Monday, May 28, 2012

Top 13 Extreme Horror Movies

To further expand upon my definition of extreme horror movies I've put together a list of the top 13 extreme horror movies that aren't strictly torture porn. All of these movies have a plot, character development and emotional depth to a story that adds to the overall terror provided by the no-holds barred, renegade approach to filmmaking, where everything and anything occurs on-screen and the audience is forced to witness the entire bloody process of terrible mutilation, dismemberment, rape and even the most brutal of murders.  While some of these may shock you, all of them have a good amount of blood and gore, and most will definitely be nightmare fuel for days to come.

13. Hellraiser (1987) 

"Hellraiser" is based on "The Hellbound Heart", a novella by Clive Barker, who also wrote the screenplay and directed the movie. This extreme horror movie is actually a really complex tragedy, a story about a named woman Julia and her illicit affair with her husband Larry's brother, Frank.

A sexually depraved man, Frank stumbles upon a puzzle box in the search for the ultimate pleasure. He solves the puzzle box and it opens a gateway to hell, of which hooked chains whip out of and rip him apart. The Cenobites, including the infamous Pinhead, appear to collect the remains of their latest plaything/victim.

Frank finds a way to escape the Cenobites sadomasochistic hell and makes his way to the attic of Julia and Larry's new home. Larry cuts his hand on a nail in the attic and when his blood drips on the floor Frank uses it start his hideous and painfully slow resurrection. When Julia's step-daughter Kirsty discovers that she is murdering lonely men in her attic, all hell breaks loose. Can Kirsty save her father from Julia and his resurrected brother, or will the Cenobites drag them all into hell?

12.  The Last House on the Left (1972)

"The Last House on the Left" by Wes Craven used the slogan on the poster above "To avoid fainting, keep repeating, it's only a movie...only a movie... only a movie..." to stir up public interest. It was based on Ingmar Bergman's "The Virgin Spring."

According to Adam Rockoff in his book "Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986"  "The Last House on the Left" tore through theaters, alternately attracting and disgusting audiences. It was one of the earliest rape-revenge films and among the first to broach the question whether cinematic violence, no matter how debase, could have any socially redeeming value."

Craven shows the brutal rape, mutilation and murder of two college girls without cutting away even once from the realistic violence in order to shock and horrify the audience. This movie has aged quite well and isn't for those sensitive to violence towards women. Seriously. You will become emotionally disturbed by watching it.

11. Cabin in the Woods (2012) 

When a group of five college kids go on vacation at a cabin in the woods, they soon discover that they are not alone and that monsters are real.

"The Cabin in the Woods" is a perfect deconstruction of the extreme horror movie genre. It has everything, from crazy zombie rednecks that want to mutilate and kill you to an end scene with every single movie monster you can imagine in it and buckets of blood. Joss Whedon's tongue in cheek humor and over the top violence puts "The Cabin in the Woods" in the extreme horror movie category.

10.  Suspiria (1977)

Suzy Bannion is a new arrival at a famous ballet academy in Freiburg Germany. One by one, students are being viciously murdered by an evil monstrous entity. Suzy soon learns that the academy is run by witches that are hellbent on killing anyone that stumbles upon them. Can Suzy stop the coven of witches from killing anyone else, or will the evil Black Queen of the witches, the Mother of Sighs, consume her soul?

This is the first movie in Dario Argento's Three Mothers trilogy, and one of the best movies Argento has ever done.

"Suspiria" shows off Argento's unparalleled ability to make dead women look beautiful and yet grotesque at the same time. Rotten Tomatoes calls it a "candy-colored nightmare" and states that "Suspiria weaves a menacing tale of witchcraft as a fairy tale gone horribly awry."

9. Zombi 2 (1979) 

"Zombi 2" (aka "Zombie," "Island of the Living Dead," "Zombie Island," "Zombie Flesh Eaters") by Lucio Fulci has some of the more memorable scenes of carnage and violence of any of the zombie movies that came out of Italy during the late 1970s including zombie vs. shark and a slow excruciating "eye scare" where the victims face is shoved towards a large sharp splinter of wood and is shoved on it, eye first.

A boat drifts ashore the New York coastline belonging to Ann Bowles' scientist father that has a zombie on board. Soon afterward, Ann finds herself on a trip to the tropical island of Matool where her father was working and has fallen ill. A terrifying disease has been unleashed on the island that is turning people into zombies that are seemingly indestructible.

8.  Dagon (2001)

"Dagon" happens to be one of my favorite Lovecraft films. It ranks up there with "Necronomicon" and "Re-Animator" on my list of the best Lovecraft movies of all times. It keeps all of the weird strangeness and terrifying moments of the original Lovecraft story, while still providing enough gore to satisfy even the most bloodthirsty splatter hound. The violence and blood shed in this horror classic is definitely true to Gordon Stuart's style of filmmaking. You won't be disappointed.

Paul Marsh has been having strange dreams of swimming in the deep ocean with a mermaid. And lucky him, he and his girlfriend Barbara have gone boating for vacation. Things begin to go horribly wrong when the boat is shipwrecked off the coat of Spain. Paul and Barbara find themselves in the abandoned fishing village of Imboca, desperate for help. But, there is something wrong with the people in the village and nothing is as it seems. A cryptic warning from the town's drunk turns out to be true as inhuman fishmen come out after dark and try to kill them all.

7.  Dead Alive (1992)

"Dead Alive" aka "Brain Dead" is a gore fest masterpiece by none other than Peter Jackson. Yes, that Peter Jackson, the very same one that made the fantastic Lord of the Rings trilogy. Before Peter Jackson became a big name in movies, he made cheesy ultra-violent horror films. "Dead Alive" is an extreme horror comedy that holds nothing back.

Loinel Cosgrove's domineering mother is bitten by a Sumatran rat-monkey while he is on a date with the love of his life at the zoo. His mum soon falls ill and dies. Shortly thereafter, she returns to life and goes on a huge eating binge, starting with the neighbor's dog. Every person she bites, becomes infected and the zombie disease quickly spreads throughout the town. Some of the more memorable scenes include attacking a mob of zombies with a lawnmower, a creepy doofy headed infant on the loose and a melting zombie head.

6.  Dead Snow (2009) 

"Dead Snow" is a brilliant gem of a Norwegian horror movie full of unbridled violence and frenetic blood sprees the likes of which haven't been seen on-screen since Ash took up his chainsaw in "Evil Dead."

Seven college kids travel to a remote cabin owned by one of their friends. It's party time on the snowy hills of Oksfjord until a mysterious hiker appears and tells them a grim warning tale about the Nazis that came and tortured the local townsfolk. The people fought back and drove the Nazis into the mountains where they froze to death. Soon, the kids are being stalked by the evil Nazi undead who are out to recapture what was stolen from them, a stash of gold coins that they hoarded and hid in the floorboards of the cabin that the college kids uncover when they go to stash their beer.

5.  The Evil Dead 2 (1987)

"Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn" or just "Evil Dead 2" is a retcon of the first "Evil Dead" movie. Ash Williams, (a role that would make Bruce Campbell a horror household name) and Linda, his girlfriend, head out to a cabin in the woods for a romantic weekend. In the basement of the cabin is an audio tape left by an archeology professor. When the tape is played, it is revealed that the professor found the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis aka the Book of the Dead and he reads an incantation from the book which summons the evil spirits of the Deadites which possess Linda, animate the trees and wreak unholy havoc upon Ash and his friends.

4. Cabin Fever (2002)

"Cabin Fever" is about a group of college kids that head to a cabin in the woods for summer vacation. Something vile is in the water supply. A local hunter contracts a flesh eating virus. When he approaches the kids for help, he becomes violently ill and begins vomiting blood all of the place and one by one the kids contract a virulent flesh eating virus that consumes their bodies whole.

3.  Mother of Tears (2007) 

The last member of the trio of ancient black witches, Mater Lachrymarum, is out for revenge and world domination. A whirlwind of violence is engulfing the world as white witch Sarah strives to uncover the secret of Mater Lachrymarum and stop her before it is too late.

The last installment of the Three Mothers trilogy by Dario Argento, "Mother of Tears" is full of scenes that use actual torture devices to kill people and a very memorable final death scene where Mater Lachrymarum is impaled quite spectacularly.

2.  Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993)

"Return of the Living Dead 3" is far darker and grim than the other two Return of the Living Dead installments and by far the goriest. I like to think of "Return of the Living Dead 3" as Romeo and Juliet of the Undead.

Military brat Curt Reynolds is madly in love with his girlfriend Julie. They break into a military base to look in on what his dad has been working on, and discover that they are reanimating the dead to use as soldiers in the Army.

Julie is tragically killed in an accident. Curt's grief drives him to take her corpse to the military base and resurrect her. Unfortunately, she soon begins to crave human flesh and starts to spread the zombie infection to all those she attempts to consume. In order to stave off her cravings, she begins piercing her flesh with shards of glass and sharp pointy pieces of metal, as pain is the only thing that stops her from eating her beloved Curt.

1. Splinter (2008)

"Splinter" won six Screamfest Horror Film Festival Awards and was nominated for the 35th Annual Saturn Awards in the Best Horror Film category. And yet it is one of the most underrated extreme horror movies ever made, which always surprises me, because it's so good. 

Polly and Seth are setting up their tent for a nice romantic camping trip. When clumsy brainiac Seth ruins the tent, they have no choice but to go find a cheap motel to spend the night at. While on their way into town, they come across a distressed woman, Lacey, walking along the side of the road. Polly decides to stop and let her in the car, which results in them being hijacked by Dennis, the Lacy's partner in crime, who forces them to drive to Platt.

While they are driving Polly runs over something and pops a tire. As they frantically work to fix it without angering their captors, Dennis inspects the odd and sinister splinter filled corpse of road kill that popped their tire.

They are soon back on the road and stop at a gas station to refuel. Lacey is attacked by gas station attendant, who was taken over by the splinter creature, which soon takes over her body as well.

One by one the characters are killed and absorbed by the parasite as they become trapped in a lone gas station at the edge of the forest.

As it takes over more bodies, the parasite melds them together into a huge clumsy monstrosity that oozes black ichor and flings splinters at its victims like a berserk porcupine. This creature feature has it all; dismemberment; mutilation; ambulatory corpses being controlled by a fungus-like splinter parasite that can puppet the flesh of any creature that is living or dead. I've never seen anything like it, it is morbid and utterly fantastic in its grotesque imagery. 

The splinter creature is described by director Toby Wilkins in an interview with Wild About Movies as not being a creature at all, but more of a substance, like sea urchin spines that puncture skin and break off inside, only to burrow its way deep into your body and expands using your blood and nutrients to grow its own tendon or musculature under your skin, around your skeleton. It takes over your body before you're dead, and kills you from the inside out. 

The best part about this movie? It doesn't use one lick of CG to animate its monsters. It's all puppets and awesome prosthetics made by an extremely talented people at Quantum Creation FX.

Monday, May 21, 2012

What is Extreme Horror?

The term Extreme Horror is a bit ambiguous and it means different things to different people. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines extreme as "A. Existing in a very high degree B. Going to great or exaggerated lengths, or C. Exceeding the ordinary, usual, or expected."

After looking at a bunch of different lists online put together by movie buffs, I have found that many movies that are listed as extreme horror are actually fit in the Splatterpunk or torture porn category. To help define extreme horror I have come up with five elements that most, if not all extreme horror movies have in common.

5 Things that Extreme Horror Movies have in Common:

1. More Gore!

Extreme horror movies often contain literal buckets of blood on their sets. In fact, the more blood and guts, the better. Most extreme horror movies actually fall under the splatterpunk category. According to the New York Times, splatterpunk is a horror term that was created by David J. Schow and refers to horror fiction or movies that are graphic and contain gory depictions of violence. Splatterpunk is not the art of subtly creating an atmosphere of dread and suspense, but of bringing everything out into the open and showing in as much detail as possible (whether it is factual or not) how a person is dismembered, or the amount of blood that can actually spray out of a jugular vein when it is cut wide open. Nothing is off limits as far as the gore factor is concerned. "Evil Dead" is an example of extreme horror that is Splatterpunk.

2. What Taboo Do You Do?

Some extreme horror movies tackle social or cultural taboos and sexual taboos, such as incest, sexual molestation or fetishes. The underlying theme of sadomasochism in "Hellraiser" (which is considered by some people to be a sexual taboo) is represented by Julia and Frank's relationship and the fact that the Cenobites worship pain and pleasure. Even the Cenobites costumes are based on leather fetish gear used in bondage play.

3. Controversies Abound

Controversial topics that make most people uncomfortable to discuss, are played out in graphic detail and often serve as a sort of catharsis for the audience. For instance, "The Last House on the Left" provides an unflinching view of the kidnapping and rape of two young college girls, and the brutal retaliation and murder of the rapists by on of the girl's parents. "Teeth" is about chaste girl living with her sexually aggressive step-brother who has the one thing men fear most: vagina dentata.

4. Eww! Gross!

What would you do if you found your flesh rotting while shaving your legs?
Me? I'd scream like a little girl and run to the hospital.

Many extreme horror movies contain gross-out scenes. Gross-out scenes often involve body mutilation, insect or animal infestations and eating exotic foods or items that are not meant to be eaten-- the latter is usually forced on the victim by the sadistic killer. Gross-out scenes can also include graphic depictions of horrific diseases, such those found in "Cabin Fever."

5. Torture for the Sake of Torture

So, anyone else up for a trip to the hostel?

In extreme horror movies, there usually isn't a motive for the sadist that is torturing the victim, which more often than not is a woman. If there is a motive or a reason why the killer is slowly cutting off the victim's limbs, it's often trite or shallow and typically unbelievable, and not something that impacts that actual story in any way. This is also why extreme horror movies are often called torture porn, because porn movies tend not to have a real plot other than pizza guy "delivers" to frisky house wife.

The original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" for instance, has no real motive for why those crazy rednecks love choppin' up them crazy college kids other than the fact that they are cannibals. The extreme horror movie "Saw" on the other hand, does have a motive for the Jigsaw killer, he wishes to make suicidal people and others want to live by throwing them into elaborate death traps.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Top 13 Psychological Horror Films

To further understand and get a better grasp on what makes a good psychological horror film, I've compiled a list of the best and scariest psychological horror movies I have ever seen. Some of these movies use monsters to create the overall mood of horror and dread, some only hint at the monster's existence and it's unclear if it is real or not, while others make you question the perceptions of the characters as the story unfolds. Some of these movies use elements of psychological horror, others may be considered psychological thrillers, but all of them explore the inner workings of our minds to scare us to death.

But be warned, these scary movies will stay with you for a lifetime.

13. The Uninvited (2008)

"The Uninvited" is actually the title of two different movies that came out in consecutive years. The 2008 version is more of an independent film and should not be confused with the trite 2009 movie "The Uninvited."

Lee is agoraphobic-- she is terrified of wide open spaces. Her phobia is so intense that at times she has to face a wall and block her peripheral vision with her hair to shut out the open space of a room. Lee was traumatized as a child when she looked into her childhood friend's bedroom window at night and saw an old woman looming over his bed. The old woman turns around and smiles directly at her and took her breath away (in the bad way) and Lee believes this is the source of her agoraphobia. Unfortunately for Lee, she moved into a haunted house full of malevolent spirits that aim to possess her body.

When her husband (and former therapist) leaves on a trip, Lee slowly begins to fall apart and her phobia resumes it's grip upon her mind as the ghosts in the house make their presence known. She begins seeing the old woman and hears a baby crying in the house. Lee begins to believe that she had a baby that her husband stole from her and things go downhill from there. The end of this movie was a little ambiguous, but in the unsettling way.

12. Rebecca (1940)

Alfred Hitchcock's Oscar Award winning gothic ghost story is a psychological horror film about a young woman who marries a rich man and soon learns that his first wife, Rebecca died in a suspicious boating accident. Some believe that Rebecca has not moved on and that her ghost haunts the servants and her husband at his Manderley Estate. Just what happened to Rebecca, and what is her husband really hiding from her?

11. Repulsion (1965)

Roman Polanski's "Repulsion" is about Carol Ledoux, a Belgian manicurist living in London with her sister Helen. Coral is painfully shy and incredibly awkward around men, to the point of being terrified of them. When her sister goes on vacation with her boyfriend Michael, Carol begins to slowly lose her mind. She is terrified of losing her sister to a man, and soon stops going to work and becomes a shut-in. Her world seems to close in on her as she begins to hallucinate and mentally fall apart. This movie has some very trippy scenes in it, such as the walls cracking and pulling apart and hands reaching out to grab Carol. "Repulsion" is definitely one of Polanski's greatest films.

10. Paranoia 1.0 (2004)

"Paranoia 1.0" aka "One Point O" is a dark cyberpunk psychological movie with a plot that is drowning in heavy atmosphere. Simon, a computer programmer, begins to receive mysterious empty packages in his apartment. (They are delivered even though the door to his apartment is locked.) His investigation into the source of these empty packages takes him on a downward spiral into madness as he meets his odd neighbors, receives phone calls from an android head named Adam, and uncovers a creepy corporate conspiracy to control what consumers buy by infecting them with cravings, such as Simon's indescribable addiction to Nature Fresh milk.

9. Spider (2002)

David Cronenberg's "Spider" is about a paranoid schizophrenic man, Dennis Cleg aka Spider, who as a boy came to believe that his mother was replaced by a whore, and that she and his father killed his mother. When Dennis is released from the mental hospital he goes to live at a desolate halfway house that is near his childhood home. There he begins to relive the events of his childhood and his fragile grasp on reality is utterly shattered as his delusions take hold of his mind once again.

8. In the Mouth of Madness (1995)

"In the Mouth of Madness" is one of the best examples of a Lovecraftian psychological horror movie that I have ever seen.

Sam Neill plays an insurance fraud investigator John Trent, who is hired to find Sutter Cane- the insanely popular and best seller modern horror writer. Sutter Cane's books have been known to driver readers mad, which at first Trent believes is just hype, until he starts looking into things and learns that nothing is as it seems. Trent's reality quickly unravels as he travels to a town not found on any road map called Hobb's End, where he comes across characters from Sutter Cane's books and soon learns that the madness in the town is infectious as he goes insane and suffers from a psychotic break.

7. Stir of Echoes

Working class family man Tom is a skeptic that allows himself to be hypnotized by his wife's sister Lisa, who gives him the post-hypnotic suggestion to be more open-minded. Her suggestion accidentally opens a door in his mind and allows him to see the dead. Tom begins to suffer from horrifying visions of a local missing girl, Samantha Kozac, being murdered. Samantha continues to torment him and he is slowly driven mad as he tries to unravel her cryptic messages. Is Tom losing his mind, or is the missing girl actually a ghost trying to get Tom to help solve her murder?

"Stir of Echoes" is loosely based on the novel "Stir of Echoes"by Richard Matheson. I highly recommend the book as well.

6. Pan's Labyrinth

"Pan's Labyrinth" by Guillermo del Toro is a period piece set in Spain five years after the Spanish Civil War in May of 1944. Ofelia is a young girl who is obsessed with fairies and the Underworld. She lives in a vibrant fantasy world of her own imagination. Her indifferent stepfather, Captain Vidal, is a ruthless fascist who dotes on her pregnant mother but could care less if Ofelia died. Ofelia finds a labyrinth near her new home and meets the Faun, who tells her that she is the Princess of the Underworld and that she must undergo three tasks and complete them before the moon is full in order to return to her father, the king.

The movie is full of vivid imagery and covers many themes about the human mind (labyrinths are common symbols for our psyches). At times it is often unclear is Ofelia is actually interacting with magical creatures, or if they are all in her mind.

A word of warning though, this isn't a cute fairy tale, it's a bitter-sweet tragedy with an ending that will make even the most stalwart of movie watcher tear up and reach for a tissue.

5. The Changeling (1980)

Dr. John Russel is a classical composer that moves into an large, long abandoned estate after his wife and daughter are killed in a traffic accident. Strange things start to happen to John after he moves in, and he becomes obsessed with composing a song that he hears in his head. Later, he finds a music box that plays the exact same song that he composed on his piano.

John is plagued by nightmares while his waking hours are filled with terror and dread as he slowly unravels the mystery behind the ghostly presence of a boy in the house, and how the boy died.

The atmosphere of this movie will stay with you long after you've watched it, it's one of the best ghost movies I've ever seen; it really manages to get inside your head to create a tense feeling of terror that you really have to experience for yourself. "The Changeling" also uses the creepy imagery of an empty wheelchair to great horrific effect.

3. Black Swan (2010)

Nina wants to be both the White Swan and the Black Swan, but soon has difficulty separating her own thoughts and actions from those of the darker character.

"Black Swan" is about a dancer, Nina Sayers, who is a member of the New York City ballet company. The ballet company is producing Swan Lake, in which a sensual Black Swan steals the prince from the innocent and virginal White Swan.

Nina lives with her controlling mother, and is struggling to compete with a rival in the ballet company. The director wants the same dancer to portray the White Swan and the Black Swan. Nina forces her way into the role and sends her rival into early retirement. The pressure of performing soon starts to affect Nina's mind and she starts to hallucinate as her behavior becomes erratic and violent. Nina believes that her body is sprouting black feathers as her personality takes on more of the Black Swan's bolder, more sinister qualities. "Black Swan" covers the theme of the doppelganger, or evil twin, and the dangers of high stakes performance arts.

2. Jacob's Ladder (1990)

Jacob Singer is a traumatized Vietnam Vet who survived the war. While on tour in Vietnam the soldiers in his unit started behaving erratically and he was attacked. Now, he struggles with living an ordinary life and suffers from war flashbacks and hallucinations of his dead son and ex-wife. As his hallucinations become increasingly surreal and terrifying, Jacob learns that the Army's chemical warfare division released an agent called BZ, code named "The Ladder" on his unit during the Vietnam War. "The Ladder" was supposed to increase people's primal fears and base anger and make them highly aggressive in combat. Unfortunately, it makes them hallucinate and attack each other instead of the enemy. The labyrinthine journey of "Jacob's Ladder" has a shocking conclusion that you won't believe until you see it.

1. Session 9

"Session 9" is one of the most underrated and least talked about psychological horror movies, which really surprises me because it the best one I have ever seen. It may be a slow burner, but that is done on purpose, as the atmosphere and paranoia needs to be developed for it to have a huge impact during the climax of the story. Even better, it was actually filmed in an abandoned mental hospital that was about to be torn down.

Gordon's cleaning crew has landed a lucrative job removing asbestos from an abandoned mental hospital. One of his men uncovers a box labeled "Evidence" in a tunnel of the mental hospital. Inside the box are nine taped sessions with patient number 444, Mary Hobbes. As the tapes are listened to, the men split up to cover more ground while they clean up the hospital. One by one, they are attacked by an unseen assailant, while Mary's split personalities talk about Simon, the violent personality.

It slowly becomes clear that Simon represents the darkest parts people's psyches, and that Gordon is being affected by him. Is Simon one of Mary's personalities, or is he the evil spirit of the mental hospital that is now influencing Gordon's mind and driving him insane?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

What is Psychological Horror?

There are a lot of phrases and words used to describe  horror films. Most if not all of them are misunderstood and terribly misused on the Internet.

For instance, home invasion and torture porn movies have been given the label psychological horror by some well meaning, yet uninformed reviewers when it is clear that they are not, in actuality, psychological horror.

From  [Tribeca '12] What Sets ‘Replicas’ Apart From Other Home Invasion Films post by Bloody Disgusting's John Marrone:

"Would you pull your own front tooth out with a pair of pliers? Of course not. But what if your child was tied to a chair, with a razor held to their face? Well – OK! Yes! That’s the sort of psychological horror that home-invasion films bring to the table." 

Sorry Mr. Marrone, but that is NOT psychological horror.

Watching someone pry out her own front tooth with pliers creates a visceral reaction in the viewer and conjures up feelings of discomfort and disgust by being exposed to someone else's brutal torture and extreme physical pain. Which I suppose is scary for some people to have to watch, but it is not subtle, and it certainly doesn't require any sort of finesse to execute on-screen, as just about anyone these days can write and direct a self mutilation scene.

The main themes covered by torture porn and home invasion films are about our fears of other people exerting their sick fantasies or sociopathic obsessions upon our flesh. And really, those themes have nothing to do with the subtle art of slowly creating an atmosphere of dread by delving deep into the darkest recesses of the subconscious mind, which what psychological horror is all about.

After reading the article from Blood Disgusting , which called torture porn psychological horror, I decided that it was up to me to put the record straight and establish a list of terms used in the horror genre: a Horror Dictionary if you will. Because if I don't do it, no one else will.

This week's entry in Cassie Carnage's Horror Dictionary: Psychological Horror!

According to the Pratt Library, psychological horror is mental mayhem; "A dark atmosphere in which the character's own thoughts, fears, guilt, and emotional instability take over their physical world." In this respect, the Silent Hill franchise would be considered psychological horror.

In most Silent Hill games and the movie, a damaged individual becomes trapped in the parasitic reality that is the town of Silent Hill. The town itself changes to reflect the emotionally unstable character's obsessions and darkest fears. It then conjures up demonic entities and monsters that are shaped by the character's own thoughts, fears and feelings of intense guilt. However, even with having to fight off monsters and being trapped in her own personal hell in Silent Hill, there is always a hint that what the character is experiencing in the town, such as what they see and hear, is not actually there. It may all be an illusion created by the character's own psychosis, which can be delusions (false beliefs) and hallucinations caused by intense feelings of guilt, obsessions and phobias.

TV Tropes defines psychological horror as "an element of fiction, not tied to a particular genre (it manifests itself in many stories which are not identified as "horror stories"), which aims at creating horrific or unsettling effects through in-depth use of psychology." Psychological horror relies on the darkest parts of the human psyche-- the shadow  of the unconscious mind-- and evokes our primal urges to fight what scares us or run the heck away when we face our inevitable demise.

The subtle art of manipulating a person's mind during storytelling and effectively scaring them is done by exploring themes, images and sounds that represent mankind's universal fears, which are our feelings, thoughts and base instinctual urges that are repressed by our own psyche. These universal fears are also our psychological vulnerabilities, which include phobias and irrational thoughts or actions, such as the urge to kill a large scary looking spider when it crawls across your bedroom wall. The things we fear may also be things we outright deny feeling, thinking or wanting to do when we first react to a situation.

This sub-genre of horror relies on our instincts, thought patterns, unconscious fears and ultimately our imagination to scare us. The clever use of  light and shadows, color patterns and sounds develops an atmosphere full of tension, suspense and anxiety to create a subtle, yet ever growing sense of unease that slowly builds up over the course of the storyline until the horrifying climax of the tale is reached. This is why most psychological horror movies tend to be slow burners-- the terror takes a while to build up steam, but by the end credits you are so scared that you begin to think that perhaps the evil entity truly is real and waiting for you to turn off your bedroom light before it attacks.

While this may seem to only pertain to movies or video games, a talented writer can also manipulate these things to create psychological horror. In fact, the author has the opportunity to get even more into a person's head and create intense imagery that keeps people awake at night, staring at their bedroom door, wondering if that sound they just heard was the cat, or something else...

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Let's Play Silent Hill Part 1

With the release of the digitally remastered HD editions of "Silent Hill 2" and "Silent Hill 3" for PS3 and "Silent Hill" available for purchase for PS3 on the PlayStation store, I suffered a fit of nostalgia and decided that I'd play my way through the first three installments of the Silent Hill franchise. I'll be starting at the beginning of the series with the original PlayStation game and will drag you with me on my descent through madness and down into the hellish landscape that is Silent Hill.

Ah, yes. Good old "Silent Hill." Back when the only PlayStation on the market was, the PlayStation. None of that new fangled PS3 stuff. Just hexagonal 3D characters and pixelated, rendered backgrounds.

I still remember when I first learned of this game it was advertised on the insert of the "Castlevania: Symphony of the Night" game insert. It looked so freaking cool, I had to get it. So I did.

During the intro we see our first glimpses of Harry Mason and his dead wife (she's never given a name), Cheryl Mason, Police Officer Cybil Bennet, Nurse Lisa Garland, Dr. Kaufman, Dahlia Gillespi and Alessa Gillespi. Alessa is the tall girl in the blue dress that steps out onto the road in front of Harry and makes him swerve and crash his Jeep.

I still think the intro song to "Silent Hill" is one of the coolest ever. It sets up the tone for the entire game and provides the main theme song for the Silent Hill franchise as well. Speaking of music and soundtracks-- "Silent Hill" is one of the first games to effectively use sound to induce spine tingling fear in the player. There are no violin trills to be found here, just eerie synthesized ambiance by the master Akira Yamaoka. 

After the intro we see that Harry survived the crash. When he comes to he finds that Cheryl is gone.

Being the loving father that he is, Harry immediately starts looking for her in the snowy, dense fog. This is the first time you get control of Harry.

Man, I forgot just how WIDE the streets are in this game. The alleyways are more normal street size, and the streets are the size of a four lane highway. They're HUGE!

Harry's standing on the left lane of a two lane street!
If you look closely at the picture above, you'll see little grid-like pattern on it. On my HDTV the grid forms little light colored X's which fill up the majority of the screen, which is kind of funny at first, especially when you are running through the fog at the very beginning. Needless to say, the original "Silent Hill" hasn't aged well, but at the time it was released people were still using the bulky cathode ray tube TVs with the RBG composite video cables, which means that the pixels didn't come out as clear as they do now and the Xs didn't show up, as things were less defined and more blurred. But hey, those were the times man.

Harry hears footsteps while exploring the fog choked streets of Silent Hill and then spots Cheryl's silhouette as she runs away from him in the dense fog. He runs after her and is lead to an alleyway and then to a chain link fence gate with the sign "Beware of Dog" on it. There he finds the blood and guts of a maimed dog.

Then, it's on through it into another section of the alleyway and into the first Nightmare Realm of Silent Hill. (It's commonly called the Otherworld and I supposed it could also be called the netherworld of Silent Hill. However, in my play-throughs, I will refer to them as Nightmare Realms, because I'm Old Skool.)

Cue the air raid sirens, the darkness and the rain.

The sirens go off in "Silent Hill" when the Nightmare Realm takes over the town and sucks Harry into a pitch black hellish landscape full of rusty chain link fences, blood and death. The air raid sirens are just one of many homages in "Silent Hill" to Stephen King and his novel "The Mist."  In "The Mist" air raid sirens go off just as the mist rolls in, bringing with it monstrous horrors from another dimension.

There are more monsters out and about during the dark Nightmare Realm levels; where there used to be one dog, there will be two or three, and they tend to be stronger than the ones you encounter during the day time in the snowy fog. Oh, and they really, really want to kill you too. Yay!

In the alleyway Harry and the player first come across one of the creepiest icons of Silent Hill- an empty wheelchair.

Further down the alleyway Harry comes across a corpse on a gurney and another one tied to the chain link fence with barbed wire in a sick form of crucifixion. Then the creepy monkey sounding demon children come at you with huge knives and try to kill you and quickly find that you are trapped. You can't escape. All you can do is die.

While it may not seem so scary now, at the time it was unheard of to run into monsters that will KILL YOU NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO within the first 10 minutes of a game.

And no, the game doesn't end there silly. After Harry "dies" he wakes up in a restaurant and is greeted by police officer Cybil Bennet.

She asks him what happened but Harry isn't sure. All he knows is that his daughter is missing and that he has to find her. Cybil tells him that the phone lines and radios are dead and that something strange is going on out there. Cybil, knowing Silent Hill isn't safe gives Harry her gun for protection. (Her words here foreshadow events that will occur much, much later in the game.)

Here, take my registered gun civilian. Just don't shoot me with it. Lulz!
She then informs him that she is going to try to get to Brahms and radio for help and leaves the Cafe 5to2 on Bachman Street. (Richard Bachman is one of Stephen King's pen names.)

This is Harry Mason. He's looking for his daughter, Cheryl. Rather dashing, isn't he?
This is the first time while playing "Silent Hill" that I've noticed that the posters on the back wall of the Cafe 5to2 is of a bearded long haired guy pointing a gun in the cafe say,  "Study, Dammit!" I wonder how I missed that?

Apparently, it's an homage to a poster Stephen King made in college to inspire students to study.


While in the Cafe 5to2, there is the first save point, where when you interact with it, Harry says lines reminiscent of the opening of  "The Mist."

After making my first save, I picked up a few health drinks, a kitchen knife from the counter. Then I went over to look at a broken pocket radio. In anticipation of the monster appearance, I equipped my handgun and went to leave the cafe. When you try to leave, the radio starts making a very peculiar noise reminiscent of a school bell ringing.

When you go to inspect it, a pink pterosaur monster breaks through the glass and attacks you. (A pterosaur-like creature was one of the nocturnal monsters in "The Mist.")

Ack! Shoot it! Shoot it dead!

And I did.

OK, time to explore the sleepy abandoned town of Silent Hill. There are some health drinks that look like tiny brown bottles of hydrogen peroxide and red boxes of bullets to pick up.

There are two buildings that you can enter at this time: the "8" (read 7-11) convenience store and the house on Levin street. Head over to the 8 convenience store to pick up some health drinks and the Channeling Stone behind the counter. The Channeling Stone is used to get the ridiculous UFO ending to the game. (Seriously. It is.)

While wandering around town, it helps to check the map, like constantly, in order to keep your bearings because:

1. the camera moves around in such a way to make it difficult to discern which direction you are going through the streets
2. there are areas that are cut off.

Seriously, the roads just end, like the city was picked up by a giant and dropped somewhere else. Creepy!

Fortunately, pushing the triangle button on the controller brings the map up onto the screen for easy access.

Upon returning to the alleyway marked "Cheryl" you find pages from her coloring book that say "To School", "Dog house" and "Levin Street."  Oh yeah, and Cheryl's awesome drawing of her daddy:

Heh. Yeah, that's you all right Harry.

The next task is to head over to Levin street and find the dog house.  Taped to the inside of the roof is a house key.

Then it's off to find the other keys. Yay.

While I was searching for them, I remembered an astonishing thing about the game play mechanics of "Silent Hill": you can run and shoot at the same time!  You can't do that in  "Resident Evil 2 " which was released one year prior to "Silent Hill," nor in "Resident Evil 3: Nemesis" which was released in 1999- the same year "Silent Hill" hit the shelves.

Of course, in my girlish excitement over being able to run around and shoot at things, I totally forgot to conserve my ammo and went ballistic on those stupid pink pterosaurs that kept clawing at my head. Oops. But, whatever. They give you more ammo. Right?

I had a hard time finding the mailbox that held one of the keys and I kept missing the wrecked police car where the other key was stashed as I wandered about the cut off streets. But, I eventually figured it out.

After collecting all three keys, it's back to Levin Street and into the house where there are three locks named after "The Wizard of OZ" characters. After unlocking the door, you head out to the backyard of the house, where once again, Silent Hill is engulfed by darkness. More dogs and pterosaurs await you in the dark, ready to pounce and gnaw on your flesh while you make a break for it and run to Midwhich School.

Unfortunately, while heading towards the school I totally forgot to pick up the good steel pipe, and you can only pick it up at that exact moment in the game. It isn't there once the town returns to "normal." Which means that I'm stuck with the rusty pipe for the entire play-through. *sigh*

There's also a school bus a little further down the street where you can save your game and pick up a few health drinks. I missed that too...

But at least they remain there, so if you miss it, you can head there after surviving the school.

Next up:
Let's Play Silent Hill Part 2: Midwhich School's Out Forever!