Sunday, August 30, 2009


Meet Andy Warner, a recently deceased everyman and newly minted zombie. Resented by his parents, abandoned by his friends, and reviled by a society that no longer considers him human, Andy is having a bit of trouble adjusting to his new existence. But all that changes when he goes to an Undead Anonymous meeting and finds kindred souls in Rita, an impossibly sexy recent suicide with a taste for the formaldehyde in cosmetic products, and Jerry, a twenty-one-year-old car crash victim with an exposed brain and a penchant for Renaissance pornography. When the group meets a rogue zombie who teaches them the joys of human flesh, things start to get messy, and Andy embarks on a journey of self-discovery that will take him from his casket, to the SPCA, to a media-driven class-action lawsuit on behalf of the rights of zombies everywhere.

Breathers is a contemporary dark comedy about life, or undeath, through the eyes of an ordinary zombie. It’s a classic story of suffering and redemption, like The Color Purple or the New Testament. Only with cannibalism.

There was something about Breathers that didn't jibe with me.

Breathers is the kind of story I have an almost Pavlovian response to. It's set in Northern California and it deals with a social class that's marginalized and subject to assault, the main characters are all members of a feel-good support group, and the villains are a bunch of dude-bros from a Santa Cruz fraternity. Oh, and the dispossessed group in question are a group of flesh-eating zombies. What's not to like?

I like author S.G. Browne's writing style. He's punchy and energetic and I like his conversational writing style, though his wit tends to lie in the fetid waters of the sarcastic. I found that I enjoyed reading Breathers quite a bit but there were a lot of nagging details in the book that I couldn't quite shake, chief among which being that the vicious suppression of the zombie population is pretty justifiable.

The zombies in Breathers are fully sentient flesh eaters. Consuming human beings brings back the dead's heartbeats, heals their injuries, and even allows them to get pregnant. Given that the narrator himself is pretty callow about murdering and consuming his own parents, I'm not particularly swayed by the notion that murderous ghouls deserve the same rights and respect that everyone else does.

That's kind of the heart of my complaints with Breathers: for a story about repression and restraint it takes a fairly shallow look at it's characters and their lives. There are a lot of cool touches and interesting concepts, but they never get fully explored. The book feels fragmented, as if the author wrote chapters around notions that struck his fancy only to abandon them when something new caught his attention. I wanted to see more strife, more internal conflict with the morality of their new needs. given that the characters are essentially the same people they were before death, it seems unlikely they'd take to cannibalism so naturally.

I didn't much like Andy Warner. Yeah, the circumstances of his unlife were horrible but he was caustic, unpleasant, negative, and had a wide sense of entitlement. I didn't buy how Rita fell for him without any difficulty or tension. For such an aggressive and sexual character, I didn't quite see what she saw in Andy.

I also think the author missed an opportunity by not utilizing the character of Roy, the amoral zombie who first leads the protagonists to the pleasures of human flesh. He's an interesting character. He's confident, self-possessed, and willful, very different from the beaten-down Uncle Tom zombies that shamble through the storyline. He leads the characters out of their repression, but he never really addresses or challenges the other zombie's old points of view. He just feeds them some human jerky and then gets captured.

Also, you know who I felt genuinely sorry for? Andy's mom. I guess we're supposed to see her as some in-denial suburban parody, a more neurotic counterpoint to the dad's more overt prejudice. But I couldn't help imagining myself in this poor woman's position. Her husband's an ass and her son is a rotting, shambling freak. It's clear she's doing her best, and her reward is to be scorned and eaten by her asshole zombie son.

Finally, the ending of the story feels rushed. Andy gets captured toward the end of the novel and becomes almost immediately a spokesmen for the zombie rights movement. He's catapulted into unlikely heights of celebrity. It happens too fast, it's too unlikely, and a perfunctory search into the missing persons reports of the Santa Cruz area would have derailed his climb to the stars immediately.

I'm probably overthinking it. It's a black comedy, after all. There's a lot of funny bits in the story, especially in the bickering between the members of the zombie self-help group. In the end, I think there's good stuff here. I think S.G. Browne has a lot of potential, and I'm definitely gonna pick up his next book. When all is said and done the book is worth reading. The zombie haikus alone are worth the price of admission.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Orphan

I guessed the twist ending to The Orphan about half-way through the movie.

I never guess the twist ending to movies. I didn't catch that Bruce Willis was dead in Sixth Sense, I didn't catch that Verbal Kint was Keyser Soze, and I probably wouldn't have guessed the chick in The Crying Game was really a dude. Maybe I'm dumb, maybe these movies involve too much narrative cheating to cover the twist (this is certainly true of The Usual Suspects) or maybe I get too lost in the moment to overthink what happens next. But I got the twist in The Orphan and I was deliriously pleased with myself.

Not that this detracted from the experience. To the contrary, I really liked The Orphan.

I dunno if it's the kind of movie that will survive multiple showings, and I don't know if I would have had as much fun if I didn't see it on the big screen, but I'm a sucker for killer kid flicks and this one was even more deliciously twisted than most. Oh, sure, the squares won't like it, but there is some wonderfully warped stuff in this.

Most of the success in this flick comes from Isabelle Fuhrman as Esther, the precocious little murderess. Most killer kids in movies just kinda stand around and glare ominously, which Esther does in spades, but she also brings a lot of pathos to the role. We don't get the sense that Esther is purely manipulative and evil, but is instead someone that's been so damaged by whatever happened to her in life that she can't come back around the other side. Even when we learn Esther's big secret Furhman keeps the revelation believable, especially given that the character goes into some disgusting dark places. According to IMDB, Fuhrman is gonna be in the Children of the Corn remake, and I hope she brings the same skill to her flyover-land horror tale.

Now, I gotta say that without Esther and all her weirdness, The Orphan would be just another middle class family anxiety thriller. Most of the action takes place in a house I couldn't afford in a million years and the characters have got that successful white-y angst going on. It's a family of Guitar Hero and therapy and miscarriages and hidden diaries and wine bottles, which is all pretty typical of the genre, but Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard do a helluva job making the domestic drama interesting. I liked the two characters, I bought into their frustration, and I felt for them when their family started falling apart. Granted, Peter Sarsgaard's John Colemna was a little too quick to dismiss his wife's concern, but they still remained a sexy, believable, damaged-but-surviving couple.

There were a lot of cool touches in the movie. Esther's insane artwork, revealed only through the black light of her fish tank, was absolutely awesome. I want someone to do a ghastly black-light mural in my place.

There was also a very sexy scene of the couple making love in the kitchen. Granted, they were pretty foolish to have sex in a big open room with their kids nearby, but I liked the spontaneity and the passionate awkwardness of the scene. It's really nice to see a sex scene in a movie that doesn't look as smooth and rehearsed as partner figure skating, where people bump into each other and struggle out of their clothes and do all the other clumsy stuff real couples do.

The movie opens with a really gruesome scene of the mother's nightmarish ordeal during her miscarriage. I've heard a lot of people express discomfort at the image of a pregnant mother taken to such a nasty extreme, but I thought the scene was well filmed and skin-crawlingly creepy, even though it doesn't fit with the rest of the film.

Digging into the subtext of the film, there's something that should be noted about Esther: She's from Eastern Europe. The horror genre always had a long and profitable relationship with the Slavic peoples, going all the way back to a certain TransCarpathian Count. Lately, Eastern Europe seems to be the go-to place when you need amoral and vicious characters. Hostel, Severance, and The Orphan all feature characters twisted by decadence or amorality into doing the most awful things to their fellow man, all fueled by the fall of Communism. This is, of course, horribly prejudiced and made me terribly nervous when I backpacked through Bulgaria and Romania. Any Eastern Europeans out there wanna weigh in on this?

Okay, while we're on this, I want to declare a moratorium on appearing-in-a-mirror-behind-a-character jump scare. You know the one. A character opens a medicine chest/ closet/whatever, with an empty space clearly framed behind them in the shot, they close the door, and someone is now standing in that spot while the music spikes. About half the time they aren't even a threat, which invariably prompts the surprised character to say "You scared me." That shit officially needs to be removed from the horror bag of tricks for a period of no less than three-to-five years.

Anyway, go check it out while it's still in theaters. Bring drunk friends and your love of outrageous wickedness. It's a lot less fun in a small screen, though my friends and I are totally gonna make a drinking game of this. Take a shot every time Esther says something creepy.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Suffering

The Suffering is easily my favorite action horror game.

I suppose a definition of terms is appropriate here: Most horror games fall into the Survival Horror mode, where the emphasis is on tension, puzzle solving, and features protagonists who are not necessarily the most capable combatants. The game's atmosphere takes center-stage and the player navigates through a dangerous environment with limited resources, doing their best to survive. Action horror, as the name suggest, involves direct conflict with the forces assaulting the player. The characters are more mobile, better armed, and infinitely more capable than their survival horror counterparts. Most of the time I prefer survival horror, as it becomes very difficult to be frightened of anything whose ass you can easily kick.

The Suffering is different. The craftsmanship and storytelling that went into the game is top-notch and it deserves a place in horror history for the intelligence of its storytelling, the sophistication of the scares, and the sheer unadulterated fun that can be found in the gameplay.

Players take on the role of the awkwardly-named Torque, a man sentenced to death for the murder of his family. Transferred to the maximum security Abbott Penitentiary located on Carnate Island, his arrival at the prison triggers a hellish conflagration to erupt on the island. Manifestations of the island's grisly history come alive and begin butchering guard and convict alike. Torque is forced to escape the chaos, the ghosts of his family following him through his bloody ordeal.

The horror in the game comes from two fronts. In the action angle, the monsters Torque must face are manifestations of the evils that had occurred on the island, from creatures based on methods of execution to the ghosts of little girls burned alive during Puritan-era witch trials. The monsters, designed by Stan Winston Studios, are an imaginative change of pace from the endless procession of zombies and demons and other generic monstrosities most action horror games dish out. Torque is more than capable at confronting them, as the game's controls are very smooth and intuitive, making dodging and counterattacking very natural.

The other aspect of the game's horror is the horrible manifestations surrounding Torque. As Torque moves through the island, his murdered wife and children appear before him several times, forcing him to confront his past. Phones ring in the prison and answering them allows the player to listen to conversations from the past. Three ghosts of long-dead island victims, each representing Torque's good, evil, and insanity respectively, attempt to guide Torque towards salvation or damnation. Finally, the very island molds itself around Torque's internal torment. The graffiti on the prison walls becomes accusatory, asking Torque if he ever loved his estranged family, while the abandoned insane asylum flashes Rorschach images at the player, dragging Torque deeper into insanity. I've long believed that the best haunted house stories involve characters who are already haunted themselves, and nowhere is this better displayed than the private hell created for Torque.

The game has a morality system, where the choices the player makes impacts the game's ending. At several points in the game, Torque is given the choice between doing good and doing evil. As these opportunities unfold, the player hears Torque's wife urging him to do the right thing, while the demonic voice of his insanity urges him to acts of cruelty. The consequences of the choices are displayed on a photograph of Torque's family that the player carries. Good choices make the image appear more pristine, while violence and cruelty slowly corrupt and distort the photo.

Torque suffers from amnesia about the specifics of what happened to his family, and the choices the player makes ties into the truth about their fate. Were they murdered by outsiders in a gang conflict or did Torque's jealousy and rage swallow them all? The effect is much more personal and chilling than most games with morality systems. Making the player take control of a potential family murderer is a bold move and, try as I might, I'm too invested in the plot to play the game any other way but good.

There are a lot of other wonderful touches to the game. Setting the game in the prison resolves the hoary old problem older horror games had, where muscular, well-armed characters couldn't go through a flimsy mansion door without a rooster key. Here, Torque's progress is controlled and blocked by heavy prison doors. The puzzles are all logical and fit will with the prison motif. Finally, the game includes a couple scrap books in the extra features section, one kept by a fellow convict and one by the wife of one of the prison guards. As the player advance through the game, the scrap books are filled out by the characters, detailing the monsters and horrible events on the island. It's a great touch, and both writers have distinct personalities and points of view. Finally, the game's music is comprised of samples of prison doors closing, chains rattling, and other sounds of incarceration and penance. It's a great counterpoint to the action.

The old girl hasn't aged well. It's a generation-old, having been released for the Xbox/PS2 and the character graphics and animation are crude by today's standards. This breaks my heart. Video games, more than any other artistic medium (feel free to debate the term) are very technology-dependent. Players tend to have very little interest playing games that look out-of-date, and gems like The Suffering get lost in the mad dash for the next best thing. Apparently there's a movie in the works starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Torque, but I'll believe it when I see it.

I should probably say a few things about the sequel, The Suffering: Ties That Bind, but the easy answer is I didn't like it as much. The action moves to a demonic invasion of Torque's native Baltimore, and involves mysterious government goons, a gang lord, and a bunch of other pulpy touches. I liked the notion of the first game that a place can soak up so much evil that it take on horrible life of its own, but TTB turned the event into another apocalypse. Finally, Torque's wife shows up a lot more often and is more nagging and unpleasant, making me reconsider killing her in the original.

Whatevs. Check it out. You can apparently download the full PC game here.