Saturday, December 21, 2013

Scrooge Does Not Approve: A 'Carol' Sampler

Ever heard of moving day? Well, last month was moving month for me... yes, it really took about that long. Hence the lack of a monthly post. However, this month I'm compensating with a nice double-post, one for today's holiday, and one for the other big holiday next week. (Hint: it's probably not the one you're thinking of.)

What's today, you ask? Why, it's Humbug Day, the happiest day of the year! Apparently today is the one (and only?) day everyone is allowed to vent their holiday frustrations with up to twelve other grumps, in honor of the grumpiest grump of them all, A Christmas Carol's Ebenezer Scrooge. So, to celebrate, I've decided to share some of my favorite adaptations, each a vastly different representation of the same exact story. Now, there have been approximately a gazillion versions of A Christmas Carol produced since it was first published back in 1843; according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, it's been turned into plays, musicals, operas, movies and TV specials, and even graphic novels. Obviously I haven't seen or heard them all (I doubt anyone has, but feel free to prove me wrong), so forgive me if your personal favorite doesn't appear here.

A more appropriate post for the day might have been a list of the worst adaptations and why they were terrible -- but since there will be so much complaining today anyway, I figured I should leave the grouching up to the expert, Scrooge himself.

The Creepiest: Scrooge (retitled A Christmas Carol in the U.S.) (1951) 

Although most of us think of A Christmas Carol as a heartwarming holiday tale, the fact is, folks, it's a ghost story. Yes, the ghosts in this tale are the good kind, traveling all the way back from death to life to save a man from an eternity of hellish repentance, but that doesn't mean they can't be creepy. This black-and-white British adaptation, starring Alastair Sim as the Scroogiest Scrooge of all, is considered by many to be the best version to date. While it's not necessarily my number one, it is certainly one of the most memorable ones I've seen. Unlike most of the more family-friendly versions, Scrooge actually conveys several of the more terrifying moments from the original story, such as Scrooge's first encounter with his long-deceased friend, Jacob Marley. The sound of chains dragging over steps, the ominous chiming of the grandfather clock, the spectral moaning of a ghost trapped in eternal agony -- you can practically hear Vincent Price laughing maniacally somewhere in the distance. It's the stuff of horror movies, and it makes the warm-and-toasty, family-by-the-fireplace ending all the more comforting by contrast.

The Earwormiest: The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)

This musical production first aired as a live episode of the Alcoa Hour back in 1956, starring Basil Rathbone and Vic Damone as old and young Scrooge, respectively. I have not had the privilege of seeing that version; however, I can say the animated remake by Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass is pretty much wonderful. Rankin/Bass productions hold a very special place in my heart, and while this one may not be my absolute favorite, it's certainly one of the catchiest. It's also got the most music of all their movies, featuring almost no spoken dialogue; this is likely due to the company's efforts to retain as much of the original music as possible. It's also one of their few traditionally animated works, and there's something about they way they drew Scrooge to match his voice actor, Walter Matthau, that is just utterly amusing to me.

The Family-Friendliest: Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983)

Mr. Mouse-Ears may have wormed his way into every single classic story ever by now -- but at least he does it well. As a kid, I saw Mickey's Christmas Carol so many times I probably could have reenacted it myself as a one-actress play. While as a very small child, the scene with the open grave freaked me the heck out, one must remember that (a) I was really little, and (b) I was the scarediest little scaredy cat you ever met. So in spite of a few childhood nightmares, I have to say that overall, this is still the most family-friendly version I've ever seen, and probably the sweetest. Mickey is the obvious choice for Bob Cratchit, and we have this movie to thank for Scrooge McDuck, who was so awesome he got to stick around long after his debut. Seriously, he's one of the best Scrooges and Disney characters out there. And that's with knighted actors like Sir Michael Caine and Sir Michael Gambon for competition, not to mention Bill Murray! Speaking of which, next on our list is...

The Craziest: Scrooged (1988)

Another film that I've watched so many times I sometimes forget I wasn't actually there in it. Featuring a greedy, misanthropic television producer named Frank Cross as the Scrooge stand-in, this modern-day retelling is by far one of the best things Bill Murray has ever done with his life. Adding more than a dash of the ridiculous to the plot, the ghosts in Scrooged include David Johansen as a mad cabbie moonlighting as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and the ever-insane Carol Kane as the (literally) slaphappy Ghost of Christmas Present. Best of all, Bobcat Goldthwait appears as an emotionally disturbed employee of Frank's named Eliot Loudermilk, who is fired by Frank on Christmas Eve. This is not the Bob Cratchit you're used to -- that is, a sweet, unbelievably understanding man with few funds but a wealth of love. This is Bobcat Goldthwait we're talking about here -- could we expect anything less than pure, unadulterated insanity? Rather than take his unfair dismissal lying down, Eliot drinks himself into a rage, buys a shotgun, and attempts to murder his Grinchly boss in the producer's office. What ensues is the best, craziest, most hilarious scene in the whole movie, a physical manifestation of humor which could only be topped by a true master of laughs. Such as...

The Funniest: Blackadder's Christmas Carol (1988)

Or, the story of how Ebenezer Blackadder became a heartless bastard. In this finest of parodies, Rowan Atkinson's Blackadder is visited by only a single ghost, The Spirit of Christmas (played by Hagrid Robbie Coltrane). Since Blackadder is already a decent man to begin with, the Spirit comes not to cause a change of heart, but to congratulate him on his generosity, showing him visions of his vicious and greedy ancestors for comparison. The visitation backfires, and the result is a side-splitting reversal of the classic story as only the best of British comedy can deliver.

The Timey-Wimeyest: Doctor Who's "A Christmas Carol" (2010)

It's an unwritten law of the universe that every long-running show must, as some point, do a Christmas Carol episode. Few, however, are as strange or touching as this Eleventh Doctor special, penned by the divinely clever Steven Moffat. Set back when the Ponds were still Ponding around (ah, the good old days), the Doctor must convince the miserly Kazran Sardick (a.k.a. this story's Scrooge) to use his weather-controlling machine to prevent a ship from crashing -- a ship on which, of course, companions Amy and Rory happen to be on. Probably one of the most surreal adaptations out there, this version involves flying fish, holographic "ghosts," and cryogenics, not to mention the Doctor's usual time-space-continuum-stretching shenanigans. A given in almost any given Moffat episode, there are as many laughs as there are heart-wrenchers, and Katherine Jenkins' vocals as Kazran's musically gifted love interest are hauntingly beautiful, to say the least. Even if you've never watched an episode of the show in your life, watch it. And be sure to have the tissue box handy.

The Classic: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Yep, the Muppets. How could it be anything less than fantastic? Narrated by Gonzo and Rizzo, this version's Scrooge is none other than the lovely and extremely talented Sir Michael Caine. As with any Muppet production, there are a few good musical numbers thrown into the mix, especially the opening song (guaranteed to be stuck in your head for days -- not that you'll mind), "Scrooge." My one gripe about this version is the Ghost of Christmas Past, a feminine, childlike spirit who just so happens to be the most unintentionally creepy Muppet ever. Though true to the original character in form and function, there is nevertheless something about her that just feels a little off, and it's a real relief when the jovial, rosy-cheeked Ghost of Christmas Present finally takes her place. In spite of her, however, the overall film is pure Muppet magic, and it remains, in my mind, the best adaptation yet.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Stranger Nightmare XIII: Creepypasta Favorites

At long last, the end is in sight. Lucky number thirteen, indeed. And the final Stranger Nightmare of the season is... a delectable serving of creepypasta. Is it a trick, or a treat? Now in five fearsome flavors!

1. The Dare

Arguably the least terrifying of the bunch, creepypasta "dares" are, by my own definition, anything that reads like an instruction manual from hell. Often referred to as "ritual pastas," most of these don't really scare me, since (a) they tend to be rather lacking in the story department, and (b) they tend not to work. But my favorite thing (about the well-written ones, anyway) is the way the writers tease the audience, like that one jerk kid daring you to go into the haunted house right after telling you all about how an entire family was murdered there last week. Now, while there is a creepypasta called "The Dare" (which is actually pretty decent, as far as creepypasta goes), it doesn't actually fall under this category. At all. But if you're looking for a quick test of courage, try "The Code of Mirrors" and its sequel, "The Mirror." While the first one doesn't actually qualify on its own, the second one definitely does, and they're much better read together.

2. The Childhood-Ruiner

Though prone to rather silly extremes, childhood-ruining creepypasta (like the Garfield one I mentioned in Stranger Nightmare #7) can be devastating when done right. The trick of it lies in taking that safe, happy place in our memories and turning it into a landscape of atrocities, twisting our inner comfort zones into something dark and deeply disconcerting. "Squidward's Suicide" is considered a classic, though for me, I find it pales in comparison to "The Rugrats Theory" (be sure to scroll down to the tweaked version), "Dead Bart," and the aforementioned "Garfield is a Lie." For the full personal effect, however, be sure to look up your own childhood favorites and see if anyone has ruined them for you yet.

3. The Lovecraftian Brainscrew

Generally, these have the best writing of the bunch, both grammatically and narrative-wise. Unlike most creepypasta, Lovecraftian brainscrews rely less on zingers and more on a buildup of slow, creeping dread, which is often left open-ended. They also tend to be among the longest, which is unfortunate for my short internet attention span. Somewhat like the childhood ruiners, these tales take the familiar and transform it into something disturbing or grotesque -- but whereas the former works its magic on fiction, these very special stories warp the reality around us, making us question the very fabric of our existence. Of the ones that I have read, "The Kaleidoscope" is by far the most Lovecraftian of all, with some of the prettiest writing I've yet to see in creepypasta. "String Theory" is longer -- and even weirder. Or, if you're craving something with a bit more bite, try "The Guardian Angel," which never fails to make me do the look-over-your-shoulder double-take every time I read it.

4. The Parody

If you can't beat 'em, point and laugh at 'em. Creepypasta parodies are a nice break from the authors' usual doom-and-gloom attempts at terrorizing the audience, and nothing breaks the tension like a real heartfelt guffaw. Of course, timing is everything, and all too often these parodypastas miss their mark, but now and again you'll come across a gem like "The Vacation" or "The Boy Who Loved to Read."

5. The "Gotcha"

The undying king of zingers, the "gotcha" story hinges on the last lines, which are usually a big twist and always, always induce a serious case of chills. The set-up can be trash or gory gold, doesn't really matter which, but if the ending doesn't get you, it's a failure. The best tend to be the briefest, since in essence these are campfire stories by electronic light. "Lightning" and "The Man in the Snow" are urban legendary classics, but if you want a real shocker of a finish line, check out "The Girl in the Picture," "The Message," or (the shortest but the sweetest) "In The Kitchen."

Did I mention these are all true stories?


Stranger Nightmare XII: Terrordrome

For our twelfth Stranger Nightmare -- and the second part of today's Trinity of Terror -- I bring you what can only be described as the best thing since Freddy Krueger fought Jason Vorhees (and totally won, in his own weird way).

Welcome to the Terrordrome, an arena of horrors where both victors and victims include some of the most memorable villains of all time. A free and "homebrewed" retro-style 2D fighting game made by fans for fans, Terrordrome pits classic fright-fest icons like Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers, and yes, even Herbert West, against one another in fight after fight to the death. It's pretty much a horror fanatic's wet dream -- er, nightmare.

Thanks to Huracan Project putting some serious effort into the game's development, all of the characters' catchphrases and movements feel stripped straight from their source material. So, rather than being an average game with cookie cutter fighting moves and familiar faces copy-pasted Frankenstein-style onto typical martial artists' bodies, Terrordrome really feels like the ultimate showdown (of ultimate destiny) between all the greatest movie monsters. My favorite moments are the most nostalgic ones, like Freddy's arm suddenly reaching all the way across the screen to hit a foe with a surprise slash, or Herbert summoning up a re-animated corpse (yes, that re-animated corpse) to attack enemies with his surprisingly deadly intestines. It really is the little things, you know?

It's not a perfect creation -- for one thing, the controls for whatever reason appear to be shot to hell (since when is "T" the select button?) -- but damn it, it's Halloween, and this is a free ticket to the horror fan's version of heaven. Go ahead, download it. You know you want to.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Stranger Nightmare X: An Evening with Alice Cooper

Music (good music, anyway) always has a tale to tell. Alice Cooper, one of the best best storytellers in the biz, knows how to set the stage like no one else -- which is why Stranger Nightmare #10 is dedicated to a recent experience I enjoyed featuring the king of nightmares himself, the founding father of shock rock (not to mention "Golf Monster").

This past Sunday, I was lucky enough to finally cross off one big item on my bucket list: attending an Alice Cooper concert. During Halloween week, no less. Following a sunset drive and a quick preemptive explanation of "Dead Babies," a friend and I found ourselves at the one and only Hard Rock Live venue, she looking vaguely lost (she hasn't been too exposed to the Coop's genius -- yet) but still pretty excited, and I grinning from ear to ear and dressed to kill (not literally -- maybe) in faux leather and lots and lots of hairspray. In short, we were ready to rock.

I wasn't quite lucky enough to get front row seats, but we had a pretty darn decent view, and in as small an auditorium as that one, there really weren't any bad seats to begin with. It was a little disappointing that the crowd didn't jump up out of their seats and lose it -- as it was, I must have looked like a loon rocking out in my chair -- but the screams were wild, the applause deafening, and in the end I know I wasn't the only one who walked away with a twisted, satisfied smile and a head full of dancing demons.

While the Evening's setlist didn't lend itself to as obvious a narrative as album-based shows like the Brutal Planet or Nightmare concerts, running through all the old (and new) classics was like a creepy nostalgic graveyard tour of Alice's evolution -- one long, terrific crazy train of thought weaving in and out of time, a nightmare which started all the way back in the '70s and from which we've never completely woken -- and, deep down, don't really want to.

"Hey, Stoopid," "Poison," "Feed My Frankenstein," "The Ballad of Dwight Fry" -- they were all there, all the standards in their full grimy, gory glory, along with fan-favorite props like the super-sized FrankenAlice and ye olde reliable guillotine. Playing every song I wanted to hear simply wasn't possible (it would take days), but every song he played was one I wanted to hear. Or should I say, experience? Because the thing about a Cooper concert is, it's not just music (though that part stands alone quite well, thanks very much). It's theater, the art of the horrorshow, and it's every bit as brutally beautiful now as it was when it began.

I can't wait to do it again. Except next time, I'll be sure to snag a spot in the splatter zone.

". . . I am the Moriarty of rock. I am the consummate villain. I am the Hannibal Lector of rock, and I play it like that. Alice just seems like an arrogant bastard or villain who is making the audience feel as though they are lucky to be there when in reality that is exactly the opposite of my personality. With Alice though…it is great to play him or portray him as an Alan Rickman type character who is very condescending. That’s what makes him fun to watch — he's Captain Hook." -Alice Cooper

Friday, October 25, 2013

Stranger Nightmare IX: I, Frankenstein

Happy Frankenstein Friday! Tonight's nightmare is, appropriately, related to that memorable Monster which Mary Shelley and Victor Frankenstein unleashed onto the world back in 1818. It is also, due to time constraints relating to life getting in the way, rather a brief nightmare, as most of the talking will be done by the following trailer (which I caught during the previews before last weekend's showing of Carrie):

A friend who accompanied me that night harbored a less-than-optimistic prognosis for I, Frankenstein, apparently finding the trailer somewhat uninspiring. One can hardly blame him, though, after the high hopes we had a while back for Snow White and the Hunstman were, mostly thanks to Kristen Stewart and her non-acting, pretty much dashed to bits upon the sharp, cold rocks of disappointment.

I, on the other hand, am every bit as excited -- at least for the moment -- as I was when I first saw the trailer for Van Helsing. And no, that's not sarcasm, either; though I'm well aware a baffling amount of people didn't exactly enjoy the 2004 take on Dracula and his oldest nemesis, I personally put it on the top shelf of my mental collection of Halloween favorites, and hardly an October goes by without at least one viewing. Also, remember Underworld? (No, not the sequels, just the first one. You know, the good one.) I, Frankenstein is being produced by the same team -- so there's hope for it yet.

While I admit I find Aaron Eckhart a rather surprisingly pretty choice to play the undead patchwork creature that is Frankenstein's Monster, it could work... maybe. At any rate, the guy can definitely act, and the rest of the movie -- what with the effects and the fact that, for once, it's not just a bloody remake (also, GARGOYLES) -- looks like it could be seriously wonderful. Or seriously terrible. Here's hoping for the former outcome.

Of course, we're going to have to wait until 2014 to find out. In the meantime, however, you could always check out the graphic novel the movie is apparently based on. I haven't read it yet, but from first glance, it looks pretty neat.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Stranger Nightmare VIII: Carrie (and Randy)

On Spirit Day, the color purple is worn to signify support for LGBT victims of bullying. These days, the official date is set to October 17th. However, the first observance, organized by Brittany McMillan in response to a number of bullying-related suicides back in 2010, actually took place on October 20th.

So, to show this blogger's support, today's (spoiler-free!) nightmare is also linked to bullying -- albeit of a straight main character. Her name is Carrie White; you might have heard of her.

But before we get to that, in the true spirit of Spirit Day I want to make quick mention of a movie you might not have heard of: Red Head Randy. An under-hyped indie flick about a high school student whose homophobic classmates' bullying pushes him beyond his limits, Red Head Randy may not be the first anti-bullying horror movie, but it might be the first to feature a homosexual main character (feel free to correct me on that). Promotion for the film is a bit of a mess -- though the release is only a little over a week away, there are no real trailers to speak of, and what little insight one can glean from the cast spotlights is nowhere near enough to get a real feel for what the movie will be like once it does come out. But, at the very least, the creators' hearts seem to be in the right place. The film is touted as an anti-bullying feature, and a series of events, including a release party on the 31st, a Bowling Against Bullying tournament (date TBA), and a New Year's Party (again, details TBA), have been scheduled as part of the Red Head Randy Stand up to Bullying Tour.

Now, on to the main attraction...

For any poor, uncultured fool who hasn't seen it yet and never read the book by Stephen King or watched the original 1976 film adaptation (or at least the 2002 version, or even the -- shudder -- musical version), and has somehow managed to miss all one million and three advertisements for it, Carrie is the story of a painfully shy, awkward high school girl who is abused by her fanatically religious mother and tormented by her unsympathetic classmates. It is the story of what happens -- or at least, what could happen, if you believe in telekinesis -- when bullying goes too far. Desperate times, after all, call for desperate measures.

Now, on the bright side, if you really haven't read or seen any of the other versions you're probably going to enjoy the new one more than I did. I don't know about the 2002 or musical versions, but I do know that once you've seen Sissy Spacek play the lead, there's no way not to compare every other Carrie to hers. And sadly, despite my initial overwhelming joy at seeing Chloë Grace Moretz cast in the role (not to mention Julianne Moore as her momma), even "Hit Girl" couldn't quite measure up. 

That's not to say the new Carrie isn't good. It has its moments, and despite my preferences I'd definitely say it's worth a watch. Judging by the (very loud) gasps I heard rippling through the audience on more than one occasion, I'd say it even has a few good jumps in it (though if, like me, you're a bit more jaded, you might find the audience's reactions more amusing than the actual "scares"). The writing is good, supposedly closer to the book than other adaptations, and the acting is solid. Julianne Moore is probably the best, craziest momma White ever, and that's including Piper Laurie in the original. In fact, if you see it for no other reason, see it for her -- the amount of attention to detail in terms of the mother's character development this time around is spine-tingling perfection.

As for Carrie herself, while she does follow the basic arc from the original story -- shy, quiet misfit to freakishly powerful avenging heroine -- Moretz's Carrie seems stronger than the others from the get-go, and she begins to lash out much earlier and with more force than Spacek's timid, fragile-seeming girl-child. This probably sounds like a better idea than it actually turned out to be; while for the most part it's preferable to have a strong, sensible heroine (particularly in a horror movie), what I found so hard-hitting about Spacek's performance was how utterly terrified and vulnerable her Carrie was throughout the film. Moretz, on the other hand, seems to have a very strong personality, and it can't help but show a little even through her best attempts at defenselessness. Her strength was what I loved about her in Kick-Ass and Dark Shadows, but here it takes a little away from some of Carrie's weakest moments. However, on the flip side, she is a very likeable Carrie, and watching the inevitable, terrible conclusion to her almost-fairytale ending still hurts, if not in quite as poignant a way. And heck if she isn't bloody believable once she does go into full vengeance mode.

As I said, however, if you don't have a reference point prior to the film, it's probably much more enjoyable, and for all I know I might have loved Moretz's Carrie a lot more if I'd been able to forget Spacek even for a minute. But original-to-remake comparisons aside, there's one other problem I had with the film (not counting a very stupid Sue moment wherein she forgets how useful cell phones are -- the fact that she didn't even attempt to use hers during a crucial moment really, really bugged me). As is so often the case, it has to do with the special effects.

As far as looking good, I have to admit that generally they did a pretty great job. Unfortunately, the SFX team did exactly what I feared and hoped they wouldn't do and fell into what I like to call the Lucas trap. Yep, I named it after George Lucas, because if he'd paid a little more attention to the writing (and, you know, directing) instead of getting wrapped up in all the CGI, the Star Wars prequels might have actually stood a chance of living up to our dreams. But that's another rant for another time. Anyway, the effect isn't nearly as bad in Carrie, but it is there.

While the effects don't take over the movie, when they are used the emphasis occasionally comes on a little too strong -- to me, it's like the difference between an actually creepy experience and an amusement park ride. The latter might be a more visually impressive because it's showier, but it's also safer and much less scary than a real, dangerous situation. Similarly, if directors want their special effects to add to the creep factor of their movies, they really need to stop going, "Look at this! Aren't these effects amazing?!" and just let the moment happen instead of trying to show off. I suppose they think it looks cool, and maybe to some people it does, but unless the movie is supposed to be slightly campy it's usually just an annoying distraction. In Carrie, this only happens once or twice, but it's once or twice too many, and it's a bit disappointing to find it in a movie that had the potential to do so much better.

However, if you're looking for a decent Halloween movie this October -- a soda-and-popcorn-flavored horrorshow evening in the presence of good company -- Carrie's probably your best bet this year. It's especially fun to take your jump-scare-prone friends along with you; just remember to keep a firm grip on the popcorn bag.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Stranger Nightmare VII: The Dark Side of Garfield

Twenty-six years ago today, the stock market crashed and burned in an event financiers fearfully refer to as Black Monday. Of course, this wasn't the first, nor even remotely the last, stock market crash -- nor is it the only day to be saddled with that ominous moniker. In fact, if Wikipedia is to be believed, there are as many as 19 different occasions which have been dubbed "Black Monday," including the original Black Monday in 1929, as well as massacres, natural disasters, riots, assassinations, and worst of all, the first day of school after the holidays.

However, today's nightmare isn't about stock market crashes -- or any of those other things Black Monday stands for. It's not even about Black Monday. (In fact, if you haven't noticed, today isn't even a Monday at all.) Rather, today's nightmare is dedicated to a certain furry feline with a particular grudge against that day of the week. Yep, that's right: Garfield.

What's so scary about Garfield? Not much -- not usually, anyway. Over the course of a thirty-five year career (yes, really), the beloved orange furball has seen his fair of Halloween specials. Aside from countless comic strips featuring Garfield and company cavorting about during the holiday (collected in a ton of books), the original TV show Garfield and Friends included a recurring segment titled "Garfield's Tales of Scary Stuff," and a separate special, Garfield's Halloween Adventure (originally called Garfield in Disguise) aired in 1985, featuring one of the cat's darkest -- yet still kid-friendly -- animated tales.

If the words "kid-friendly" leave a bitter taste in your mouth, however, there's always the legitimately creepy stuff -- and no, I'm not kidding. I'm not even talking about Garfield Minus Garfield, which does occasionally shift from the usual sad/funny tone to just plain WTF. Check out this set of Garfield comics dating back to October 1989 (click for full size):

You can also read a colorized version in the official Garfield archives.

Needless to say, fans sorta freaked out over this. Quite a few people pointed out the similarities in the arc to the "Valse Triste" segment of the Italian animation Allegro Non Troppo (which I haven't yet mustered the courage to watch), though Jim Davis says he was not aware of the connection and did not base the strip on it. Rather, according to a caption from Garfield's Twentieth Anniversary Collection, Davis drew inspiration from a common fear:

"During a writing session for Halloween week, I got the idea for this decidedly different series of strips. I wanted to scare people. And what do people fear most? Why, being alone. We carried out the concept to its logical conclusion and got a lot of responses from readers."

No kidding. The comics led many to speculate that it wasn't just a dream, or a random non-canonical aside, but that Garfield is dead, or starving to death (possibly in a post-apocalyptic universe), and that everything else in the strip consisted of the poor cat's twisted hallucinations and desperate attempts to cope with his horrific fate. Taking things one step further, it even spawned the creepypasta "Garfield is a Lie," which argues that the entire strip is Davis's way of dealing with his overwhelming guilt over the murder of a friend, and that the 1989 "Alone" series sprang from a mental breakdown from which Davis never recovered. (Needless to say, all of this would be news to Davis. At least, I think so...)

Thing is, this wasn't even the first time Davis went over to the dark side. October of 1984 saw the publication of Garfield: His 9 Lives, a graphic novel compilation which told the tales of the cat's past lives, including commentary from present-day Garfield explaining how his past affected his personality. While most of the stories stuck to the strip's usual lightheartedness, two notable exceptions included "Lab Animal" and "Primal Self," pictured below (again, click for full size):

Not all cats go to heaven? At any rate, this story marked Garfield's sole totally serious (in both subject and look) foray into the horror genre -- in some respects, it totally beats the "Alone" strip on the freaky scale. In fact, when the collection sparked a TV special in 1988, "Primal Self" didn't make the cut, and has never appeared on television. Interestingly enough, "Lab Animal" did make it into the special -- perhaps the nicer-looking art style (reminiscent of Disney's Oliver and Company) distracted the producers from the actual content? If you snoop around on YouTube, you can probably find a copy. Here's one that I found (let's see how long it lasts before the copyright gestapo find it):

Cutting "Primal Self" left "Lab Animal" to fend for itself as the sole source of creep-factor in the adaptation -- unless, of course, you count the part where (spoiler alert?) Garfield and Odie die during Garfield's 9th life and find themselves standing before God, who sees fit to grant them both nine extra lives. What appears to be a generous gesture on the Almighty's part, however, quickly starts to seem like some sort of underhanded punishment when God, who already had a pretty scary voice to begin with, turns out to possess glowing yellow cat-eyes of death:

So there you have it. Beneath the fair facade of family-friendly fun-times and comfortingly familiar humor, buried way deep down in his little kitty heart, Garfield has some pretty heavy issues to deal with, including possession, gene-splicing, and the ever-present possibility that his entire existence has all been a lie. Kind of like your childhood.

(You're welcome.)

Friday, October 18, 2013

Stranger Nightmare VI: Moon Face

Tonight is a very special night. Not only is it time for the Blood Moon (or Hunter's Moon), October's full moon -- it's also going to be a penumbral lunar eclipse. Sooo, you can probably guess what the theme of today's Stranger Nightmare is, can't you? Nope, it's not lycanthropy (too easy!). Nope, not the Penumbra video game series either (though trust me, I was tempted). You're thinking too hard. Try the most obvious guess of all. Yep -- it's the moon.

Now, there have been stories about the moon and its effects on the world since there were creatures on Earth capable of telling them. Ancient (and some not so ancient) religions personified and deified the moon, and many rituals and sacrifices were performed in its (sometimes His or Her) honor. Other, less flattering tales, told of changes coming over people sensitive to the moon's influence; since the days of Aristotle and Pliny, it has often been associated with madness (hence, lunacy), and of course, rumors of men (and women) that transform into wolves in the night have persisted through the ages. And don't even get me started on all the conspiracy theories concerning that big round shiny thing that shows up in the sky after the sun goes to bed.

Some of the creepiest ideas about the moon manifest themselves in the superstitions surrounding it. Of course, not all of them are scary -- some, like the idea that the new moon can bring you fortune, or that getting your hair cut during a particular phase is lucky, are even downright optimistic. But then you've got stories like the one where sleeping with the light of the full moon on your face means you won't live to see the end of the year, or that the moon turning orange is an evil portent. Or the ones (yes, more than one) where the Man in the Moon is someone trapped there as a form of eternal punishment. Or the other one, from Inuit mythology, where he is the keeper of the souls of men and animals. Or the other other one where he's a hunchback plaiting a fishing line. A rat gnaws the line, and a cat chases the rat, and as long as this cycle continues the universe is safe -- but if the fishing line is ever completed, the world ends.

Cheery stuff, no? While browsing through these today I stumbled on a story which, as far as I can tell, is not rooted in any particularly old or commonly-held superstitions -- however, it is a story about superstitions, and after reading it you might acquire a superstition of your own concerning mirrors and the moon... and dead things.

Click here, if you dare, to read "Moon Face." (Bonus points if you read it in the dark, at night, near a mirror, and aren't overcome with the urge to cover that mirror up immediately.)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Stranger Nightmare V: Freaky Fashion

On this day in 1793, Marie Antoinette lost her head to a French guillotine, having been sentenced to death for treason. Since one of the Queen's most memorable traits was her affinity for high fashion (to the point of inappropriate extravagance -- because never mind the starving populace, this wig is FABULOUS!), today's nightmare is a spooky cornucopia of painted faces, gorgeous garb, and just a dash of sparklies.

And before all my anti-fashion readers go running for the hills, a disclaimer: we're not just talking pretty clothes here, we're talking weird, wild, and wonderful. Photography, Tim Burton, fun facts, the most ridiculously expensive costume (hopefully ever) -- it's all fair game. Because fashion isn't just about what you wear -- fashion, done right, tells a story. It says something about who you are, or who you want to be; it can scream or it can whisper, conceal or reveal more than just skin. I'm no fashionista, but even I can appreciate a well-conceived outfit -- and when it comes to costumery, be still my beating heart. So, for today's post, I scoured the internets to find the prettiest, strangest, spookiest fashion-related gems. Enjoy. :)

Tim Burton's Magical Fashion
Now, this article may be a few years old, but it feels no less relevant this Halloween -- and dammit, it's wonderful, so I'm including it. This Harper's Bazaar slideshow features 13 goth-grandiose looks put together by the master of the delightfully odd, Tim Burton, who even appears in several shots as one of the models. As inspired as it is inspiring, some seriously sweet costume ideas could come from a quick gander.

High Fashion Halloween
Burtonesque not quite your style? Check out this Pinterest page, the contents of which span the spectrum between crocheted ribcages and beautifully haunting fairies draped in gauze. Even if you're not dressing up this Samhain, some of the photography alone is worth a thousand words (at least).

Halloween Fashion & Fun Facts
Head to The Fashion Hive for a few more pretty pictures, as well as a handful of interesting facts concerning the history of Halloween. And yes, there's even a Tim Burton quote in there, too. (Face it, he's still the face of the season, whether you like him or not.)

The Million Pound Morphsuit
If high fashion is too serious for you and something along the lines of "utterly preposterous" is more your game, take a look at this shiny-beyond-all-reason morphsuit. Why you would want to look like a human-shaped disco ball -- or why you would willingly spend £1,000,000 (or $1,599,000) to do so -- is far beyond my comprehension, but if you happen to be a misanthropist with a stupidly excessive amount of cash burning a hole in your pocket, this might just be the perfect fit.

The 35 Most Insane Halloween Costumes From Around The World
For something potentially just as crazy (but on a reasonable budget), steal an idea from this list on Some are hilarious, other just hilariously bad, and others still are so damn creepy (in a bad way) you kind of worry about the kind of person who would come up with them.

Michelle Phan, extremesfx, and MAC Cosmetics
While YouTube is littered with makeup tutorials and a quick search will probably find you at least one that would work for almost any costume idea you could conjure up, Michelle Phan is the queen of cosmetics, and her channel is a good place to start if you don't know what you're looking for (or if you do know, and want the best). She's done a ton of videos over the years, many of which were completely un-Halloween-related, but she's got quite a few costumes and characters under her belt as well, including a seriously creepy Gothic Lolita doll, Mulan, and a zombified Barbie. (Also check out her Halloween Favorites, a mash-up of fashion tricks and sweet treats.) There's even an "R" (from Warm Bodies) tutorial for the guys. Speaking of which, if you're either looking for more gruesome options (or, again, if you're a guy -- these channels cater more to both genders) check out the extremesfx or MAC Cosmetics channels. The former features a few neat tutorials using latex, prosthetics and more, and the latter just started testing out a handful of really beautiful/creepy looks courtesy of Rick Baker, a professional Hollywood makeup master with a ton of films under his belt, as well as an Academy Award and even a star on the Walk of Fame.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Stranger Nightmare IV: The Slit-Mouthed Woman

It might not be Friday, but it's still the thirteenth of October (incidentally, this is also exactly the thirteenth post of this blog) -- which means it's high time for another nightmare. Today's Stranger Nightmare is an urban legend hailing from scary story central, a.k.a. Japan.

Don't Talk to Strangers Wearing Masks: The Legend

Kuchisake-onna, or the Slit-Mouthed (or Split-Mouthed) Woman, is an evil spirit who, at first glance, appears to be a beautiful woman wearing a surgical mask. Here in America she'd stick out like a sore thumb -- random woman creeping around at night with a mask covering half her face? No thank you -- but in Japan wearing a surgical mask (especially during flu season) to prevent the spread of germs is an extremely common practice. This lady, however, isn't politely protecting you from disease; the mask covers up her hideously disfigured face, which has been split from the corners of her mouth to each ear in a terrible Cheshire grin.

Like any urban legend, there are numerous variations on what exactly happens during an encounter with the Slit-Mouthed Woman. One version casts her as an archetypal Hitchhiker of Death, garbed in long, flowing white robes (a funeral kimono, perhaps?) and with a simple white cloth in place of a surgical mask. (Check out this snopes thread and this obake wiki post for even more details and variations.) The most popular version, however, has her wandering the streets of Japan at night, specifically preying upon young children walking home from school.

In almost all versions, the encounter goes something like this. The hapless victim meets the woman, who for all accounts and purposes seems to be normal -- i.e. alive and human. The woman asks the victim, "Am I beautiful?" Regardless of the answer (or often, before one can be given) she rips off her mask, revealing her deformity.

At this point in the hitchhiker story, she starts repeating, "Am I beautiful?" over and over again as the driver screams (and, I assume, dies in either a panic-induced accident or by other, more supernatural, causes). In the street encounter, however, she asks, "How about now?" and waits for an answer. And, of course, there are a lot of wrong answers. If you tell her she is not beautiful, she kills you with an over-sized pair of scissors -- by beheading in some stories, by cutting you in half in others. If you try to get on her good side by insisting she is still beautiful, she carves an extra-wide smile just like hers into your face. Running doesn't help either; after all, she is a ghost. She will simply appear in front of you again and, probably, kill you.

Supposedly, there is only one right answer. The legend says that if you respond to her question by saying something like, "You're only average" or "so-so," she will be confused long enough for you to escape with your life (and your face) intact. A slightly sillier rumor also has it that you can throw fruit at her (or, if you're a child, your favorite brand of candy) to distract her and get away.

Of course, the ensuing nightmares would probably be a lot harder to get rid of.

Wanna Know How I Got These Scars?: The Origins

Like Heath Ledger's Joker, the Slit-Mouthed Woman has acquired numerous origin stories over the years, and of course no one knows which story, if any, is the true one. Some say she acquired her scars during a plastic surgery gone wrong; others say it was a car accident, or the result of an assault by a biker gang, and still others say she is an escaped mental patient who carved the smile herself. A much older and more elaborate take is that she was an adulteress whose samurai husband, upon discovering her infidelity, carved up her face and demanded, "Who will think you're beautiful now?" She eventually died, either from her wounds or by committing suicide, and became an onryō (a vengeful spirit).

The origins of the legend itself are likewise difficult to pinpoint. Though the version featuring the samurai's wife supposedly dates back to Japan's Heian period (794-1185), the tale of the Slit-Mouthed Woman seems to have stayed largely in the shadows until the late 20th century. Toward the end of the 70's, rumors of a mutilated woman stalking schoolchildren began to spread like wildfire, and in 1979, something of a panic broke out in the Nagasaki prefecture. Reported sightings grew so frequent that the local police began regular patrols, and schools assigned teachers to walk students home in groups after class for safety reasons. The woman, of course, was neither found nor arrested, and after a while the panic died down, ending as quietly and mysteriously as it began.

(An interesting side-note: it just so happens that around this time, between 1977 and 1983, at least seventeen Japanese citizens were reportedly abducted for spy-related purposes by the North Korean government, which so far admits to thirteen of the kidnappings. Though all except one of the officially recognized victims were adults at the time and don't exactly fit the profile for the legend, I find it interesting that these disappearances -- which may have unofficially numbered in the hundreds -- occurred around the same time that the "panic" in Nagasaki really took off. One wonders if perhaps the real danger of abduction somehow attributed to the legend's sudden popularity. It has also been speculated that the rumors sprang from some real-life incident of a woman attacking a child, though no specific incident has, as far as I can tell, been identified.)

In 2007, it is said (though I haven't found any real evidence yet to confirm this) that a coroner found some records dating back to the late 70's which discuss a woman with a history of violence towards small children; while chasing some kids, she was hit by a car and killed, and her mouth was -- you guessed it -- torn open from ear to ear.

While I have yet to dig up any actual news articles about the panic (please share if you find any!), pretty much every overview of the legend refers to it, and some blog posts (like this one) even share first-person accounts and relative's memories of what it was like going to school with the fear of the Slit-Mouthed Woman following them every step of the way.

How About Now?: The Modern (Slit-Mouthed) Woman

If you're not creeped out enough yet, feel free to go look up one (or all) of the many films portraying the gruesome legend. Since the release of Teruyoshi Ishii's Kuchisake-onna in 1996, at least seven live-action movies have been made featuring the Slit-Mouthed Woman, with the most recent one being Jun'ichi Yamamoto's Kuchisake-onna (2012). A few manga and anime adaptations also exist, and several others including Hell Teacher Nube, Hanako and the Terror of Allegory, Franken Fran, Occult Academy and Toshi Densetsu feature her briefly. In the original Ringu, one of the main characters refers to an urban legend about "The Ripped-Mouth Woman," explaining that the story began circulating following a car accident in the Gifu prefecture which left a local woman brutally disfigured. Earlier in the movie, one character theorizes on where such stories come from:

"This kind of thing -- it doesn't start by one person telling a story. It's more like everyone's fear just takes on a life of its own . . . Or, maybe it's not fear at all. Maybe it's what we were secretly hoping for all along."

In 2004, the legend spread from Japan to Korea, where sightings began popping up all over again (though, as far as I know, it never hit panic levels). Re-dubbed The Red Mask Ghost (or The Red Mask Girl), in Korea she wears a red surgical mask and is said (in one of the variations) to be a Japanese woman whose scars were caused by failed cosmetic surgery. Sometimes she is said to target children, other times it's men, and her weapon of choice may be either scissors or a scalpel. It is said that she may be scared away by tracing the Chinese character for dog on one's hand (though the legend generally makes no mention of a dog, or China) -- however, in some versions, there is no escape.

In every version, the single constant is her haunting question, to which, truthfully, there may be no right answer: "Am I beautiful?"

Monday, October 7, 2013

Stranger Nightmare III: The Tell-Tale Heart

Since 7 is such a magical number, today we have a special nightmare double-feature, commemorating not only yesterday's Mad Hatter Day but also in remembrance of the great Edgar Allan Poe, who passed from this dream to the next 164 years ago today.

As such, our third nightmare happens to be my personal favorite Poe story, the haunting "Tell-Tale Heart," first published in 1843. Now, the original story is widely considered to be a Gothic horror classic, and though it's been adapted and rewritten and referenced at least a million and three times, it just so happens that, now and again, someone actually hits the mark.

In this case, that someone is none other than the late, great Vincent Price -- the face that launched a thousand B-movies, the voice that haunted a thousand dreams. If there's one voice that was meant to tell scary stories, it was his; if I had to pick only one tale to hear him tell, it would be this one.

Do yourself a favor. Turn the lights down, turn the volume up, grab a glass of wine (or a bit of Halloween candy -- or both), and savor the sinister delight of the first recitation from Vincent Price's An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe.

(Below is "Tell-Tale Heart" as uploaded by YouTube user mirkodamian. Because sadly, the original film doesn't appear to be very available... anywhere, really.)

Nightmare II: McGee's Hatter

For our second Stranger Nightmare, it's time to celebrate Mad Hatter Day (one day late -- because, you know, time can be funny in dreams) with a character spotlight on one of my personal favorite (creepy) incarnations of He Who Wears Big Hats. Without further adieu, I present to you the maniacal mechanical wonder, the Mad Hatter from the American McGee's Alice and Alice: Madness Returns games.

(Once again, beware the spoilers -- although really, if you haven't played the Alice games yet, you probably don't deserve a disclaimer.)

One of the most intriguing characters in McGee's twisted Wonderland, this Hatter (voiced by the deliciously demented-sounding Andrew Chaikin) is far from the travel-sized, gnome-like little man found in the John Tenniel illustrations that first accompanied the original novel by Lewis Carroll. According to a quote from an interview with Jay Brushwood, who worked as a 3D modeler/animator on the first game, research for the character design began with reading the books and browsing through Tenniel's works as well as other works based on the books and ended up somewhere between Tim Burton, Salvador Dali, and Spawn.

The result was a lanky green half-man, half-machine mongrel sporting spats and a stovepipe hat. The amount of detail that went into the design alone is -- teehee -- to die for; everything from the teacup-tipped cane, to the checkerboard pattern on the hat, to the clockwork gear sticking out of his back, is a wonderfully nightmarish twist on everything that was once familiar about the classic version of the character.

His role in the series is equally fascinating. In the first game, he is largely portrayed (pun intended) as one of the villains of the story, a murderous madman grown to enormous proportions who, in his first (rather shocking) appearance in the game, ruthlessly squishes the White Rabbit beneath one of his oversized soles. He is eventually defeated by Alice in order to free the Dormouse and March Hare from his torturous experiments and to protect the rest of Wonderland from meeting similar fates.

However, it is also true that the Hatter is one of the characters responsible for saving Alice from the fire which took her family. During the "Smoke and Fire" sequence, he and the White Rabbit are the first characters to notice the danger; panicking, the White Rabbit cries out, "We must save Alice!" and the Hatter's screams of "Wake up, Alice! Wake up!" are in fact what finally rouse her in time to escape and survive.

When he returns in the sequel, his role changes yet again. Apparently back to his old self, he appears as a victim of the Dormouse's and Hare's cruel revenge. This time, he is rescued by Alice and proceeds to act as a strange sort of guide for a time, even scolding Alice in an oddly mentor-ish fashion for allowing Wonderland to get so out of control.

Victim or villain, friend or foe, this Hatter is as much a fantastic reinvention of an iconic character as he is a new, original being, and his presence alone could have made the series worth playing. (Luckily, the rest of the games are just as darkly, delightfully surreal.) Hats off to American McGee and Rogue Entertainment for giving gamers one of the best horror game characters ever to play with.

"Everything's a nail, is it, Miss Hammerhead? First it was your search, freighted with fear and fragmented memories. Now it's the train! Never time for tea. While your brains on holiday, we're ruined! Now we're all mad here and that's a good excuse for going to hell in a teapot, but not for forgetting what your senses saw. Forgetting is just forgetting, except when it's not. Then they call it something else. I'd like to forget what you did. I tried, but I can't." - the Mad Hatter, American McGee's Alice

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Nightmare I: Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs

A few weeks ago I had the incomparable honor and pleasure of reviewing Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, the highly anticipated semi-sequel to one of my favorite video games of all time. Enchanted to the point of gushing, I wrote as much about it as I could without giving too much away -- spoiling such a beautifully horrifying experience would be worse than treason.

However, there is so much more that can and should be said about it, and so for this first nightmare I wanted to revisit the game and peel a few more layers back, this time sans length and spoiler restrictions. Enjoy, and feel free to share your own comments or constructive criticism regarding this monster of a masterpiece.

BE YE WARNED: BEYOND THIS POINT, THAR BE SPOILERS. For an absolutely spoiler-free look at the game, feel free to check out my original IGM review.

A Fever-Dream: Oswald's Psychosis

Aside from the monsters, what gamers probably remember best about the first Amnesia is the sanity meter. While not the first game to use this mechanic (some memorable precursors include Clock Tower 3, American McGee's Alice, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, and Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth), it was one of the few to use this tool to its best advantage, pitting players' natural fears of both deadly enemies and the unknown darkness against one another in one epically diabolical catch-22. It's fair to say that most fans of the original (myself included) were probably betting on finding a similar feature implemented in the sequel.

Instead, we got Oswald Mandus and his unreliable-yet-indestructible electric lantern. Unlike previous protagonist Daniel's severe nyctophobia, which caused increasingly distressing hallucinations and even blackouts if he was deprived of light for too long (or attempted a staring contest with a monster), Oswald's psychological issues were presented in a more subtle, organic fashion. From the start of the game there is an inkling that something is terribly wrong -- what sort of man voluntarily sleeps in a cage? -- but as the story unfolds, his god complex and repressed guilt over dreadful past crimes mix with fevered visions to produce one interesting cocktail of crazy.

That being said, I can't help missing that meter just a bit -- or, more specifically, the hallucinations. I imagine it's been harped upon a lot across the internet, but there really was something special about how elegantly the first game trapped players into terrible, unforgiving situations with no right answer. While it certainly would have been a bit cheesy to give Oswald the exact same brand of insanity as Daniel, I don't necessarily think removing the mechanic entirely was the only solution. For example, Oswald hinted several times at harboring strong sentiments (not unlike those of a phobia) towards dirt and decay. This could easily have translated into a sanity mechanic in which the player could not endure the sight of blood, corpses or derelict environments -- not to mention the Manpigs -- for too long without experiencing some sort of breakdown. Oh, what fun we could have had in the bowels of the Machine, where blood flows like water and virtually every surface is coated with a fine layer of rust, dust and porcine refuse!

Still, Oswald's visions (or were they ghosts?) fit the bill as far as spine-tingling observable representations of Our Beloved Protagonist's deep mental scars -- and I admit without shame that those first few fleeting glimpses of the children nearly sent me into cardiac arrest.

Look, Don't Touch: Environmental Interactivity

Strangely, the lack of a sanity mechanic (which didn't even occur to me until more than halfway through the game) didn't bother me nearly as much as the significant decrease in environmental interactivity. The first game allowed the player to pick up, carry, toss and even damage or destroy most objects in any given map, including a lot of objects that had little, if anything, to do with the current objectives. (Fans of PewDiePie's and Toby Turner's "Let's Play" videos, for instance, fondly remember "Stephano" the statuette and "Boon" the rock, neither of which helped with actual progress but nevertheless served as oddly comforting inanimate companions during the playthroughs.) While not a necessary mechanic, this level of semi-realistic interactivity boosted the game's already sky-high immersion levels -- not to mention starting some amusing cheat/glitch theories, including one which stated that a desk drawer could serve as a successful shield to hide the player from monsters.

In A Machine For Pigs, very few non-essential objects can be manipulated by the player. This, for me, presented multiple problems. First and foremost, I couldn't throw those damned pig masks across the room or out the window, no matter how very, VERY much I wanted to. Nor could I toss some breakable object down the hall as a means of distracting an enemy -- a tactic which has saved my life more than once in the world of survival horror. Furthermore, after discovering most objects were not interactive, I assumed that I would only be allowed to play with essential items, which led to some confusion when I encountered a moveable hatch with no in-game purpose, or an cage door that could be opened but not entered.

But most importantly, not being able to pick up even small, easy-to-handle objects felt distracting. I've grown so accustomed to it since the first installment that when I first realized this small privilege had been revoked, it actually briefly took me out of the game. Mind you, the very next creepy sound effect dragged me right back in, but that tiny, disjointed moment is exactly the sort of thing Frictional Games and the chinese room have been trying to avoid in their quest for ultimate gaming immersion.

On the other hand, I might have been very easily distracted by my personal vendetta against those masks I mentioned -- perhaps not allowing players to whip them about like Frisbees wasn't such a bad idea.

Heart of Darkness: The Monsters and the Machine

Despite these minor -- not even complaints, let's call them critical observations -- A Machine For Pigs is a breathtakingly deep, layered experience, an unflinching expedition into the dark, dank core of human psychology and history. The sheer amount of research that clearly went into the concept and writing is inspiring, and investigating the multitude of references and real sources behind the already complex and enigmatic fictional surface of the game has proven as diverting for me as the actual game itself. Many a passage in Oswald's journal will sound awfully familiar to anyone who ever read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle -- the phrase "so very human" takes on a new and especially haunting tone in the context of the game -- and the look and feel of the worlds both above and within The Machine are so spot-on Victorian it's difficult not to suspend disbelief.

But even beyond this, what impressed me the most about the game was how extensively layered and complex the story was. The first, most obvious example of this is the Machine itself. With only the title and a few years of horror gaming experience to go on, my first instinct was to imagine the Machine as some sort of mass production version of a butcher shop; the English major in me added that it would probably symbolize everything wrong with capitalism/industrialization/society/etc. Not far off the mark, really, but still off.

It turns out the Machine isn't just for pigs. In fact, in the eyes of the Machine, we are all pigs. And yes, it's a criticism of society and industry and the pursuit of progress for the sake of progress without consideration for the consequences or collateral damage -- but between fantastic writing and a wealth of excellent historical/literary backup, the argument is both sound and poignant, and every bit as deeply horrifying as the game itself.

Worst of all, however, is the true nature not of the Machine, but of the monsters it spawned. At first glance it's pretty obvious that once again our feared enemies come from vaguely human origins. Just like the Grunts and Brutes of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, these Manpigs appear to be part person, part something utterly other, and in general it's the "other" part that seems to be in control. Yet the chinese room takes this idea one step further in the sequel; this excerpt from Oswald's diary says it all:

". . . I watch them sleep and eat and play and they are so very human, so very childlike. And I will not think of what I have seen, of the chairs and the cages, and I will not think of how such monsters may be sculpted."

The full meaning of this entry is not revealed until a later stage of the game. The secret is this: the Manpigs are not merely people-pig abominations (which, let's face it, is terrible enough on its own), but really something more akin to pig-children hybrids. During one memorable sequence, the player catches glimpses of the creatures going about their daily lives; one can be seen playing with blocks, just like a human child. While the exact origins of the Manpigs are never completely revealed, it is speculated that they may actually be indirect descendents of Grunts and Brutes.

Personally, however, I linked them with the countless orphans who died in the bowels of the machine, hired for their small stature and youthful agility to clean the hard-to-reach nooks and crannies deep within. Like the real-life chimney sweeps of the 19th century, many of the orphans died on the job, and new, younger recruits would then be sent in to clean up the mess. Though nothing in the game definitely points to this, I can't help but think that the Manpigs and the orphans are connected, either spiritually (possession?) or physically (my first reaction was to think that the Manpigs were literally mash-ups of pigs and the dead children -- waste not, want not, right?). Whatever the case, the monsters of the Machine, these children of Oswald's nightmares, may not be quite as obviously scary as their predecessors, but casting them in such a pitiable, even sympathetic light somehow makes them infinitely more disturbing.

Seriously. The scene from which that journal excerpt was taken will haunt my dreams for years to come.

In Conclusion: I Double-Dare You

It's not for the faint of heart, and if you're more interested in panic attacks than slow-developing philosophical dread, you'd best turn elsewhere. (Like Slender. That's about as shock-scary as you can get without a shred of actual in-game story.) But Halloween ain't Halloween without a few good psychological scars, and A Machine for Pigs definitely cuts deep. Really, anyone who doesn't give it the ol' college try is truly missing out. At the very least, check out a bloody walkthrough on YouTube or something. Just don't forget to turn the lights off and the volume up.

October Special: 13 Stranger Nightmares

Has it been forever and a half since the last update? Perhaps. Time got very wibbly-wobbly these past few months; between long spans of absolutely-nothing-interesting and a few sudden, violent spats of madness, it's easy to lose track of things. However, October is upon us, and being that it is unquestionably the best month of the year, it's about time to try something special.

So, this month I'll be doing special features on some of the best stories the horror genre has to offer. Any medium goes! Hint: the topic of a post that (with any luck) will be up by tonight is a certain recently released video game. If you know me at all, you probably know what's coming.

And yes, as this post's title suggests, the series shall be called 13 Stranger Nightmares. Expect irregular but ominously timed posts; one for the witching hour, perhaps, and hopefully a Frankenstein Friday special. Thirteen is a bit much for one month, so also expect these to be a bit shorter than the usual posts. But after so many months of silence, it's time to make a little noise.

See you in your dreams...

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Geekception: Happy Geek Pride Day!

In my reality, geek pride day is pretty much every day of the year. But I can’t resist a fun holiday, and besides, any excuse to be extra geektacular is a good excuse -- so happy Geek Pride Day, everypony!

I considered picking a favorite geeky topic to write about, but the confustication of choosing just one was too much for me. So instead, I decided it’s time for a little lesson in geekology -- rather than looking outward at our collections of figures, books, movies, and prop replicas, I’m asking my fellow geeks to look inward and consider: what does being a geek really mean?

Of course, everyone’s going to have their own answer, and it might even change per person from one day to the next. But wisdom is rooted in knowledge -- the more the better -- so before you answer, consider this utterly useless and yet utterly fascinating information I have unearthed about the origins and story of the word “geek” for your reading pleasure.

Origins: The Beginnings of Life, The Universe, and Everything Geeky

According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, the origin of the word geek is "probably from English dialect geek, geck fool, from Low German geck, from Middle Low German" (meaning a fool or simpleton), and its first recorded use was in 1914. Even more interesting, the dictionary gives us not one, not two, but three meanings to choose from:
  1. a carnival performer, often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting off the head of a live chicken or snake,
  2. a person, often of intellectual bent, who is disliked, or
  3. an enthusiast or expert, especially in a technological field or activity.
So, if you imagine concerts are like carnivals in that they're both theatrical-type shows, what this tells us is that it's perfectly correct to call Ozzie Osbourne a geek.

Seriously though, according to this article by Daven Hinskey, the first definition is actually where the word started. Basically, "geeks" were the maddest of the mad in the freak-shows -- the ones that were fun to gawk at and make fun of, but you would never want to have tea with, or run into in, say, a dark, deserted alleyway. Their antics were entertaining to the public, but the geeks themselves were considered fools, if not outright lunatics. Sound familiar?

"Geek" Over Time: Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey Stuff

Of course, pretty much no one thinks of carnies when they think of the word geek. If you're not thinking of yourself, you might be imagining someone you've seen in movies or on the street, someone obvious and memorable. A cosplayer, perhaps, in full Klingon mode (speaking the language, no less), or a Big Bang Theory character, complete with a Marvel or DC t-shirt and a room full of movie collectibles and comic books. Or maybe it's just that girl that sat across from you in algebra class doodling Sailor Moon scribbles all over her perfect-scoring homework and muttering "baka" every time someone gave a wrong answer or asked a stupid question.

Thanks to the skyrocketing popularity of things like superheroes, epic sci-fi/fantasy/adventure films, graphic novels, and big-name conventions like San Diego Comic-Con, the term geek no longer seems to be as universally pejorative as it used to be, often implying instead something between teasing and tolerance. (Though, now and again, I do still come across the girls-aren't-geeks stereotype, or the equally infuriating geeks-are-all-socially-inept-losers theory, and have to take a deep breath and remind myself that, "anger, fear, agression; the dark side of the force, are they.")

But not so long ago, in a galaxy not that far away at all, geek culture was something Mainstream World pointed at and laughed at as it passed by on the street, on its way to more Serious, Real-World Activities (like shopping sprees, watching football, and number-crunching? No thanks). Sort of like fair-goers making faces at carnies. The main gist of the scoffing seemed to be aimed at the idea that geeky interests were not applicable in real life and not useful towards creating a successful lifestyle -- not to mention being labeled a "geek," even by association, was social suicide. At least, that's what high school movies tell us -- at least 99% of them, whether seriously or satirically, include a popular cheerleader or jock explaining to some well-meaning high-school newbie that if they sit at the geek/weirdo table, no one will ever talk to them again. Ever.

So what changed? Most articles, like this one from USA Today, point to Jobs, Gates, and the computer revolution. Everyday treasures like iPods, Disney/Pixar movies, best-selling literature, and all the best scary stories were created by self-proclaimed geeks and nerds who turned their "obsessions" into high-flying careers. I mean, J.K Rowling has her own theme park, for crying out loud. You can't get much more successful -- or geeky -- than that.

Their success gradually changed the public image of the geek as a painfully awkward loser with no future to, at the very least, an awkward fanboy/girl with a potentially extremely lucrative future, and pulled geek culture out of the basement and into the blinding limelight of mainstream-land. This results in more than a few caricatures, but also much more widespread acceptance than ever before. And that's just what Geek Pride Day is all about: accepting your inner geek and/or the geeks around you (if you haven't already) and being proud of your passions and interests what make you who you are. A little showing off wouldn't be totally frowned upon, either.

The Cake is [Not] a Lie: Celebrating Geek Pride Day

Obviously, there's no one right way to celebrate any holiday, especially one as open to interpretation as Geek Pride Day. In fact, the reason (or at least one of the reasons?) May 25 was chosen for the holiday is that the date is attached to three separate significant events. The first Star Wars film, A New Hope, debuted on this day in 1977. It is also officially Towel Day, in honor of Douglas Adams and his masterpiece of a series, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Finally, fans of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels know it as Glorious 25 May.

If you're at a loss for how to celebrate, you could start by honoring your favorite of these, or all of them. Or you could familiarize yourself with the one(s) you've yet to have the pleasure of watching/reading. You could dress up as a Jedi, buy a new towel (because you never know when you might need a backup), or wear a sprig of lilac.

Really, anything and everything that comes to mind is probably acceptable. You could organize a 24-hour gaming party with friends -- either virtual or in person, with some nice 20-sided dice and a good dungeon-master -- or a costume party with an appropriately awesome theme, like 80's glitter fantasy or Marvel vs. DC. Bake a Portal cake (or not and say you did). Try a recipe for lembas bread. Get a little Ghibli with a Miyazaki marathon. Stock up on shinies by taking advantage of special offers, like ThinkGeek's Geek Pride Day giveaway thing. Cast a spell with a homemade wand. Take some notes for your next cosplay while watching a season or two of Face-Off. Or, if you're not a geek yourself (or a new recruit) and looking to learn more about the culture, you might want to start by looking up some of the awesome references I just made.

The sky is not the limit, because there are no limits. If you can imagine it, you can do it. And if you build it, they will come. Happy celebrating, everyone -- may the Force be with you, the odds be ever in your favor, and, as Neil Gaiman once said, "May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness." Also, tribbles. Lots and lots of tribbles.

Me? I'll probably be gaming, chowing down on some pocky, enjoying a sweet anime marathon, and/or curled up with a good graphic novel. What are YOUR plans for May 25, 2013? Inquiring minds wish to know!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Storyteller Spotlight: Jan Švankmajer

Apologies for the unannounced and unexpected hiatus; end-of-semester stress plus post-graduation disorder and disarray equals extra insomnia. Add to that my continued work with IGM and life’s usual curveballs, and you have one very confusticated me, and I confess for quite a while there that even as I kept on plotting posts I never got around to writing, I considered throwing in the towel.

But if, dear reader, you are in fact not just a figment of my imagination, fear not -- I’m baaack. And I bring with me a souvenir from the land of the madder than mad.

I’ve been in a Wonderland mood lately (it happens from time to time), and during one of my many trips down the rabbit-hole that is internet research, I came across a man whose works boggled my mind almost as much as the pronunciation of his last name.

Jan Švankmajer is a Czech surrealist who has directed, written and animated a fair few films, and is known for his unique animations and style. His filmography includes several literary adaptations, not the least of which being a couple of Edgar Allan Poe stories -- but after watching his 1988 film, Alice, and then his 1971 short, Jabberwocky, I've been too traumatized to look up the rest of his stuff.

Švankmajer's vision of Wonderland isn't exactly a pretty sight. I sought out Alice (original title: Něco z Alenky, "Something from Alice") expecting a darker version of Carrol's world, but ignorant of how seriously insane it was truly going to be. Of course, it's supposed to be mad -- but through Švankmajer's lens, it becomes a dangerously disturbing place that threatens to haunt the dreams of any poor soul foolish enough to step through the looking glass. If that sounds a bit dramatic, consider this: the white rabbit is played, thanks to the creepiest stop-motion animation ever, by a (REAL) stuffed rabbit who bleeds sawdust all over the place throughout the film. And whatever you do, don't ask me about the skeletons. I might cry.

When I first watched the film, I couldn't wait for it to be over -- especially once I realized the rabbit really was a dead rabbit, and I'm pretty sure the skeletons are real too -- but in retrospect, I have reasons to appreciate both the artist and the experience (even if I never, ever want to repeat it for as long as I live). I can't help but take issue with casting dead animals' remains in a movie, but the methods behind Švankmajer's madness intrigue me.

He has stated in interviews that his problem with previous adaptations was the tendency they all exhibited of interpreting the Alice books as fairytales, stories with strange but nonetheless linear plots and, more importantly, morals. He argues that Alice's adventures are dreams and, thus, are fundamentally different from fairytales, in that they wander and jump around at the whim of the subconscious, and are totally devoid of any moral agenda. In Alice (as in many of his works), nearly everything is crafted from everyday objects and materials, mirroring the way dreams rearrange familiar images into foreign, sometimes even incomprehensible visions.

Jabberwocky, in some ways, took this even further. Švankmajer short, experimental film reminded me in thirteen bewildering minutes of why the man behind the camera scares me -- and why I don't usually watch experimental films. Call me low-brow, but when I walk away feeling vaguely nauseous and wondering WTF I just subjected my eyeballs to, I start to wonder if maybe I shouldn't have just watched a Disney movie instead.

I can't tell you what Jabberwocky was about, because I honestly have no clue. What I can tell you is that it involved spanking someone's naked bum (that's the very first thing you see in the film, actually), a startling black cat that seems to have a grudge against mazes, macabre porcelain dolls, and a wardrobe that doesn't lead to Narnia (probably), but can go wherever the heck it wants, thanks to its magical ability to walk, or glide, or something. While Alice at least gives the impression of some sort of followable narrative, Jabberwocky is a collage of indecipherable imagery and insanity. Though thankfully devoid of taxidermy (as far as I recall, anyway), it is nevertheless just as disturbing as its feature film follow-up, and a thousand times more disjointed and perplexing.

In spite of my qualms, I still wanted to share Švankmajer's work with you all, especially my fellow Wonderland fans. At the end of the day, I do admire Švankmajer's daring originality, and I respect him as a master of dream-world conjurations -- even if his penchant for dead things does give me nightmares.

Seen Alice and/or Jabberwocky? Have questions or comments about Švankmajer's works? Comment away! If you'd like to see the films for yourself, they can be a bit difficult to find -- at least in the US -- but a grinning cat once told me it's possible to find them on the internet, if you know the right places to look...