Scared Hitless: The Witch

Horror, as a genre, is one that isn’t afraid of pushing buttons, and challenging the norms. Over the last few years, there’s definitely been a thread of female empowerment going through horror films, and it’s been refreshing to see. This isn’t talking about the “final girl” concept. No, this is talking about women who are able to be the agent of what is happening around them, and come out stronger at the end because of it. Look at films like It Follows, The Babadook, and, yes, Ex Machina. All of these films feature women that, while they might not necessarily be the root cause of the events of the story, they are able to, through their own strength, and ingenuity, change the rules of the game around them. It Follows features Jay taking control of her own sexuality, and the choices and consequences of doing so, without reservation. The Babadook looks at depression, and how the damage that it can cause, but again, it is predominantly Amelia who is the agent of change for her family. With regards to Ex Machina, Ava outwits both of the men who believe they are testing her, and holds her entire fate squarely in her robotic hands. And that’s a small list.

This isn’t to say that horror in general has glowing views of women. Far from it. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to deny that there is some rampant misogyny running through the genre, but the fact that there is some strong women stepping forward in horror, and in roles that are more than simply a “final girl” role, is a great thing. It shows that the world is turning, and that alone is a pretty good feeling, even when it comes with a certain level of dread.

Of course, when trying to bring about change, you run a risk of alienating people. This is something that has an even higher risk within horror, due to the incredibly subjective relationship that the viewer has with the subject matter. One person’s terrifying could very easily be another person’s laughable. Even things that are considered to be universal fears have plenty of people who don’t find them disturbing in the slightest. That subjectivity leads to people having vastly different experiences, and things that some people love, others will outright hate.

That brings me around to the movie that I want to talk about, and one that is out in theaters right now. I am, of course, talking about The Witch, a film that I actually described as being “relentlessly uncomfortable”. That isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the experience; I definitely did (at least, I did most of the way through the film). But the film certainly hit me with just an overall feeling of discomfort from the very start, and that discomfort, while wondering what was coming next, kept me involved. With that said, let’s look at The Witch.

TheWitch

Via comingsoon.net

THE WITCH

The Witch bills itself as “A New England Folktale”, and that descriptor couldn’t be more apt. Taking place in the 1600s, and following a Puritan family who has been exiled from their village, the film doesn’t deal with overarching moral dilemmas. Instead, it reverts back to the simpler, archetypal stories of yesteryear. What causes all of the trouble for William and his family? In the basic folktale style, it is simply leaving the safety of their people. Striking out on their own. Entering the woods. Simple, primal fears, and ones that definitely would have resonated with the time frame the film was set in.

But is it really just that simple? Of course not. Layered over the top of the basic fears is an admonition of excessive pride, a tale of a mother feeling threatened by her daughter blossoming, and a family who have become so wrapped up in their beliefs that they aren’t seeing the reality around them. Setting the film in Puritan times helps ground it, and, while it may take some viewers a little time to completely wrap their heads around the (remarkably authentic) language and dialect, the performances all around by the cast, laying bare who these people are, carry an impact. The pacing is deliberate, and, as I mentioned above, personally it was unrelenting in how uncomfortable the film was. Each moment built on the last, not necessarily in intensity, but with very few opportunity given to pull back on the tension. I have seen some people describe the film as being “boring”, but I think a lot of that really is tied into how quickly and easily you get sucked in by the tension-building, and how uncomfortable the moments make you.

Very quickly, the film presents you with the titular witch, after the family baby, Samuel, is abducted while in the immediate care of Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Needless to say, that doesn’t end well, and leads directly to one of the few scenes that would fit well into many other horror films, as well. From that point on, the film doesn’t really let up. We’re met with the sounds of Katherine (the mother, in a strong portrayal by Kate Dickie) praying frantically, only to learn that this has been going on practically unabated for days. William (Ralph Ineson) proceeds to, through his own hubris, keep making what he believes are the correct choices to save his failing farm, while also soothing his family, but the only thing he is good at seems to be chopping wood. It is his pride that set his family down the path that they’re presently on, and his pride keeps them from being able to see the writing ont he wall until it is too late. Throw into that mix the leering gaze of Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), the plot to remove Thomasin from the family home, and the refusal to believe their reality, and you’ve got a film that is either a make-it or break-it concept.

I mentioned above how horror has been starting to present more tales that revolve around female empowerment, and I truly believe that The Witch is a film that fits into that category. William is a man who is entirely ruled by his wife, and his fear of what she would think of him. Over the course of the film, we see him shying away from things that would anger her, or at least the admission thereof. In fact, when given the chance, he is more than willing to deflect blame towards Thomasin, who is just entering womanhood, and is clearly a threat in the eyes of Katherine. However, while Katherine is the silent power in the household, it is Thomasin who truly goes on the journey towards greater strength throughout the film. She could be viewed as a “final girl”, except that completely ignores her own autonomy in each situation. She gets accused by her family of being the witch causing them problems, but only because she had pulled that particular tool out of her bag in an earlier attempt to get her twin siblings to behave. She is adamant that the twins, later, are the ones who are communing with the devil, and it leads directly to the penultimate night. It should also be noted that, in many of the situations, had the family listened to Thomasin, instead of being fearful or dismissive of the young woman, things would have probably gone better for them all. And, the final scenes show that Thomasin’s journey is complete, although her expression presents a mixture of joy and trepidation.

Make no mistake, this is Thomasin’s story, with the rest of the family as players in the cast. We don’t actually know the root cause of the exile, but we do know that William’s hubris is what eventually forced the hand of the village elders. It isn’t too much of a stretch, however, to look upon the later events of the film, and the contrary nature of Thomasin with regards to the rest of her family, the think that perhaps it was something she said or did that started it all. Pretty much the only member of the family who Thomasin seems to feel any real kinship with is Caleb, and even that is becoming strained as he is becoming more like William with every failed endeavor.

The Witch presents its tale simply, with little flourish of color or variation, but it doesn’t need it. The color palate is somber, foreboding, helping to convey the emotions the family must be feeling knowing that their farm is failing, and that they may have to return humbled before those who exiled them. The darker color scheme also serves as a reminder that there is no guarantee that even that would work. What splashes of color do pop up almost serve as a sort of wish fulfillment, especially notable in Caleb’s run-in with the witch. This, along with the deliberate pace and strong performances, helped ground a clearly supernatural tale in a level of realism.

That is, all up until the very end of the film. Yes, I’m going to talk about the end of the film, and my thoughts. This is your warning to get away before I say too much.

Okay. Seriously, this is your warning.

Good? Good. The ending of The Witch took, what I felt at the time, to be a strong left turn. A movie that had clearly kept at least one foot dangling in a realistic creation suddenly abandoned that entirely. Setting a film about witchcraft in 17th century America, there are two clearly defined paths to travel, and a few more complicated twists and turns to find something newer. One route is to confirm that yes, witchcraft is real, the devil has had his hand in everything from the beginning, and everything supernatural happened exactly as shown. The other route is to explain away everything as an ergot-induced hallucination, and that all of the “magic” acts were conducted by the victims themselves. Honestly, I was glad that The Witch did not take the second route, and even the conversation with Black Philip didn’t bother me. It was shortly thereafter, just before the end credits. Where the film had seemingly made it clear that there was only one witch terrorizing the family, we are confronted with an entire coven. That specifically is what bothered me. Not how the coven leaves the area. The sheer numbers. I honestly felt like the film would have been more powerful had they simply showed only one witch. I even thought initially that cutting to the end just prior to the final reveal would have been preferable, but that takes away the true moments of triumph at the end, and, without that, some of the film would have rang much more hollow.

All of that said, looking back, can I say that I recommend The Witch? That’s actually a much harder question to answer. For me, it is currently in line to be this year’s It Follows, a movie that resonated with me, and made me want to have more people see it so that I could pick their brains about it. By the same token, I definitely understand where people are left questioning if this film even qualifies as horror, even though I can’t imagine what other genre it could possibly belong to. I mention It Follows again for a specific reason. That was also a movie where audiences seemed to either greatly enjoy it, or find the entire thing trite, silly, and a waste of time. I feel that The Witch hits that same sort of dividing of audiences. If you’re interested, decide how much you want to know going in. And don’t expect it to be the next earth-shattering horror entry. That isn’t to say that the film isn’t going to be that for you, but expecting it to fulfill that promise sight unseen is setting it up for a monumental task, one that not even Black Philip could help it with.

Scared Hitless: Ex Machina

Horror has an interesting relationship with a lot of other genres, and those relationships are one of the things that keep drawing horror fans back. Whether it’s the notion of timing and delivery that separate horror from comedy, or the intensity that can keep horror and thriller apart, the way those different genres recognize a part of each other helps make them accessible, and keeps the new creations fresh. Even when old stories are resurrected, there is usually a different spin that can be applied, and that spin is sometimes informed by other genres.

Speaking as a parent, a story that resonates loudly with me is Frankenstein, as told by Mary Shelley. Far too many filmic adaptations of the story have missed the mark for one reason or another. At the core of the story, it is the story of a parent and a child, and the parent’s overall failing to be a parent that leads the child down the path that it follows, and those subtleties often seem to get glossed over. However, a recent attempt to breathe new life into Shelley’s story, whether conscious or not, also dabbles in the realm of science fiction, and asks the audience to think deeper. That film, of course, is

EX MACHINA

Via hollywoodreporter.com.

Via hollywoodreporter.com.

As stated above, Ex Machina is something of an update for the classic Frankenstein myth, in that it deals with a man and his creation, and the man’s overall lack of empathy towards what he has created. However, instead of wrapping the story in Victorian trappings, Ex Machina casts it into the present, or possibly the near future, and we’re given a surrogate through which to see how everything plays out.

The film opens with us meeting Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a programmer for what is clearly meant to be the in-universe version of Google. Caleb is the lucky winner of a lottery held by Nathan (Oscar Isaac), and gets to spend an entire week living with his enigmatic employer. When Caleb arrives, he is immediately presented with a picture of Nathan as a man who, while clearly ridiculously wealthy and freakishly intelligent, his drive also leads to a hard-drinking lifestyle. In fact, Nathan admits to a hangover, which prompts Caleb to comment on what must have been a raging party, and his questioning is met with a deadpan response. It is clear that, while Nathan will at least be cordial with Caleb, he has expectations for his employee. Even from the opening scene, Ex Machina wastes little time establishing Nathan as a driven, brutal genius, but one who has sacrificed aspects of his own humanity in the pursuit of the next great discovery.

Shortly thereafter, we are presented with the crux of why Nathan was holding the lottery. Caleb is to be the human component in administering a Turing test. The computer on the other end is Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot that Caleb is introduced to almost immediately. Her identity as a robot is never disguised, which makes Caleb initially doubt the validity of the test, until Nathan points out that the best way to tell if she has true artificial intelligence would be for Caleb to relate to her, despite knowing the entire time of her robotic nature. This is the crux of the story, and presents a nice framework for the audience.

The film plays with the concept of artificial intelligence, and how we relate to our continually more computerized world through simple conversations between Caleb and Ava. It is these conversations where a real human connection can be felt, and they present a sharp contrast to the communication between Caleb and Nathan. Between Nathan and Ava, he is the one who seems to be trying harder to present a mask of humanity, and she is the one who seemingly embodies the more human characteristics one might expect. This is an obvious choice to make when discussing artificial intelligence, but that doesn’t make it a bad one. Caleb clearly needs that spark of humanity, and, while he tries to make a connection with Nathan and fails, his success doing so with Ava allow for not only the tests to continue, but for Ava’s plans to come to fruition.

Ex Machina is presented simply, with relatively sparse sets, and a small cast working in intimate settings. The starkness of the scene actually serves to heighten the opulence we’re meant to feel with regards to how Nathan lives. Instead of being bare, we are presented with a space that contains only what is meant to be contained there, and only items of the highest quality at that. This is exactly how Nathan lives his life, as only the best is allowed to grace his presence, and he doesn’t have a need for the cast-offs that came before. As a man driven to consistently improve on what he’s already done, this doesn’t bode well for any of his creations, and, with her intellect, Ava is aware of this.

That last part is a big element of why Ex Machina really does feel like a modern retelling of the Frankenstein story. Ava started out as a blank slate. She was created by a man driven to create life; life that could fool even the most perceptive. In the Frankenstein story, what drives the monster is the fact that it simply wanted to be loved, and it was denied. In Ex Machina, it does seem that Ava at first may have wanted the same thing, but that being denied by her creator, she drove herself towards a need to escape and experience. And, in true Frankenstein fashion, even when there is another who wants to give her what she’s asking for, Ava instead relies entirely upon herself, having been taught distrust and neglect at the hands of her creator.

But was Nathan telling the truth when he said that her “rat in a maze” actions were actually part of his initial programming, and that the real test was not to see whether she could pass as human, but if she could seduce her way out? Upon initial viewing, it felt like Nathan’s story changed haphazardly, but, with further reflection, it’s clear that he’s crafted almost everything that happens. Nathan exerts a great deal of control (it isn’t until events happen he didn’t foresee that the entire plan fell apart, for him), and he’s parceling out knowledge to Caleb as he sees fit, and as he feels it necessary to further the test. Is he just really good at looking at the different angles as they are presented to him, or was the entire week laid out in advance, and, as part of his drive to create artificial intelligence, did Nathan study humanity enough to predict exactly what Caleb would do every step of the way?

Ex Machina deals with the (current) fiction of creating artificial intelligence with both a sense of wonder and dread, and that helps ground the film. Would a try AI connect with humans, or replace us? Would it help us to enrich our own lives, or would we be nothing more than intellectual ants to it? Again, much like in the Frankenstein story, the unachievable science is both a thing to behold, and a thing to fear.

Ex Machina, as a film, works for me because of the steady pace, the strong performances of the cast, and the deliberate setting. As a story, however, I feel Ex Machina resonate even more strongly. It calls forward all of my hopes and fears as a parent, in much the same way that Mary Shelley has done as well. It makes me hope that I am able to take this new life and fill it with so much joy, wonder, and deep love, giving what that life needs to sustain itself and be happy. It also presents a bleak picture of what the world can be like for those who never receive what they need, and the place they end up having to carve out for themselves.

Scared Hitless: Bloodborne

From Software has an incredible track record of making games that, while definitely critical darlings, seem to split the gaming universe pretty evenly in half. Some people actively love the challenge set forward in the Souls series, spending countless hours getting destroyed by enemies to slowly learn how to parry and counter-attack at just the right moments. Others get easily frustrated by the admittedly steep learning curve, and back away entirely, never to look back. Everything else that accompanies the games seem to be of minor note, when held up against the difficulty of the titles. I clearly count myself heavily in the first group, or this post wouldn’t even be getting written.

So, what happens when From Software dips their toes into something even more steeped in horror than the Souls series? Does the transition from a straight-up medieval setting into a more Victorian feel work? And what about the advent of the player suddenly carrying a gun? These are questions that get pondered as we step deep into the lore of the city of Yarnham, and find out what exactly is

via Forbes.com

Aw, who wants some snausages?via Forbes.com

Bloodborne

Alright, that last sentence is actually a little bit of a lie. We never find out anything EXACTLY. And that’s part of what makes, for some, the entire Souls series, and the clear spiritual successor, Bloodborne, so interesting for so many. Information is trickled out, but through the game, some of it is immediately discounted with other pieces of lore. While there may be a unifying theory about what exactly is going on, one thing that From wants the player to do is to determine their own version of events. Yes, some things are set in stone, but there’s enough vagueness about everything to keep the player guessing, and spouting theories. That vagueness definitely helps in any horror setting, as often, the most terrifying creature is the one that isn’t fully fleshed out until the end scenes.

But enough about the vagueness of the lore. What about the other questions posed above? Well, first off, by setting Bloodborne in a more modern world, From Software has allowed themselves to play with more of the tropes of that time, instead of relying on the more fantasy-based ones utilized for a medieval setting. It also allows for some a bit of a criticism of modern times. After all, a church making all of the wrong decisions, while city leaders either stand idly by or are corrupted on their own was something that resonated in Victorian times, and still has meaning today. Beautiful architecture filled with dark corners, cast against the backdrop of an increasingly problematic night set the scene. Add a little rain, and you could almost believe that you’re in 19th century London, instead of wandering through the city of Yarnham. In fact, Bloodborne did a pretty job creating a feel for England than The Order: 1886 did, and the second games specifically WAS set in that time and place. The setting works as the perfect backdrop for a Gothic horror game, filled with werewolves and an untrusting populace.

There’s something deeper, and more sinister going on within Bloodborne, however, and the setting lends itself incredibly well to that, too. On the surface, and for the first large portion of the game, it fits well into the mindsets of writers like Stoker and Shelley; the tale is one of humanity falling to darker beasts within themselves. Yes, the game is a bit bloodier in its presentation than authors of that time might have been inclined towards, but you can’t very well call your game Bloodborne and avoid the stuff. As the challenge ramps up, your hunter hears about others who have fallen to their inner beasts, and the first couple of boss fights really drive that point home. As the story progresses, however, you slowly come to realize that From Software is not pulling from Stoker or Shelley; they’re pulling from Lovecraft.

Translating Lovecraft from the written word has traditionally been a tricky task. Some adaptations have worked incredibly well, and others have fallen flat. Bloodborne is one of the examples that works great. The game hints at Elder Ones, and some sort of celestial interference, but it is also clearly planted in the world of dreams. The events happen over the course of one night, and, as the hunter exerts more control over the dreamscape they’ve been placed in, stranger and stranger things happen. One of the most disturbing moments happens when you, as the player, see something lurking outside of one of the early areas, and slowly realize that it’s been there the entire time, but invisible prior to that moment. Also, given Lovecraft’s seeming anxiety towards women, it’s not much of a surprise that Bloodborne plays with themes around menstruation, birth, and the ever-present blood. From Software delivered a story heavily influenced with Lovecraftian themes, and added their signature style of punishing-but-fair game play over the top of it.

But what about scares? Does Bloodborne deliver on the concept of being a horror game? It does, and, much to my own surprise, the risk/reward of more aggressive playing doesn’t detract from the feeling of dread. The lighting of the world is generally just enough to see around a corner or two, and the game utilizes jump scares at just the right moments, to keep the player guessing. Yes, some of these scares get lessened with repeated runs through the same area (and, given that this is ostensibly a Souls game, you WILL be running through areas again), but they are never minimized completely. This is partially because of the “blood echoes” mechanic. After all, there’s always a nagging fear at the back of the player’s mind that they might be a little too aggressive, and run the risk of losing all of their character progress for the last hour or more. This gets even trickier in certain levels where other players can invade your world. There’s nothing quite so terrifying as battling a fierce enemy, running low on healing supplies, and seeing the words that someone has entered your world.

Overall, Bloodborne is a game that seems to relish in its horror roots, while dabbling with Victorian themes. Combat is brutal, but, as is the case in the Souls games, it is fair once you learn the mechanics. Having a gun instead of a shield actually increases the strategy potential, allowing for stuns, but, personally, it didn’t come into play as often as the game would seem to imply it should, based on the supplies provided. The shift from more standard Victorian horror to Lovecraftian works surprisingly well, too, when you think about how much of a disconnect it could have been. As for whether or not you’ll end up enjoying a stroll through the blood-soaked streets of Yarnham? That all depends on how much you enjoy having the prickly sensation dance across the back of your neck, while also warding off frustration from yet another death at the hands of your enemies.

Scared Hitless: The Babadook

Sometimes, horror is great for the initial shock value. You’re looking for something that will scare you RIGHT. NOW. but you want to be able to rest easy after it’s done, or at least the next night. Other times, the mark of strong horror is how a movie will stay with you, plucking at the strings of your brain long after the final credits have rolled. Apparently, it is that variety of horror that I’m currently kicking on, with the recent movies I’ve consumed.

Around a month ago, I took in the movie It Follows, and proceeded to spout piles of words trying to capture my thoughts on it. Thankfully, I never once assumed that writing a blog post would be the end of my musings, as It Follows jumps into my brain every once in a while (generally, when I’m relatively alone). The same goes for another movie that I took in recently; an Australian piece entitled

via i09

via io9

THE BABADOOK

In some ways, The Babadook holds a certain level of kinship with It Follows. Both movies feature strong women in lead roles. Both make it clear that these women are victims of whatever terrible curse is coming for them. And, of course, both are definitely part of a style of horror where the strongest scares lurk in the back of the viewer’s mind. However, even with all of those similarities, the two movies could not be more different.

In The Babadook, we are introduced to Amelia (Essie Davis) and Samuel (Noah Wiseman), a tight-knit little family struggling to get by in their day-to-day lives. The movie actually kicks off with a nightmare of Amelia’s, which is also a flashback to the day Samuel was born. Amelia is a single mother, trying desperately to make life worthwhile for her son. Samuel, for his part, is a child who is plagued by imaginary monsters, so much so that he builds complicated weapons to fend them off. Lurking throughout for both Samuel and Amelia is the memory, or at least imagery, of Oskar (Benjamin Winspear), Sam’s father who died in a car crash bringing the pregnant Amelia to the hospital.

The events of the film are set in the days before Sam’s birthday, and Oskar hangs over the film like a shroud. Much of the setting is dingy, with muted colors. Samuel has been acting out, making it harder for him to form real connections with other children. Amelia, troubled with insomnia of her own and Sam’s night terrors, is bedraggled, trying to balance her life as an elder-care nurse and a single mother. The only person who seems to constantly care for Sam and Amelia is their neighbor, Mrs. Roach (Barbara West), but Amelia is unwilling to burden the older woman more than necessary. In short, their life is by no means idyllic.

That imperfect life starts to take a darker turn when Samuel requests that Amelia read a specific book for his bedtime. That book is Mr. Babadook, a dark and twisted pop-up book that is clearly not meant for children. In the book, the characters are made aware of “Mr. Babadook”, and simply being aware of the entity gives him free rein to torment his victim. Clearly troubled by the story, Amelia stops reading it and hides it, hoping that Samuel will forget it ever existed. From that point forward, the two are plagued by supernatural occurrences, and even efforts to destroy the book are thwarted. For Amelia and Samuel, “Mr. Babadook” has become real, and he is coming for them.

It would seem on the surface that The Babadook is a story about a supernatural demon coming to kill off innocent victims, and, while parts of the film are certainly presented in that fashion, that isn’t at all the main point of the film. This is truly displayed at the end of the movie, when the drab colors are replaced with bright sunshine and an air of vibrancy, despite the darker undertones of the final scenes. No, what The Babadook is dealing with is much more insidious. One of the points made is that, once you’re aware of the Babadook, it will keep coming for you, destroying every aspect of your life. And yet, the Babadook is not truly an external force. It is an internal one, stemming from the mind. The Babadook is an embodiment of grief, of despair, and of a lingering, unprocessed depression.

The metaphor, and deeper meaning, of The Babadook is why this particular film has resonated, and definitely struck a nerve. After all, refusing to process the darker thoughts can certainly lead to aspects of life being stripped away and destroyed. Left to linger long enough, and the darkness can overtake a person, until they feel they are left with no options towards moving forward. The Babadook IS this unprocessed grief, and the vehicle that makes us aware of it is often a trauma that is left forgotten, instead of dealt with. In the film, the trauma is the accident that simultaneously handed Amelia her son, while stripping away her husband.

While there are many scenes in The Babadook that are played straight for scares, the more effective scenes come from watching the family unit of Amelia and Samuel crumble. The hints are there before the book is ever discovered, but the book’s presence serves as an accelerant. It is the metaphorical gasoline being poured on top of the fire of dysfunction already present in the house. Samuel may have never met his father, but he is clearly aware of who the man was, and what his death has done to Amelia. The fact that Amelia clearly sees Oskar in aspects of Sam’s activities only makes that gulf wider, allowing for the darkness of the Babadook to fill the void.

It isn’t uncommon, especially in recent years, for horror to cast children in critical roles, but it’s hard to imagine a child actor doing a better job than Noah Wiseman did as Samuel. Throughout large swaths of the movie, there is an urge in the viewer to tell Samuel to behave, or else. He shows genuine tenderness towards his mother, but the flip side of the coin is far too many moments of pure aggravation. The lines are etched on Amelia’s face, and it could initially seem like simply another grating child actor being thrust into a film that they can’t handle. And yet, we, the viewer, are SUPPOSED to be aggravated by everything Samuel does. We’re supposed to reach a tipping point with him; not to the same extent that Amelia does, but we are not let off of the hook. Samuel is grating to truly help the audience identify with Amelia, and see how frazzled she is trying to keep it all together. Without that connection, the moments of true darkness would miss the mark completely.

That isn’t to say that The Babadook is a perfect movie, or that everyone will want to watch it over and over. Neither of those points is true. There are some scenes within the film that feel almost as though they were lifted from a different, less psychological film. And, while some will certainly sit down to watch The Babadook again, it’s a hard one to stomach multiple viewings of, especially for those who experience some of the same despair of Amelia. The Babadook doesn’t pull any punches, especially when things get worse, and while it doesn’t all work, it does all carry an impact.

I mentioned above that, much like It Follows, The Babadook has stayed with me. There are nights when I find myself replaying scenes over in my own mind. I have put myself into Amelia’s shoes, and see how I could have ended up along a similar path, had I not taken the steps I did to get better. The ending, which on first viewing seemed somewhat contrived, actually now is one of the scenes that refuses to let go, and, truth be told, I’m not going to. Besides, if I completely washed my mind clear of the ending to The Babadook, then I didn’t really get the message the film was trying to send.

Is The Babadook for you? The only way to answer that is with a strong “maybe”. It is an unforgiving tale, one that forces the viewer to watch a family dynamic shatter because they refuse to process what has come before. There is still hope in the world of the movie, but it is darkened by reality. Other reviewers have referred to The Babadook as being “unflinching”, and it’s hard to argue with the usage of the word. Most viewers will not be able to have the same adjective applied to them after they see it.

Scared Hitless: It Follows

One of the biggest things that ties horror to comedy is the fact that it’s all subjective. What is funny to one person could be dire to another. What scares someone could easily lead another to laughing about it. This subjectivity is both incredibly important to the genres as a whole, and something that can potentially lead to great frustration on their (or the viewers) parts. The question, especially in horror, all too often shifts from taking a more personal stake in a story to attempting a bit of a “shotgun approach”; if we just hit the scares broadly enough, we should be able to get the bulk of the audience at least once.

That can be a very effective way to go about telling a story, but sometimes, keeping your story a little more personal can be effective, too. Of course, the risk you run by doing so is that you can very easily split the audience into two very distinct factions. On one hand, there is the group of viewers who will not only love your story unabashedly, but they will try to get others to take it in as well. On the other hand are people who, for one reason or another, found the only redeeming quality to be the jokes they can make about the events that they just witnessed. A recent movie is currently hitting both factions, as has been evidenced by the reviews it has received. More personally, I was able to witness the precise split when watching this very movie with a group of friends. The movie I’m talking about, of course, is

via thehollywoodreporter.com

via thehollywoodreporter.com

IT FOLLOWS

In many ways, It Follows is a hard movie to quantify. It is the story of a vengeful murder ghost that is unleashed on unsuspecting victims via sex, so that kind of makes it like The Ring, except with intercourse replacing a video. But is it also talking about something deeper? And how scary is it, honestly? A lot of these questions are really left up to the interpretation of the viewer, and whether or not there was something in the film that grabbed their attention enough to want them to dig deeper. After all, on its surface, again, it’s about a vengeful murder ghost unleashed through sex, which might just be enough for many audiences.

The characters in It Follows, at least the living ones, are your fairly standard horror movie fare. A group of young adults, composed of Jay (Maika Monroe), her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), and friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi) are enjoying their somewhat temporally-dislocated life when, suddenly, Jay finds herself the victim of the eponymous “It”, all thanks to a bit of late night fun with Hugh (Jake Weary). Greg (Daniel Zovatto) gets roped into the turmoil along the way, and, seemingly, is the perfect answer to Jay’s problems, thanks to his presentation as a bit of a lothario. Much of the acting is almost purposefully subdued, which allows the film to take the time it needs to flesh out the story.

One thing it doesn’t do is worry about fleshing out the creature itself. What brought it into being? Why is it chasing people down the line, to get bitter revenge? Why is sex the thing that passes it along? And, since it will continually move back down the line, progressing through a reverse sexual order, is there any way to get rid of it? Leaving the creature without a lot of clarity makes sense, even if it sometimes feels frustrating. Honestly, it’s refreshing for horror to step away from the idea that everything can be researched or understood. Sometimes, the monster is just a monster that you need to overcome, or escape, not learn about. When that monster is ONLY visible to its victim (although it can affect and be affected by others), that just serves to heighten the tension for that character. It also leads to one questioning whether or not that character is a reliable narrator, by bringing their sanity into question. If only they can see it, does it really exist? On this level, It Follows answers with a resounding “yes”. The creature feels like something out of a dreamscape, one that ends up being at least somewhat shared, and fleshing it out, so to speak, would weaken it.

But what is the moral of the story? It would be easy to write off It Follows as a precautionary tale about who you have sex with, and assume that the ghost is some sort of stand-in for STD’s. However, that moral falls apart when the cursed characters are encouraged to have MORE sex, to pass the creature along, and to create a barrier between themselves and the monster. Also, if safe sex was the moral, and sex was what the villain was standing in for, the movie would never have taken any strides towards stating that Hugh wasn’t Jay’s first. In many ways, It Follows seems to be more about the loss of innocence than anything else. The spirit is able to change its appearance to keep its intended victims off-guard, and it seems that the most effective guise is one of family or friends. The movie isn’t trying to say that sex is bad. It seems to be trying to say that you never know who you can trust.

Of course, there is also the thread weaving through the film about The Idiot, helpfully read to us by Yara on her clam shell e-reader (seriously, it looks like a Kindle BirthControl). And yet, the passages from the book, specifically about the loss of purity and the relentless pursuit of eventual death, don’t really describe what’s happening here, either. Yes, these are definitely factors at play in the film, but none of this seems to be the central driving force. If anything, the film actually embraces said purity through the interactions of Jay and Paul.

It Follows remains at its most effective when it indulges in long, steady shots, much like the scene that opens the film. When there is a clear, uninterrupted scene, the foreboding of the monster, and its effect on the characters, is much more palatable. The opening scene is a incredibly beautifully shot one, in which an unknown girl runs out of her house, makes a wide arc, and eventually runs back in to grab car keys and drive away, all in one long camera pan. And yet, as strong cinematic as that scene is, it is the rest of the movie that really heightens the opening, as suddenly the film’s internal logic works its way back to what we already witnessed. We couldn’t see “It” following this woman, because she wasn’t the focus of the story, or our personal stand-in for the events. It is only after Jay receives the curse that we, the viewer, are able to see it as well.

Another point about the camera work, and one that should receive more praise, in my opinion, is how it treats the “male gaze”. Horror specifically has a tough time not subjecting itself to the male gaze, as we’re often shown long lingering views of women’s bodies. It Follows doesn’t entirely avoid this set-up, but it does so clearly through the eyes of the characters, and it is both men and women that fall under the camera’s “eye”. The ogling gaze never feels as though the director was simply adding it for titillation, but more that it was inserted to display a reality of uninvited “peeping”.

One thing that definitely leaps about It Follows is the usage of nudity, or the specific lack thereof. Point of fact, while the movie does have some sexual acts, they are all consensual, and none overtly use nudity to drive the scene. In fact, the only real nudity in the film takes place through whatever exactly “It” is, as more than a few of the forms it takes appear either partially or completely naked. However, this usage merely increases how disturbing this creature can be, as, again, it is at its most effective when appearing as a family member or friend of the victim. If this killer really is the stuff of nightmares, there are fewer things more personally terrifying, especially to young adults, than the notion of being relentlessly chased by their naked parents and grandparents.

I mentioned above about the “temporally-dislocated” setting, and that bears further mention. There is Yara’s e-reader, which would clearly seem to place the movie in present day. And yet, the films watched by the characters are older black-and-white horror fare. The soundtrack seems to be heavily inspired by the films of the 80’s. Overall, much of the film seems to be, instead of capturing a moment IN time, attempting to capture a moment OUT of time. By not allowing the film to exist comfortably in any particular time period, it simply adds to the atmosphere of the film as something out of a dream, or, in this case, a nightmare.

But is It Follows scary? Your mileage will almost undoubtedly vary on this. For some viewers, the film will stick with them, and they may find themselves looking over their shoulder more often than they did before. For others, the movie didn’t really work at whatever it set out to do, and it is best left as another forgettable entry into horror’s catalog. Personally for me, while I didn’t necessarily find It Follows to be an overly scary, or even creepy, film, I definitely walked away doing a lot more thinking than I expected I would. It’s refreshing to see a film of any kind, horror or not, that deals with some of the more human points addressed in It Follows. Just don’t ask me to tell you categorically what it means, because, as with all horror, the points it makes are subjective.

Scared Hitless: Dying Light

A few years back, a video game trailer was released that made the target audience go absolutely batty. It was a very well-done piece of theater, showcasing a family suffering through the beginnings of a zombie plague. The score and the action were cut together in a way to truly play off of the emotions of the viewer, as we witnessed the transition of a young girl from scared prey to reanimated predator. I’m speaking, of course, about the original trailer for Dead Island, which portrayed this family dynamic uncomfortably well, and danced around the well-understood notion that children are generally off-limits when it comes to displayed death, especially in video games. Whether it was done for shock value, or to highlight the brutality of a world where zombies are real, there is no doubt that the trailer helped boost early sales of Dead Island.

As well done as the trailer was, the actual game was a bit hit or miss. Yes, you were transported to a tropical paradise, after a night of debauchery turns into a nightmare, with zombies at every turn. Yes, you had the ability to find weapons in the most mundane of things, and upgrade them to an extent. Dead Island had an element of being at the beginning of a zombie apocalypse, and the game made sure that no area was ever completely cleared of the living dead for long, so that players could never feel truly safe. On the flip side, the game definitely experienced some pretty large difficulty spikes, and the fact that the zombies continuously leveled up with the player, making real progress feel like a fleeting dream, soured some players on the world that had been created.

Because of this, there was both an eagerness and a dread surrounding Techland’s return to the world of zombies with their newest outing, Dying Light. This time around, the developer would be combining an open-world zombie infestation with parkour mechanics. Is the end result akin to putting peanut butter in chocolate, or is it a mix that should have been left by the wayside. The game’s tagline is “Good night, and good luck”, which just seems fitting as you approach the end of the day with its…

DyingLight

DYING LIGHT

Zombies have been really basking in popularity as of late, and no place does that seem more perfect than in the world of video gaming. After all, throughout gaming’s history, there have been plenty of games that have revolved around the idea of mowing down tons of enemies, generally devoid of personality, and with very few real strategic needs to defeating them. Zombies fit that bill perfectly, and they also allow the player to fulfill a survivor fantasy, all from the safety of their own homes. Dying Light isn’t setting out to really change the core of zombie games; it’s simply looking to add a few more pieces of flavor to choose from.

In some ways, Dying Light could almost be viewed as something of a spiritual successor to Dead Island. Yes, there’s a sequel to Dead Island coming out soon, but Techland isn’t involved with it, and Dying Light has a lot of the familiar trappings while clearly existing in its own world. Instead of the fictional Banoi of Dead Island, this time the game is set in the city of Harran, loosely based on the city from ancient Turkey. Both games feature a first-person view, weapons crafted from random household implements, and hordes of zombies created by a strange infection. Throughout both games, the world is so densely packed with zombies that there’s never really a safe route through, and you will need to use brains and brawn to survive. And yet, for all of their similarities, the two games are also very different, and those differences help make Dying Light shine. Let’s look at some of the specifics to Dying Light.

Movement

In Dying Light, there’s a heavy emphasis on using parkour in your overall movement through the city. Later in the game, you receive a grappling hook to help you traverse the world as well, but there are very few areas where the grappling hook is necessary. Running, climbing, jumping, and vaulting all play major parts, and the set-up to the final boss of the game contains some very precise parkour elements, to make sure you’ve been paying attention along the way. So how does it work? Extremely well. Over the course of the game, climbing a fence in order to reach a nearby rooftop, leaping down into a pile of garbage, and vaulting over the hordes of undead directly in front of you in order to get to a safe house started to feel natural. The early tutorial on the parkour elements had me fearing that everything that was climbable would be distinctly marked, and that wasn’t the case. Instead, as you make your way through the environments, your eyes start to naturally look both for where the next zombie is coming from, and where your parkour skills could help propel you to a different space. The dynamic never really felt forced, and it was integrated into the game incredibly well. Even better, because Dying Light features a first-person view, you aren’t as likely to run into Assassin’s Creed syndrome, where you’re trying to climb a wall, but accidentally bump your controller to send your character leaping off to their demise from a great height.

Enemies

This is first and foremost, a zombie game. Clearly, your enemies are going to be the recently reanimated, along with some bad survivors who just want to gum up the works. That said, one thing that Dying Light does well is to vary the types of enemies. The zombies come in a few different forms (personally, Bombers were the most irritating, because of their penchant for hiding behind doors), all with their own different tweaks to how they engage the main character. The humans present yet another challenge in their method of attack. This variety keeps the game fresh and engaging, even if you spend the majority of the time honing one specific type of weapon and repeatedly spamming the attack button. If that’s not enough, Dying Light also plays with the differences in ambient light. In many ways, the game comes most alive once the sun has set on Harran, as now all of the zombies are stronger, and another couple of new types have been introduced to the mix. Especially in the early goings, it isn’t uncommon to run somewhat blindly through the streets, while being pursued by angry undead, just hoping you can make it to a safe house in time. In fact, the chases are the places where the game really hits home the terror of being caught in a zombie apocalypse. Yes, you might be able to clear a path at least somewhat, but numbers are going to be against you in the long run.

Story

Admittedly, the story isn’t really breaking new ground. You play as Kyle Crane, who has been sent in to Harran to retrieve a sensitive file. You make friends, you make enemies. There are some clever points over the course of the main story, such as the message you try to send to the world outside of Harran, but, overall, it isn’t really doing anything new. It doesn’t need to. Crane is seemingly set up as one of the only practical people left in the city, and, because of his skills, he’s one of the few who can survive the challenges of completing the tasks needed to help those trapped within, which really just paints a glossy layer over the whole “run around the city doing cool parkour moves and killing zombies” thing. Honestly, while a story is clearly needed to give the game a framework, in these types of games it’s very rarely the thing that people remember. People don’t talk about their time playing Dead Rising and how they loved the convoluted story; they talk about how much fun it was to drive over hordes of zombies with a lawnmower, or to create a weapon out of a kayak paddle and a couple of chainsaws. The fact that the story doesn’t terribly get in the way is a good thing, and it does provide a nice framework to create the world around.

Challenges

These are completely optional aspects of the game, and, because they ARE optional, they don’t really take away from it. Most of them are actually pretty straight-forward, and help you get better at the mechanics of the game itself. Some are seemingly designed for luck to play a major role. It’s nice to have the opportunity to step away once in a while from the frenetic pace of the main story and the side quests, but a few of the challenges were more frustrating than seemed worth it. Overall, they serve as a diversion, to give the player new ways to focus on destroying the dead or navigating the city. Regularly popping into these challenges not only makes Crane stronger, but improves the player’s skill. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for me to play a challenge, and then use those exact techniques shortly thereafter in the main game.

Gripes

It wouldn’t be a video game review, or a review of any kind by me, if there weren’t some gripes. These didn’t take away from the fact that, overall, Dying Light was a lot of fun, and I enjoyed my time in Harran, but, if they hadn’t been there, it would have improved my perceptions. First off is the handling of Jade, who is set up throughout the early part of the game to be just as capable, if not more so, than Crane, but ends up being heavily devolved into little more than a damsel in distress. The way her story ended left a sour taste in my mouth, especially since it seemed like it was merely done to make sure that Crane knew the bad guy was a REALLY bad guy (something that had already been well established in my eyes). Secondly, while the game doesn’t step into it often, there is some usage of Quick Time Events that’s just a little off-putting. Most of the time QTEs jump up, it isn’t a big deal, but there are a few moments where giving the player a little more autonomy would have helped. Finally, the game boasts a huge array of weaponry, and a lot of different ways to upgrade. Now, clearly different players will choose different weapons, but it seemed like, by the end game, only a few options were actually viable. Thankfully, those options weren’t limited to firearms, because the game does a good job of highlighting exactly why guns would potentially be a bad idea when dealing with a zombie infestation, but it didn’t seem like there were as many worthwhile choices by the end of it.

All of that said, Dying Light is a game that was definitely fun to play around with. The story served as a nice way to link the passage from one zombie slaughter to the next, with a few pit stops for dealing with humans gone bad, and the characters were just engaging enough to keep it going. There are scares, as pointed out above, with the most notable coming during night-time chases, where one wrong move can lead to Crane being surrounded by a huge horde of zombies with no chance to escape. Smooth movement and a decent combat mechanic helped make the game flow naturally from combat to escape and back again, and I know I’m already thinking about the next time I’ll visit Harran.

Scared Hitless: The Evil Within – A Mental Exercise

I know, I know. This is a bit of a weird entry for me to write on a Monday night. First off, it isn’t the typical Monday night post, but that’s unavoidable until after February 8th (oh, Walking Dead, I miss making fun of your lapses in anything approaching solid thought). Secondly, Scared Hitless is usually reserved for Wednesday writing, but timing, coupled with never really knowing when Nugget will actually sleep, could make that tricky. And finally, if you’ve been a consistent follower of the SH posts, then you’ll recognize the subject matter as being the exact same subject matter I covered last time. That said, what was written a couple of weeks ago was merely the first impressions of someone who was reaching the midpoint of the game. I can now actually take the time to write about it in its entirety. With that said, let’s get ready to go back inside, where we find…

THE EVIL WITHIN

Via theevilwithin.com

Via theevilwithin.com

The Evil Within is an odd game, in that it feels like it’s establishing something relatively new in the realm of survival horror, while clearly rehashing ground that has been covered before. The game takes plenty of influences from previous entries in the genre, with notable nods to Resident Evil, Outlast, and Silent Hill. It’s fair to say that, without their legacy, The Evil Within might never have seen the light of day. It certainly would have had a bit tougher road ahead of itself.

When assembling a game clearly taking nods from what came before, can it be done well? After all, the idea of Frankenstein-ing parts together to make a new whole isn’t new to any genre, and is a well-worn path for horror specifically. Resident Evil pretty much locked down the action aspect of the survival horror genre, and, for many entries in the series, did so incredibly well. Silent Hill took the action down a few pegs (for most of their games), but decided to up the psychological aspects. And Outlast, or at least what little I’ve been able to get through, definitely drives home the concept of survival; hide or be killed. The Evil Within makes an attempt to take those three aspects and blend them together into a new whole, but is it one that works throughout? Maybe more importantly, especially in such a dollar-and-cents business, is the attempt one that will bring audiences back for future installments? To answer those questions, you really have to look at the different parts that make up The Evil Within, breaking them down before re-assembling everything to come to the conclusion.

The Protagonist

Throughout the game, you are playing as Sebastian Castellanos, a detective for the Krimson City police force. Seb starts out investigating a mass murder that took place at Beacon Mental Hospital before things start to go terribly, horribly wrong. Sebastian is the clear veteran, trying to be the somewhat calming influence on his partners Joseph and Juli, but the mechanics of the world gone mad consistently leave him left to his own devices. As a blank slate for the player to inhabit, Seb works. Seb is specifically drawn to be an emotionless persona, and, while often dumbfounded by the world around him, he remains a fairly calm island in the midst of all of the turbulent events around him. In many ways, Seb is almost written to be a caricature of the standard veteran cop trope that tends to pop up in horror properties.

Over the course of the game, however, you proceed to learn that there are reasons behind Sebastian’s cool demeanor, and reading all of his personal documents not only gives you some insight into why he’s been so intent on pursuing the villain, but also why he has created an impersonal shell around himself. Because of his life story, Seb almost needs to shut down everything except his logical side just to make it through, which actually makes him somewhat of a perfect counterpoint to the craziness going on around him. That doesn’t mean that Seb is the most engaging or appealing of characters. This stands out the most during regular game play, where repeated lines about the state of the world come across as a detective who hasn’t really been able to piece together the clues. However, Seb being a relatively blank slate is, if anything, more of an annoyance than an actual slight. Flesh him out too much, and the player may not feel any real connection, especially in this incredibly claustrophobic world. Not every hero can be Ash from The Evil Dead, and not every hero should try to be, either.

The Supporting Cast

While Seb is a fairly blank slate, a lot of the rest of the cast is painted in broad strokes, with a lot of the details being left out. For example, Seb’s partner, Joseph Oda, is someone who we, as Seb, are supposed to care about, but we really only know that he is pretty much Seb’s opposite, and that he wears glasses. Dr. Jimenez starts out as a concerned doctor, but his machinations regarding his patients are quickly laid out, and he slips to being a fairly standard man trying to improve his own standing through questionable means. Leslie is the patient of Dr. Jimenez, and seems to have some sort of connection to what’s happening in the world, but isn’t really developed as much more than an asylum patient with a crippling inability to communicate clearly, and an almost preternatural ability to sense wrongs before they happen. Juli Kidman is incredibly new on the police force, doesn’t seem as affected by what’s happening around them, and clearly has a larger role to play, but none of her motivations are really put on display. That said, future DLC is reported to be Kidman’s story, so perhaps her character won’t seem so empty down the line.

That leaves the enemy, Ruvik. He is the only other character that gets any real sense of development, although, much like Sebastian, the person he is at the start of the game is not terribly different than the person he is at the end of it. Instead, Ruvik’s character is shown both through a few glimpses into actual events of his past, and through written details, explaining pieces along the way. Ruvik starts out as an unrepentant monster, killing indiscriminately, but at least The Evil Within attempts to show how he ended up where he did. Starting out from somewhat humble beginnings, the man who would become Ruvik is shown growing, both in his mental gifts, and in his disconnection from the world due to the traumas he experienced. He is clearly a foil for Sebastian, as both have similar tragedies marring their pasts, but each chose a different path to follow afterwards. By really only detailing the pasts of Sebastian and Ruvik to any real degree, the two become intimately linked. That link drives the player to want to find out more.

The Monsters

The subject of the enemies is one place where The Evil Within seemed to crib most thoroughly from Silent Hill. However, where the Silent Hill monsters generally stem from the sins committed by the main characters over time, left to populate their shadowy world, the monsters from The Evil Within are all clearly spawned from one person and one person only: Ruvik. Instead of being personal issues that must be overcome, they become extensions of the villain’s psyche, and can be somewhat directed to act as roadblocks for the hero. The most common are twisted versions of real people, and these will run the gamut from the average shambling zombie-esque creature to smart assailants, armed with firearms and wearing metal harlequin masks. Peppered throughout are larger creatures, clearly coming from aspects of Ruvik’s own personality, the special shout-outs to The Sadist and The Keeper. All of the monsters have a sort of intelligence, and, if not careful, they will pin Sebastian into a corner that he won’t escape from. Also, the character design of the heroes is somewhat flawed, but the design of the monsters is incredible. Each monster requires its own strategies to get past, and part of the challenge is determining which enemies need to be destroyed and which ones can simply be run from. It isn’t always the easy choice, or even the most logical one, that prevails, and the creatures are able to make players pay for their errors.

The Atmosphere

As I stated in my “First Thoughts” for this game, The Evil Within is delightfully creepy. The dark lighting, coupled with narrow spaces to maneuver makes the game feel more claustrophobic than it is. The sounds heard down the hall could be enemies ready to pounce all over you, or they could be trapped behind bars, unable to do anything more than sound incredibly unnerving. Setting the camera just behind Seb’s shoulder gives the player the ability to see almost exactly what he is seeing in each passageway, with the added benefit of giving a split second of warning if you’re about to be ambushed from behind. Even once the game reaches the midpoint and things start to stray from straight-up creepy into truly weird, the atmosphere remains tense, and there are no real easy answers.

However, that lack of ease coupled with the ramping up of tension can also be a bit of a downfall. The pacing of the game is generally solid throughout. Well-placed chapter breaks provide an easy opportunity to step away and clear the head for a bit, and the upgrade system can also provide a breather. That said, there are times where the game could benefit from easing up on the frustration factor. At least twice, there were (mostly) unavoidable conflicts that had to be gotten past so that I could progress the story further. These conflicts were met with death after death, which meant having to do it all over again. A certain frustration level starts to seep in when you’re about to fight the same fight for the 5th time (or more), and that, coupled with repeated aspects caused by the deaths, actually took some of the power of the story away, and served to remind me that I was definitely playing a game. Thankfully, those moments weren’t too frequent, but they definitely lessened the horror factor when they did happen. After all, there’s a difference between prescience and simply redoing something. One can be terrifying. The other, not so much.

The Take-Away

Even with the complaints about The Evil Within (bland characters, unnecessary frustration at points, the story goes WAY off the rails), it was still an enjoyable game. Yes, the end of the game had moments that seemingly came out of nowhere (seriously, rocket launcher?!?!), but they almost served as exhalation points for the developers as well as a chance for the players to take out some of their tension in a more familiar, video-gamey way. Of course the game ended with a sequel hook, but a really good story will try to get you to crave more. Thankfully, for The Evil Within, horror doesn’t always need a really good story to get audiences to want to be scared again. All it needs is something to keep people on the edge of their chairs, concerned about what could be behind them. In that capacity, The Evil Within delivers a strong entry into the survival horror field, and one that will hopefully see a continuation in the future.