By Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez
Horror films, disease and Parasite Eve.
he cinematic tradition of disease in the horror film stretches back across a long shadowy corridor. The fears surrounding bodily transformation have from the beginning been a staple of the horror genre. Indeed it has formed the spine of David Cronenberg's collected works alone. Whether it be the curse of vampirism, the various mutant byproducts of any number of mad scientists and their experiments or the result of some supernatural possession, the breakdown of the body is a theme long melded to the cinema of horror. It's threads connects films as diverse as George Romero's Dawn of the Dead and Todd Haynes' Safe (arguably one of the finest horror films ever made). Perhaps, since works of horror are intimately infected with the idea of death and since the decay of the body is a natural factor in the movement away from life, it is only to be expected that bodily instability be such a concern of the genre. Watching Seth Brundle fall apart in The Fly or the eternal internal revolutions of the creature in Carpenter's The Thing one can imagine oneself attending a concert deep within the blood, a song of disease threatening the fragile barrier between our bodies and the endlessly transforming chaos of the universe.
Two of the earliest examples of the horror genre's use of disease can be found in the work of the brilliant German filmmaker F.W. Murnau. Both Nosferatu (1922) and Faust (1925) depict plagues as the heralds of evil. The vampire Count Orlock brings with him death from across the seas not only through his own savage bite but in the form of a deadly pestilence which renders a coastal town in the film into a wasteland. In Faust the Mephistopheles prepares to entrap Faust by first spreading his darkened cloak around the city and filling it with the twilight of infectious death. In each example while the use of disease is symbolic of the greater evils at work, Murnau is also preying on the very primal human fear of the loss of bodily integrity. Films such as The Blob, The Quartermass Experiment, Night of the Living Dead and The Exorcist are all, whether they know it or not, building their apocalyptic visions on what film theorist Noel Carroll believes to exist at the heart of horror: interstatiality or the transgressing of categories.
In his book The Philosophy of Horror Carroll writes that "things that are interstitial, that cross the boundaries of the deep categories of a culture's conceptual scheme" are perceived by members of that culture as impure. What could be more of a crossing of categories than the movement from life and death. Horror operates from this most basic shattering of boundaries, expanding it into various exaggerated positions but still adhering to the disturbing primal power of the breakdown of order. Watching a corpse chase you down the street is bound to be a little upsetting because, on the most basic level, it should not be possible. The fundamental power of the horror genre comes from this violent reordering of what can and cannot happen in the universe, particularly on the physical plane.
Disease is a powerful example of the crossing of categories. Infections infiltrate foreign bodies/alien landscapes in an attempt to transform them into pieces of themselves. Of course in the average horror film the notion of disease is usually envisioned as a much more dramatic process than what one would typically experience in everyday life. (This is not the case with Safe which transforms the terror of disease into something apocalyptic while still retaining the notion of realism.) Parasite Eve, developed by Squaresoft, utilizes issues of disease and infection in a potent nightmare-like design.
The very words in the title signal the concepts which are to be played out. Parasite carries clear implications for disease while eve can easily symbolize the source which spreads infection as the biblical Eve spread the disease of the fall. We open on a cityscape, a peaceful enough scene. The time is cleverly introduced by the camera flying towards a ball on a Christmas tree which reads Merry Christmas 1997. We cut to an opera house during mid-performance. A woman sings on the stage, her aria suddenly cut short as she seems to freeze, her attention seemingly turning inward for a moment. We can see that there is a strange disease singing through her body, something which causes the perimeters of her irises to become jagged and harsh, dissipating into swirling patterns of infection.
We watch as strange transformations seem to take place within her body as if a call is being sent out. A rat is caught up in the sudden plague and, in a disturbingly anthropomorphic moment, clutches its stomach in agony as the disease begins its work. The creators cut from a shot of the rat's teeth expanding to the image of another rat scurrying away as the now much bigger first rat's head flops down next to it. It is a wonderfully subtle moment which depicts the scale increasing work of the disease without leading the viewer by the hand. What is so disturbing about the infection spreading throughout the city is that not only does it take life and mold it to fit its own strange pattern, it also gives life.
The goo, the sign of the infection spreading freely from the singer's now altered body, comes into contact with the skeletal remains of a dinosaur, and as the substance covers the fossils, flesh, tendon and muscle appear, bringing life to that which was once dead. This is indeed a major convention of the horror film which certainly falls into Noel Carroll's theory of the primal fear of the crossing of categories. Interestingly Parasite Eve, whether consciously on the creators part or not, spreads its theme of transformation into the construction of the soundtrack.
One of the most strikingly effective elements of the game's cinematics is its use of various musical styles. The opening peaceful chords are replaced by the quiet intensity of the opera singer who is then cut off by a surprisingly subtle undercurrent of techno music which itself is in turn replaced by a more traditional horror film orchestrated score.
The most interesting thing about the music is at every shift the genres being invoked in the visuals signal that change. For example the movement into techno occurs during the sudden shift into the internal universe of the singer's body, a theme commonly explored in science fiction films. Techno has come to represent the musical standard in the science fiction genre whether the film be Johnny Mnemonic or Pi. Another musical shift takes place as a giant creature is formed from the infected goo, rising to menace the city. The music effectively slides into a standard orchestrated piece, seen countless time as monsters threaten to destroy everything around them, which would make the Hammer Horror composer James Bernard smile to himself in recognition. This movement from piece to piece, while not being, I think, intentional in a wider symbolic sense, still works very nicely given the other interests in the piece centered around transformation.
The creators of Parasite Eve have fashioned a great little piece of gaming cinema. Their internal thematic repetition of ideas centered around disease and infection leaves the viewer with a subtly creepy feeling, something which is very rare in the videogame arena. The creators add their own welcome voice to the ever expanding link between horror and the threatening darkness of the shattering body.
- Josh "Dr.Rouge" Vasquez is a regular contributor to loonygames.
Credits: Pixel Obscura logo illustrated and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. Pixel Obscura is © 1998 Josh Vasquez. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited...we know where you live.