Mad Mitra: Beyond Hadrian’s Wall

In 2008 the Reaper Virus struck in Glasgow, unleashing a pandemic of unmatched lethality. A desperate British government resorts to erecting an enormous barricade in the vicinity of Hadrian’s Wall and a sea blockade around the Scottish coast. These harsh measures outrage international sensibilities, turning Britain into a dystopian pariah state. 27 years later and somehow the Reaper Virus breaks out in London. (How it is remotely possible for the virus to teleport some 400 miles south is never explained.)

Prime Minister John Hatcher (Alexander Siddig) and his Gordon Brown-esque deputy Michael Canaris (David O’Hara) are faced with various unpalatable alternative course of action to contain it – but there is one desperate roll of the dice they can try. Satellite images reveal the existence of a survivor population in Scotland; it’s possible that the enigmatic Dr Marcus Kane (Malcolm McDowell), who stayed north of the border even after it was sealed, was somehow able to develop a cure. Hatcher and Canaris ask Department of Domestic Security director Bill Nelson (Bob Hoskins in full Long Good Friday hardcase mode) to select his best agent to lead a small team north of the wall to track down Kane and retrieve the cure.

Nelson’s best agent is Major Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra), who along with her plucky party discovers that the survivors have turned into Mad Max gangs of fetish punks – as you do – and their mission ends up radically more violent than they ever dreamed it would be. With society disintegrated and primal brutality unleashed, their trip to find Kane will be a true journey into the heart of Scottish darkness – if this is Doomsday, does that mean it’s the apocalypse now?

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A Feral Process

Adam Parfrey of Feral House liked to put out clusters of books based on his particular interests, and one of those interests was the infamous Process Church, a cult from the 1960s and 1970s whose severe black uniforms and Satanic rites gained them a terrifying reputation. Robert de Grimston was the figurehead whose name was attached to most of the more traditional literature the Process created, but it has become apparent through later disclosure that it’s truer to say that the leader was his wife Mary Ann MacLean, who took pains to keep her importance a secret from outsiders.

If nothing else, the acid test of this came when de Grimston and MacLean split up in 1974; by and large, the community sided with MacLean and Robert was left trying with much less success to try and propagate his own reformed version of the Process before he gave up by the end of the 1970s. There can be few more unambiguous demonstrations of where the true power lay than in this display of loyalty to MacLean.

Under MacLean, the Process Church renamed itself first the Foundation Church of the Millennium, then the Foundation Faith of the Millennium, and established the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah. By 1993, the legal entity which had been the Foundation rebranded itself as Best Friends Animal Society and, to all outside appearances, had abandoned all religious and spiritual ambitions entirely for the sake of running the shelter; MacLean died in 2005. This would make it substantially easier to publish material on the Process without fear of litigation, and Feral House was happy to oblige…

Love Sex Fear Death

Subtitled The Inside Story of the Process Church of the Final JudgmentLove Sex Fear Death is billed as being by Timothy Wyllie and edited by Adam Parfrey, but I’d say on balance it is more of an anthology brought together by Parfrey than it is a single work by Wyllie, particularly since Wyllie’s words only account for about a third of the book. Still, Wyllie’s story is an important one and I can see the justification in giving him prominent billing. Wyllie was part of the Process Church before and after it had that name. He knew Robert de Grimston in 1959, before de Grimston and Mary Ann ever met.

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Aptly-Titled Shark Game

Maneater is a game in which you play a shark – strictly speaking, two sharks. First, you play a mommy shark (doo doo doo doo doo doo) as you play through the tutorial, then you get caught and killed by a shark hunter – but you were carrying live young, the surviving baby shark (doo doo doo doo doo doo) biting off the shark hunter’s hand and escaping into the sea after being cut out of the mummy shark (doo doo doo doo doo doo).

Over the process of this, the game’s rather fun conceit becomes apparent: it’s framed like it’s a basic cable reality show (called Maneater, natrually) about shark hunters operating in the waters off Port Clovis – a sort of mashup of Miami and New Orleans, in a state which is a sort of mashup of Florida and Louisiana. The shark hunter who killed your mommy shark (doo doo doo doo doo doo) and left you an orphan shark (boo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo) is Scaly Pete, the show’s breakout start, his every Cajun quip treated as the producers as potential hashtag inspiration.

Over the course of the game, then, you guide your baby shark (doo doo doo doo doo doo) as she survives and grows, eventually becoming a mega shark (DOO DOO DOO DOO DOO DOO), and seek bloody revenge against Scaly Pete and all his fellow air-breathing assholes. Every so often, you get a cut scene checking in on what Pete’s doing, and your gameplay is narrated by the show-within-a-game’s narrator – Chris Parnell, AKA Cyril Figgis from Archer, whose wry commentary is probably the high point of the game.

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The First and Last Horrors of Amicus

Though Hammer Studios were the champions of British horror cinema for much of the 1960s (and were still able to make a good showing from time to time in the 1970s), Amicus Productions also deserved to be in the conversation. Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg’s production house, like Hammer, didn’t exclusively focus on horror – they got up and running by turning out some low-budget teen musicals like It’s Trad, Dad, they did the Dr. Who movie adaptations with Peter Cushing as the Doctor, they did a number of Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations (one of which, The Land That Time Forgot, had script contributions by Michael Moorcock).

They’re primarily remembered for their horror output, mind. Many of their releases were portmanteau horror films – the sort of thing which Games Workshop recently imitated with The Wicked and the Damned, where rather than having a single full-length story you have a group of shorter pieces (usually three or so) with a thin framing device connecting them all. I find the subgenre kind of mediocre a lot of the time, to be honest – it all too often seems to be an excuse to fob off onto audiences stories which are too weak to be standalone movies or TV episodes by themselves and pass off quantity as quality.

However, Rosenberg and Subotsky did also produce a number of more conventional single-story horror movies, like The Skull which I’ve previously enthused about. Here Amicus often managed a similar tone to Hammer without coming across as imitators; many Hammer talents like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee also did work for Amicus, but whilst Hammer focused on historical settings for most of their golden age, Amicus’s horror was usually set in the modern day, often giving it a bit more of a contemporary feel.

For this article, I’m going to tip my hat to Subotsky and Rosenberg by taking a look at the first and last horror movies the two would co-produce.

City of the Dead

Strictly speaking, this 1960 release isn’t an Amicus movie – it’s credited to Britannia Films. However, there’s reasonable arguments for considering it a secondary member of the Amicus canon, or a prelude to it, since its producers included Subotsky and an uncredited Rosenberg and the approach is very much in keeping with that of the horror works Max and Milton would put out under the Amicus banner.

The story is based around the town of Whitewood in Massachusetts. During a witch-burning fad in 1692, actual Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel) and her accomplice Jethrow Keane (Valentine Dyall) sell their souls to Lucifer; for the low, low subscription cost of two virgin sacrifices a year, they get immortality and power over the town. In the modern day, Professor Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee) narrates this story to his class of students, to a mixed reception. Nan Barlow (Venetia Stephenson) is one of the more receptive students, and wants to do more research on the subject; Driscoll can hook her up with a lovely hotel in Whitewood, and suggests she visit on a research trip. In the US market, this movie was called Horror Hotel, so you can probably guess where this is going.

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Bars of Social Allegory, Walls of Psychological Realism

In the half-century since it first aired, The Prisoner has become a televisual touchstone, as great a leap forward when it came to the artistic potential of television as the original Twin Peaks was several decades later. It also has one of the classic television intro sequences – a condensed version of the first act of debut episode Arrival which gets all we need to know about Patrick McGoohan’s character’s backstory across without dialogue, and provides a classic dialogue running down the basics of the setting that he finds himself in.

That premise, in summary: Patrick McGoohan’s character (who might be secret agent John Drake, his character from the early 1960s espionage show Danger Man) has angrily resigned from his job in a sensitive position within the British establishment. Packing his things – to go into holiday, or exile, or to flee the consequences of something he’s done? – he is knocked out by gas administered by mysterious agents, who transport his unconscious body away in a hearse.

He wakes up in the Village (the role played by the strange little mock-Mediterranean village of Portmeirion in Wales), a community where everyone is assigned a number – he is Number 6 – along with charming little cottages, delightfully hip fashions, and generally all they need to live a happy little life there. It is a facade, of course – the Village is operated by someone, who might be the British government, or one of their enemies, or one of their allies, or some unknown faction altogether, and is used as a controlled environment for advanced psychological interrogation techniques, and its population consists of a wide range of nationalities. The powers that be here are clearly international in scope, and also maintain careful ambiguity for the most part as to who is a prisoner and who is part of the staff, with some exceptions.

Whoever is behind the Village wants the information inside Number 6’s head, which is immensely valuable, but he doesn’t intend to give it up easily – and because they want to use him as an agent after they debrief him, the Village functionaries are forbidden from using some of the more destructive techniques available to them. Carefully-assembled files on Number 6 suggest that if he could be prevailed upon to answer the simple question “Why did you resign?”, that would open the psychological floodgates and the rest will be plain sailing.

Tasked with getting the answer to that question is the most visible authority figure in the Village, Number 2 – played by a range of different actors, many for only a single episode, as different Number 2s are deployed and then flushed (sometimes being replaced mid-episode, as in Arrival or Free For All). This device serves two purposes: narratively, it’s yet another disorientation tactic used by the Village, and prevents Number 6 from developing a deep understanding of any particular Number 2’s particular personality and style, and of course it also means that there’s a nice juicy role that could be offered to potential guest stars. The existence of Number 2s implies a Number 1 controlling everything, and the question of “Who is Number 1?” becomes the vital information which Number 6 himself wants to answer.

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Above Top Secret, But Not Beyond Reasonable Doubt

Timothy Good’s career has seen him make a mark on two distinct fields. In the world of music, he’s an experience violinist who has played for an extended period of time with several highly regarded orchestras, and has worked as a session musician for major stars. In his other career, he is a UFOlogist, whose Above Top Secret was one of the more prominent tomes to emerge from the British UFO scene.

Over the course of Above Top Secret, Good wants to persuade the reader of two things:

  1. Various governments around the world have looked into the UFO phenomenon, but have played down or actively covered up this interest on their part.
  2. At least a portion of UFOs are nuts-and-bolts spaceships piloted by aliens, and some governments have proof of this they are concealing.

Good plays a clever rhetorical trick with this book; to my eyes, the materials he offers do substantiate his first point, but point 1 can be true without point 2 being also true. His evidence offered for point 2 is much more tenuous, but if you are not reading carefully you may find yourself buying into 2 on the basis of how well he’s sold you on 1.

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Two Tubbs of Dumarest, Please

Science fiction writing loves its ongoing series, but E.C. Tubb’s Dumarest saga is truly something else. Debuting in 1967 and with the final completed part published in 2008, 2 years before Tubb’s death, the Dumarest series took in some 33 novels covering a single epic journey across the galaxy.

The first story, The Winds of Gath, introduces us to the basic premises of the series. Earl Dumarest is a wandering space traveller who survives on a narrow margin, often only able to afford Low Passage between star systems: instead of enjoying the luxuries of warmth and food and light and air during space voyages, Low Passengers literally travel with the cargo, cryogenically frozen for the trip in a process with a 15% mortality rate.

In short, almost every single trip Dumarest takes is a risk – but a risk he is willing to take, for Dumarest originated on Earth, birthplace of humanity, and is determined to get home. Earth is a blasted wasteland, you see, and when Dumarest got a chance to stow away on one of the few ships to visit the place to get offworld and away, he jumped at it – only to find that in the wider galaxy Earth is considered to be a myth, and nobody will admit to knowing where it is or believe him when he tells them he comes from there. Consequently, Dumarest travels the length and breadth of the colonised universe, desperate to track down any clue – no matter how minor – which could help him find Earth again and solve this grand mystery.

The Winds of Gath

We join Dumarest’s adventures just as he arrives at Gath – a dead-end world for space travellers who lack the funds for a return ticket, since there isn’t really enough of a functional economy there to let poverty-stricken space bums scrimp and save enough cash to buy a low passage out of there. Dumarest didn’t intend to go there at all, except the ship he was travelling on changed course to accommodate the wishes of the Matriarch of Kund, the ruler of a powerful realm of female-dominated planets.

The Matriarch, her ward Seena Thoth, and their entourage are not the only tourists – a swathe of wealthy individuals have come to Gath, including the sadistic and cruel Prince of Emmened, because they have all heard of its sole attraction. This is the massive mountain range a few days’ walk north of the spaceport, where every so often the curious weather patterns of this planet (arising because one hemisphere always faces the local star whilst the other hemisphere is in eternal night) cause a massive storm to erupt – a storm in which, it is said, the voices of the dead can be heard.

Dumarest is sceptical, as well he should be, but he has other concerns – like keeping his right-hand man Megan alive in one of the toughest seasons yet for the travellers stuck in the shanty-town surrounding the spaceport, earning his way off-world, and foiling a conspiracy against the Matriarch’s party. Meanwhile, Dyne, the matriarch’s hyper-logical Cyber advisor, is playing his own game in the aid of the Cyclan, the Cyber guild, and the vast Cyclan hive-mind – a colossal complex of living brains extracted from the most exceptional Cybers, in regular telepathic contact with Cybers across the galaxy thanks to the powers of the Homochon implant. And what, exactly, does a huge ever-growing pulsating brain that rules from the centre of the Ultraworld want in this situation?

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Kickstopper: Barkley’s Botched Pass

Cast your mind back to the late 2000s. Ferretbrain was just heating up. Bush’s second term was cooling off, or actually finally done with. RPG Maker freeware games had become widespread enough that the cliches of shoddy ones were as recognisable as the tropes of the JRPG genre they tended to sit in. Developers like Tale of Tales tried to stretch the bounds of indie gaming with material like The Path. YouTube was young, and 4Chan was mostly known for trolling Scientology. Pepe the Frog was a benign, nonpartisan figure.

Among the creative minds using the developing Internet as a platform was Chef Boyardee or cboyardee. Named after a pasta brand, Chef had an ear for a good chiptune and was an early YouTube animator, with his surrealistic, nihilistic, and disturbingly violent take on Dilbert being perhaps his most enduringly famous work.

In early 2008, Chef was part of a team who released Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden – Chapter 1 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa, a Game Maker-created JRPG that was a sequel to both the Sega Mega Drive basketball game Barkley: Shut Up and Jam and the weird Looney Tunes-meets-NBA movie Space Jam. Chef’s music, witty writing, and a slew of borrowed and tweaked graphical assets combined to make an absurd parody game whose sense of humour, whilst now badly dated in some respects (and in some respects inappropriate at the time) found a cult following.

Then in 2012, when Kickstarter was experiencing its post-Double Fine Adventure boom, Tale of Game’s (yes, that’s how it’s spelled) ran a Kickstarter for a sequel, The Magical Realms of Tír na nÓg: Escape from Necron 7 – Revenge of Cuchulainn: The Official Game of the Movie – Chapter 2 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa.

It is now eight years later, and it seems likely that a finished version of the game will never come out.

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GOGathon: Sierra’s 1992

By 1992, Sierra’s graphical adventure credentials were well-established. After pioneering the form, first with the early King’s Quest games and then a range of other flagship series, they introduced their SCI scripting engine which would underpin most of their remaining adventures. The end of the 1980s found them producing more than ever, and then 1990 saw them take the plunge into full-fledged point-and-click, setting aside their old text parser after it had long since ceased to be cutting edge. 1991 found various hands at Sierra trying their hand in the brave new frontier of point-and-click, with mixed results.

1992’s crop of adventures enjoyed the benefits of an upgrade to the SCI system, SCI1.1. SCI0 had been the EGA graphics-based parser-powered adventures of the late 1980s, following the earlier AGI-powered adventures, and SCI1 had introduced VGA graphics and the new point-and-click system. SCI1.1 did a lot of backend housecleaning, which included setting up a brand new automated system for downscaling graphics to EGA, avoiding the need to do different versions of each game for different graphical standards. It also included better support for scaling spites, as well as support for including videos in games, like the prerendered 3D video that acts as the opening scene for King’s Quest VI.

This was ultimately an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary shift, and Sierra’s output for 1992 perhaps reflects this – it’s all sequels of established series rather than anything particularly bold. Let’s take in the year’s crop…

The Dagger of Amon Ra

Laura Bow’s second outing (following The Colonel’s Bequest) saw Sierra break with tradition somewhat: whereas the vast majority of Sierra’s ongoing series had been associated with a core designer or a pair of designers, much as a series of novels is sold in part on the reputation of its author, here Roberta Williams stepped back (credited solely as a “creative consultant”).

The initial plan, as recounted in a rather informative retrospective interview with the creative leads from the Campo Santo Quarterly, was for Josh Mandel (the voice of King Graham in King’s Quest V!) to write and design the game – a prospect he found daunting given the bar set by The Colonel’s Bequest and the fact that he had more of a knack for comedy writing than designing mysteries. Bruce Balfour had been lured to Sierra, having previously worked at Interplay contributing to various adventure games and RPGs – including Wasteland, the forerunner to the Fallout series – but the plan was that he’s write for a comedy game called Little Larry’s Guide To Life, a reinvention of the Leisure Suit Larry series aimed at a teenage audience with the intention of giving them advice about difficult topics like divorce, school, relationships and whatnot. (I guess the vision was some sort of edutainment take on Porky’s.)

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Butterflies and Monsters – Two Unusual Italian Horror Movies

Italian genre cinema is largely known for particular genre features – spaghetti Westerns, the proto-slashers of the giallo genre, microgenres like the fads for zombie movies or cannibal movies, and rip-offs of more successful Hollywood releases – and I think it’s easy to assume it’s all rather samey. In the interests of this, today’s backlog clearance job is me putting a spotlight of a couple of more unusual Italian horror/crime pieces.

Caltiki – The Immortal Monster

It’s the 1950s, and a team of scientists are investigating the ruins of Tikal – an ancient Mayan city which was abandoned for reasons not known to modern historians. Folklore hints at the rise of a goddess known as Caltiki, a malevolent deity; a subterranean temple, its entrance exposed after a recent volcanic eruption, is discovered by the party and seems to be dedicated to her. Within it is a deep pool – they infer that it’s a sacrificial pool, into which human victims would be tossed to drown bedecked in jewellery as gifts to the goddess, and a quick scuba jaunt into the pool seems to prove this hypothesis. The entity in the lake is no anthropomorphic goddess, though – it’s an ancient, blob-like creature, some 20 million years old, awoken by the fumbling explorers…

This kicks off an old-timey SF-horror adventure that’s massively influenced by Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness – the ancient blob creature is extremely shoggoth-like – as well as the likes of Clark Ashton Smith. (A decidedly shoggoth-like spawn of Tsathoggua is found guarding a temple in one of Smith’s stories of long-ago Hyperborea, The Tale of Satampra Zeiros.) There’s also a certain Quatermass angle to proceedings – the centrality of the scientific enigma to the story, for instance, and the increasing audacity of its revelations. (Just wait until you get to the comet angle…)

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