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Vol. 2, Issue 10
February 1, 2000 Pixel Obscura:

Saturn's in Retrograde

by Josh Vasquez


“Sometimes we cannot believe that what is happening is real...pinch yourself and you may find out that it is" - Texas Chainsaw Massacre

One of the major obsessions of horror cinema is its placement of individuals within the collapsing roar of a landscape gone mad. The once familiar world is rendered alien and unknowable, a dark universe rearing its head late in the day to cast everything into a twilight chaos. Characters are left running through the ruins of what they originally perceived as an ordered existence. Horror cinema destabilizes the boundaries between what can and cannot happen and, as a result, the world is pushed out of joint.

Those who survive can never be the same.

The transformation is a savagely swift one. The finest horror films move with a kind of red velocity, a terrible and bloody speed at which space is rapidly complicated. This environmental unraveling, however, tends to fall into two basic categories: expressionistic and realistic. Expressionist horror cinema, beginning in Germany with works like Robert Weine's Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and Paul Wagner's The Golem (1920) and continuing on into the early sound period in such films as Dreyer's Vampyre (1932), created landscapes based on the principle that the exterior world was a reflection of the tortured interior of the individuals populating it.

Realist horror cinema, however, builds its terrible momentum from an eruption of nightmares into the daylight.

In this context, realist refers to the treatment of the landscape as something existing independent of the individuals who dwell within it, an objective space which is infected by the darkness rather than being directly shaped by it. Films as wildly different as Seven, Night of the Living Dead and Let's Scare Jessica to Death are brought together by their depiction of the universe's sudden decision to pull back the curtain, turning itself upside down and inside out, only to embrace the individuals caught up in its revolution with a glacial indifference. There is an implicit statement being made that the darkness has always been present, waiting in the angles and hidden folds. Psycho took the first significant steps towards giving a nasty bite to this realist bent. George Romero's late sixties zombie plague reached even further than Hitchcock's tale of a lonely, psychotic boy in trying to pierce the "real" with the nightmarish. Both Psycho and Night of the Living Dead could be seen as the first steps in a new evolution of horror cinema, a terrible realism which would result in the creation of a film so ahead of its time, so profound in its implications, that it still stands as a cinematic landmark.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre may be one of the most beautiful realist horror works ever made. Tobe Hooper's film is an apocalyptic masterpiece, a dark fairy tale about the ultimate impossibility of understanding the universe. Chainsaw's greatest effect is found in its depiction of the most terrible violations taking place in the most seemingly ordinary of worlds.

Hooper's direction emphasizes both odd angles and distorted perspectives as well as unusually smooth camera movement for such a low budget feature. Frantic cuts and sudden zooms struggle alongside graceful tracking movement and still long shots as if he's trying to find a way to portray the interlocking levels of this dying, schizophrenic reality.

Near the beginning of the film, one of the characters, reading out of a tattered astrology book, tells the others that Saturn is in retrograde and must therefore be considered an evil influence on the workings of the universe. It is a sign, like the watch hanging from a tree driven through by a nail the viewer glimpses minutes before the killing starts, a symbol of the unseen, unknowable forces that constantly threaten to overwhelm us all. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, by situating a disturbingly tactile evil within the mundane space of a summer day, made horror films dangerously real.

The next step came with the wave of Italian cannibal movies in the 1970’s that focused on realistically trying to portray atrocity, the “art” of these films being one of camouflage. Perhaps the best example of this obsession with “objectively” presenting nightmare is Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1979), a work that wonderfully summed up the genre’s bizarre self-awareness by centering the story around an academic’s journey into the Amazon to find the remains of a Western film crew that was devoured by cannibals. In many ways, Cannibal Holocaust is the direct precursor to another far more recent horror work that tries to completely hide its structure within a blur of fuzzy, washed out chaos, The Blair Witch Project.

Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s film (a piece that has taken on a resonance that these two slightly foolish guys probably couldn’t have planned) is a ground breaking horror work because, as Michael Atkinson writes, it’s “a radical act, withholding information and contriving to be without control over its own visual narrative.” What we are witnessing while watching Blair Witch is footage from the front lines of the breakdown of the rational universe. News is that now Blair Witch is going to get the video game treatment from the gang at Terminal Reality, and although the idea of a game based on the film leaves me feeling very wary, after watching the brilliant cinematics for the company’s most recent game Nocturne I am sure that if anyone can pull it off, Terminal Reality can.

“I am the bloody top of the food chain” - Nocturne

The opening of Nocturne is one of the finest video game pieces that I have watched during my time at loonygames, ranking up there, in my estimation, with Fallout 2 and Wipeout III as an example of the heights of artistic achievement that this fledgling medium can attain. Nocturne takes the tradition of realist horror and sculpts it quite eloquently to video game dimensions.

As the scene opens, two policemen search through a field of tall grass, the cut of their uniforms indicating that we are watching newsreel footage taken years ago, perhaps in the 1920’s or 30’s. Suddenly a struggle breaks out, and the camera is shoved away...cut to a woman’s body lying covered by spider web laced dirt and patches of forest shadow. It seems that the strange earth is giving up her hoarded dead as we see a frantically cataloged series of blood impatterned bodies lying scattered across a curiously empty landscape. And night is falling.

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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