movie was so scary, people would vomit in disgust and flee the theaters? These days the cannibalistic country folk plot has been beaten to death (and then eaten?), but Leatherface and his chainsaw remains an icon of horror.

Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter accomplished greatness with his take on the holiday of horror - Halloween - inspiring an entire industry of slasher flicks featuring teenagers being picked off one by one at the hands of an unnamed killer. But Halloween remains excitingly fresh, even as the emotionless masked killer repeatedly satisfies his unquenchable bloodlust. In a truly terrifying scene, our heroine runs screaming, from house to house in a calm suburban neighborhood, with the very Bogeyman himself on her heels, and the neighbors ignore her cries, likely thinking it some prank. The filming of the scene is so normal - no ultra-panicky camera chasing after the heroine, or crashing orchestral cues - that it just feels so very real, and thus that much scarier. Ironically, modern horror could learn a few things from one of the most imitated horror movies of all time.

Friday the 13th (1980)

Continuing in the slasher vein, Friday the 13th locates itself in a cozy (but deadly) summer camp, and actually provides some meaning behind the oft-recurring theme of the slutty teenagers being the most in danger of getting slashed. Certain elements which I am hesitant to mention here - despite this being the sort of movie that you know all the secrets from, even if you've never seen it - keep this title relatively fresh and exciting. Interestingly, Jason doesn't don his ultra-iconic hockey mask until the third film in the series! And while we're speaking of icons, trust me, you know the soundtrack to this film. ch-ch-ch, ah-ah-ah

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

What A Nightmare on Elm Street adds to the slasher formula is moving the killing field into the realm of dreams. A scary thought, is it not? Sleep - that period in which you are most defenseless, and when your dreaming mind is most open to suggestion. And noone can go very long without needing to enter that realm, despite the risks. The iconic antagonist, Freddie Krueger, also adds a macabre sense of style to the slasher's wardrobe, with his striped sweater, hat, and fingerknives. Don't miss a very young Johnny Depp finding himself the source of an impressive fountain of gore (you have to see it to believe it) - and speaking of gore, this is another film I'd recommend not watching on cable TV, as the gore fx are quite impressive (oh, don't be one of those people), and thus not to be missed.

Hellraiser (1987)

I feel like Pinhead is infinitely more iconic than Hellraiser itself, but no matter, it's an excellent film. Based on a Clive Barker story which I have yet to read (but I've read others of his penning), the subject matter alone is enough to make you squirm. Picture, if you will, an occult puzzle box which, when properly solved (think of it as the devil's Rubik's Cube), summons the cenobytes - sadomasochistic demons (or angels, depending on your persuasion) intent on giving the puzzle solver the gift of ultimate pleasure (by way of ultimate pain, of course). Pinhead, the unofficial leader of the cenobytes (I'm rather fond of Chatterer, myself) has been known to get fanmail from rabid fangirls who want him to father their children. And you thought I was kidding about the "angels" part.

There's your start, now get to it. There's a whole world of horror out there - with every conceivable flavor of nightmare on offer. Apologies to vampire and werewolf fans. Also to puppet fans - puppets have never been very scary (or very funny either, for that matter) to me. Sorry. And also the oldies monster fans - Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman, The Mummy, Boo Berry, etc. - that era is outside the scope of my primary interest. In spite of these deliberate omissions, keep in mind that this list is about iconic horror films, and not personal favorites. And hey, don't be ~afraid~ to start your Shocktober early this year!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Silent Hill: Origins (PS2)

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

It's a little bit early yet to be celebrating Halloween (Samhain for my Pagan readers :D), but I recently decided to finally pop in Silent Hill: Origins and give it a playthrough (or two or three). It's officially the fifth game in the franchise, following the spin-off-turned-canon SH4: The Room, and acting as a prequel to the original game. As such, the plot ties into the details of the cult's original experiment which resulted in the transformation of Silent Hill into the nightmare town that it is, and offers a little bit more detail about said cult and said experiment which was mercilessly obscure in the exposition of the first game.

The game's plot is split between the primary protagonist's own psychological problems, and his incidental encounter and subsequent meetings with Alessa Gillespie, cultleader Dahlia's daughter - the girl whose sacrifice turns hell loose on the tranquil lake resort town, and whose nightmares form the basis of the town's endless terrors ("when do we get to see into your sick little mind?" - be careful what you ask for...). The protagonist, Travis Grady, is a truck driver who happens to be driving by Silent Hill at entirely the wrong time (although you can be sure it's no coincidence). Travis has blocked out a particularly gruesome event in his childhood, involving his parents, which unsurprisingly, the haunted town is insistent upon dredging up for him.

Gameplay-wise, Origins plays much like a traditional Silent Hill game. The part of the town you get to explore is a little section just barely overlapping with that of the first game - with the familiar Alchemilla Hospital making another appearance (along with fan-favorite character Lisa the nurse). Other locations include a suitably creepy sanitarium, a cozy theatre (like for plays, not movies), and a motel.

Two aspects of the game that stand out are the mirrors and the melee weapons. Mirrors serve as the primary transportation module between Silent Hill and the "Otherworld", allowing you to choose when to move between the realms (although it's a pseudo-choice, since you have to go where the game leads you - but at least it gives you the feeling of controlling your passage; although not being in control is scary, knowing that you have to enter the Otherworld and that you have to be the one to take that step - willfully - is scary, too). The infamous siren that I so miss from the first game does return, but only to signal the end of each nightmare portion (after the boss battles, that is), and seems to correspond with Alessa waking up (hence the recession of nightmares); at least I think that's what's going on.

On to the melee weapons. As a truck driver, Travis (apparently) has the strength to grapple with his demons in generally closer quarters than protagonists of the past. Although there are a variety of firearms available for the claustrophobic, the game is littered with all sorts of handheld items that can be used as weapons - from knives, scalpels, and hammers, to wooden planks, typewriters, and even drip stands (those things you find beside hospital beds)! All of these weapons are breakable after a certain amount of use (which usually isn't a whole lot), although the sheer number of them available pretty much ensures you'll never run out. Actually working up the courage to get up close to the demons, to conserve your all-important firearm ammo, is your problem, though :p. Although, some of those items (like the typewriters and portable TVs) can be tossed at the enemy, and actually pack a decent punch. And speaking of punches, you can actually fight the demons barehanded if you've got the guts!

Well, for my first run-through of the game, I did fine. Took me some time to adapt to the fighting, learning the demons' maneuvers, what type of weapons to use against which species of nightmare, and whatnot. I ended up losing a lot of health throughout the game, prompting me to actually get a bit worried in a couple of places. What trouble I had with the regular demons was made up for, I guess, in the boss battles, which turned out to be relatively easy for me. To my surprise, the game apparently doesn't have difficulty levels, so it won't be getting any harder on subsequent run-throughs, as I had initially assumed, though. To my horror, two of the bosses returned later as regular run-of-the-mill demons! (Although, to be fair, the first "boss" was just a regular demon to begin with, if possibly a little stronger than average). The other bosses were pretty creepy, that's for sure. Especially "Daddy"...

Here are my summary stats for my first run-through:

Total enemies killed using melee weapons: 40
Total enemies killed using firearms: 56
Total enemies killed using fists: 83
Total items collected: 353
Number of map views: 486
Number of times saved: 37
Distance walked: 25.34
Total game time: 8:26:25
Total flashlight use time: 4:24:54
Number of game completions: 1

Eight and a half hours to beat it the first time. The "total enemies killed using fists" isn't as impressive as it sounds, when you take into account that only the final blow matters. When you hit a demon a few times, it falls to the ground. You can then "stomp" it to finish it off in a single hit, whether with a bullet, a melee weapon, or your boot (counts as "fists"). If you're too slow, it'll get back up and you'll have to hit it some more to knock it down again. So generally, I like to save ammo by shooting a demon down and then switching to fists to stomp on it.

Total items collected netted me a "Collector's Accolade" - I'm planning on earning some more accolades, then I'll probably come back and post an addendum discussing the "extras". 37 saves - as you can see, particularly the first time through a game, I'm a very cautious player. I'm also a very thorough player, which contributes to the number of items collected. I have to laugh that my highest rating is "number of map views". I'm surprised they even count that (there's an accolade related to it - so that's why). But yes, I check my map obsessive-compulsively. Practically every time I change rooms. And in the brief parts where I don't have a map (or when I enter a new area and before I pick up the map), I get stressed out because I can't visualize the overall architecture of the area I'm exploring. I actually said to myself at one point, "I feel nervous without a map". XD

I'm gonna end this on an interesting note. Origins has it's own Pyramid Head of sorts, in the form of The Butcher. He's basically a less distinctive Pyramid Head (i.e., without the signature pyramid head), who carries a huge butcher knife (though still considerably smaller than PH's Great Knife (though just as deadly)), and is rather more preoccupied with sadistically slicing through the flesh and bone of his victims than raping them (as PH is wont to do). So maybe not quite as distinctive a character as good ol' Pyramid Head, but still pretty intimidating. Although his presence in the game seems more secondary than primary, I understand he has some significance with regard to our protagonist's psychosis, but that's to be explored in the "bad" ending to the game, which I am currently pursuing. Ah, you gotta love Silent Hill, where the "bad" endings are often better than the "good" ones!

Hm, there was another issue I was going to address, but I guess I'll leave you hanging (on the meat hook?) until my followup. :p

Sunday, July 26, 2009

When God Gets The Blues

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

Birthing a God

If ever there were a guitarist that needed no introduction, a guitarist whose name implies legend, a guitarist whose licks are recognizable to the uninitiated - it would be Jimi Hendrix, who turned the guitar world (literally, during some of his solos) upside-down. But do you know who even the revolutionary Jimi Hendrix idolized? His contemporary and leader of the hit supergroup Cream, Eric Clapton - who, even among the slew of guitar gods arising out of the heady generation of the '60s, earned the illustrious, and potentially sacrilegious, title of "God" among his most obsessed fans (usurping his more modest nickname of "Slowhand"). Now, I've listened to enough guitarists with amazing talent to realize that there's just no point in arguing who's the best (because clearly, nobody will ever beat Roy Buchanan), but, unlike many of his contemporaries, Eric Clapton possesses a good supply of talent, fame, and longevity, for which he deserves recognition. And he's had his share of misery, too. You see, even God gets the blues from time to time.

Eric Clapton first made a name for himself in The Yardbirds, the premium guitar supergroup of the 1960s British blues scene. When he left the band to pursue a straighter blues outfit, he was first replaced by one Jeff Beck, and later by Jimmy Page, who retooled the band towards the end of the decade and birthed Led Zeppelin (a band that itself needs no introduction). Meanwhile, Clapton stepped into position as guitarist for the Bluesbreakers, a band that was John Mayall's pet project, and which also scouted some amazing guitar talent through the years - including, among too many to list here, Mick Taylor, who later played lead guitar for The Rolling Stones (self-described Greatest Rock 'N' Roll Band in the World) during their most prolific period.

Members of the Bluesbreakers have a habit of breaking off and forming their own (in some cases, even more popular) bands (such as when Peter Green split with [Mick] Fleetwood and [John] Mc[Vie] to form the original bluesy incarnation of Fleetwood Mac, which would struggle for almost a decade before finally becoming famous), and so, after recording a landmark album in the British blues scene (simply titled Blues Breakers; also known as the "the Beano album", thanks to the comic Clapton is seen reading on the album's cover), Eric Clapton recruited former Bluesbreaker bass player Jack Bruce, and with Ginger Baker on drums, launched the most popular and revered band of Clapton's career - Cream. The band was short-lived, but it made its everlasting mark with staple radio hits like White Room and Sunshine of Your Love - hits you undoubtedly still hear on any self-respecting rock station even today.

In the aftermath of Cream, despite Clapton's lucrative solo career, there is little of singular recognition that stands up to his previous rise to rock stardom. Blind Faith was another go at creating a supergroup, this time recruiting Steve Winwood, well known member of Traffic, but it folded even quicker than Cream, and with less lasting critical acclaim. But following that was the shining exception to Clapton's decades long post-Cream fizzle - a motley band of traveling musicians who called themselves Derek and the Dominos. They released one album in 1970, Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs (with beloved Allman Brothers Band slide guitarist Duane Allman filling out the sound), which was not-so-inconspicuously Eric Clapton's passionate declaration of his unrequited love for best friend (and Beatle) George Harrison's wife Patti Boyd (whom Clapton would eventually go on to marry, and subsequently divorce). In this humble rock fan's opinion, Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs is one of the pinnacle albums in modern musical history - and has the paradoxical distinction of being a great listen whether alone and miserable or with intimate company - in other words, you can play it on Valentine's Day regardless of whether or not you have a date. ;)

Unrequited love, heroin addiction, adultery, the deaths of close musical companions; despite Clapton's fame and musical success, he has had his share of demons, and does not play the blues in name alone. In fact, Jimi himself once said, "the more money you make, the more blues, sometimes, you can sing." The blues has been a lasting cornerstone of Clapton's legacy, evident in his 1994 solo album From The Cradle, his teamup with King of the Blues B.B. King in 2000's Riding With The King, and his 2004 tribute to the legendary folk bluesman Robert Johnson (titled Me And Mr. Johnson), the man who was alleged to have traded his soul to the devil at a certain country crossroads in Mississippi. Not forsaking his own legacy as a world-renowned guitar legend, nor his battle with drug addiction, Eric Clapton founded the Crossroads Guitar Festival in recent years as a benefit for his Crossroads Centre drug treatment resort in Antigua.

Live in the '70s

One of the best collections of blues/rock tracks I own is Eric Clapton's Crossroads 2: Live in the '70s box set, featuring four discs of outstanding - you guessed it - live material from the '70s. Depending on perspective, life experience, musical tastes, etc., I could foresee a listener describing the tracks on this box set as lazy, sloppy, unpolished, and similar adjectives, but here's the real truth: Crossroads 2 features some of the most passionate, feverish, downright depressed blueswailing I've had the pleasure of hearing. Many of the songs are slowed down from their smoother studio counterparts (which may not be a good thing for rock, but works excellently for the blues), and the vocals are grittier and less dynamic - in place of elegance, what we have here is pure, unrefined feeling. And with the blues, that's the most important quality.

So recently I decided, on a whim, to trim those four discs down to a single slim disc of the best tracks - for ease in traveling, for digging into when you don't have time for hours of listening, and just for plain old fun. It was not easy. Crossroads 2: Live in the '70s honestly has at least 3 discs worth of top notch material - it's just that good. So trimming it down to a single disc ended up being a painful challenge. But I succeeded. However, based on the tracks I had to leave out - including the (perhaps) best track in the set, which is a 24 minute jam with Carlos Santana (simply too long for a single disc compilation culled from this much material) - I had to concede the "best tracks" theme, and decided to go with more of a "cross-section" theme, which also conveniently alludes to the original title of "crossroads". Rest assured, each of the four discs is represented here by no less than one, and no more than three tracks.

Here is the resultant tracklist:

1. Have You Ever Loved A Woman
2. Little Wing
3. Layla
4. Tell The Truth
5. Stormy Monday
6. Goin' Down Slow/Rambling On My Mind
7. Wonderful Tonight
8. Double Trouble

You might notice a healthy contribution (the first half) of songs that appear on the Layla album - this is not necessarily intentional but merely a testament to the quality of those songs. Other songs include some excellent blues standards, and there's even a refreshing version of Clapton's pop ballad Wonderful Tonight (which, I assure you, is not as out of place in this collection as you might expect). Let us now take a look at each of the individual tracks that made the cut, and explore just a little bit of their history and why these versions are worth listening to...

The Songs

Have You Ever Loved A Woman [from Disc 1]

Nowhere else is Freddie King's influence on Clapton's playing style more apparent than in this soulful blues cover, recorded previously by Freddie himself, and covered by Clapton on the Layla album. Freddie King, known as the Texas Cannonball, had an immaculate combination of skill as a blues singer and axe wielder, and I recommend his music to anyone who enjoys Clapton's more soulful and cutting blues tracks. The song Have You Ever Loved A Woman fit Clapton's situation eerily well at the time of its recording for Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs, with lyrics that run, "have you ever loved a woman so much, you tremble in pain; all the time you know, she bears another man's name; but you just love that woman so much, it's a shame and a sin; all the time you know, she belongs to your very best friend." The live version here opens the compilation strongly, with some very piercing blues licks, and sets the depressed tone for the rest of the disc.

Little Wing [from Disc 1]

Little Wing is a gorgeous little number that Jimi Hendrix (honestly, I hadn't intended on his name coming up this many times - but that just goes to show :p) recorded for the Experience's second album Axis: Bold As Love. Beautiful as it was to begin with, it's been covered over the years, famously in an extended instrumental version by Stevie Ray Vaughan. But even before that, Eric Clapton recorded his own cover, in a unique arrangement, also for the Layla album. In this version, the "pretty" and "virtuoso" angle is tossed aside in favor of a harder, driving energy, which suits the depression theme of this particular compilation better. This live version is a bit subdued, but it transmits that sort of dragging feeling you get when you're in the doldrums.

Layla [from Disc 2]

Layla is, quite obviously, the title track from the Layla album, and the one song from that album that manages to sum up the album quite well, encompassing the theme of unrequited love ("please don't say we'll never find a way, and tell me all my love's in vain"), accompanied by searing rock riffage and emotionally strained vocals, followed by a soothing coda that offers some semblance of solace, and is thus the primary track picked and played on radios everywhere, as if to represent the whole album at once (which necessarily neglects the rest of the album's treasures). The live version here sadistically strips away any chance the listener might have at finding solace, by cutting the coda completely out - cruel, to be sure, but suitably conforming to the theme.

Tell The Truth [from Disc 3]

Tell The Truth, yet another song from the Layla album, is the sole track that offers some respite from the depressed mood of this compilation. It features a funky upbeat groove, with slide accompaniment, a catchy vocal line, and an extended jam outro. My advice would be to enjoy it fully before diving back into the down-trodden blues of the second half...

Stormy Monday [from Disc 3]

Stormy Monday is a good classic blues, that's been covered by just about anyone that plays blues seriously, and as a song separate from the specific musicians that play it, is one of my top favorite blues of all time. Originally an old T-Bone Walker tune, one of my favorite performances is the Allman Brothers Band's laidback performance on their acclaimed "At Fillmore East" live album (recorded in 1971). Clapton's version of it here does not disappoint, with a nice long 13 minute runtime, giving this slow blues enough time to settle in, with plenty of stormy licks punctuating throughout.

Goin' Down Slow/Rambling On My Mind [from Disc 3]

Goin' Down Slow (credited to St. Louis Jimmy Oden) is another one of my favorite blues, and another one that's covered often, which seems to tell the story of a man with a terminal condition facing his inevitable demise, while looking back and coming to terms with his lot in life. It's accompanied here in medley form by a song titled Rambling On My Mind, from Robert Johnson's catalog, which was previously recorded by Clapton (with John Mayall) on that seminal British blues album of the '60s - Blues Breakers. Together, these two songs combine to form a long blues jam with a dynamic energy that periodically flows into crashing crescendos at various points along the journey.

Wonderful Tonight [from Disc 4]

If you're a Clapton fan, you undoubtedly know this song. It's not really a blues, it's more of a pop ballad. I like it - it's a very romantic song. But, since it lacks the punch of rock, or the pathos of the blues, it has, to me, become fairly stale over innumerable listens (considering that, being popular, it also tends to get a lot of radio play). However, I promised that the song wasn't the non sequitur in this compilation one would think it to be, and I stand by that. This live version slows the song (which was already slow to begin with) down a bit; the unsterilized live guitar licks give it a little extra punch; and, true to the majority of the songs on this live set, the vocals and the energy of the song are deflated in the way that gives it a much more reflective, nostalgic sort of atmosphere: where the song was originally a happy romantic ballad, this version is more like the kind of pining you do in your room alone after a terrible breakup, remembering the better times that have come and are now gone...

Double Trouble [from Disc 4]

Finishing up the compilation is another searing blues, this time yet another of my favorites (although this is really not surprising, considering that I'm the one who handpicked these tracks :p). Double Trouble is not only one of the tracks by the great Otis Rush (recommended if you're looking for classic electric blues), but it also inspired the name of Stevie Ray Vaughan's backing band in the '80s. Here Eric Clapton does great justice to this worried blues, extending it to over ten minutes, and filling it with the fevered playing that characterizes this compilation, the box set in general, and Clapton's own bluesy style at large.

And there you have it. Despite all the tracks I had to cull (and believe me, choosing from the various medleys that included 3 or 4 of the same songs in various combinations was not easy), I feel that this is a very strong compilation. Other compilers may certainly have personal interests in other tracks, but for me, with this, I am indeed happy.

To conclude, there are many aspects of Eric Clapton's life and career that are beyond the scope of my discussion here, perhaps even of my interest - but from the perspective of the blues, I feel I have covered the basics. Perhaps not unlike a Guardian Angel that is frequently ignored, but stands ceaselessly by just the same, Eric Clapton, despite his reputation, may not be unilaterally hailed as the end-all be-all of guitar stardom (depending on who you talk to), but his musical output is impossible to ignore, and his influence (and his continuing respect for his influences) is pervasive and wide-ranging, and though other shooting stars have come and gone and made themselves known, sometimes in what seems as short as the blink of an eye, Clapton endures, and for the time being, he remains, inarguably, a living legend (if not quite a God).

Author's Background: Raised on classic rock via his parents' stereo, the author discovered the healing power of the blues while DJing a radio show in college. His enduring interest in the searing tone of an electrified guitar has propagated from eardrums to fingertips, and manifests itself regularly in the warm, loving embrace of a sexy guitar.