Ferretnibbles 1 – Die, Monster Die!, Dragon Quest VII, and Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Sometimes you want to jabber about something on Ferretbrain to an extent which would be unwieldy for a Playpen post, but not necessarily make for a full-blooded article. To encourage contributors to offer up shorter pieces when the mood strikes them, I’m premiering here the first set of Ferretnibbles – pocket-sized articles about all and sundry.

This time around, they’re all penned by me, but nibbles from others are always welcome at the usual editorial address. Today’s nibbles concern a mostly-forgotten Lovecraftian cinematic error and two remakes of classic RPG videogames. The first one is about as long as I’d want a nibble to be before spinning it off as its own article (and indeed, I did hesitate over whether to put it out as a nibble or a standalone); the latter two offer shorter pieces to showcase just how little a nibble can be.

Die, Monster, Die!

Steven Reinhart (Nick Adams) is an all-American nobody with no particular background or character. He dresses like Philip Marlowe and talks like a bad Clint Eastwood impersonator, and he comes to visit the sleepy English town of Arkham to visit his college girlfriend Susan Witley, who lives in the sprawling Witley estate in the countryside outside the village. When he gets to the mansion, he finds that Susan’s father Nahum (Boris Karloff) is in no mood for visitors, and Susan’s sick mother Letitia (Freda Jackson) is bedridden and speaking of sinister disappearances and insisting that Susan must be taken away from here. Between this, the burned-out crater in the wilderness a little way from the mansion, and the glowing something in the basement, there’s plenty of reason for Steve to smell a Lovecraftian rat…

Die, Monster, Die was a 1965 attempt by American International Pictures to adapt H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space for the big screen. This was the second of AIP’s three Lovecraft adaptations – the first being 1963’s The Haunted Palace, an adaptation of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward given the title of a Poe poem so that it could be slipped into the series of Poe quasi-adaptations that Roger Corman and Vincent Price were churning out at the time, and the third being 1970’s dorky psychedelic take on The Dunwich Horror.

All three of AIP’s Lovecraft adaptations are flawed in some respect or another, but Die, Monster, Die! seems to suffer from the fact that both of the other two at least had a distinctive aesthetic to them. The Haunted Palace, as an entry in Corman and Price’s Poe-inspired series, benefitted from the garishly gothic visual imagination most of the movies in that sequence enjoyed, and of course Vincent Price is always a treat to watch even when the material he’s given to work with is a bit wonky. The Dunwich Horror is, as I’ve previously covered, a total disaster, but it’s at least an interesting disaster, especially in its visuals.

By contrast, one of the major flaws of Die, Monster, Die is its sheer genericness. There’s the title, of course, which might have fitted any one of dozens of monster movies from the two preceding decades better than it fits here, but there’s also its appallingly generic aesthetic, which has little to differentiate it from any particular grab-bag of films Hammer were turning out at the same time. This is a huge waste of the source material, which really cries out for taking the “alien colour that infects things” angle to town. Nonetheless, except for a few bits here and there it almost entirely passes this up. Worse still, when it does decide to play with the idea, it doesn’t really have any consistency about how the colour should be represented on the screen. Is it a luminous green? A dull grey? A ludicrous, tinfoily silver? Who knows? All of these are used at some point to denote the infection, and whilst I appreciate that it’s hard to translate “colour of no Earthly hue” to cinema I think for the sake of thematic unity it’s best to try and translate it as one consistent colour.

For a visual adaptation of a written story to pass up such a powerful visual motif is a massive waste. Instead, time and resources are wasted on offering us “giant” tomatoes which I suspect are just ordinary tomatoes held close to the camera, and a collection of tentacular Lovecraftian creatures which would work a bit better if they were a bit more lively (it looks like the puppets have just collapsed on themselves somehow) and didn’t make noises reminiscent of sad puppies. (Actual sad puppies, they don’t sit around complaining about how social justice warriors have wrecked the Hugo Awards.)

In terms of the actual action… well, there isn’t much. This is one of those mid-20th Century horror movies where there’s a lot of creeping about in nice country house sets and not an awful lot happening. Director Daniel Haller had cut his teeth designing the sets for the various Roger Corman/Vincent Price adaptations of Poe, and the movie is a wonderful example of what happens when you get a director who thinks that set design is the most important part of the puzzle: all the sets are intricately, wonderfully decorated, it’s true, but to far too great an extent, with the result that the sets become woefully over-busy.

Moreover, this over-cluttering also exacerbates the aesthetic incoherence of the piece, with Haller apparently not being sure whether he wants to tell a mad science story or throw in a load of occult paraphernalia. The occult trappings are especially inappropriate, given that The Colour Out of Space far and away contains the least nods to superstition and supernaturalism of any of Lovecraft’s stories, being a full-blooded science fiction horror story without a hint of magic or eldritch gods. It also doesn’t make any sense even within the context of the movie itself: if, as we are clearly and unambiguously told, the big bad is a radioactive stone that has been used for pseudoscientific experiments, then why the fuck is Nahum keeping it locked up in a dungeon with murals of Baphomet gazing down upon it? Does he literally have nowhere else he can keep it for testing it?

The fact that Haller felt the need to throw that stuff in suggests that he either didn’t read the source story, or he did but he decided that horror movies require such stuff anyway, regardless of whether they are thematically appropriate. Then again, Haller’s grasp of direction means that it’s probably lucky he more or less keeps the movie within the boundaries of his chosen genre in the first place. There’s a bit when Steve and Susan are creeping around investigating horrible noises in the night, and there’s this weird shot of their feet walking in perfect step, him in his sensible shoes and her in her fluffy slippers, and it looks for all the world like they’re about to break out into a musical number.

Part of the problem Haller has is that the script just doesn’t give him enough to work with. The film runs for barely 78 minutes, but actually the story as presented here could wrap up at the 66 minute mark and that’d be fine. (It feels like it’s been running for 2 hours by that point anyway.) But then it works in this nonsense about the meteorite being sent from Beyond by Corbyn Witley, the evil sorcerous ancestor of the Witleys, and throws in a tacked-on conclusion with Nahum running around as a mutated monster. After we’ve already seen Letitia running around as a mutated monster, this plot development feels like the movie pointlessly repeating itself, particularly since at this stage in his life Karloff really wasn’t up to rushing about in monster mode. The monstrous version of Karloff looks less like he’s been corrupted by the meteorite and more like he’s been wrapped in tinfoil, and is very obviously played by a stuntman wearing a big goofy tinfoil Boris Karloff mask.

Seeing Karloff being utterly wasted on this drivel really is a crying shame. Although he was getting on in years at this point in his career, he was more than capable of putting in a good performance – with then-recent turns in Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath and Corman’s The Raven being good examples. Here, though, he just seems sad, lost, and in pain. It feels like nobody bothered to explain to Karloff whether his character was a villainous mad scientist dabbling in things he shouldn’t and revelling in it or a sympathetic figure trying desperately to understand this horrible thing he has discovered but losing himself in the attempt, so he seems to alternate between the two modes more or less at random.

Then again, Karloff at least attempts to act, which is more than can be said of many of the cast members. Adams, in particular is just plain awful. Like I mentioned above, he talks in this weird Clint Eastwood voice for most of the movie, and I don’t know whether that’s deliberate or not but it just sounds goofy. Moreover, he seems to hail from a school of acting which is actively hostile to actually expressing any particular emotion or engaging the audience’s interests. The parts where he monologues about his theories about what is going on are the absolute worst.

More or less the only high point of the movie is a small appearance from the always-reliable Patrick Magee as Dr. Henderson, a local medic who has been given up his profession, written off the outside world, and taken to drink as a result of one sanity-blasting thing he saw at the Witley place. Magee’s is only a small role, but he bothers to actually bring an interesting performance to the table rather than utterly the generic personality-free nothingness most of the rest of the cast offer, and is actually able to coax a decent performance out of the otherwise uninspiring Nick Adams.

Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition

There’s kind of no point reviewing Baldur’s Gate at this point because if you are at all interested in computer RPGs you probably already know all about it. The plot is weak and there’s a bunch of game elements which show their age (like a heap of slightly boring perfectly rectangular wilderness areas to explore), but it managed to combine a dead-on implementation of the 2nd edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons system with a user interface and game experience that was far ahead of the more rudimentary presentations that previous licensees had offered up.

The Enhanced Edition wisely doesn’t meddle too much. Happily, they implement an upgrade of the game to the engine used in Baldur’s Gate II, which is a great improvement – one of the best things the modding community did for the game was to implement just such a shift and it really helps make it play smoother and look better.

One thing they haven’t done is add in the “Unfinished Business” mod or something similar, which implemented a heap of quests and ideas which had originally been cut from the game. You can add it in yourself if you want, but I actually think it works better this way since the game is already kind of too long already so padding it out even more doesn’t really help.

The big thing about the Enhanced Edition, though, is that it has made the game available on Android and iOS. I played it through on a Nexus 7 tablet and it works like a dream, with easy quicksaving letting you finish up and put the tablet to sleep at a moment’s notice so the game becomes much more viable as something to poke away at in odd moments rather than something you have to set aside a fat block of time to play. I found it useful to play on the setting which highlights all the interactable things, because of course with no mouse cursor you can’t find such things by speculatively waving the cursor about, but otherwise it’s a breeze.

Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past

The (by and large excellent) rereleases of the major Dragon Quest games for the Nintendo DS ecosystem continues with Dragon Quest VII: Fragments of the Forgotten Past for the 3DS. Originally released on the PlayStation 1, the game has been given a well-deserved aesthetic makeover for the rerelease, as well as being spruced up and tightened here and there.

This time around, your freely-nameable protagonist is the son of a fisherman in the sleepy village of Pilchard Bay, in the island kingdom of Estard. Your best friends are Maribel, the daughter of Pilchard Bay’s mayor, and Prince Kiefer, the King’s son. The grown-ups on the island all insist that Estard is the only land there is in the entire world, but Kiefer isn’t so sure about that – and Maribel isn’t about to be left out of the action.

The three of you eventually discover a hidden shrine in the east of the island, inside which you discover a strange room in which various mosaics depict regions of the world that no longer exist. Realising that some odd tiles you have collected in your investigations can complete one of the mosaics, you do so – only to be projected to the island depicted in the past. This sets up the action of much of the game: visiting an island in the past, you overcome some major crisis (often engineered by the nefarious Demon King) which would have otherwise caused it to perish utterly. Once the crisis is overcome, the island can be visited in the present day, unlocking further adventures – and, more importantly, more tiles which can be used to unlock more islands.

This is quite fun, and the writers manage to accomplish a lot as they let you compare and contrast what happened in the past with how the community now exists in the present. At the same time, the game does inevitably feel rather padded out due to the extensive amount of backtracking involved – after completing an island in one time period, you have to go back and revisit it in another time period (where, if it has changed, it usually ends up as an abbreviated version of the past version as opposed to an interestingly different one) in order to pick up the bits which will unlock a bit more world for you to play with.

It could be worse. The 3DS version adds numerous features (like a “next fragment” feature, which tells you where to find the next tablet fragment if you get stuck) which nicely streamline gameplay and help avoid you getting stuck. It also usefully abbreviates some otherwise redundant bits from the PS1 version – for instance, the time mosaics in this version are interacted with through a nice, efficient menu accessed by conversing with the very helpful advice-dispensing attendant of the shrine, whereas in the PS1 version the sets of mosaics are all set up in different rooms and you have to spend ages running about working out which tablet you have corresponding to which map.

These little efficiencies make it much smoother to interact with the game than the PS1 version, and helps avoid it outstaying its welcome. The consensus seems to be that just beating the main plot on the PS1 version without doing any of the side quests would take you about 100 hours. My playthrough, completing the main plot with a reasonable but not all-encompassing spread of side quests, ended up lasting 80 hours, suggests that the game has been quite nicely tightened up, though to be honest I don’t think I would have put that amount of time in if I didn’t find Dragon Quest in general completely adorable and if it wasn’t so very convenient to play in the handheld format.

As far as that gameplay goes, it’s basically classic Dragon Quest stuff; the overland travel map has been enhanced to something comparable to that in Dragon Quest VIII (no doubt a helpful exercise in preparing the upcoming 3DS rerelease of that), but otherwise it’s very much standard-issue stuff with little in the way of major wrinkles or twists to the classic JRPG format, especially if you have played the preceding DS remakes. One issue is that, except in the seas, monsters are more or less absent from the present day until a certain main plot event happens, which can make travel in the present a bit dull. (Indeed, it’s about an hour or two into the game until you even get your first chance to fight a slime.)

I suspect that the challenges of developing for the PS1 and producing a game which effectively had double the writing required for it (since locations needed to be populated both in the past and the present) may have constrained the original game in some ways which are still reflected here. Dragon Quest VII is one for the hardcore fans only, and I would suggest that 3DS owners who want a fresh Dragon Quest game go for the upcoming remake of VIII first.

One thought on “Ferretnibbles 1 – Die, Monster Die!, Dragon Quest VII, and Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition

  1. Pingback: Kickstopper: The Gamer Who Would Be King – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

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