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Pixel Obscura:
Saturn's in Retrograde

Vol. 2, Issue 10 
February 1, 2000 

There are three basic “movements” to the opening, and this first part, “the argument” if you will, is a stunningly atmospheric introduction. By utilizing video and what looks like 16mm film, the piece projects a creepy documentary feel that radiates a frightening desperation. Like Texas Chainsaw’s farmhouse and the video dream sequences of the abandoned church witnessing the rebirth of an ancient evil in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, what is so disturbing is that these overgrown fields and reedy streams are so recognizable yet that the moment you recognize them they are rendered suddenly “untranslatable.” Even the use of the police adds to this unsettling feeling, the assumption being that they can maintain order. When that trust is violated, particularly by less than normal means, there is a deep sense of having lost any hope of being saved by an authority that, whether we like it or not, most people look to in the end for some kind of final reassurance (this might account for some of X-Files popularity and certainly speaks to Dan O’Bannon’s comic yet frightening Return of the Living Dead where we get to see just how graphically “the cavalry” can be overwhelmed).

The heroes of Nocturne, however, seem quite up to the task. The second movement finds us introduced to the agents of Spookhouse, the government agency dedicated to battling the darkness. The characters and their designs recalled two comic series, Mike Mignola’s truly excellent Hellboy and Steven Seagle and Matt Wagner’s Sandman Mystery Theatre, the latter reflected quite heavily in the Stranger, the be-goggled, fedora wearing, grim faced star of these proceedings. Now, I am not suggesting that the gang behind Nocturne even knows about these books, much less drew inspiration from them, but they draw from the same dark 1930’s pool of murderous forces and occult agendas, a style that has a real pulp beauty about it. Backlit and surrounded by smoke or hit straight on by beams of light, staring into the face of doom, they are the secret hope. The third and final movement of the piece lets us finally see what they war against.

Zombies and vampires run amuck. Intercut between shots of the Spookhouse operatives preparing for combat, we see the dead arising, a man being chased through the woods, a vampiric girl smirk at us over her shoulder, a bloody corpse sprawled out before her, zombies staggering in the dark and frantic eyes darting back and forth. One of the nicest touches is the use of spots of concentrated light mimicking flash light beams to pick out the rotten, tattered figures and bared fangs, as if we are sharing the moment of horrible discovery. Again, we see this wonderful breakdown of normal experience, a falling out between what should and should never be able to happen.

But it is happening. The screen being cut down to video dimensions, Nocturne has a sweat inducing air of claustrophobia, the world crumbling inward. Rapid cutting, for once finding a good reason to be so frantic as opposed to just looking “cool,” both bleeds everything together and, ironically, also isolates each individual shot as a unique horror filled moment, a trap of seconds. This is a bleached and faded world cast into sudden relief by a streak of vibrant red. But what really stands out in Nocturne is the music. A cross between James Horner’s Aliens soundtrack and Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” the score is superbly effective in underlying the fractured, disorienting visual tone of the opening. Not having a grasp of musical terminology to the extent that I believe the score deserves, and feeling a bit insecure about trying to fake my way through it, let me just say that the music is refreshingly classical in its outlook and is exceedingly well written, a perfect fit that demonstrates that these Nocturne fellows really care about their work.

And what a fine piece of work it is; Nocturne’s prelude is an example of how to bring the perfect balance of artistic merit and entertainment to this emerging video game genre. Both electrifyingly new and aware of the past, the piece is a gorgeous little slice of realist horror. It may not be the three-hour epic that I pined for in the last column, but in its own way the opening of Nocturne is indeed a masterpiece.

- Joshua Vasquez is the resident film critic here at loonygames. He also writes for the Internet film site Matinee Magazine.

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Credits: Illustration © 2000 Dan Zalkus. Pixel Obscura is © 2000 Josh Vasequez. All other content is © 2000 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited, so don't do it, or we'll cut you in twain.