Latice: A Kickstarter backed game a friend picked up, Latice is very much like mainstay-gateway game Qwirkle, only if someone decided that what the later game needed was less straight-forward tile-playing and more thematic artwork. It’s a fairly light abstract game where the goal is to be the first person to play all your tiles. And, like many self-published Kickstarter games, it has issues that become so obvious early into the game you wonder how the designers failed to notice them. In this case, it’s a tremendous reliance on luck, in the form of tiles that allow a player to break placement rules, that can give a single player an insurmountable advantage over others, one that would have been very easily avoided by simply…not randomizing player’s tile pools.
Wombat Rescue: A Kickstarter game I backed, though one from a publisher I generally give the benefit of the doubt to. It fell within my remit for backing games: under $30 with an interesting, non-violent theme. In this case, the players are all wombats trying to find their babies, who have been scattered around the wilderness, all while avoiding dingoes. The game takes advantage of the ubiquity of small wooden cubes in gaming and the fact that wombat poop is square (google it if you don’t believe me) to its advantage, making the game…extremely thematic. It’s a fun game that appears light but has some nice strategic depth, even if, again, it has a couple of rules issues that seem to have escaped the designers.
Codenames: I avoided this New Hotness game for a long time, as I detest “Werewolf”-style games (despite owning at least two) and every description made it seem like one of those. It’s not, at all, it’s more like The $10,000 Pyramid as a party game. In other words, absolutely stupid and boring.
Concordia: A worker placement/area control/drafting style of economic game, only set in ancient Rome instead of medieval Europe. Gameplay-wise, it’s a very well designed game, with multiple paths to victory and enough going on that even a player who is falling behind has things to do. But there’s a little too much going on, and about a dozen different things that give you points at the end of the game, and it’s too long for what it is. I don’t mind games of this sort, but I prefer them to be both shorter and simpler.
Buccaneer Bones: A small-box “push your luck” style dice game to play in fifteen minutes because you don’t have the time or interest to play something meatier. It’s fine.
Mysterium: The English-language adaptation of the Polish game that finds something better to do with “Dixit” style cards than play “Dixit.” There’s an interesting blend of intuition and deduction that I enjoy, but like any game where you’re using abstraction to lead people to concrete answer, the group you play the game with makes it or breaks it. With my group, this is going to be a “once in a while” game, I suspect, as it’s just long enough that most of the people who do enjoy it would rather play something else, and the people who don’t enjoy it would rather play anything else.
Cthulhu Wars: One of the bigger New Hotness games around lately, both in terms of sheer size and popularity, and, despite theming and aggressively unapologetic “Ameritrash” aesthetics, this is actually not a Me game, but rather a Husband game, as the gameplay is, essentially, an asymmetrical take on Risk. The essential simplicity of the rules is part of the appeal, as it gives players something to dig their teeth into once the novelty of huge ass plastic figurines as playing pieces wears off. In fact, there are times that the aesthetics of the game are probably a detriment to it, as the suspiciously yonic 80s metal-band takes on Lovecraftian monsters are, out-of-context, extremely silly. So my advice would be not to play this unless you’re only going to have colossal nerds over to play, which, uh, probably goes without saying.
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The stupidest cliche in horror is “humans are the real monsters.” Because, while humans can be venal, selfish, and cruel, the point of comparison here is actual fucking monsters, and as terrible as humans as a whole can be, they’re not brain-sucking ghouls. But we seem to like this idea, judging by how often it comes up, probably because we’re so narcissistic and self-loathing we can’t really imagine anything worse than ourselves. However, if we stretch our genre boundaries a little, and completely remove supernatural hoo-har from the picture, the idea does take on some added power.
We meet Lou Bloom as he’s stealing a chain-link fence to sell as scrap-metal, beating up a security guard and taking his watch in the process. After failing to get a good deal, and being turned down for a job on the reasonable grounds that even a man who buys stolen goods isn’t going to hire a thief, Lou stumbles upon a car crash, accompanied by multiple police cars, and a freelance “news camera crew” run by Joe Loder, and a new career path presents itself to Lou. Selling some more stolen goods nets Lou a small camcorder and a police scanner, and his utterly callous indifference to human suffering gets him some excellent close-up shots of a carjacking victim, footage he sells to “vampire shift” tv news producer Nina Romina. With a little cash, Lou is able to “hire” an intern, Rick, and steadily improve his equipment by going for footage with greater and greater shock value, even going so far as to break into crime scenes and “restage” accidents for more dramatic impact. And when Lou experiences a setback, such as Joe Loder’s crew beating him to a plane crash, some creative tampering with Lou’s van gets him some prime footage of Joe’s own death. Things begin to spiral when Lou comes upon an active crime scene, an apparent home invasion in a wealthy neighborhood. He breaks into the home, and cuts out the footage of the perpetrators before selling it. He uses the footage to track them down and arrange for the police to arrest them in a public place, leading to a shoot out and the deaths of several people, including Rick, who had been asking for more money after realizing what Lou was up to. And, in the end, Lou gets his happy ending, becoming a successful and respected entrepreneur.
Lou is a singularly monstrous figure. There’s no comforting distancing in the film, we as the audience are up close and personal with a sociopath the entire time. There are no attempts made to soften Lou or make him sympathetic. He is essentially a parasite, living and profiting off human pain and misery, and smiling at you as he beats you for a cheap watch. But, as monstrous as Lou is, he exists within a system that is designed to create people like him. Everyone Lou encounters, save possibly Rick, is somehow living off others, from the metal shop owner who knowingly buys stolen goods, to Joe who inspires him, to Nina whose livelihood depends on exploiting the public’s appetite for pain and violence, no one is morally clean. Lou is just better at it than everyone else, probably because, as he admits, he just simply doesn’t like or care about other people at all. It’s hard to fairly evaluate the truthfulness of that statement, because everything that comes out of Lou’s mouth is a rapid string of pattering bullshit (the casualness with which Lou tosses off Malcolm Gladwell-esque aphorisms is his most unsettling verbal tic), but it’s probably the closest time he comes to saying what he’s actually thinking. It’s also the moment when he very clearly decides that it’s time for Rick to die in the line of duty.
Lou is monstrous because he’s recognizable, and he’s the product of a very human system. So, yes, humans can be the real monsters, but only when we bear in mind that, after all, it’s only us out here.
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I’ve talked about the weird overlap between horror and comedy before, and how the two genres often work together. But usually when they work best, it’s when one or the other is at the forefront; either a comedic film with horror elements, or a horror film with comedic elements. What’s relatively rarer, and somewhat surprisingly so, is the full black comedy in horror, much less a tragic comedy in horror. It’s probably a harder trick to pull off because it’s especially unsettling when it does happen.
The Voices focuses on Jerry, a pleasant but somewhat shy factory worker in a rather dilapidated post-industrial town. It’s clear early on that Jerry is somewhat…off, in comparison to his co-workers, and part of his employment seems to be supervised by a court appointed psycho-therapist. During planning for a company picnic, Jerry develops a crush on a coworker, Fiona (and remains completely oblivious to the crush coworker Lisa has on him in turn). At home, Jerry lives in a modest apartment over a bowling alley with his dog Bosco and cat Mr. Whiskers. Who talk to him. Bosco is warm and supportive, while Mr. Whiskers is cynical, and both attempt to guide Jerry through his crush on Fiona, who, frankly, is rather creeped out by him. Tragically, while giving Fiona a ride home from work one night, Jerry hits a deer. When Fiona sees Jerry kill the deer (to put it out of it’s misery, as he “heard” it ask him), she runs into the night, and is badly injured by Jerry on accident. And so he puts Fiona out of her misery as well. At home, Bosco and Mr. Whiskers argue over what Jerry should do next, with Bosco advocating going to the police, and Mr. Whiskers urging Jerry to become a serial killer, and Fiona’s severed head chiming in as well. A relationship with Lisa offers Jerry some hope, but that too ends tragically, setting off a chain reaction which eventually leads to the discovery of what Jerry has done. In the end, cornered by the police and trapped in a burning building, Jerry decides to lay down and allow himself to die, as it’s the only way he feels he can be trusted not to hurt anyone else.
Jerry is an intensely sympathetic figure, so when his mistakes turn violent, you feel the horror of it. He’s a bright, friendly man, who sees the world in a fundamentally good way, and there’s a grim, inescapable tragedy to everything that happens that follows from that. Jerry wants to do good, and is trying to do good, but is in a place where he doesn’t understand enough of the context of what is happening to see the wrongness of his actions. In a brilliant and subtle use of visuals, when we see the world through Jerry’s eyes, it’s bright and shining and colorful. When Jerry isn’t around, everything is dull and grey. Even his apartment, which to Jerry is clean and charmingly kitschy, is full of stacks of rotting garbage when we see it via another character. And so, when Jerry kills, we can see the logic of what he thinks he’s doing, even as we understand what’s really happening. It’s tricky to pull off this kind of unreliable viewpoint character in film, but director Marjane Satrapi manages it, both with the visuals and the casting. Everyone in the film is charming, but having an affable “everyman” actor like Ryan Reynolds in the lead helps as well.
It’s also important to note that the film entirely avoids the temptation to make Bosco and Mr. Whiskers anything other than pets that Jerry is externalizing his good and bad urges onto. The film does not shy away from the fact that Jerry is very sick and actively avoiding taking the medicine that he knows he needs to take. Those visual cues are important here, because the abrupt visual shift when Jerry does take his meds again are what drive home that the brightness and optimism we’ve associated with Jerry are actually symptoms of his disease. By the time Jerry is able to accept the full consequences of what he’s done, things are so far gone he doesn’t see any options other than death. Given what we eventually learn over the course of the film about Jerry’s childhood, his mother’s own illness and his father’s abuse, there is a bit of an overplaying of the “tragic inevitability” angle here, which is a little upsetting when dealing with a character who is, essentially, ill. But even so, the film finds a way to end on a upbeat note, bringing Jerry’s optimism full circle in at least a small way.
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Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper, 1989 ed., Pamela West
Well crafted, but very much in the “vast unspeakable conspiracy” realm of Ripper stories.
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One of the more intriguing aspects of horror is the cathartic effect. On many levels, it’s just the pleasant feeling of stress and relief that comes with a good scare. But, given how frequently horror gets into metaphor as story, more interesting modes of catharsis sometimes come along.
The Babadook focuses on Amelia, a single-mother raising a troubled boy, Samuel. Samuel acts out and is clingy and his dependence on Amelia repulses her, probably not least because she became a mother and a widow at the same time, her husband dying in a car crash on their way to the hospital. It’s clear that she has had little to no support in raising Samuel (her sister is clearly resentful of Amelia’s needs) and the constant reminders from those who knew him that Sam is “just like his father” doesn’t help much either. One night, a strange pop-up book that Amelia has no memory of appears in Sam’s room, and the boy insists on hearing the story of Mister Babadook, a strange figure that comes into your life and can never leave, whose presence and actions will make you “wish you were dead.” Amelia’s attempts to destroy the book only results in its continued reappearance, and her fear that someone is stalking her and her son soon changes into a very real concern that they are being menaced by something unnatural. The situation comes to a head when Amelia, desperate for some sleep and relief, exhausted and drugged, becomes possessed by the Babadook and attempts to kill Samuel. Samuel eventually manages to exorcise her, and in a final confrontation with the force Amelia, while not defeating it, comes to a place of understanding with the creature.
Amelia exists in a world of greys and blacks, her depression and exhaustion reflected in her physical surroundings, her home almost hallucinatory in its bleakness. The entire visual design of the film is amazing, with the contrast between interior and exterior worlds reflecting the minds of Amelia and Sam and their complicated relationship. The Bababadook fits perfectly in this world, never fully seen but glimpsed in flashes, and somehow even more unreal the more his physical presence becomes inarguable. Again, this is a film where the scares are slight, but the palpable dread is inescapable because of the care with which it has been made.
The Babadook itself is a brilliantly realized horror creation, as well. While supernatural creatures only having power if you believe in them is a groan-worthy cliche at this point, the Babadook upends that, becoming more powerful the more you doubt his existence. Within the symbolic logic of the film, this works, because the Babadook is in some way all of Amelia’s darker thoughts made manifest, her grief and depression and anger at Samuel made manifest. Though, interestingly, there’s no real indication that it is Amelia who has created or summoned the Babadook, but Samuel. It’s Samuel who first has the book, and the Babadook bears more than a passing resemblance to Sam’s favorite magician on a video he watches over and over, somehow cobbled together from his father’s hat and coat, and even at multiple points appearing as Sam’s father. Because while Amelia is dealing with her own feelings, Sam is equally angry at his mother, blaming her for his father’s death and keeping his father’s things from him.
It’s particularly fitting that, given the metaphoric nature of the Babadook itself, that there is no real way to defeat him. We’re told this, of course, right at the start, that “you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” Amelia can only achieve a kind of defeat over him, driving him back and diminishing him, but not eliminating him from their lives. Just as neither she nor Sam can ever truly escape their grief, by confronting the Babadook they can confront it. And by confronting it, they can reduce it so that, while it will always be there, it’s now simply part of their lives. Something they live with and take responsibility for and watch as, slowly, it diminishes more and more.
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