Saturday, January 29, 2011

Resident Evil: Deadly Silence

There are a lot of people who will tell you that the Resident Evil franchise hasn't aged well. For a long time, I was one of them.

Horror has always been a fringe genre of the video game industry. It costs millions of dollars to make a game and companies want the most return for their investment. Since people are more likely to play sports games or military/sci-fi first person shooters, horror games have a reputation in the industry for being minimal return for the investment. Later iterations of the Resident Evil franchise seem to be tailor-made for mass-appeal, jettisoning the notorious tank controls and fixed cameras for clunky shooter controls and protagonists that looked like a fusion of an emo rocker and a gorilla juicehead. Resident Evil 5 in particular seemed to be almost apologetic for the series' early attempts to scare the audience. The game took place in broad daylight and talked up its co-op play features over its atmosphere and eerie storytelling (as well as its disturbing racist undercurrent.)

Anyway, the point of this long preamble is that I'd also written off the Resident Evil games. My pretension had gotten so bad that I remembered the negatives of RE1, specifically the unwieldy controls and terrible voice acting. I'd forgotten how much fun the game was to play.

It took my Nintendo DS to remind me.

I'd picked up Deadly Silence as sort of a lark after getting a Nintendo DS for Christmas, thinking it would be good for some cheesy fun between rounds of Grand Theft Auto. I was quickly surprised at how completely enthralling and immersive I found the game to be.

The plot is old news by now: members of the ridiculously named Raccoon City S.T.A.R.S. police tactical team find themselves trapped in an old mansion while investigating violent deaths in a woodland area outside of the city. As they struggle to survive the monsters that lay siege to the mansion, they discover the sinister secrets of the Umbrella Corporations biological weapons program and come face to face with a traitor in their ranks.

It's been over ten years since I've played the original games and it really refreshing to return to the game with fresh eyes. I'd forgotten all those little tricks I'd used to move through the mansion. I'd forgotten the caution I'd use when exploring an unknown hallway, or the rounds I'd pump into a body to make sure it wouldn't come after me again. I'd forgotten the pleasure of solving puzzles or finding new keys. I'd forgotten the simple satisfaction of putting one zombie down, watching him get up, and putting him down again. I'd forgotten the eerie little messages you'd find around the mansion as the unfortunate souls before you wrote their final letters to their loved ones. I'd forgotten finding a shotgun and feeling like a dark, merciless god.

The DS is the perfect vehicle to replay the game. Graphics and game elements that would be unforgivable on a main system work just fine on a handheld. In addition, there's a DS-specific most called "Master of Knifing" where you assume a first-person perspective to fight the undead with your trusty blade. Surprisingly, it works really well. I found that I could understand and anticipate attacks and react with moves tailored to each threat.

The complaints with the game are the same as they were before. Sooner or later you're going to be attacked by something you can't see due to the camera angles and sooner or later you're going to wind up in trouble because you try to run away from the bad guys only to hit the wrong button and run right into their waiting mouths. If Resident Evil was never your cup of tea then Deadly Silence won't make a convert out of you, but I had a blast playing it.

And, just because he's so goddamn funny, here's another Zero Punctuation take on Resident Evil games.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Black Swan

Black Swan is one of those movies that makes me redefine what horror means.

The movie was the cover story on Fangoria last month, which sorta shocked me. At the time I didn't really know anything about the movie aside from the fact that it was shot in New York City's Lincoln Center, where my ex-girlfriend works for the ballet company as a stitcher in their costume department. She mentioned that Natalie Portman was seen around the place and that she was dating one of the dance instructors.

I hadn't thought much about the film until I picked up the Fangoria issue and saw a stark image of Natalie Portman with beautiful black make-up and demonic red eyes, staring back at us with an alien, predatory gaze. It's a chilling and evocative image, but I still wasn't sold. I'm not the biggest Darren Aronofsky fan in the world and watching a movie about a ballerina freaking out didn't really appeal to me.

I was wrong.

Black Swan tells the story of Nina Sayers, a young ballerina who wins the roles of both the black and the white swan in an upcoming production of Swan Lake. While she has the innocence and vulnerability necessary to portray the black swan, her repressed sexuality and emotional disconnect keep her from the more seductive and dangerous role of the black swan. The stress of the role, the pressure of her unhinged has-been-never-was ballerina mother, and the sexual aggression of the ballet director and the hungry young rival all push against the walls of her sanity until she slips into madness.

Talking about this movie is a little bit intimidating. This film is going to be dissected by keener minds than my own, who will fill page after page with nuanced discussion on Sayers' degenerating emotional state. Alls I can do is to simply point out that Black Swan really is a horror film. I have no doubt that there are people who will rail against the categorization and say that Aronofsky is trying to do something more serious than make a simple genre romp, but I would argue that the movie hits too many of the same notes and has too many of the tropes not to fit into horror's big red circus tent. Sure, it's not a mindless slasher film or a bloody zombie gore fest, but Black Swan is one of the most genuinely chilling movies I've seen in a long time.

I started this review writing about how Black Swan made me think about what the genre means. Horror is a maddeningly catch-all term, but the genre has allowed itself to be ghettoized by having a very specific formulas and marketing styles. If a movie has "bloody" or "death" or "The [noun]ening" in the title and the text is in some drippy blood-red font, you can probably guess you're watching a horror flick. They're aimed at kids, they're out to show some boobs n' blood, and they're not trying to do anything too complex or convoluted. Some are about jump scares, some are about atmosphere, and some are just about watching someone else scream as they're being mangled to death. The nicest thing you can say about most of the genre is that it's not trying too hard. Most of the time that means you can enjoy some brainless, tasteless fun, but that also limits the amount of people who will take horror seriously as an art form.

The movie features many of the classic tropes of horror film making. There are jump scares and character screaming in darkness and horrific violence and bodily mutilation and terrible things lurking out of the corner of your eye. In fact, most of the movie looks and feels like a Japanese horror film, only with ballerinas instead of yurei creeping around the claustrophobic corridors of NYC. There's also a heaping helping of self-destructive madness. I've also seen a lot of on-screen carnage in my time, but when Nina tears at the skin of her fingers I found myself looking away.

Black Swan is ultimately about the fear of madness, the fear of sexuality, and the odd mixture of fear and delight of having our boundaries tested. It's not a happy film and it doesn't end in a happy place (or maybe it does, depending on your outlook) but it's a relentless exploration of one girl's degeneration on her way to ascendancy. Aronofsy used a lot of tools from horror's toolbox and crafted something unique out of it.

Psychological horror isn't anything new, nor are stories about sexually repressed people falling into madness. There are aspects of this film that feel similar to Roman Polanski's Repulsion. If I wanted to be really flip, I'd say there are elements of the story that feel like Psycho if Norman Bates' mother has still been alive. I get accused by friends of wanting to slap too many things with the horror label, but I feel that there are many different aspects of scary storytelling, just as there are many different types of humor. Horror doesn't have to be slashers and drippy monsters. Black Swan is a wonderfully effective psychological horror film and that label shouldn't be an insult to the film or the seriousness of its intent.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Island by Richard Laymon

Damn you Richard Laymon. You pulled the greatest bait-and-switch the genre has ever pulled on me.

I hated every page of this book. I hate every moment I had to spend in the point of view of the sniveling, pathetic, horny little weasel trapped on the island with the besieged women of the narrative. I hated his spinelessness, his perversity, his complete disconnect from any sense of proper human interaction. I hated being him, I hated seeing the world from his perspective, and I hated the fact that people seemed to see him as a representative of normal adolescent sexuality.

I was ready to completely write off Richard Laymon, an author I'd greatly admired, as just another gross, misogynistic horror writer who used the genre as canvas to piss his perverse sexuality on. But book had a HUGE payoff about three pages from the end, something that goes along way to redeeming the book and making me believe that he was in on the joke, that he was deliberately forcing us to inhabit the point-of-view of a monster in the making. I'm going to go on this at length, but from this point out here there be spoilers.

I started reading Richard Laymon's books during my backpacking trip in Europe. I was traveling on a shoestring budget and reading voraciously when I discovered that you could buy cheap paperbacks of his two books in one. They were typical gimmicky 80s horror novels that leaned more towards Bradbury than splatterpunk, but there was something engaging and compelling about them that I still can't quite put my finger on. The writing wasn't flashy but there was a certain craftsmanship that I got lost in. There was one novel in particular about a haunted boardwalk amusement park, that featured a teenage gypsy street performer that ranks as one of my favorite characters in horror fiction.

The story is told from the first person perspective of Rupert, an 18 year old boy who accompanies his girlfriend Connie's family on a boating trip through the Caribbean. The boat blows up, stranding them on an island with a psycho killer. One by one the menfolk on the expedition are killed, leaving Rupert alone with his girlfriend, his girlfriend's Amazon sister Kimberly, and his girlfriend's MILF mom Billie. The killers turns out to be Wesley and Thelma, the on-the-outs members of the family who planned to isolate the women of the family in order to play sick sexual games with them.

So all this stuff seems to be straightforward horror storytelling, but what I found so maddeningly fucking objectionable was Rupert's perspective. Never before in the history of ANY medium have I ever hated a character so much.

Rupert is essentially vicious, unrestrained misogyny disguised as out-of-control teenage hormones. He is CONSTANTLY objectifying the women he's trapped with, to the point where he isn't even reacting the way a real person should in a crisis. When the character's husbands and fathers are being bumped off one after another, Rupert would be standing and watching them mourn and thinking to himself "Man, they've got some nice tits." When they go hunting for the psychos with their makeshift weaponry and everyone is on edge and expecting an ambush, he's commenting on how much flesh their bikinis showed. It never stops, it never eases up, and it never seems to match the reality of the situation he's in. It's like he escaped into a land of fleshy delusion while everyone else is stuck in the real world dealing with a pair of violent psychopaths.

All of this would I GUESS be more forgiving if Rupert was more masculine or competent or strong willed, but he's described as a weaselly beta-male type. The other male characters are forceful, strong-willed, and assertive, but Rupert is a useless toad of a man, constantly harangued by his bat shit crazy girlfriend and screwing up nearly every task he's assigned. You get the sense he's almost eager to have the other menfolk die so he'd get the women all to himself.

He only gets worse as the story goes on. There comes a point in the narrative when Wesley has kidnapped the women and left Rupert for dead at the bottom of a ravine. Once Rupert gets out and gets his head on straight, he goes after "his women." He keeps referring to them as if he owns them. When he sneaks to the mansion Wesley uses as his home base, Rupert witnesses Wesley and his wife torture and rape a 14 year old girl, a scene described in such loving detail it made me sick to read. The act itself was bad enough, but the disgusting thing is that Rupert gets off on the whole thing. Sure, he's conflicted about it, but he's also fascinated and turned on. He later meets the two girls, naked and caged in some gorilla pens (?) down the hill and amuses himself by looking at their nude bodies and feeling mildly ashamed that he's turned on by a pair of sexually battered kids just out of their tweens.

His sexism is weirdly consistent and verges right over into stupidity. There is one point in the story where he comes across the killers asleep in bed. Though he's armed with a straight razor and his tormentors are defenseless in front of him, he decides that he doesn't have it in him to cut a woman's throat, even though he's planning on burning the house down and burning them alive.

So, yeah, Rupert is a complete and utter scumfuck. I cannot tell you how each page of the story infuriated me. I was inclined to believe that we were supposed to write off his perceptions and behavior as representing a standard teenage boy's outlook, but it was so far beyond the pale that I was furious at Richard Laymon and his stunted and unenlightened tale. It's like reading Robert E. Howard's Black Canaan and being shocked and appalled by his overt and vicious racism.

The other characters in Island are equally bizarre. The psychos are the least-liked members of the family. The man is a goofy, opportunistic yuppie and the woman is a delusional, needy weirdo who refuses to see her husband for what he is, even when the bodies of her family start piling up. I had a hard time believing that the family couldn't see their lunacy coming from a mile away. And, honestly, who is afraid of a couple killers named Thelma and Wesley?

Billie, the family matriarch, is every MILF story personified. The way Rupert describes her, she hasn't seemed to have aged a day over her children and she acts with a weird combination of motherly indulged and sex-kitten flirtatiousness that doesn't really mesh with the fact that she'd seen her husband take an axe to the skull. She quickly becomes the object of Rupert's attention and the fact that seems to reciprocate the little pervert's advances makes her come off as a weird sort of desperate housewife who likes the look of her pool cleaner.

Kimberly, the Amazonian older sister, is the least interested in Rupert. A confident, athletic character married to the only appealing male on the island, she mostly ignores Rupert and carries on her path towards vengeance. The odd thing about her is that the story constantly refers to her mixed Sioux/Sicilian heritage, as if her competency is the result of some eugenics experiment to produce the most talented tracker and vicious fighter. This is, of course, stupid.

But all this pales next to Connie. Probably the single most obnoxious girlfriends I've ever encountered in the genre, Connie zooms past the hoary old "frigid girlfriend" trope with behavior that seems both completely castrating and absolutely insane.

Connie is just plain old pitbull mean through and through. She never says a nice thing to Rupert at any point in the story. They haven't kissed, they've barely touched, and yet when Rupert looks at anyone else, she's constantly nagging him in the most crass and ugly terms about his attraction to women. As the story goes on, she starts engaging in what appears to be attention-seeking behavior. She disrobes for him, teases him, and at one point masturbates in front of him, then when he gets turned on, she says "I bet you like that, you fucking pervert." The woman's behavior is completely and utterly divorced from sanity and it's completely mystifying as to why Rupert puts up with this. The rest of the family isn't much better, seeing the whole thing as some sort of annoying quirk rather than as a manifestation of some deeply sex-negative and self-loathing psychosis.

Now that I've spent hundreds of words describing how much the book pissed me off, I need to explain why it's the greatest bait-and-switch I've ever fallen for.

This book was the assigned reading by the NYC horror book club I'm involved with. By the time I got to the club I was about 4/5ths of the way through the book and I had a pretty good head of steam built up by that point. I ranted about the book like a crazy person, berated the poor guy who picked it out, and generally acted like a fool. I figured that, with most of the book behind me, there weren't gonna be many more surprises lying in wait for me from that point forward and I could hash out my impressions pretty thoroughly.

It turns out there's a final, redeeming surprise in the book, one that turns it into an update on The Most Dangerous Game. We're supposed to hate Rupert because he turns out to be the same sort of cruel, abusive monster that Wesley is.

Initially we're lead to believe that Wesley is bumping off members of the family in order to collect a large inheritance. As the story goes on, we discover that he deliberately scouted the island in advance in order to isolate the women, whom he planned to turn into his sexual slaves. There's a sort of private nature preserve on the island, complete with unbreakable gorilla cages. Once he'd capture the women, he'd take them out one at a time for awful torture games, beating and raping them with his crazy wife.

Once the pair are killed (and their deaths are suitably horrible) Rupert doesn't free the women. Instead, he keeps doing what Wesley had done. He hasn't told them that he knows where the keys are and begins a sexual relationship with Billie. He's ultimately no better than Wesley, two little creeps who objectify and enslave women they can't have.

The ending blew me away. It's not played cute or charming and it shows that Laymon had carefully constructed Rupert to become worse and worse as the story went on until he was no better than their tormentor. It's a brutal sort of paradise and quite fitting, much like Rainsford discovering the comforts of Zaroff's house. It sort of redeems the tale, making it a story of a man's lust leading him into damnation. Too bad he's such an unpleasant prick to follow in his journey.

For all the hatred I've piled down on the book, I couldn't put it down.

It's always been hard for me to put my finger on what Richard Laymon does right, exactly. His stories aren't full of literary razzle-dazzle and his characters are solid, dependable workhorses without much star power, but his tales are always completely engaging. I stayed with Island all the way through the end, while I would have chucked lesser books away on more mild offenses.

In the end, I don't actually think I can recommend this book as a good place to start for novice Laymon readers. The sad fact is that Rupert is a very unpleasant guy and not good company for five hundred pages. There are some meat on these bones and I am happy I finished it, but you have to ask yourself if you really want to spend hours of your life in the company of a guy who is one part Tucker Max and one part dweeby bumbling anime lead.