Wednesday, October 15, 2008

An Unlikely Source

I grew up loving the old school horror classics of yesteryear, when make-up was painful to the actor, castles were models and you could see the strings on the bats. Universal, Hammer and Roger Corman were the obvious favorites but I'd watch anything from those periods, no matter who made them. Once my cinephilia took hold in my early teens I temporarily put them aside for the classics of Hollywood and the French New Wave. Italian Neo-Realism and the New German Cinema weren't far behind. As a result, I can say I've seen many of the foreign language pillars of the pantheon but sadly, I honestly can't remember most of them now. I almost hate having to engage in a conversation on Ozu or Fellini or Fassbinder because it's been so damn long since I took them all in I can barely remember basic plot points now. I feel that if someone asks, "Have you seen Ali: Fear Eats the Soul?" I should just say "No" even though I have, but so much has fled the inner recesses of my memory banks that saying "Yes" feels like the real lie. I'm slowly re-acquainting myself with them one DVD or AFI theatre trip at a time. It's a slow process but ultimately rewarding.

But that's neither here nor there, just an example of how one of my favorite genres (the other being Sci-Fi) got pushed aside for a period while I immersed myself in self-education on film history. When I returned to Horror movies, I found I didn't like them anymore. Not the classics I grew up with but the new product. This was at a time when horror meant slasher flicks and nothing else. I had to satisfy myself with meager offerings like The Lady in White or Ghost Story because they were the only movies that even made an attempt to get past the mad killer routine and offer a haunting tale for their viewers to take in. Horror made its way back into my fold once the obsession with psycho-killers died down but what kept me going until then came from a very unlikely source: Computer games.

Now I'm not a PC Game kind of a guy. I've never had any interest in them and the thought of spending hours in front of a pc or television screen shooting things makes me want run screaming for my life. But in the early nineties when CD-Roms were just starting up (before the internet made them virtually obsolete) most of the games released were under the category now described as Adventure Games. If you talk to someone who is into PC games you will find Adventure Games derided in every way possible. Adventure Games take a story and the player, using clues and inventory items (a schemata adopted by most other games now) works his or her way through it. And for whatever reason, in the early to mid-nineties, most of those games were in the Horror genre. And of the kind they just don't make anymore.

Back then, they actually filmed actors in front of a bluescreen performing multiple line-readings and scenes that would then be inserted over a computer generated backdrop for the user to manipulate throughout the game. The games I bought were The Seventh Guest, Phantasmagoria, The Beast Within, Sanitarium and Ghosts.

The acting in these games range from bad to outright atrocious but I lay no blame on the actors. The dialogue they are given is horrendous and I assume the rehearsal times were somewhere in the area of about three minutes prior to filming. Still, I played them. I didn't care about the game part, I just wanted to "watch" the interactive movie, as some of them were called, and see how it played out because all of them took an old-fashioned approach to horror: Haunted houses, possession by evil spirits, and werewolves. Something I wasn't getting from the movies.

Phantasmagoria tells the story of a young couple purchasing an old mansion in New England at the start of their marriage. She writes horror fiction and he's a photographer. She starts exploring the house (which has four stories, multiple hidden passages, a hidden crypt and, from what I could tell, one bathroom), asking townspeople about former residents (one of the townspeople played by Stella Stevens) and learning the history of its murderous first owner, a magician whose five wives all died under mysterious circumstances. She unknowingly releases a demon spirit (I'll spare you the details) that inhabits her husband and soon he begins acting like that crazy magician from days gone by. A not too bad movie could be made from it I'm sure.

The Beast Within told a tale of lycanthropy in modern day Germany, The Seventh Guest a kind of House on Haunted Hill take-off, and Sanitarium a tale of a scientist nearly killed then locked away in a mental hospital because he discovered that a medicine his company was profiting from was actually killing children. The last one in the collection, Ghosts, isn't a game at all but an informational CD-Rom, hosted by Christopher Lee, and yes, that's where all those ridiculous Christopher Lee video clips are coming from. Lee takes you through an old mansion where you get to click on paintings and cabinets and diaries to hear stories or read haunted tales or see "experts", aka paranormal nutjobs or skeptics like Susan Blackmore who gets about 90 percent less "screen time" than the nutjobs (it's not exactly fair and balanced) , talk about one spooky experience after another. And of course, you get six ghost stories told by Lee, one of which, The Silent Pool, went up here this past Saturday.

All of these hold a special place in my heart because they brought back the old-school horror to me at a time when I desperately needed it. And before the Star Wars prequels and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy came along, they gave actors like Christopher Lee work, and I am thankful to them for that too. And I still have all of them today. Occasionally I pull them out for nostalgia sake just to take a look at some the treats inside or marvel at how bad the acting is. And to be honest, I wouldn't mind seeing more movies made in the same spirit of old time horror that these now antiquated PC games picked up when the Hollywood slash machine dropped the ball.


And while we're on the subject, let's have Old Chris give us some more fascinating advice, although as far as these things go, this one seems pretty lazy ( a bad omen? That's the best you can give me?):