- Apex Publications Acquires Shock Totem Book Line
- The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 8
- The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 7
- The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 6
- The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 5
- The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 4
- The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 3
- The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 2
- The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 1
- Splatterpunk #7
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by Rose Blackthorn
I’m not sure how old I was the first time I saw Jaws. It came out in 1975, so I would’ve been a bit young to see it in the theater, but I’m pretty sure I saw it in the theater. My mom was always willing to give me the benefit of the doubt when it came to the scary stuff—after all, she started me on Stephen King while I was still in elementary school. Anyway, I do know this much: I have never gone swimming in the ocean, even when I’ve had the opportunity, and it’s all due to this film. (I’m not a complete wimp, I have gone wading out to a couple of feet deep…)
Just an aside: this movie not only scared me, it also got me interested in sharks and shark attacks. Maybe a little part of me thought, Yeah, this is all made up. Sharks don’t really attack people that often. So I went out and found the book Sharks: Attacks on Man, by George A. Llano. I read that book cover-to-cover, and completely freaked myself out.
Anyway, Jaws is really more than just a movie. It’s a part of our popular culture. There’s a Bad Hat Harry Productions, which uses the line spoken by Roy Scheider as Chief Brody to an elderly swimmer on the beach. And sharks are everywhere these days, including innumerable bad SyFy original movies. (Sharknado, anyone?)
As a kid and teenager, I watched and rewatched Jaws for the scares. In fact, I just watched it again a couple of days ago, and even now I think the first few minutes of the movie brings some of the best chills and foreboding ever committed to film. That first scene, when you’re not even sure what is really going on with the woman in the water, can still give me goosebumps.
Now, as an adult, I still get a kick out of the jump scares in this movie. I know they’re coming, but they still get me a little, and they leave me smiling. As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve come to appreciate more than just the scary bits. I love the actors cast in the main roles, and at this point can’t even imagine anyone else playing them. I enjoy the comedic touches as well: Chief Brody’s obvious fear of the water and the way he tries to downplay it; Hooper’s sarcasm and impressive use of face-making; even the Benny Hill-like scenes of the influx of would-be shark hunters who flood the town and the beaches in search of fame and fortune.
I would have to say now, though, that my absolute favorite part of the movie isn’t one of the scary scenes, or the funny scenes, but it may be the most intense part of the film. Less than five minutes of dialogue, but in that short amount of time, you learn all you need to know to understand Quint and his enduring hatred and hard won understanding of sharks. I can imagine what it might be like to be lost in the water, waiting for the sharks to take a bite. I have a vivid imagination, a gift and a curse sometimes. I can’t think that surviving something like that, that I’d ever want to go into the water again. Yet, I can watch Jaws over and over. I can flinch and feel sorrow for the victims, laugh with Brody and Hooper and Quint who do what they must to protect Amity Island, and cheer at the end when the monstrous shark is destroyed. And then, when it’s all over, I can restart it from the beginning, and suffer goosebumps and cover my eyes in breathless anticipation as Chrissie Watkins makes the decision to go for a midnight swim.
Rose Blackthorn is a member of the HWA and her short fiction and poetry has appeared online and in print with a varied list of anthologies and magazines. Her poetry collection Thorns, Hearts and Thistles was published in February 2015, and the novelette Called to Battle: Worthy Vessel was published in October 2015. She is a writer, dog-mom and photographer who lives in the high-mountain desert, but longs for the sea.
Brian Keene, bestselling horror author of such titles as The Rising, Ghoul, Earthworm Gods, and The Lost Level, recently listed his top 10 favorite books published in 2014 on his podcast, The Horror Show.
Mr. Keene was taken by the “really interesting production” of the book, in particular its deceptively Little Golden Book-inspired layout and illustrations. “It’s a really cool little thing!” he said.
We here at Shock Totem thank you very much for the shout-out, Mr. Keene!
We at Shock Totem love our music. We (singularly and collectively) love most genres. The metal world was shocked last week by the passing of a legend, Dave Brockie, aka Oderus Urungus of GWAR, and we felt it needed to be noted. We reached out to one of our extended family, Chris Seibert, a fantastic artist and a feral GWAR fanboy, to see if he could put it into perspective. —John
The crowd was anxious and outwardly violent, booing the opening bands with heckles and glass bottles, some of which still contained beer. I insisted on being at the front of the stage so I had the perfect view of the opening chaos. If what I had read on the Geo-Cities sites, and if what I could make out on grainy, bootleg VHS tapes was even remotely close to the truth—I knew I had to be in the thick of it. When the lights finally went low, the entire crowd rushed the stage. There’s a special feeling one gets when smashed between a metal bar and 700-some people; I came to know it as “bruised ribs.” The band took the stage and immediately dismembered some poor soul, his sacred fluids spraying me in the face. I cleared my eyes of blood and screamed for more. The sound they made was deafening bliss, with the guitarist in front of me having a bear trap for a head and a scrotum that hung 18 inches between his legs. The front man had, himself, an 18 inch penis (complete with eyes and lips) and a very real scrotum poorly hidden underneath, sheathed in panty hose. The rest of the night is a blur of ejaculate, dismemberment, rape (usually in that order,) culminating in a multi-song-spanning battle between the band and a giant Tyrannosaurus Rex.
The band I saw was, obviously, GWAR and while I was no stranger to the metal band prior to this first experience, no one can truly say they understand what GWAR is until you see them live. For the uninitiated, GWAR is a metal band (transcending many sub-genres, though mostly associated with thrash) which acts more of a collective than a band. This is because GWAR (under the umbrella known as the Slave Pit) is actually comprised of artists, writers, and filmmakers, as well as musicians…all working within the mythos that is GWAR to create the experience that is GWAR. While many members have come and gone (and come back again) throughout the years, the proverbial keystone of the whole affair, as well as founding member, was Dave Brockie, aka Orderus Urungus; lead singer, artist, Scumdog of the Universe. Sunday March 23 saw his passing at age 50 and for many of us bohabs (a term used to describe the core fans of the group,) this was our JFK event.
Most of my idols were dead before I was even born, so to loose one of the four living people that I admired and looked to for inspiration was exceptionally hard. Dave was an amazing artist who had found a way to live the “American Dream” by doing what he loved, middle-finger up the whole way. Some may look at his fine art, or listen to his lyrics, or even look at his alter-ego’s costume and refer to what they see as “tasteless” or “offensive” and it’s those people who Dave would contest are the problem with the world today. It’s his desire to teach us that inspires me the most.
When I cut my teeth on the larger world outside of my own, I noticed that much of society is censored; locked in the attic like some shameful accident child or disease-ridden family member, left to rot alone while everyone else continues the rest of their days in an ignorant bliss. The darker aspects of what it means to live among other human beings is rarely discussed, save for the nightly news which only presents us with marginalized tragedy so that the collective “we” can have villains to hate. It’s a convenient method for feeling better about one’s own demons, the discovery of people worse than ourselves and our own thoughts. That is, admittedly, a depressing way to look at the world, as well as exaggerated. I don’t truly believe that everyone does terrible things or that everyone is in some way responsible for the demons we willingly fail to see in our societies, but in a way, we are responsible and just as guilty. What Dave showed me was that it is okay to embrace the taboo concepts we hold as humans and re-purpose as something new. I like to think of it as “desensitizing to promote logical thought.” Once you take the emotion out of the equation, it’s possible to look at a topic and intelligently debate and discuss it.
Now, do I honestly believe that Dave Brockie intended for his various works to stand as modern transports for social engineering, promoting philosophical discussion to implement upgrades to the human condition? No, I do not. Certainly some of his body of work represents social commentary, but I don’t believe that was his intention for his various projects. Instead, I believe that’s what he inspires, at least what he inspired in me, and that is what a true artist does. Anyone can paint a picture or write a song or put on a show, but a true artist inspires others, both to interpret what they are feeling based on what the artist makes them experience and to go out and create something of their own. If humanity is a cancer on this Earth, then art is gonorrhea, splashing out of the creative holes of the infected and spreading to all who are open to such experiences. In this sense, Dave is the “King of Gonorrhea” for many of his fans.
While writing this I had a Dave Brockie playlist blasting and a song from his first band, Death Piggy, came on. I’ve heard these tunes a thousand times before but suddenly the words to “Whippin’ Round the Bay”struck me with new meaning. Many of his early songs were novelties at best, but in mourning a new depth presented it’s self as a lyrical irony:
“One thing/ one thing for sure/ gonna end up/ end up in the ground/ and one day, my flesh will rot away/and I’ll be found/ a thousand years from now/ and all the things/ I said and brought/ they’ll be bought/ they’ll be bought/ and all the things/ and all the wings I never wore”
I came to realize this song as a rare look into Dave Brockie the man, as opposed to Oderus Urungus who, for a majority of his life, dictated his song writing. Even my personal favorite project, The Dave Brockie Experience, focused more on funny ideas and inside jokes rather than individual inflection. It would be safe to say that the Brockie we are presented with is, in fact, the real Brockie. From my limited first hand experience with the man (at a GWAR-B-Q), as well as the various accounts I have heard throughout the years, Dave is just as funny and crazy as anyone familiar with GWAR could possibly imagine.
What hit me was that this song may be the only truly serious song he wrote. Where as in other songs that he wrote to subvert some aspect of society, this particular one actually addressed his own mortality. Sure, it’s a song (ultimately) about consumerism, but doesn’t that go hand in hand with who we are when we are alive and our legacy that we leave behind when we die? Now that he is gone, all we have is his legacy in the form of the art he created and helped create. There is comfort in this, but that comfort is cut with sadness, only because I know he had so much more to say.
A few years ago Dave started a blog. It is a very personal look into his life as much as it is an oral history of GWAR. For those who feel Dave was a shock-rock icon and low-brow hack, hiding behind the guise of art as an excuse to be offensive, I highly suggest you read this blog. In a way, it’s almost perverse that we yearn for that type of understanding of people we don’t (and will never) know. Does understanding the gears behind the clock face make you understand the time it reads any better? No, but for those willing to learn, new appreciations can be found. These types of projects bring out the humanity in gods, and in this case, the Brockie in Oderus. It is a shame that he never finished his story. Chronologically speaking, it ends around 1990, with a cliffhanger to boot.
After reading countless memories of Dave throughout the years in the days following his death, I decided to binge-read this blog, which I had all but forgotten about. It was this action that halted the process of mourning and introduced the aspect of celebration. Reading his own life, in his own words, was very surreal but revitalizing at the same time. My frame of mind during mourning reflected the attitude of “he checked out too early, he still had so much more to give,” while my mindset after reading GWAR, ME, AND THE ONRUSHING GRIP OF DEATH was “damn, if only I can achieve and give so much during my stay on this mudball…”. Grieving is very selfish, especially when your only relation with the deceased is indirect. Why should our sentiments be “he had so much more to give” when we were already given way more than we collectively deserve? Dave Brockie may have been a boob but he certainly was no tit whose only purpose in life was to feed us until we are full.
So what is left in Dave’s wake? Well, some amazing music. It is important to remember that GWAR isn’t just Dave Brockie. GWAR is a collaborative effort among many talented people. In 2011, GWAR lost another talented Scumdog, Corey Smoot. His proficiency with the guitar, and the song writing process as a whole, was second to none. GWAR overcame the loss and muscled on with one of their strongest albums to date, Battle Maxiumus. GWAR’s drummer Brad Roberts and rhythm guitarist Mike Dirks have been in the band longer than should be considered healthy for any normal human being, and I have no doubt that they will make sure the band continues. It would be unfair to say that Dave Brockie is what made GWAR what GWAR is. GWAR is a collective effort, first and foremost. Dave has even stated in interviews that since the band is costumed, GWAR could technically continue long after it’s members quit or pass as long as someone were still interested in the characters and their story. Some could argue that the Misfits without Danzig or the Dead Kennedy’s without Jello simply aren’t the bands that they once were and this is true. But when it comes to GWAR, this is an idea as much as it is a band. At it’s heart, the power of GWAR lies in the stories they tell. Will there ever be another Oderus Urungus, let alone Dave Brockie? Absolutely not, nor should there be, but I hope the idea doesn’t die with Dave.
Dave Brockie’s passing is certainly a loss to the metal world, whether you loved or hated him, but his bravery and creativity will stand the test of time long after all of us join him in whatever may come after this mortal candle burns the last of it’s wick. Dave, I raise my bottle of Jagermeister in your memory and thank you for all you have taught me about what it truly means to be an artist, and how to have a sense of humor.
Oh, and if you see The Master, kick him in the balls for me.
The original Resident Evil, or Biohazard as it is know outside of the US, sunk its teeth in me at a fairly young age. Countless hours were spent roaming the halls of the mansion, my ears perked for the slightest sign of the undead.
I’ve been a gamer since I can remember, and there are plenty of games I enjoy, but those early Resident Evil titles had something that has become increasingly rare throughout gaming as a whole. They were challenging. That’s not to say they were overly difficult, but rather that they asked more from gamers than the usual fare. Ammo was scarce. Rooms required thorough searches as their contents largely determined life or death. Health did not regenerate. My knife was pathetically weak, only usable as a last resort. I was forced to seek out gasoline in order to burn the dead lest they rise again and devour my foolish adolescent self. Every window brought the threat of zombified dogs so intent on devouring me that they would leap through the glass in pursuit. Even the number of times I could save was limited to the number of ink ribbons I managed to find. And it was for all of these things that I fell hopelessly in love with the game.
Other games like Dino Crisis, Fatal Frame, and the spectacular Silent Hill were soon to follow, leaving a host of sequels in their wake. Resident Evil 2 and 3 served up more of the nail-biting suspense delivered so perfectly in the first game, and gamers ate it up. Survival horror was going strong, terrifying gamers late into the night, challenging them to persevere in hopeless situations.
Fast forward a few years to the release of Resident Evil 4. As anyone will tell you, RE4 is a spectacular game. However, it isn’t a survival horror game. Instead of combing through dimly lit corridors in search of keys and ammunition, RE4 focused on putting the player into a Hollywood blockbuster, giving them ammo hand over fist and setting up the next set of targets as soon as the current group had been obliterated. The franchise had shifted into the landscape of action games. Although the horror aesthetic remained, the tension was largely absent. Out of ammo? Switch to a different gun. Better yet, just buy more.
The game was remarkably popular, and its near-perfect scores from all the major gaming magazines cemented it at the forefront of a trend that would alter the course of survival horror games, essentially diverting their lifeblood into the effort to create games for the action crowd. For a time, action horror took the center stage with franchises like Dead Space, Left 4 Dead, and the now mutated Resident Evil. As far as big developers were concerned, survival horror had taken a backseat.
The rebirth of survival horror first started in 2007 when indie developer Frictional Games released a terrifying little game called Penumbra. Unlike most main stream horror games, Penumbra didn’t drop boxes of ammo at the player’s feet. In fact, Penumbra didn’t even bother to give players a gun. Armed with nothing more than a flashlight, glow stick, and eventually a hammer and ice pick, the game left players remarkably vulnerable, conveying a sense of helplessness not seen in gaming for some time.
Players took on the role of a man who travels to Greenland to unravel the mystery surrounding the contents of a safety deposit box left behind by his late father. It doesn’t take long for the player to become cut off from the rest of the world, falling down a mine shaft into what appears to be a military installation left over from the Second World War.
Technically, the game was nothing groundbreaking, but the feeling the experience evoked in players was impressive. When describing the game to a friend, I said it was the closest I’d ever come to experiencing John Carpenter’s The Thing first hand, a statement which still holds true. Penumbra worked to create fear in meaningful ways. Hiding was vital to survival, and yet the mere sight of certain enemies could cause the protagonist to panic and reveal his position. This left players crouched behind stacks of crates as they listened to something that sounded like the equivalent of a lion pass by, their imagination working overtime as the protagonist’s heartbeat sounded from the speakers. Like survival horror games of old, the environments were confined, making the player feel claustrophobic and remarkably exposed. On more than one occasion I found myself staring into a small space I’d have to crawl through, listening to something crawl around somewhere inside. The atmosphere and sense of complete helplessness gave the game its flavor.
Several other Penumbra games followed, and although they garnered a cult following, they remained relatively under the radar of most gamers. It wasn’t until Frictional Games’ next project, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, released in 2010 that the company’s following exploded. Amnesia used many of the mechanics found in Penumbra, but with several tweaks and a new setting. Rather than exploring the secrets of the frozen north, players awoke to find themselves in a castle, and, true to the game’s title, suffering from a case of amnesia. Like Penumbra, the protagonist was affected by fear, only the fear was quantified in the form of a sanity meter. Actions like traveling through an unlit room or stumbling upon a corpse would reduce a player’s sanity while standing in a brightly lit area would restore it. However, this time around players weren’t even given the luxury of a hammer as a defense, but rather a lantern and nothing more. A lantern that consumed fuel and attracted unwanted attention. Hiding in the dark made the player’s brain turn to mush until bugs crawled over the screen and the protagonist dragged himself around the floor by his chin, but the alternative was never much better. Like the characters in the best mythos tales, players were doomed no matter what they did. As with its predecessor, the strong sense of atmosphere and mortality made Amnesia into something special. The game was a huge success, selling well over a million copies, quite a feat for an indie developer. Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs followed in 2013, it’s preorder scrolling across Steam’s featured items screen with all of the other big-budget titles. Survival horror had its pulse back.
A more recent release on the road to survival horror’s revival was 2013’s Outlast from Red Barrels Studios, another indie company. Founded by former Ubisoft employees and industry vets behind games such as Prince of Persia, Splinter Cell, and Assassin’s Creed, the team took their years of experience along with the recent trends set by Frictional Games to push the envelope and bring the new brand of survival horror not only to the PC, but to the newly released PlayStation 4, dragging the long lost horror elements back into the living room. Once again, players were isolated and helpless, taking on the role of a journalist investigating strange reports from an insane asylum. The protagonist’s only possession? A handheld camera with night vision. Like Amnesia’s lantern, the camera burned through energy and needed to be fed new batteries periodically, which could leave players stumbling around in the dark with the crazies. While Outlast didn’t feature any sanity meter as Amnesia did, the horror elements were plentiful. My heart raced more than a few times, particularly during the game’s opening scenes.
Last year also saw the release of State of Decay, an Xbox Live arcade game now available for PC through Steam. The game placed players in an open world environment during the aftermath of a zombie outbreak, prompting them to gather limited resources, recruit survivors, and establish strongholds against the undead hoards. The catch? If a character died, even the protagonist, they were gone for good, and the game went on without them by switching the player to another survivor. This concept of mortality, that players are not unstoppable killing machines, is what makes this new wave of horror games compelling. You are weak. The world is frightening. You can lose. This debut title by indie developer Undead Labs quickly sold over a million copies.
With so much money being brought in by these indie companies pushing boundaries, it’s no surprise major developers are following suit. Sega’s Alien: Isolation is slated for release this Fall, and despite the last few Alien games being complete flops even in the eyes of the action gamers for whom they were intended, Isolation certainly looks promising. Rather than blasting through hordes of xenomorphs, players must survive against a single alien without the use of weapons. Judging from the gameplay released by IGN, it would appear that the developers have chosen to draw inspiration from Ridley Scott’s film rather than James Cameron’s, for which I am extremely grateful.
At last year’s E3, Bethesda showed a demo of new survival horror title The Evil Within. The game is being developed Shinji Mikami, the man behind the original Resident Evil, and promises a return to the roots of survival horror. And so we come full circle.
However, just because the big names have taken notice doesn’t mean the indie developers are done. Far from it. Frictional Games is set to release SOMA, their latest project, sometime next year. This time players will find themselves in a futuristic science fiction setting, and from the footage released thus far, the experience looks to be every bit as terrifying as falling down a mine shaft or waking up in a castle without a working memory.
Undead Labs is hard at work on an MMO in the same vein as State of Decay, and Red Barrels is nearing the release of Outlast: Whistleblower, a DLC prequel to the original game. There’s plenty of gore and suspense on the horizon, and I for one cannot wait to start rationing my ammo and hiding in the back of closets.
I’ve been reading (and writing) a lot of horror lately. It’s kind of become my thing. So when I noticed by chance that one of my favorite fantasy trilogies, The Darwath Trilogy by Barbara Hambly), was available as an e-book, I bought it on a whim. Going back and re-reading these books that I haven’t even thought about in years has been more than just enjoyable, it’s been eye-opening. I have lost myself in the plot, gotten caught up in the suffering and joy of the characters, and become emotionally invested in their lives just like I did the first time I read them.
What’s different now (besides the fact that I’m older and supposedly wiser) is that experiencing this story anew, I’ve come to realize it’s not just a fantasy. Oh, there is magic, and good vs. evil, and sword-play. There is even a damsel in distress, until she realizes she is perfectly capable of saving herself. But this is also a horror story, and I never realized it before.
I’ve read a lot of fantasy, starting in my pre-teens. The Big Bad is usually an evil wizard/king/high-ranking royal underling/witch/spoiled but underappreciated heir…the list goes on. But my point is a lot of the time the antagonist is some variation of a human being. Then there are the beastly Bad Guys—dragons or goblins or other mythical monsters, even the magically-created or surviving villains like Sauron or Voldemort.
The main evil in this series, however, isn’t human (although there are those, too) and they aren’t your typical beastie. They’re called The Dark, mostly because sunlight and fire are deadly to them, and so for the most part they only come out at night. They don’t walk, not having legs per se, and they don’t fly as they don’t really have wings. They float through the air with the aid of their own incomprehensible and eldritch magic, with which they can cloak themselves almost to invisibility. They can change their size, from maybe the size of a small mammal, to as large as a house in a split second. They are soft and undulating with trailing tentacles reminiscent of jellyfish. Yet they have grasping claws and dripping acid. And between the space of one heartbeat and the next they can siphon the blood from a person’s veins, strip flesh from bones, or perhaps most horribly snatch the soul from the body leaving a mindless automaton behind.
When I read about The Dark and the descriptions of what they could do, and how callously, I was terrified! They look on human beings as cattle, neither knowing nor caring that the people they feed on are thinking, feeling creatures. Even now, years later, going back and re-reading this series, I get a chill from The Dark. Is it just because the author came up with a really good, scary villain? Or is it also that atavistic fear, handed down for millennia—that fear of what we can’t see but only sense? When the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and goosebumps skitter down your spine on dainty spider feet, is it all just your imagination? Or is there really something in the darkness looking back at you, waiting for the perfect moment to strike…?
In any case, I’ve come to the conclusion that genre is just a label, and sometimes an inadequate one at that. On the face of it, The Darwath Trilogy is a fantasy series perfect for a pre-teen to pick up and enjoy. However, underneath is all the darkness and horror someone like me could wish for.
Like most people, I’m wary of horror sequels. Even more so when the first film is a favorite of the genre. But sequels, like reboots, are pretty inevitable these days, and I always hope that at the very least the original films themselves aren’t watered down by what comes after.
Insidious: Chapter 2 is upon us. Before I head to the theater, I thought I’d give the original a quick revisit, along with the rest of director James Wan’s body of work. Insidious struck me immediately—and continues to do so after a few more viewings—as a horror film that gets so much right. I often watch scary movies and find myself thinking of subtle, simple ways that would have improved a scene or a particular shot. “Show the ghost from that other angle.” “That should have stayed mostly off-camera, where it was way creepier.” “You just missed three chances to slip something into those shadows.” I’m always mildly shocked by how horror directors miss genuine ways to subvert the norm and prevent yawns. What seems like common sense is usually ignored.
For almost all of Insidious, I didn’t have a single one of these thoughts. The story follows the family of a little boy who falls into an inexplicable coma and becomes targeted by spirits. Early in the film, the family makes the rare but wise horror-movie decision to get the hell out of the house, but since it’s the boy who is haunted and not the home, their troubles move with them.
The tension is well-paced and dialed up slowly, perfectly. The music is incredible, reveling in horror tradition. Tone, atmosphere, dread…Wan knows what he’s doing and manages so many great shots with a pretty limited palette. There’s a scene in the baby’s room where if you’re paying attention to the curtains, you’ll glimpse one of my favorite horror moments. Another impressive sequence takes place in the second house—watch the long tracking shot where the mother is doing chores and passes the laundry nook on her way out to the trash bin. The scene ends with an eerie sight, but much more subtle is the precursor almost hidden in the middle of the shot.
Insidious does come close to derailing itself when the film ventures into the astral projection realm known as the Further. It falls prey to the old mistake of showing too much of the monster, who does, admittedly, look a bit too much like Darth Maul. But the creepy slam-dunks greatly outweigh the meh. Wan really came into his own with this film, and after three years Insidious holds up well.
Speaking of sequels diluting the impact of originals, Saw tends to be lost in the increasing silliness of the 78 films that followed in its wake. It’s easy to forget that the first one was actually pretty great. Director Wan was only 27 years old when it was released, and the poise displayed in such a gritty, borderline torture-porn context is still impressive. Never mind that the rest of the Saw films actually were torture-porn. Wan had little to do with those.
His next two films offered nothing special, as Wan hadn’t quite tapped into his ability to elevate tropes. Dead Silence (2006) is a typical “evil murderess killed by villagers seeks her revenge from beyond the grave” tale with some nicely spooky moments sprinkled into a clichéd plot with an even more clichéd twist ending. Death Sentence (2007) found Wan sliding over into the ultraviolent revenge flick territory best navigated by Chan-wook Park of Oldboy fame. Kevin Bacon plays a regular-guy executive suddenly thrust into that ultraviolent world, and the whole thing is forgettable.
The Conjuring, though. Wow. On the strength of Insidious, I already had high hopes, and Wan managed to somehow exceed them. I hesitate to call anything a perfect horror film, but it’s up there. And it’s “based on a true story,” which often proves restrictive. Considering that the “true story” also revolves around several tired tropes of the genre, the film is even more of a triumph. Here we have the evil witch terrorizing from beyond the grave. The secluded farmhouse. Bumps in the night. Paranormal investigators. Demonic possession and the exorcism in the final act. So much been-there-done-that mushed up into a brilliant, effective, and chilling two hours.
Ed and Lorraine Warren, a demonologist and medium known to most for their after-the-fact dabbling a few years later in the Amityville Horror case, agree to help a family in 1971 at a Rhode Island farmhouse. The Perrons—mom, dad, and five daughters—are being tormented by various ghostly happenings, which quickly escalate from strange noises and dead people glimpsed in mirrors to outright dread. Wan employs many of the same devices he and countless other horror directors have relied on throughout the years, but something in his sure hand and sense of pacing sets him apart. He knows just the amount to show you, and when, even if it’s nothing you can actually see.
There’s a scene surprisingly early in the film that makes a mockery of most entire scary movies: One of the girls is trying to sleep but something keeps yanking her down the bed. First she thinks her sister’s playing tricks; then she peeks under the bed. It’s a simple scene, shot with goosebump grace to culminate with the audience staring at a huge patch of shadow behind the bedroom door. There’s something there…but you can’t see it. The tension stretches out, almost tangibly elastic…but still you can’t see it. It’s an amazing shot, and even though the remainder of the film builds upon it to achieve even more greatness, my mind has continued to linger on that chunk of blank black. Along with the hallway shot in The Exorcist III, it will never truly leave me.
Oh, and I had red marks on my leg from my girlfriend’s digging fingernails. She was a coiled wire for nearly two hours. That’s as sure a rating system for horror films as anything. Five out of five fingernail scratches.
The Conjuring already has a sequel in the works, based on another of the Warrens’ cases (cue hopeful apprehension). And now, as I write this, Insidious: Chapter 2 is debuting in theaters. Time will tell if it can stand next to its predecessor. I’m tempering my expectations using the Sequel Meter, but Wan is just too good at what he does.
Wan has proven himself to really get the construct of a horror film. I’ve watched so many others fail at it for so long, so it’s refreshing that we have a director who’s changing the game, albeit in a subtle, old-fashioned way. He doesn’t need gobs of CGI or wild, ambitious stories in order to work his magic. There’s often a knowing wink to classics of the genre, even as he refreshes them. And he’s still young and only now reaching the peak of his ability. With back-to-back efforts as wonderful as Insidious and The Conjuring, his previous two duds are entirely forgiven.
I’ve been tempted in the past couple of years to claim that the horror film genre is entering a renaissance. I’m still not committing to those words, but Wan is edging me closer.
I hate to end on a downbeat note, but the fact that Wan has signed on to direct the seventh The Fast and the Furious movie gives me pause. Hopefully he’s just cashing in on some megabucks in order to fund his next dose of scary awesome. I’ll be in line for the horror, although I’ll be skipping Vin Diesel’s latest stunts, as I have six times before. For now, let’s cross our fingers that the new Insidious doesn’t wreck everything I just wrote.
If one were to examine pop-culture today and determine where exactly zombies and the undead stand, it would sort of feel as though they really do walk among us. In recent years, AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead, with now three seasons under its belt, has left zombies with an undeniable stamp on the medium of the screen.
Already in 2013, two films, Warm Bodies and World War Z, have graced audiences with two very different perspectives on, but nevertheless feature, beings that are neither dead nor alive. Countless upon countless horror films centering on zombies have been released over the decades that they, in fact, have spawned their own genre. The ‘Zombie Horror Film’ is now an immortalized subgenre of the horror flick but it goes even deeper than that as the folklore of zombies in North American culture is always being spun into more complex and varying webs of subgenre upon sub-subgenre.
Before one delves into the legend that continually grows, it is important to discover where the dead first began to walk the earth on screen. When we think of the origins of the ‘zombie,’ George A. Romero’s 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead, is certainly a movie that comes to mind and although this is partly true, it being the origin for zombies as we know today, the source goes back a bit farther than that, in fact, over 30 years back whilst in the midst of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
The term ‘zombie’ has roots reaching back into Haitian and African religion, where a zombie is someone who is an animated corpse or hypnotized into doing one’s bidding. Through voodoo and witchcraft it was believed to be possible to turn someone into a zombie. The living dead as we know them today, who rise from graves, is a little more of a recent concept. Rarely nowadays do movies that contain zombie subject matter actually depict them as traditional victims of witchcraft or voodoo; however, this was not always the case. Known to be the first ever full-length feature zombie-horror film, White Zombie is the motion picture which sparked the rise of what was to be a zombie take-over in North American horror.
White Zombie was directed by brothers Victor and Edward Halperin in 1932. The film stars the infamous horror virtuoso Bela Lugosi as well as Madge Bellamy, John Harron, and Robert Frazer. The setting of the plot actually takes place in Haiti and pits Lugosi’s character, Murder Legendre, as the voodoo master with a sugar mill full of his very own zombie slaves. Lugosi puts on a fantastically creepy performance as the antagonist. His signature stare that garnered him so much respect in 1931’s Dracula curdles your blood and is ever present in this film. The atmosphere that the film evokes is undeniably scary and the blank expressions given off by Lugosi’s zombies are eccentrically eerie and truly void of any signs of human existence. Although at times the film is a little goofy (but are not all horror films from that time a little bit so?) and the acting also sometimes cringe worthy, there is a certain amount of charm that this independent horror gem carries along with itself.
Filmed in only 11 days, White Zombie was first released to the public in 1932 in New York City, where it faced less than positive reviews. Critically, the film was seen as a joke and as a laughable parody of what ‘true horror’ could accomplish. In retrospect, though, the film is seen as a pivotal piece in the growth of horror and is seen as the first film to introduce the term ‘zombie’ into mainstream media. For that alone it is certainly worth a watch, if not for Lugosi’s stellar performance.
After White Zombie, not many other zombie films saw zombies from the Haitian perspective and after the huge success of Night of the Living Dead, it would seem that for now, that perspective of zombie has all but been lost and forgotten. The hypnotism and voodoo magic is gone and in its place now stands bloodthirsty, flesh-eating, usually repulsively gory undead. However, after White Zombie there were still several zombie films that came out before George Romero ever got his start, and these included: The Ghost Breakers (1940), King of the Zombies (1941), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Plague of the Zombies (1966). None of them were hugely successful but each had their own little role in expanding and building upon zombie mythology in film.
With zombie-horror as an entire subgenre, it now appears as though sub-subgenres are expanding out of that as well. When you first want to create some sort of zombie-related flick, you have to ask yourself, what sort of zombies are we dealing with? Will the zombies simply rise from the dead or is there a virus involved? Do you need to be bit or is being scratched good enough to turn? Do the zombies specifically need to be shot in the head to be killed? Are they fast, jumping, and sprinting or are they slow, cumbersome, and lumbering? These questions and many, many more have to be answered and determined before one creates anything zombie related nowadays. When talking about zombies and zombie films, I will find myself asking questions like, “Are we dealing with 28 Days Later zombies or Dawn of the Dead zombies?” The list of characteristics that go into creating your own version of the undead is just so expansive, almost overwhelming now, that depending on which sort of zombie you wish to take on, chances are it will be very similar to some films while also very different to others, thus, the creation of a zombie sub-subgenre is created.
Infesting more than just the big screen, zombies are everywhere. Books, videogames (especially videogames), and television all host very successful zombie-related material and although some see the zombie genre as redundant and repetitive, it has been going on for roughly 80 years now and I am sure that zombies are here to stay. You can now have zombies attacking your garden on your iPhone in Plants vs. Zombies, watch Brad Pitt fend for his life against hordes of zombies in World War Z, and even read up and prepare yourself for the impending zombie apocalypse in Max Brooks’ best-selling book The Zombie Survival Guide, but just remember where it all came from; from a little Haitian plantation at the hands of a devious voodoo master practicing witchcraft and a spellbinding Bela Lugosi back in 1932.
Hey, let’s look at five cool horror movie scenes! (Beware of spoilers.) Let’s goooooooo!
Shaun of the Dead is awesome. That’s not my opinion. It’s a fact. It starts as a parody and slowly transforms into an honest-to-God kick-ass zombie movie in its own right. The most kick-ass scene? Shaun being forced to kill his own mom. The way this scene plays out is so hardcore and emotional that you forget you were laughing your guts out only minutes before. This was one of the most surprising sucker punches in recent horror memory, and earns a spot on this list.
KICK-ASS LEVEL: YOUR MOM
4. The Mist
The Mist is my dad’s favorite movie ever, and he says it’s all because of the ending. He calls it “wish fulfillment,” which I guess means he REALLY wants to see some giant monsters while out on a drive with me on a foggy day. For once, I agree with my old man, as the ending of this movie is KICK-ASS! But what happens at the end of the drive is what makes it so nuts. Out of gas and hope, our hero decides to play Russian roulette with his son and fellow survivors. Except he’s the only one who gets to pull the trigger. And he forgot to take any of the bullets out of the gun. And pretty much everyone else was sleeping. Then, immediately after he kills everyone, he’s saved! Yay! Life finds a way!
KICK-ASS LEVEL: DAD’S WISH FULFILLMENT
28 Days Later is probably one of the best “zombies that aren’t really zombies” movies ever, and it’s hard to pick just one scene that stands out. After days of solitary meditation (when that didn’t work I just asked my mom) I realized it was the empty London segment that sticks in my head. The pure loneliness of the sequence instills the entire movie with a sense of terrible hopelessness and illustrates a world where Jim has already missed the conflict…all he has to do is survive the apocalypse that already happened while he was out cold. I couldn’t find a clip of this scene anywhere, so enjoy this song about Thanksgiving. The number 28 features prominently at the eight-second mark.
KICK-ASS LEVEL: 28 (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?)
2. Troll Hunter
Troll Hunter is a “found footage” movie. I get why so many people hate them. Once my mom “found” some “footage” of mine when she put in what she thought was Police Academy II on VHS player. She would later refer to that Mother’s Day as “unfortunate.” You know what isn’t unfortunate? Troll Hunter, that’s what. This movie is paced ridiculously well, with a constantly escalating sense of danger and epicocity. The climax comes when our heroes confront a troll literally the size of a mountain, and the scale is truly frightening. I haven’t seen anything so big since the last time I had to pee. Wait. I apologize for that metaphor, but since Honey, I Shrunk the Kids didn’t make this list, I had to improvise.
KICK-ASS LEVEL: MOUNTAIN
The Cabin In the Woods. Lots of people loved this movie. Then lots of people decided it’s way cooler to not love stuff, and they began calling it overrated. I fall in the first camp, because it KICKS ASS. Even detractors will admit the last twenty minutes are awesome in the purest sense of the word. I mean, come on. Pretty much ALL the monsters EVER appear and proceed to throw the murder party of the millennium. Unicorn murder? It’s there. Clown fetish? You’re covered. KICK. ASS.
KICK-ASS LEVEL: KITCHEN SINK
It should come as no real surprise that as soon as the earliest computer games became associated with narrative and story instead of simply reflexes, consumers saw the emergence of horror themes in games. This has continued into the modern gaming era because, as always, horror remains popular. Alas, as in literature and the movie industry, what looks so easy when flowing from the pen of a Lovecraft or Poe can hide shades of subtlety easily overlooked by the imitator.
Part of the problem is that it is difficult to measure what it is about dark stories that gives them such appeal. They are atmospheric and the true brilliance of the masters of the form lie in the shading, the implication, careful setting and not, often, purely in the direct plot. There is a world of difference, one must agree, between a poor B-grade splatterfest movie that attempts to shock and titillate with overdone gruesomeness and a careful work of dark fiction that, though potentially bloodless, slips disturbing implications into the mind and remains to chill the blood long after the story is put aside.
This then is the problem that the gaming industry has faced in creating horror titles, this misunderstanding of the fundamentals of what makes a great horror story. With this in mind, we turn to a quick look at problems specific to this more modern form of storytelling.
Interactivity itself provides challenges for anyone wishing to tell a horror story. We have seen a number of occasions in the last few years of attempts to match horror with the ever-popular first-person shooter and action genres of gaming. These attempts have produced titles that were popular in many cases but in terms of what we would call horror, most fall far short in the terms we have discussed so far. Indeed, the majority of “horror” shooters tend far closer to the aforementioned B-grade splatterfest movies than to anything else.
The fundamental issue is the separation of narrative and gameplay. The gaming industry has come a long way in the past few decades of integrating narrative into games themselves, in some parts of the industry with great success, but by and large there remains a gap between the two. Story is often told in non-interactive cut scenes, episodic pieces of story separated by the game itself. The merits of this approach is really a question for another day, however. In the case of action-horror games this approach, regardless of how blurred the edges, has a special problem.
The problem is quite simple; first person shooters, as a genre, are fundamentally about a larger-than-life ultra-capable hero. There is no reason why this must be so, however, historically it has been so since the earliest shooters and despite changes in setting and attempts to modify this—so that the player is, for instance, a single soldier among many in the trenches of World War II rather than a gung-ho space marine single-handedly destroying an entire alien/demonic/Nazi invasion force, the fact remains that the player is, in the game, uniquely capable and easily outshines the computer generated allies.
In a game like this, this must be so. Very few players would enjoy playing a game where computer generated fellow soldiers take care of all the opposition easily and reduce the player to a walking tour of the trenches. It is a difficult balance for game designers to strike to have both the verisimilitude of the setting combined with the feeling of power and achievement necessary to make such a game entertaining.
This works well in less-serious games where an all-powerful protagonist is accepted as a matter of course and it works reasonably well in more realistic games such as the ever-popular call of duty series. Where it falls over most noticeably is when these games are teamed with the horror genre, in games such as F.E.A.R. and the later games in the Silent Hill horror games, a series that early on was rightly lauded for successfully producing games that were genuinely scary, but which has received a far more lukewarm reception for it’s more recent incarnations.
To use F.E.A.R. as an example, it does check most of the modern horror trope boxes. We have an evil conspiracy, paranormal powers, an overwhelming threat and a creepy little girl of the sort made popular by Japanese horror franchises. These are all used to good effect in the little “story” episodes where the player sees visions of the little girl in quite disturbing ways.
The effect is ruined however by the sheer capability of the player character. There are creepy sections of the game certainly, however these short vignettes are interspersed among the greater gameplay sections, which consist of the player murdering wave after wave of supposedly “elite” soldiers who seem themselves content to be grist for the mill. The stakes cannot really be raised and the sense of uneasiness is a mere phantom feeling that fades quickly secure in the knowledge that with gun in hand, the player will eventually win the day.
That then is what is missing from most of these modern games. It is taken for granted that the player will win out against all odds. One aspect of horror fiction that is more prevalent in horror than in than any other type of fiction (save perhaps classical tragedy) is that of the losing protagonist. There is never a guarantee that the hero will win the day in horror, in fact for those familiar with Lovecraft’s fiction the idea that one of his protagonists could “win the day” in any meaningful way is nearly laughable. If the player is shot down by one of these soldiers the game ends immediately and sharply. There is no way to continue the story, there is no ‘meaningful loss’, but rather a failure on the player’s part. In fact, it is not really a game ending at all but rather an interruption at which point the player is expected to reload and continue. The protagonist, you see, cannot fail. He is destined to kill all the enemies and proceed to the story’s ending; only the player can fail and in that case it is only a temporary setback, not a true failure.
Compare this with the game Silent Hill 2, considered by many critics and aficionados (as well as myself) to be one of the most well-executed horror games ever made. The issues of saving and loading still apply but the focus of the game is much different. It is still possible to die in combat (a player failure) which requires an interruption whilst the player loads so the protagonist can continue his story; however the protagonist in Silent Hill 2 is a true “losing protagonist.” The game is a journey of discovery for the player where the truth about what the main character has done, the guilt that drives him, and the meaning of the terrors Silent Hill inflicts on him are all discovered during the game. He is a true incapable protagonist in every sense of the word, not larger than life or a super-human killing machine—in fact, he is so incapable at combat that the player is encouraged to avoid it where possible. This feeling of isolation, fear and incapability is heightened by the fact that there are some combats that it is not possible to win and where fleeing is the only possible answer. A truly scary atmosphere is created by the combination of both story and gameplay elements (considering incapability as a gameplay element, which it surely was) working in tandem.
Silent Hill 2 has several endings, based on choices the player makes during the game, and although one might be considered the “good” ending, none could be considered heroic in the traditional sense. Instead with growing horror we are led to realise who we are, what we’ve done and to look at the experiences in Silent Hill in a new light. Even now, years later, I remember the story with a shudder, whilst many other games have faded into complete obscurity in my memory along with countless forgettable movie plots and stories.
Many games have attempted to copy this formula in the years following including later games in the same series but most have failed to achieve this delicate balance that made the game a true horror experience. They have focused on the imagery the game produced, which admittedly was frightening and disturbing, but missed the more subtle character of what made the whole what it was. They have improved the controls for the combat engine, which counter-intuitively made combat a more viable problem solution and lessened the feeling of incapability that made the previous game so tense. They added more characters, and even companions, in an attempt to increase the complexity and interest of the story, and in doing so eliminated the feeling of isolation that made the town and its secrets so oppressive.
Narrative games have an additional problem to surmount over the more traditional forms of storytelling; that of the integration of story and gameplay; and it is a problem that is most jarring of all in games that attempt to chill the blood and haunt the mind long after the game is finished. Though the standard triple-a industry brings us titles like F.E.A.R., it has too much money and risk tied up to truly innovate and as we have discussed, the current accepted methods of attaching story and gameplay, particularly in action games, is not up to the greater challenge provided by the subtleties dark fiction genre. That said, it can be done and well; we simply have to look further afield—to the edges of the games industry, the dark corners and disused cellars where once-popular game genres lie and independent developers work feverishly. What better place for horror’s true place in the gaming industry?