Tag: horror (page 2 of 15)

Movie Review: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

According to Wikipedia, the 16th President of the United States was the son of a farmer and carpenter who went into the practice of law and later entered politics, prompted at least in part by the ongoing presence of slavery in the country. He had a talent for writing speeches and legislation, struggled to keep the country intact when the Civil War threatened to split it in half, and was assassinated soon after that war’s conclusion. Most of his life has been well-chronicled up until this point. However, one of the most recent tales of his days came in the form of a novel by one Seth Graeme-Smith, author of somewhat kitschy niche work Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, that goes the title Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Tim Burton picked it up for production as a major motion picture, which brings us to this review.

Courtesy Lionsgate

In this version of Abe’s life, his mother is killed by a vampire over a debt owed by his father. Fueled by a righteous need for vengeance, Abe comes across a mysterious stranger who offers to teach him the ways and means of hunting the undead. Abe agrees, and soon becomes something of a daytime hitman for his mentor. It soon becomes apparent that the vampires, settled mostly in the south, are planning something major and Abe must do something to stop it. The vampire’s plan is to found their own nation where they can enslave and devour the population in peace, and to respond, Abe rises through the political ranks and fights back against the denizens of the night with more than just a trick axe and some good moves; he goes to war against them, the proper way, with an entire army at his command.

You may have noticed that this premise is, on its face, just a touch on the silly side. And it easily could have been played up for laughs or dressed up in the sort of high-octane camp that would set it up for eventual cult status. However, director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) shoots the subject in an entirely straightforward fashion, the nature of the tale’s premise an undercurrent instead of an overt feeling. This results in a movie that, while sounding silly on paper, comes across in a very earnest way. Much like the members of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks takes their jobs as seriously as any public officials would, and Mel Brooks’ vile race known as the Spaceballs go about stealing atmospheres in an incredibly impractical way, Abraham Lincoln accepts the nature of his nocturnal world on its face and remains honest and upright in his quest. In this case, the delivery of the story is just as honest-seeming and upright. If the film’s tongue is in its cheek, it’s really buried in there. It plays out as an extended exercise in deadpan humor as well as thinly-veiled social commentary.

Courtesy Lionsgate
Pre-dating Blade by at least a century.

“Slavery is vampirism” gets about as blatant an allegory as you can get. However, like the potential for humor, none of the greater tragedies of the day or our perspectives on the practice of keeping people as property inform the actions of the film. The film does not suddenly become maudlin over the sacrifices made to help the United States become more enlightened or melancholy in pausing to deliver a message on how vile such practices are. Instead it sticks to its guns (and axes), moving forward through the story without taking overlong to comment on any of the peripheries. The story, as it stands, is relatively straightforward and follows Lincoln’s life and events, and the actors never stop to wink at the audience or make shop-stopping speeches. The makers of the film are aware that most nuances and commentary would be lost on at least a portion of the audience and thus opt more for a straight-forward supernatural action flick than anything else.

The problem with this is that the action is not incredibly inventive. Oh, it looks cool as hell to see Honest Abe axe-murdering creatures of the night, but only a few of his kills feel like something original. There’s a neat scene that takes place during a horse stampede and I was curious how much of his training was influenced by something like kung fu, but most of the action is the sort of well-shot but empty entertainment that is more the norm than the exception. This lack of originality coupled with a dearth of real narrative punch or interesting character turns leaves the whole film feeling dry and, pardon the pun, a touch bloodless. It rattles along towards its conclusion with most of its twists and turns easily spotted by viewers who haven’t fallen asleep, and many of the circumstances of the events feel at least somewhat contrived.

Courtesy Lionsgate
Oh, Ramona, I can’t stay mad at you.

However, with all of that said, I came away from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter feeling like my time had not been completely wasted. Sure, it was a light popcorn flick, but it felt like it was trying its best to rise above that classification to become something at least slightly more. And while it doesn’t quite rise above the baseline set by other action movies, the effort made does make a difference in terms of how much it can be enjoyed and for what reasons. It’s not a bad move by any stretch of the imagination. It’s well-assembled, cleanly shot, the actors are all fine, above average, or even good in their delivery, and the movie is not overly wrong. It may not be the best film ever made, but it does plenty of things right that others do wrong, and it could have been much, much worse.

Stuff I Liked: The action was well-shot and never confusing. The little touches of historical facts and figures lent some authenticity. The aging effects later in the film are neat. Blatant as it was, I dug the allegory.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: There was no real complexity to the plot; most of its twists could be seen from a mile away. The fights can get a touch repetitive as the film goes on. Sticking to a largely historical narrative leaves the plot with few overarching surprises.
Stuff I Loved: The story never takes itself too seriously nor goes completely camp; it walks a fine line very well for its entire run, it never stops being earnest and even-handed in its delivery, and the actors are selling the hell out of it.

Bottom Line: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is an amusing exercise in historical fiction that puts in the right amount of effort, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and opts for being oddly earnest in its social commentary rather than having its tongue in its cheek. It does have a fair amount of contrivance and some of it is fairly predictable, but that’s balanced by its presentation and the go-for-broke performances of everyone involved.

Flash Fiction: Mutter

Courtesy Flickriver, photograph by Matt Blick
Captured by Matt Blaze

For the Terribleminds challenge . Choices are listed after the story.

The catacombs beneath the Mütter Museum stretched out for miles beneath the city. Between the sewer systems and the tunnels of the capitol’s mass transit system was a subterranean world few entered of their own volition. In fact, it was only the repeated disappearances that had prompted UBI agent Kirk Levitt to look into their entrance. He did not know what to expect; his sidearm was already drawn, its light moving back and forth through the darkness as he walked.

“Remember. When I tell you, douse that light. You will need it.”

His guide was a curious person. He worked as a tour guide in Philadelphia, mostly working the area around Fort Chamberlain, the refuge of then-President Lincoln and his family when the Confederates sacked Washington at the end of the Civil War.

“How long has this been going on?”

“Nobody’s sure.” She still wore her tour guide garb, right down to the tri-corner hat and flappy overcoat, the dress of a soldier from the Revolutionary War. “Even my master was never bold enough to come down here.”

“Yet you are?”

“Not on my own. I’d be arrested if I came in without pretense or credentials.”

Levitt blinked in the semi-darkness. “You just waited around for someone like me to finally look into the kidnappings and disappearances?”

“It’s not my fault the Union authorities are so slow.”

Levitt took a breath to protest, but then let it go. He was also often frustrated with the methodical pace with which the UBI operated, especially when it came to kidnappings.

They walked on in silence for long, dark minutes. Levitt wasn’t certain how the woman knew where she was going, but as he had no clue himself, he raised no argument, keeping his focus on the shadows before him, alert for any clues.

“Douse the light.”

He hesitated for a moment, then lowered his pistol and twisted the light until it switched off. He closed his eyes, counted to five, and slowly opened them again. A strong hand with long gloved fingers touched his wrist, and he nearly jumped out of his skin.

“Be calm. I’m still next to you.”

Her voice did little to reassure him, but he let her raise his gun back to its ready position.

“Keep your off hand on the light for now. When I give the word, turn it back on.”

“You don’t need it to see?”

“No. I can see.”

Levitt was about to protest when he heard her boots on stone next to him. She was walking. He followed, keeping his ears open for the sound of her footsteps to guide him. She moved quickly, not enough to wind Levitt, but certainly faster than a casual walk. It wasn’t long before he began to hear things other than their footsteps and his breathing. Out of the darkness floated a rattle of chains, a muffled sob, something whispered.

“Quiet now, Agent. Remember, when I give the word, turn on your light.”

He nodded, even though he could not see her. He felt something moist on his face, a thickening of the air. The temperature around him had gone up. As they moved, soft glows could be seen pushing back the darkness. They closed in on the meager lights, and Levitt eventually made out that they were small candles, set back along the edges of a large circular chamber, the flickering glimmers playing off shapes in alcoves beyond his sight. Yet, his mind began to process what he was seeing and hearing, and his experiences in the UBI told him what he was seeing.


“We have to help them.”

“Be silent.”

The candles also illuminated the large shape in the middle of the room. It seemed at first to be a plinth or altar of some kind. Then, as its lid slid aside, Levitt realized they were in a crypt, and this was the coffin. A figure rose from the stone sarcophagus, blocking some of the candles, two red pinpricks focusing on the intruders.

“Well, well. I was wondering when you’d find me.”

“Your evil has lasted long enough, fiend.”

“You’re one to talk. Unwilling to embrace what sets you apart from the sack of blood beside you, frightened of your own potential, lashing out at those who are more your kind than the cattle will ever be. Which is the truer evil?”

“I don’t abduct innocents.”

“Oh, they’re hardly innocent. What was it your mother did, again?”

Levitt heard a low growl next to him. “Do not speak of her again. You get one warning.”

“And what will you do if I do, child? I am centuries your elder. I’ve taken many a whore in my time, and I was told your mother was particularly special…”

“Agent Levitt.”

Levitt twisted the light as quickly as he could. Somehow, in that half-second, the figure in the coffin had climbed out of it and was an arm’s length from him. There was a touch of genuine surprise on his pale face, but his eyes were fully red, and his mouth was open, showing long sharp fangs.

Levitt emptied his pistol.

The vampire didn’t go down, but staggered, the gunshots deafening in the small space. When the gun clicked empty, the woman leapt, her long cloak flapping behind her. Levitt saw vials, blades, and pouches underneath, and she had a long wooden stake in her hand. With a savage cry, she drove it straight through the vampire’s breastbone with a sickening crunch. Her coat had not settled before she drew a short but heavy blade, and spinning, she took his head from his shoulders.

The UBI agent caught his breath, keeping his gun on the headless corpse as the woman rose, cleaning her blade with a white cloth.

“What… what…”

“That was a vampire. These are his captives. And you, Agent Levitt, have helped me hunt and slay him. This is who and what I am, and what I do. The question is: what will you do now?”

d10 of Destiny rolls: 8 (Parallel Universe), 3 (In a vampire’s subterranean lair), 7 (A mysterious stranger)

Game Review: The Walking Dead

Here, take this. It’s my zombie card. I’m turning it in because as of this writing, I have never read the graphic novel The Walking Dead, nor have I tuned in for the television series. What I know of the series has been gathered from snippets of others’ conversations, posts on Tumblr, and good old-fashioned deductive reasoning. I know it’s a zombie cataclysm tale (‘apocalypse’ is an inappropriate word as it means ‘revelation’ and not ‘disaster’), there are only a handful of survivors, they squabble among themselves because homo homini lupus, and one of the survivors on the TV series played Murphy McManus from The Boondock Saints. So I downloaded the episodic video game of the same name developed by Telltale Games with only the barest knowledge of what I was in for.

Courtesy Telltale Games

Our story begins with Lee, a college professor, handcuffed in the back of a police car on the highway out of Atlanta. While the police scanner carries information regarding some sort of city-wide disturbance, the officer behind the wheel seems more interested in his own stories, and determining if Lee is, in fact, guilty of whatever he’s accused of. The car hits someone walking across the highway, and in the resulting crash, the police officer is killed. Lee struggles out of the car and with his cuffs before the police officer reaches for him, but more due to an appetite for brains than as a plea for help. It is only the first of many challenges Lee will face, and considering some of the choices that lay ahead, it may well be one of the easiest.

Once you get into the game, you will discover that you have stepped not into a shooter or even an RPG, but something far more reminiscent of games gone by. Playing this game reminded me of long nights of pixel-hunting in the likes of Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango, and Full Throttle. Telltale has done episodic adventure games in the past, but many of them have seemed to be more whimsical fare, at least in presentation. The Walking Dead is quite earnest in its subject matter, its writing, and its characterization. There are going to be some characters you downright hate in this game, but they’re so well written and acted that even as you want to hit them, you can understand the motivations behind their unreasonableness for the most part.

Courtesy Telltale Games

But by far, the standout character is Clementine. Normally, child characters are either irritating to the point of losing all sympathy or become a huge burden to the adult characters through either their own ill-conceived actions or exploitation by others. Clementine, however, is different. At eight years old, she manages to survive outside her parents’ house and helps Lee when he arrives. She has a very solid sense of right and wrong, and some of Lee’s choices involve whether or not to tell her the truth. She will remember if you lie to her, as well; The Walking Dead does a great job of keeping track of choices Lee makes, big or small. It feels very natural to have characters reference things that happened two or three episodes ago as you go about trying to stay alive and sane in the wake of unchecked horror.

So the story is good and the characters top-notch; what about the gameplay? Well, that may be one of the biggest strikes against The Walking Dead. As a point-and-click adventure game, there isn’t a whole lot of actual game to be had. While some items can be small or hard to see even as you move your mouse all over the screen, none of the puzzles are terribly complex. What combat there is exists in a very simplified form, and while the occasional timed sequence does liven things up, hammering the Q key to escape the grip of a zombie is about the most complex thing you’ll do to fight the undead. Then again, there are plenty of games and mods out there if all you want to do is blow off zombie heads with a shotgun like you’re in Army of Darkness or something.

Courtesy Telltale Games
“I said, we’re closed!”

There are two modes of gameplay, one which gives you hints and tips as you play regarding where to click on items and what results will come of the choices you make, and one that keeps the UI as minimal as possible to maximize your immersion. As much as I preferred the second mode, as it yanked me into the story in an incredibly absorbing way, the first is good for those who are unfamiliar with adventure games or terrible at puzzles. With the hints on, the story is not held up by your hunt for the right battery or candy bar. Turn them off, and the atmosphere and tension increase significantly. As much as the straightforward design of the game could be seen as something of a flaw, the power of the narrative and the humanity of the characters is what stands out, and the game has the good sense not to get in its own way. The cell-shaded art style harkens to the graphic novel, while the character’s voices and the game’s episodic nature gives the TV show vibe. It’s the best of both worlds, and you get to put the boot into some zombies yourself rather than reading about or watching other people do it. I don’t see how this isn’t a win all around.

Stuff I Liked: The way characters’ prejudices and preconceptions come into play naturally, and are discussed with maturity. The natural flow of dialog. The environments that provide diversity and move the story along without feeling forced or out of place.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: Occasionally characters moved with stiffness or unnaturalness, and I’m not talking about the Walkers. A bit more puzzle variety might have been nice. I hope your Q key is in good shape.
Stuff I Loved: Lee. Clementine. The subtle soundtrack. The way friendships were formed and tested. The very real handling of matters like food supplies, fuel, and human understanding in the face of the ongoing calamity. The moments that made me stop and think, or gasp in alarm, or well up.

Bottom Line: The Walking Dead wants to tell you a story. It wants to bring you into this vision of our world and show you what can happen when people are thrown together due to something beyond their control. It seeks to use zombies the way they’re most effective: not as target practice, but as a means to show humanity at its absolute worst and its undeniable best. It does all of these things extremely well, and you should definitely invite it into your home to do its thing.

Game Review: XCOM Enemy Unknown

I may be accused of cheating on this one. Not because of my “save scumming”, mind you, as there is zero shame in doing that when it comes to XCOM Enemy Unknown. I’ll get to why in a bit, but suffice it to say the reason some may not relish the idea of me writing up a review for the game is I’ve technically done it twice already: once for its classic old-school flavor and once as a first impressions.

However, at time of writing I’ve poured 32 hours into the game, which is more than I’ve spent in some MMOs, so there’s got to be something to it worth talking about.

Courtesy Firaxis Games

The playability of the game may be tied into its emphasis on long-term goals and costs. When the game begins, after your first firefight, you’re given the choice of where to place your initial base. This is actually a crucial decision, as the bonus you get tied to the continent you choose is rather significant and stays with you throughout the game. Research takes time, manufacturing takes resources, and soldiers rarely start at a high rank, meaning each aspect of the game requires investment aimed towards a future payoff. In the case of the soliders, it’s payoff you may never see if they die in combat.

Speaking of combat, the few problems I’ve encountered with the UI during missions remain, but are thankfully not terribly frequent. Soldiers still occasionally shoot in the wrong direction, hot buttons for skills can move around which messes with you when you feel the pressure to get the Heavy out of the way of that charging Berserker he is about to go all Juggernaut on your ass, so on and so forth. But it still holds up in spite of the bugs and rewards forethought, positioning, mixed unit tactics, and not charging headlong into the enemy.

Courtesy Firaxis Games

While some of the complexity and outright terror of the original game has been lost, the current iteration of XCOM remains tense and absorbing. This is especially true of Ironman mode. When you are unable to save when you wish and cannot load a previous save from within the game, you are forced to face the consequences of every action you take. Each decision must be weighed carefully. A mistake can spell disaster, and there is no going back. I consider this the ‘proper’ way to play, but if you’re unfamiliar with XCOM, don’t enable Ironman the first time you play. It can be an absolutely punishing experience, and without the safety net of so-called “save scumming”, your only recourse is to start the entire game over.

I have long admired this game’s previous iteration for its difficulty and complexity, and I continue to do so. While it may have lost some of its depth with the loss of time units and the watering-down of in-combat options, the perfect balance between developing your resources in your anthill-like base and getting said resources by shooting at aliens is entirely intact. As frustrating as it can be to lose a high-ranking soldier, playing the game never ceases to be fun and challenging. Even if you reload the same mission half a dozen times because a would-be sniper apparently can’t hit the broad side of a barn.

Courtesy Firaxis Games
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this…”

Stuff I Like: The new aesthetic and the cutscenes have grown on me. There’s an emphasis on planning and coordinated tactics that is good to see. The way in which the challenges ramp up keeps the game tense.
Stuff I Don’t Like: The random nature of the alien assaults and the payouts for missions can be a touch frustrating. The aforementioned bugs can get in the way of a ‘clean’ gaming experience. And would more than one accent really have been that difficult to nail down?
Stuff I Love: Pulling off a mission with no casualties makes you feel like a boss. The base-building is surprisingly involving and ties very closely into mission performance, which makes the whole game flow very well. An excellent soundtrack psyches you up for your missions, raises tension when enemies are in sight, and maintains an aura of dread even when all is well. And while this may be unintentional, the knowledge of bugs and miss chances means that your soldier pulling off an excellent shot is all the more satisfying to watch.

Bottom Line: Reviving XCOM could never have been an easy sell, and the fact that Firaxis pulled it off this well is astonishing in and of itself. XCOM Enemy Unknown proves that its blend of resource management and tactical turn-based combat is viable in an environment of modern military shooters and RPG-like slash-em-ups. In spite of its bugs, it is one of the best games I’ve played all year.

Flash Fiction: Stella’s Corner Hitching Post

Clear Heels

This one was tough. For the Terribleminds Game of Aspects (Halloweenie Edition) the d10 of Destiny dictated:
Southern Gothic
Evil Awakens!
Strip Club
Stage Magic

Hoo boy. Happy Halloween!

It was another hot, muggy night, but the wind was low, meaning the mugginess was not supplemented by the heavy, muddy water of the bayou. Still, it was the sort of weather that drove men from their sweltering places of work and the oppressive presence of disappointed wives to the red lights and cheap drinks at Stella’s Corner Hitching Post, where the ladies wore a fine sheet of sweat for reasons other than the weather.

Sugar fought down the urge to step out the back door and light up a cigarette. Quitting was proving more and more difficult, but her promise to her son was ever-present in her mind. Candy walking in and hanging up a light robe that smelled like Marlboros right next to Sugar’s tiny makeup table and mirror didn’t help matters.

“I should not have worn these heels.” Candy looked down at the clear, long stilettos currently strapped to her feet. “I’m going to trip and break something next time I go out there.”

“Child, you’re a pro. You’re going to be fine.” Sugar tugged at her white string bikini, knowing the stage lights would bring out the extreme contrast between the scant garment and her skin. “You know the guys like you in heels like that. They make your butt look fantastic.”

“We’re not all naturally endowed like Hecate out there.”

Sugar frowned, peeking around her mirror towards the stage. Hecate was dancing to something slow and sensual, grinding on her pole and shooting smoldering looks out at the audience. A newcomer, she was quickly rivaling Sugar as the most sought-after girl at Stella’s. In addition to her looks, she was known for using things like slight of hand and the occasional pyrotechnics element in her routines.

“Still not sure where Stella found her.”

“I’m not sure she did.” Candy was changing into her black bikini, preparing for the insanely popular double-show she did with Sugar. “Word ’round the sewing circle is that Hecate sauntered into Stella’s office and pretty much demanded a job.”

Sugar turned back to the curtain and the view beyond. While most eyes in the main room of Stella’s were on Hecate’s hips and other curves, Sugar found herself looking at Hecate’s fingers. Each nail was painted a different color, almost all of them were earth tones, and the way she moved her fingers seemed to have little to do with beckoning men closer to the stage. It made Sugar extremely uneasy.

The men started to shift in their seats, and not in the usual way of Stella’s customers. They all leaned towards the stage, transfixed by Hecate’s movements and gestures, and when the roving spotlights shifted away from them, pinpoints of red appeared in their eyes. Hecate began to laugh, spinning on the stage, raising her arms above her head. She finished her turn facing backstage, and her smile only brightened at the sight of Candy and Sugar.

“Sisters! You really should join me.”

Candy, shaking, moved to obey, but Sugar put a hand on her shoulder.

“What’re you doing to them?”

“Giving them a brand new show with more magic than usual. You know how men love a show.”

Sugar took a closer look at the audience. “They look hypnotized.”

“Darling, they’re men. They get hypnotized when you take off your top.”

“But this… why are you doing this?”

“The aggression of men’s done more to hurt us and our world than anything else; it’s time we used it for ourselves rather than let them do what they want.”

Candy blinked. “How does that make us better?”

Hecate shook her head. “Precious child. These sorts of men claim to want freedom and equality, but do you feel equal when you need to be up here shaking your ass to feed yourself?”

“There’s nothing wrong about what we do. If you object so much to how men treat us, why come here in the first place?”

“Sugar, my dear, you don’t seem to understand. I’m not here to entertain. I’m here to right wrongs that have waited centuries to be righted. Words always fail so action must be taken. These men will act as I want them to act, and no words will be necessary to make things right.”

“And what you’re doing is right? I don’t see how. You want to make these people into puppets! That’s just as wrong!”

Hecate shook her head. “I’m sorry you feel that way, Sugar.” She snapped her fingers.

Men rose from the seats nearest to the stage and surged towards Sugar. She backed away towards the dressing room and the back door she knew was twenty paces behind her. Hecate moved in behind the half-dozen men she’d summoned to the stage, smiling as they reached for Sugar.

“You see? Even under my influence, child, men are only after one thing.”

Rough hands took hold of Sugar as she fought back. She nailed one of them in the groin with the tip of her heel, another she bit on the hand, a third she scratched across the eyes. But more were coming, and it was getting more and more difficult to see Hecate, or Candy.

There was a dull thud from somewhere in the crowd. One by one, the men collapsed, and finally Hecate swooned, falling on top of them all. Candy stood behind her, a bottle of champagne in her hands.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I didn’t know what else to do.”

Sugar got to her feet. “It’s okay. It’s okay, Candy, you did the right thing.”

Candy nodded, though her hands still shook. “Well… what do we do now?”

After getting more clothes on, Sugar and Candy found quite a bit of cash amongst the sleeping patrons of Stella’s. They opened beers throughout the club, and left Hecate atop her pile of men. Sugar grabbed her cell phone as she and Candy walked out.

“Stella, it’s Sugar. Hecate tried to throw a private party at the Post. I thought you should know…”

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