Gull’s From Hell and John’s From Glasgow

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.

It’s the late 1880s, and royal party boy Prince Albert “Eddy” Victor – grandson of Queen Victoria and second in line to the throne – has been having all manner of fun. Encountering Annie Clark, a Catholic woman who works behind the till at a sweet shop just across the road from Eddy’s favourite rent boy brothel, he begins an affair with her which culminates in an ill-advised secret marriage and the birth of a child – one who, strictly speaking, would then be in line for the throne.

Queen Victoria will not stand for this, and she uses all the covert influence available to her to make sure that Eddy and Annie are forcibly separated. Among the resources available to her is the power structure of British Freemasonry. With members riddled throughout the British aristocracy and respectable professions, the Masons were a microcosm of the establishment of the time, and a large cross-section of Victoria’s male family members were Masons. Between that and a perennial desire for Royal patronage, it was no surprise that the Brotherhood was willing to do favours for Victoria. In this case, this included enlisting Dr William Henry Gull – Freemason, physician, and mystic – to the task of performing an operation on Annie to profoundly damage her mental capabilities. Even if she could get someone to listen to her story and she were able to coherently tell it through the cognitive fog imposed on her, nobody would give it any credence.

However, Annie’s fate wasn’t unknown to all. Marie Kelly, an East End prostitute and friend of Annie’s, is aware of what happened, and also knows that painter Walter Sickert – who had accompanied Eddy on his visits to the seedier side of town – is aware of what’s happened. When she and a group of her fellow prostitutes are shaken down for protection money they don’t have by a local gang, they hit on a plan of blackmailing Sickert for cash. Alas, they get greedy, ask for more money than Sickert has available, and when he turns to his Royal connections for help word of the matter gets back to Victoria, who dispatches Gull to silence the women, permanent-style.

Alas, Gull’s work is no clean, surgical strike this time around. Having suffered a stroke, Gull has become prone to mystic visions and occult obsessions, and he regards the work to be done in averting Royal embarrassment as a mere pretext for his true goal. The 20th Century is looming, and Gull believes that by conducting the murders in a particular manner and pattern, aligned with the occult geometry of London, he can turn them into a ritual act which will shape the very nature of the coming century. His intention is to make it safe from the rising tide of feminist and other progressive challenges to the status quo, winning the day for what he sees as the inherently masculine force of Apollonian rationality. The actual outcome is, well, the history we got…

Continue reading “Gull’s From Hell and John’s From Glasgow”

Jim Jarmusch Via Germany, Part 3

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.

Having covered his often-unclassifiable early works and his middle period, we’ve now come to the point where we can address three of Jim Jarmusch’s most recent films. Each of them is a skewed take on a different classic genre; you have a romantic comedy where the romance has wilted, you have an achingly slow spy thriller, and you have a vampire story about the undead contemplating art and suicide.

Broken Flowers

This 2005 movie hails from that Lost In Translation period when Bill Murray was launching a second golden age of his career, profiting on the fact that whereas in his original prime he was great at Being Funny, as he aged he was getting better and better at Being Sad or Being Grumpy whilst still Being Funny, and that plays really well to the indie cinema crowd. Here, Murray plays Don Johnston, who through a fluke of nominative determinism has spent his adult life being a bit of a Don Juan (as other characters like to remind him). He kicks off his Being Sad early, as his current partner Sherry (Julie Delpy) is walking out on him as a result of his relationship goals being entirely too superficial.

We soon get a gear shift into Being Grumpy, interspersed with Being Sad and, as always, injected with Being Funny and also, given the character’s established interests, Being Horny. Don receives in the post a mysterious, unsigned letter, purporting to be from a partner of his from around 20 years ago. The letter claims that the author became pregnant by Don and gave birth to a son shortly after the end of their relationship, and that the lad, now just shy of 19 years old, has gone on a cross-country road trip whose purpose he’s being closed-mouthed about but could well be an attempt to track down Don.

Continue reading “Jim Jarmusch Via Germany, Part 3”

Jim Jarmusch Via Germany, Part 2

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.

In the previous article in this miniseries, I covered (through the medium of a Germany-exclusive blu-ray boxed set) Jarmusch’s early career up to Dead Man. That movie benefitted in part from an excellent country-industrial soundtrack by Neil Young, so it’s only fitting that Jarmusch would return the favour with a project focused on Young himself…

Year of the Horse

This is a documentary about Neil Young and Crazy Horse which isn’t entirely of Jarmusch’s own making; specifically, it mixes footage shot by Jarmusch on Crazy Horse’s 1996 tour with backstage footage from Neil Young’s archives from 1986 and 1976, to offer a glimpse of the musicians in three different decades. In principle, this should be an exciting prospect, because that happens to catch three very important but distinct periods in the group’s career. (It’s important to remember that Crazy Horse isn’t so much Neil Young’s backing band as it is an independent entity that Neil Young happens to play with regularly – they have made Neil-less releases, and on the documentary Neil introduces himself as the “guitarist with Crazy Horse” rather than the band leader or a solo artist or anything like that.)

To be specific, 1976 saw Neil at the height of his creative powers (and his closest physical resemblance to Neil from The Young Ones); the previous year had seen him release the epochal albums Zuma and Tonight’s the Night, the latter of which was recorded in 1973 as a response to the death by heroin overdose of Crazy Horse lead guitarist Danny Whitten and and Bruce Berry, one of Neil’s roadies. The two albums couldn’t be more different – Tonight’s the Night is the saddest entry in Neil’s sorrowful “Ditch Trilogy” along with Time Fades Away and On the Beach – whilst Zuma found him moving beyond the trilogy with a more tonally varied release and a new lease of energy.

Continue reading “Jim Jarmusch Via Germany, Part 2”

Jim Jarmusch Via Germany, Part 1

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.

If you like arthouse cinema – or even cinema which veers fashionably close to arthouse but which scratches the sides of the mainstream here and there – you probably run into Jim Jarmusch at some point, the man having more or less never released a film which wasn’t at least interestingly ambitious.

At the same time, getting a high-quality collection of his work can, depending on what market you’re in, be a pain. For instance, one of my favourite films of his is Dead Man, and – at least the last time I looked – you just couldn’t get a blu-ray of it in the UK.

After some poking about, however, I found Jim Jarmusch: the Complete Collection, a German release of all his movies from his debut, Permanent Vacation, to 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive, on blu-ray (with the exception of Year of the Horse, which is provided on DVD). What I didn’t account for was the fact that the German blu-rays would not necessarily have the full range of subtitles on; sure, the actual original English-language soundtracks were all present and correct, but Jarmusch’s movies are often multi-lingual, and the absence of English subtitles for segments of non-English dialogue could sometimes be a problem.

On the whole, I think the set was still worth the money – for most of the movies, the subtitle issue is not too bad, especially if you understand a few scraps of German. And there’s few other ways to get a really complete overview of the man’s work.

Continue reading “Jim Jarmusch Via Germany, Part 1”

That’s the Hell of It…

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.

The mysterious Mr. Swan (Paul Williams) is a legendary record executive and producer – Mephistophelian in his bearing, Svengali-esque in his powers of persuasion, and Phil Spector-esque in pretty much every other respect. His current hit group, the Juicy Fruits, have spearheaded a nostalgia wave to the top of the charts, and his Death Records label dominates the industry. Now he wants to open the Paradise – his very own deluxe concert hall – and he wants the perfect music to open it with.

Enter humble Winslow Leach (William Finley), a skilled pianist and songwriter who’s written an epic rock opera based on Faust. Overhearing Leach performing some of his material, Swan sends his thuggish agent Philbin (George Memmoli) to acquire it – having done so, Swan and Philbin cut Leach out of the process entirely. As Leach tries harder and harder to get them to listen to him, Swan’s empire wrongs him more and more – first they throw him out, then they beat him up, then they have him arrested on trumped-up drugs charges and sent to Sing Sing, where the governor arbitrarily has his teeth removed and replaced with steel teeth. Flying into a rage when he hears a news report that Swan intends to have the Juicy Fruits perform his material, Leach escapes and goes on a rampage against Swan’s business interests, during which he incurs further horrible injuries, loses his voice entirely, and is thought to have died.

Under the circumstances, there’s only one thing to reasonably do: sneak into the Paradise, cobble together a spooky costume from the props cupboard, and do the whole Phantom of the Opera thing to terrorise Swan. Trouble is, Swan is difficult to scare – and very persuasive. On encountering the transformed Leach he offers to put on Faust the way Leach wants it, once Leach has rewritten it to suit a new vocalist. Having fallen in love with showbiz hopeful Phoenix (Jessica Harper in her first movie appearance), Leach agrees and signs a contract – in blood, naturally – on the condition that Phoenix be the lead singer.

Swan, naturally, reneges on the deal – leading to an escalation of the conflict between them that reveals supernatural twists to Swan’s history and culminating in a chaotic final sequence which is a triumph of carefully choreographed chaos. Characters die and hearts are broken – but the party’s so good and the music’s so hot that barely anyone notices. All this is naturally set to a great soundtrack – penned by Paul Williams himself – concluding with perhaps the best song of the lot over the credits, a catchy Elton John-esque number about how the fallen characters’ lives were totally meaningless and they’re better off dead.

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Ferretnibbles 0.3 – Tiny Text Adventures

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.

Specifically, this consists of my contribution to Ferretnibbles 3 – hence the retitling to reflect that the remainder of the original article, not reproduced here, was written by other hands.

Lately I have been poking at a number of text adventures, largely because the interactive fiction database has been refined to the point where it’s really nice and easy to find good ones. Whilst some can be true epics, others can be wrapped up extremely quickly – here’s some I quite enjoyed recently.

9:05: This bite-sized nibble of text adventure goodness from Adam Cadre is a gentle, easy introduction to the format. There are no real puzzles beyond getting out of bed in the morning, leaving the house and driving where you need to go – except if you do all that as expected of you, you run into a twist which prompts you to immediately replay it and puts a whole new spin on all the descriptions so far. Brief yet fun, and an interesting exercise in how the limited descriptions offered in text adventures can blinker the player.

Lords of Time: Written by Sue Gazzard, this was an early time travel game, commercially published back in 1983 by Level 9 Computing (both as a standalone and as part of the Time and Magik trilogy, though the games in the latter series didn’t have much of a connection). It has an interesting central mechanism – a grandfather clock with nine cogs inside gave access to nine different time zones, allowing you to travel about until you reached the endgame as you tried to collect the essential items needed to repair the structure of time for… reasons. It was let down, as were many games of its era, by the extremely limited text descriptions, which resulted in the premise of the game being a bit heavy-handed and the experience not seeming especially rich compared to later efforts. In its era, it was probably pretty good, but the rich standards of post-1990s text adventures have rather spoiled it for me since it cannot help but seem a bit threadbare in comparison.

Three-Card Trick: Chandler Groover’s pocket-sized adventure gives the player much less freedom than it at first appears, but if you pay attention to the descriptions it yields not just useful hints for progress, but also hints as to a deeper horror to its world. In principle, you’re just an award-winning stage magician annoyed at your rival improving on your signature trick; in practice, something much darker is happening. Making the protagonist a fabulous woman stage magician in a dapper tuxedo is the final bit of polish that makes it perfect, and the clever tricks it pulls with the standard IF parser format are fun.

Anchorhead: You and your husband Michael have moved to the New England town of Anchorhead, where Michael has unexpectedly inherited a family mansion and been given tenure at the local university. Of course, this was as a result of his relative Edward Verlac abruptly killing his wife and children and then committing suicide – but it’s beyond credibility that a sinister ancestor would reach out from the past and try to possess Michael as he tried to take Edward and his family, with the aim of invoking dark gods to end humanity’s pitiful reign on this planet, right… right?

Anchorhead bills itself as a Lovecraftian text adventure, but it’d be more accurate to call it Derlethian – it uses August Derleth’s Standard Narrative as used in his Mythos pastiches to the hilt. That said, it is much more enjoyable than those stories in part because designer Michael S. Gentry is a much better prose engineer than Derleth, and in part because it casts you not as the possessed inheritor of a sinister house but as the inheritor’s wife, which opens up a new take on the old story. Various flavours of real-life abuse are thematically touched on, making this a story more comfortable with dealing with real-life horror than Derleth ever was, and in some respect more than Lovecraft ever did. It is rendered a little tough going by the ease with which you can get the game into an unwinnable state inadvertently, however.

Kickstopper: USE CREDIT CARD with CROWDFUNDING CAMPAIGN

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.

Point-and-click adventures of the Monkey Island variety were largely responsible for the boom of videogame-related Kickstarters, ever since Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Adventure campaign opened the floodgates. It wasn’t long before other big names from that era like Jane Jensen used Kickstarter to finance new adventures, and inevitably sooner or later it was the turn of Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, creators of the original Maniac Mansion. The game they chose to Kickstart was Thimbleweed Park.

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: USE CREDIT CARD with CROWDFUNDING CAMPAIGN”