21/10/2014

Black Sunday- Use the Scenery to Your Advantage

1960 was an interesting year. It was the dawn of one of the lousiest decades in the history of the American cinema (ok, most of a decade, the salvation came in 1967), but it also had the amazing film Psycho to give us some hope and grandeur for this decade. As it turned out, in Italy things were a little better, as can be shown by the rise of the Giallo movies. One of them, one of the earlier ones, is "Black Sunday", also known as The Mask of Satan. And it is still a very nice movie.
It is a story, a movie, about the consequences of the witch hunting of the 17th century. It is a film about the way Satan worshipers torment the pure of hearts, and how they fight back. It is a story about love. It is also a movie that stands to its title, to its rank, that time only benefitted it.
And like with all early masterpieces that still hold their charm, this movie has a lot to teach us. I, for once, wanna concentrate on the scenery. Especially the castle, the old dark castle. This castle is based around the gothic tradition- it is old, it is gloomy, it is filled with paintings of important figures from older times. It is also a castle made of narrow corridors and full of rooms and doors, not to mention some secret passages.
And this gives the director a lot to work with. The paintings can be used for foreshadowing; the gloomy and dark looks of the castle for the mod setting. But especially important are the narrow corridors filled with doors and the secret passages. The first one is important mainly because it gives the monsters the ability to attack from wherever they want. Through this we get a larger sense of paranoia and a greater fear of the unknown- after all, we know the monster will attack, but we don't know from where.
The secret passage is important from this reason, but also from a far more important one- it helps the director to control the pace- when the corridor will be revealed, we will enter the last phase. This is an important tool to have in the arsenal, as it helps to move past scenes of dwindling importance, action or dread-building.
And we, as GMs, don't have to limit ourselves to just old castles, we can use asylums, or hunted houses, or so much more. The important lesson from this movie, though, is to think about the scenery, to try to think and understand why do we want such a scenery and how can we utilize it. Hopefully, we'll get far greater benefits from our sceneries if we'll think about those questions.

How about you? What did you think about this movie? And what have you taken from it?

20/10/2014

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer- Give Principles for your Killers

Emm… No, I just don't know what to say. I'm just speechless, wordless, amazed, shocked, and horrified, perhaps not in this order. Henry is a strange film, a little gem and at the same time a little piece of trash. I think that in the end, it is only a matter of how one looks at the film. For me, it's mainly in the gem section, but it doesn't mean that I'll watch it again, or that I'm happy for this film to ever been made.
To put it shortly, Henry is a film that tells the story of a serial killer, portraying him in a documentary-style fashion, showing his brutality without flinching, protecting us, glorifying it or anything of this fashion. It is a Slasher, but not the typical teenagers-on-the-run kind of Slasher; it is a psychological horror film but not that close to the exemplary ones like The Shining or The Silence of the Lambs. It is a movie that one has to see in order to understand. Telling about it is not enough.
Now, this movie puts a serial killer on the center. True, we have Otis and Becky, but it is Henry who we are after. And Henry is an interesting character. We know that he is bad, and one can't listen to him teaches his modus operandi without suffering from so many chills that it hurts. Yet, we hate Otis more. We hate the drug dealer, we hate the amateur serial killer, we hate all of Otis's character far more than we hate Henry. And that's interesting, and that enables us to survive this movie.
So one has to wonder- how could they achieve that? How could they make us hate Otis far more than we hate Henry? The reason that I've found is located in a very simple scene near the beginning- Otis tries to grab his sister and kiss her, Henry says "no!" and stops him. That's the scene, that's the reason. And why is this so powerful, so important? Because it helps us to identify with this Henry-monster, because it shows that even Henry has principles, or at the very least some feelings regarding other human beings. Things that Otis has far less of, if he has anything of this type at all.
And when we come to present our monsters and villains in our games, it might be better to use something like this. Why? Because it will make the players question the definitions of good and bad, the definitions of what moral and what isn't, it will make them be far more afraid, because a killer that is prone to feelings can be understood, and this means that one can become such a killer. But it has an almost as dark in addition for the earlier one stated- if the killer has feelings, and the killer is prone to those feelings, he can do things that will be totally unexpected, because it will attack the understanding of the killer's psyche and not just the normal expectations. And that's far scarier than anything one could achieve on its own.

How 'bout you? What did you think about this movie? And have you taken something interesting from it?


16 movies up until now, all of them new.

19/10/2014

Let's Scare Jessica to Death- The Powers of Clothing

Some movies hold to their title, others do not. Too bad that this movie belongs to the latter group. Let's Scare Jessica to Death is an interesting movie, its soundtrack is creepy like hell, and it knows how to play on the audiences fears. Each and every element works perfectly when looked at separately. But when combined? They overshadow each other. And that's the main problem in this movie for me.
In a nutshell, it is the story of a woman who just got released from a mental asylum and who now tries to readjust to her new life, in a house far from town, nice and cozy and quite morbid. She hears things in her head, many-many things, and she tries to deal with it.
What struck me the most about this movie is its use of clothing to tell us about the characters. Especially when looking at our two leading ladies in this film. Emily is dressed in red, which puts her in the sensual realm, as an adult woman. She knows what powers her sexuality possesses.
Jessica, on the other hand, starts the film dressed in violet, and her clothing grows darker in tone with each passing day. I mean, she "chooses" darker clothes with each passing day. And that's interesting, because we can see through her clothing the naivety being broken, we can see how what she hears makes her older, forces her to grow.
And this can be used in our games too. Clothing is such a powerful tool to convey feelings, to convey characteristics, to shed a light on the inner feelings and workings of the characters, it is useful to show social differences. In other words, we can say that "show me what you wear, and I'll know who you are".
All I can say is that maybe, just maybe, one should try to use it. I know that I do, and it works magic for me, why shouldn't it be the same for you?
How about you? Have you watched this movie? What did you think about it? And what have you taken from it?

18/10/2014

Martin- When One Shouldn't Invent the Wheel

I owe you an apology, dear readers. I was to the IICON convention, the Israeli convention for geek culture, kinda like the Israeli Comicon. Unsurprisingly, it took me some days to recuperate, to return to normal. Truth is, I was quite sure that you won't even feel it, having prepared posts for the first two convention days, but personal matters made me unable to cover the following days (the last day of the convention and those days for breath-catching). So I'm in a bit of a delay. For that, I apologize. I do hope that the posts from now on will justify the wait.
And without much farther ado, let's move to the 14th movie in the project, to the movie Martin.  Martin is an interesting case. It is not a bad movie per se, and even Romero called it "my favorite movie", but for me, it just didn't work.
It is a movie about a person who is sure that he's a vampire, and who challenges through his twisted take on vampirism the myth of the vampire. Parts of these he does through the phone, talking with a radio DJ who understands what great hit he has in his hands.
The movie is very art-housey in its feel, and that's where the problems start to arise. You see, George Romero is a very talented director, and one feels it, and he knows what he's doing. But it just doesn't work. I didn't feel a thing for the character of Martin. I knew that I should have, but I just couldn't. The movie is so filled with art-house tricks that it just loses something in its way to glory.
Romero, and it might be strange to say, is just not Ingmar Bergman or Pedro Almodovar who can make a very art-housey movie and it will still be communicative enough for us to feel something for the characters, for the story. Romero isn't talented enough for the task, although he sometimes can come close to that.
And most of us are Romero-level GMs and not Almodovar- or Bergman-level GMs. It is not bad to be Romeros, but it does mean that we should know our places. We don't have to try and challenge the usual narrative or the basic and universal roles and tropes that make our RPGs. We don't have to conjure a meeting between the PCs and the players every other game, or to go to the meta-level game every time that we can. Truth is, most GMs can make wonders of just the usual party going to the usual dungeon to kill the usual dragon. Hell, I who finished a campaign with a meeting between PCs and players don't consider myself able to conjure a meeting like that again. Sometimes, or maybe even all the times, we just have to know our places, to know what we can achieve and what we can't, what we can challenge and what we shouldn't.

We don't have to invent the wheel from scratch every time, or even every other or third time. Usually, striving for a great experience, for a nice evening of dragon-slaying, sometimes it is just enough.

13/10/2014

The Mist- Learning When to Stop

13 years after directing The Shawshank Redemption, Darabont directs another King's adaptation. And I can’t say that I was impressed. It is considered to be one of the greatest and most frightening horror movies of the century so far, but I couldn't agree less. It was one of the most disappointing films that I've ever seen.
On the surface, it has all the elements of being a good horror movie, and also a good movie outside of the genre, the same line that for me holds movies like Casablanca (my all-time favorite), Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, The 400 Blows and so many more. It has some very nice acting, and it has a political sting, and it has some interesting and surprisingly deep characters (well, most of them, if you look hard enough). It has a really nice conspiracy, and it tackles religious fanatics and hubris filled scientists. It has everything that a movie could ask for.
And that's the problem, it has way too much. The mist isn't scary, because there are creatures in there. They aren't scary, because we've got big ol fucking Cthulhu in there. Cthulhu isn't scary, because we got a conspiracy, and this conspiracy isn't scary because we also got some religious fanatics, and we're also told about the scientists, and we see the people going mad, becoming beasts like in Night of the Living Dead, and… I think that you've got the idea. We've got way too much.
And that's even before we look at the movie on the genre level. We've got horror, and then we got a love story (only for the woman to get killed 2 seconds or so later). Then we get into a Christian movie, later turned into a post-apocalyptic film, before finally ending on the melodramatic Hamlet side of the spectrum.
Maybe it's just me, I don't know. But for me it was hell too much to really care for what's going on. I watched the movie trying to understand what's going on at the beginning, and then started to guess what strange twist they'll bring this time.
And that's a lesson to keep in mind when designing and writing your stories, your adventures. Think not only about what to put in, but also about what to put out. Remind yourself that too much of a good thing turns everything into something bad, or at the very least tasteless. When every few minutes the story changes completely, and you throw something too different and too big to handle, you'll just end with people who don't care.
They don't care not because they don't want to, but because they can't, because you put too much for their minds to handle. Because, and that' a thing that one should keep in mind, you as GM's know everything and you had much time to absorb it, to analyze it, to understand what goes where and when. But players? They only have a few minutes. So have mercy on them, or don't be surprised when they can't get what you're doing next or don't care for your uber-impressive plot twist.

How about you? What did you think about this movie? And have you learned from it something else, something positive?

12/10/2014

The Black Cat- Doing It the Lovecraftian Way

Universal's horror films rarely stand to the effects of time. Most of them look aged, irrelevant, and even quite silly. But there are a few that live to this day. The Black Cat is one of them, even though it doesn't bear any resemblance to the amazingly scary horror masterpiece written by Poe and bearing the same name (or is it the other way around?).
It is a movie about a newly-wed couple (yeah, again) who are honeymooning in Hungary, and are joined in the train by a Hungarian Psychiatrist. A few minutes later and they are already in the house of a mischievous Austrian architect. From then on we slowly get to the weirder realm, although when it does get to this realm it picks a Lovecraftian ending pace
And that's actually, the main reason that the movie works for me. There is a reason that Lovecraft's stories are so frightening. I mean, there are reasons for that. One of them is the levels of horror that he's working with, but another one is the pattern that all of his stories share.
In Lovecraft stories', he starts slowly, really slowly, with only hints and such, and only in the last page or two he picks the pace. From that moment onwards, all hell breaks loose and the weird element is skyrocketing in the speed of light. But he starts slowly. True, we know from the very beginning what we will face, but we don't see it till the end, and we only learn about it gradually.
Anyways, this pattern carries with it 2 main benefits. The first one is that it makes the thing, the monster, more believable. After so many pages of trying to understand it, and seeing the effects of its existence, it is much easier to accept this monstrosity.
But there is also another benefit, and this one is far greater. It creates a build-up, and this build up is way better than the build-up usually utilized in the horror market when pulled right. And Lovecraft knew how to do it.
But truth is, it isn't that much harder to pull right. One only needs to understand that instead of showing an attack in the beginning, one shows a diary. Instead of showing the remains of a victim, one only tells about it behind closed doors.
And then, in the end, when we pick the pace and show the true horror, gaze into the abyss and see the tentacles and eyes, we're much more frightened, much more terrified, much more scared. And that's the whole thing, that's the point, in the end, to frighten.

How about you? Have you watched this movie? What did you think? What have you learned?

11/10/2014

Daughters of Darkness- Playing with the PCs

Some movies match to their masterpiece title. Others, like Daughters of Darkness do not. I can't say that I was impressed with this movie, or even close to that. It is so over the top that it comes close to the campy group of horror films, it is so trying to reinvent the eroticism of the vampire that it becomes too non-erotic. The dialogue is bad; the acting is mostly mediocre (except for the one playing Bathory who is perfect); the composition of the shots is pure genius at times and complete rubbish at others.
If I had to describe this film, I would say that it is a film about a couple, a newly-wed couple with not much love for each other, and the meeting with the vampire Countess Elizabeth Bathory. Bathory plays with them, enjoys their suffering. Throughout the whole movie, it seems like whenever the director was stuck he threw in some boobs. This idea works as bad as it sounds.
But there are some good things in this movie, specifically the acting on the part of Seyrig, the composition of some of the shots (you'll recognize them when you'll see them) and… the way Bathory plays with the couple. Okay, not all of the playing is good, but the concept is interesting and sometimes even a little bit surprising.
And that's a great takeaway from this movie, this playing thingy. Let your villains and monsters play with the PCs and much hours of enjoyment on your part and frighten looks on the players' parts will be achieved. They will enjoy afterwards, and when they'll win (as sure they will), they'll be far happier than every other defeat they bestowed upon a villain(ness). Make your villains play with the PCs, use the PCs for their own benefits, sometimes even treating the PCs like stolen cars (if I might paraphrase Avery McDonaldo's GMing section in Monsterhearts).
But don't drive it too far, right? You'll might just as well finish like (spoiler alert in 2 seconds or so) Bathory in this movie- dead and copied. Pull it as much as it seems needed and not a single second more than that. Or at least, I think that it's better this way, but I might be wrong…

Anyway, that's it for today. And now it's time to hear you? Have you watched this movie? What did you think about it? And what have you learned from it?