CollegeHumor: Housemates of Horror

Click the photo above or THIS LINK HERE to see me play Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface in an all new CollegeHumor video, “Housemates of Horror!” To answer a few questions no one asked, yes, I had to wear the make-up all day, and no, I couldn’t eat unless it was through a straw. But damn was it worth it! I hope you all enjoy our spooky scary sketch!

 

Game Review: Dead Space 2

Dead Space 2 is the only game I’ve ever beaten and immediately played through again. It’s something of a twisted marvel. I got the same sort of sensation that I had playing Metal Gear Solid as a kid, like I was experiencing something synonymous with a movie rather than a traditional combat-based shooter. Scary isn’t always the operative word in Dead Space 2, not to say there aren’t make-you-jump moments. The really masterful strokes in DS2’s design are found its slow-burning interaction with the human mind, something the story’s subject matter embraces with a sinister grin.

I’m not going into too many story spoilers. After all, this is a Dead Space game, and using the term story at all is loose at best. Dead Space falls into the category of games that feel like theme park rides, in this case a haunted house. The haunted house is a huge city-size complex in outer space, crawling with reanimated corpses, twisted and mangled and granted with bestial sentience. That sounds pretty scary, but the game does well to desensitize you to violence in the first few minutes, introducing you to the absolute hell you’re about to endure with one of the most shocking kills on any screen. The game is not short on gore, and those who are faint of heart should probably play Barbie’s Horse Adventures instead. I’m not one to shy away from gore (after that one scene in Hannibal where the guy eats his own brain, I’m pretty much broken as a human being), but this game made me wince from time to time. There’s a specific sequence with a horrible twisted machine in the game’s final moments that is enough to render you unconscious with either fear or disgust.

I’m going to talk about this game as an experience. As an experience, it is incredible. Fans of the Dead Space franchise will find a few improvements, like more mobility for zero-gravity monster combat, but otherwise there is a fairly standard pattern of wandering into a darkened room and waiting for something to jump out at you before you shoot it to pieces. The monsters in the game, or Groovy Ghoulies if you will, play an insidious game of hide-and-seek with the player, forcing them to tip-toe into seemingly innocuous environments with the expectation of terror. There’s a specific breed of undead creature made from dead babies that explode on proximity contact to the player. Now if you’re a parent, you might find this hilarious. But for the rest of us more even-tempered mortals, this is decidedly unsettling. The dead baby necromorph’s older cousin is something of a rambunctious ten year old, howling with delight as it and its friends tear you to pieces during recess. The game is not short on frightening material, to be sure.

Players star as the hero of Dead Space, engineer Isaac Clark. He’s picked up a few silver hairs since his last tango with the necromorphs, thanks in no small part to the designers’ ability to accurately portray human beings in virtual shells to a compelling and revolting degree. The game has a trope carried over from survival horror trend-setters like Resident Evil. When you die, you don’t simply see ‘Game Over.’ You instead watch your character, Isaac, torn to shreds during increasingly brutal depictions of monster murder. It makes you really want to stay alive.

Like the best of modern shooters, Dead Space 2 commends you for studying its opponents and devising the best strategies to pass them. In terms of design, this game is Legend of Zelda if Zelda were all dungeon. The real Zelda is packed with back-story to make the experience more epic. Dead Space 2 is packed with fear and uncertainty. This fear begets the driving force of the game: “I’ve got to find a way out of here, or else I might lose my mind!” That fear drives Isaac Clark to take incredible risks and face a surprising series of challenges along the way. He’s willing to do anything for survival, and so must the player in order to succeed.

The best portion of the game for me is the New Game +. After you complete Dead Space 2, you can start a new game with the same weapons and armor statistics from your previous game. The second play through is even more fun, because you get to absorb more of the experience and fret less about the puzzles. There are some hardships to endure, to be sure, and again, this is not for the faint of heart. But I think the marketing team made that very clear.

Movie Reviews: Paranormal Activity

This movie is equal parts scary and boobs

It’s taken me a long time to write about this movie, mostly because it’s hard to think of what to say. If you’re a fan of horror films and enjoy the enterprise of being scared you’ll most likely enjoy yourself for a majority of Paranormal Activity. If you’re skeptical about the premise (and believe me, I don’t blame you) then the movie probably won’t work for you on a fundamental level. There are barely any special effects to speak of, so you’re not going to be wowed by the technical brilliance of this film at any point. The acting ranges from passable improvisation to occasional charm. But is the movie genuinely scary? That’s for the audience to decide.

I’m a big advocate for seeing horror films in the theater. While Paranormal could work equally well on DVD in the comfort of your own home (possibly better, as the movie definitely plays up the fear of being home alone) I think there’s something to be said for the communal aspect of being scared. There’s something deeply human and communal about a good fright, in the same way that it’s oddly reassuring to hear the screams of the people ahead of you in a haunted house. Even if the worst is around the corner, you know you’re not the only one experiencing it. Call it Schadenfreude or safety in numbers, but it’s fun to know you’re not alone in feeling scared.

I lucked out because my theater was ready to be frightened. Even though there were relatively few people in the audience, that didn’t stop a nervous energy from creeping over all of us. My favorite moment of the movie was when a teenage girl shouted, “Oh damn!” at a particularly nerve-wracking moment. Everyone in the theater erupted in laughter, not at the inarticulate nature of the comment, but because we were all sitting there thinking the same thing. And it felt good to laugh, to be bonding with the other people in the audience on some human level. We paid to see a work of fiction. We sat in the theater like we’ve done countless times before. But rather than whispering quietly to the person next to us, we were unanimously joined in the gasps, shrieks, and yes, even the yawns of this picture. And regardless of the narrative quality of the film as a whole, the ability to elicit an emotional response from a group of people and unite them is something that should be greatly credited to this film, no matter what you think of it.

As for the story itself, it’s pretty straight-forward Amityville¬≠-style stuff. An unmarried couple moves in together. They hear creepy noises. They get a camera to document it. Spooky stuff happens. Then spookier stuff happens, and so on. I would call this the haunted house soul-sister to 2003’s Open Water, as both movies focus on a couple experiencing unpleasant things as captured on handicam. Unlike that movie, the characters in Paranormal are actually likable, which is a plus, but that doesn’t stop Paranormal from feeling painfully long and pointlessly dull at points even at a brisk 86 minutes.

I’ll admit that when I got back from the theater, I was relatively spooked by every normal house noise I heard, under the assumption that some post-movie ghost had followed me home Haunted Mansion-style. Like most ghosts, the feeling quickly evaporated. As far as lasting scares go I’d still place Orphan higher on the mantle than Paranormal. Sure, that movie was cheesy but it was three times more disturbing than Paranormal Activity ever even attempts to be. For most, this movie has the lasting value of a Communion wafer. You forget about it as soon as you leave the building. After the sixteenth time the couple went to bed and set up the camera to spot anything weird, the nuance of the trope was gone. By the time visibly horrifying things actually do happen in the movie (note: three minutes from the end) the result is less satisfying than it should be. It’s the equivalent of seeing the alien at the end of Signs. Sure, it’s nice to know what the creature looks like, but when we see it in broad daylight it kind of robs it of its natural power, like seeing a sleeping lion at the zoo. The ending of Paranormal is one of the biggest problems with the picture because there is no pay-off. Nothing that happens in those final moments is half as scary as the tension that preceded it, so you’re left wondering if any of it mattered at all. (Hint: It didn’t.) As you walk out of the theater, I challenge you to have a thought other than “that was kind of scary” or “that was kind of boring.” Much like the spirits in the movie, Paranormal Activity is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (Apologies to both Shakespeare and Faulkner on this one.)

Grade: C+

Movie Review: Orphan

There's Something Wrong with the Guy Who Photoshopped this

Horror movies deserve to be graded on a different scale than regular movies. There’s so much formula and history to the genre it almost requires an entirely different set of skills to create an effectively scary film than it does to create a compelling drama or comedy. The sort of character-driven, hero vs. obstacle storytelling that runs rampant in most movies is generally the antithesis of the modern slasher movie, where oftentimes the murderer is the most compelling character. It’s been a gradual evolution over time from protagonist-driven scarefests like Alien or the original Friday the 13th to hilarious splatterfests like the Final Destination series. Rather than expecting the protagonist to succeed, the shallow characterizations of the heroes simply make them easier to visualize as imminent victims in an escalating sequence of graphic murders.

And to be honest, there’s nothing wrong with that. Since its beginnings, film has been about marveling at spectacle, about showing the audience the formerly unknown, bringing the unbelievable one step closer to reality. In the same way that gamers get off on Grand Theft Auto killing sprees or watching their Sims starve to death in a door-less room, horror junkies have found cathartic release in the gory demises of promiscuous teens and the heart-pumping tension that precedes them. Whether you’d like to admit it or not, there’s something all too human about rooting for catastrophe, as if religion and law were invented solely to prevent our natural predisposition for destruction. Like the people who watch NASCAR hoping for a crash, there’s something strangely natural about the voyeuristic desire to witness the worst, only to receive a soma-like burst of schadenfreude in the end.

I doubt anyone was expecting a dissection of film and humanity when they clicked on a link to a review of the movie Orphan, but in the same way that it’s easy to trivialize the written word in an increasingly technical age, it’s easier still to write off a horror movie as cheap schlock before it’s even given a chance to scare the bejeesus out of you. Orphan plays with that sensibility from minute one, providing an immediate look at the b-movie bullshit we’ve grown to expect and then turning it on its ear. Not only has director Jaume Collet-Serra sculpted a masterfully scary horror movie, his eye for shot composition and ability to coax beautiful performances out of actor and child-actor alike is something to be admired. Perhaps he fired his previous cinematographer or simply had a better script to work with, but Collet-Serra has come a long way from 2005’s hysterically crappy House of Wax.*

Orphan has a ridiculous premise and its opening dream sequence is an homage to the schlocky horror that birthed it. Rather than continuing down the b-movie route, Collet-Serra takes us on a surprising turn toward humor, warmth and drama. The performances by the lead actors are consistently impressive for a horror film, especially that of Aryana Engineer, the young actress portraying Vera Farmiga’s adorably deaf daughter (yes, I did just say that). Of course Isabelle Furhman steals the show as the secretly evil adopted Orphan with unclear intentions. There is occasionally too much plot and crybaby drama slowing things down, specifically with regards to Farmiga’s alcoholism subplot and Peter Sarsgaard’s dopey husband in disbelief moments, but Furhman’s intensity provides the film with enough tension that the boring parts are few and far between. When the brutality happens (and man, does it happen) you can’t help being caught between a rock and a hard place: Should we be rooting for Farmiga to wise up to her adopted daughter’s cruelty, or for Fuhrman to off the whole family in the grossest ways imaginable?

In the end, this is a movie based around a twist which many of you have already spoiled for yourselves by reading it online. I blame the marketing campaign for highlighting the twist so blatantly, as its barely important for your enjoyment of the movie. Orphan is a successful horror film because it constantly keeps you on your toes and sustains a tension that is rarely seen in the genre these days. Shots of night-driving in the snow and the sequence when a car rolls backwards down a hill are enough to please cinema buffs, but the real joy is the ride that the movie takes you on, never letting you stop for a moment to question how asinine and bizarre the premise is and instead keeping you constantly curling your toes in nervous anticipation. The 11:35 pm Thursday audience at The Grove in Hollywood was filled with the late-night date crowd, and I haven’t heard more terrified laughter since Sarah Palin was announced as a vice presidential candidate. This is a movie that effectively placates your emotions, letting you laugh at times and making your hair stand on end at others. I can’t recommend this movie enough to mainstream audiences, because there simply isn’t anything else scary playing right now, and at times we all need a reminder of why we go to the movies: to feel something, whether it makes us chuckle or shakes us to the bone.

Grade: B+

* I will give Collet-Serra credit for two great moments in House of Wax: How swiftly the pipe enters Paris Hilton’s skull, as if there were no bone or brain matter to provide friction; and how hilariously morbid it is to watch an evil redneck clip off a girl’s finger while having casual conversation with her brother.