Dragged Into Mediocrity

Sam Raimi’s return to horror after Spiderman gave him a big dose of mainstream credibility opens up with a prelude establishing its demonic (and kind of racist) premise: in 1969 medium Shaun San Dela (played here by Flor de Maria Chahua) tries and fails to help a young couple whose son has been cursed after stealing a necklace from a gypsy – a curse which causes the boy to be physically dragged into hell, as the movie’s title promises.

In the present day, loan officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is angling for a big promotion, and her boss Mr Jacks (David Paymer) drops a hint that what he’s looking for is someone who can make hard-nosed, tough decisions. On top of that, she overhears a conversation between her boyfriend, Psychology professor Clay Dayton (Justin Long), and his mother suggesting that she won’t approve of Christine unless she demonstrates more career ambition, and Christine’s main competitor for the post is Stu Rubin (Reggie Lee), an utter douche who uses shady tactics to make Christine look bad and to suck up to Mr Jacks.

Thus, when Sylvia Ganush (Lorna Raver), an elderly woman, comes in to request an extension on her loan repayments, and Mr Jacks suggests that this is just the sort of hard choice that he’s thinking of as far as the promotion goes, Christine is more than ready to deny her the extension, even though she knows it means Sylvia will be evicted from her home. (The direction also makes strong suggestions that Christine fines Sylvia’s personal habits physically repulsive, which might colour the way she presents Sylvia’s case to Mr Jacks in the first place.) Pushed beyond her limits, Sylvia curses Christine with the same manner of curse the child from the prelude had. Will four decades of mediumship experience help Shaun San Dela (played in her elder form by Adriana Barazza) beat the curse this time, or is Christine as inexorably damned as the kid in the prologue?

Continue reading “Dragged Into Mediocrity”


My Moan About “Madman”

In a moonlit forest, on the last night of summer camp, the kids and staff (who, in a move which doesn’t speak well for the camp’s commercial viability, outnumber the kids) sit about a campfire and tell spooky stories. The owner of the camp tells a tale of an old abandoned house nearby – a house haunted by an insatiable axe murderer who was mutilated and hanged by the locals years ago but who escaped death and still stalks the woods to this day, a killer who is inspired to undertake yet another spree whenever someone speaks his name above a whisper, an unstoppable engine of death who looks like an off-brand version of Iron Maiden’s mascot if he put on a bunch of weight and grew a beard – a stalker named Madman Marz.

Naturally, one of the kids takes it on himself to scream “Madman Marz” at the top of his voice and lob a rock through Marz’s house’s window.

Urban legends like Madman Marz are ten-a-penny, of course – more or less every campsite has them, and I remember being creeped out by a very similar story when I went to Scout camp as a kid because I was kind of a wimpy boy and hadn’t watched any of the Friday the 13th movies. There’s a particular area of New York where the local campsite killer urban legend refers to a certain “Cropsey”, who was supposed to haunt an abandoned mental hospital; fairly recently the documentary Cropsey explored the possibility that this particular iteration of the legend might have been inspired by the activities of a real life child kidnapper and alleged murderer from the area named Andre Rand.

Continue reading “My Moan About “Madman””

The Devil’s Dagger!

Two women rob a bank and murder some bank tellers pointlessly before escaping to a cabin in a woodland ski resort; they don’t last the night before one of them has shot the other so that they don’t have to share the money, only for the betrayer to get stabbed in the back by an unseen figure who stacks the bodies on the stairs under a strange symbol scrawled on the wall with blood.

The next day, two separate groups of holidaymakers arrive at the resort. One of them, a group of women who don’t seem to have much of a background or motivation beyond being on the prowl for dudeflesh, takes the cabin the murders took place in; another, two husband-and-wife pairs celebrating one of the husbands (Tony) passing the bar exam, takes the neighbouring cabin. Both groups are regaled with stories of a mountain man who long ago called on the dark spirits of the hills for a weapon to use against those encroaching on his land – a certain blade, which drove the bearer to kill his enemies and his family alike. Supposedly, he rests at the bottom of the local lake, occasionally rising to kill again.

As the gents spend their time ignoring their wives, cultivating their bromance, and hanging out with the ladies next door, the wives spend their time being ignored, and the women in the murder cabin try to have a fun holiday despite being in a murder cabin, the police keep their investigation into the killings going. Eventually, the plot has to start again… right?

Continue reading “The Devil’s Dagger!”

Not the Thanksgiving Turkey I Expected

In a world where nobody wears a bra and everyone makes sure you can tell they aren’t wearing a bra, single mother Maddy Simmons (Louise Lasser) and her boyfriend (Bill Cakmis) go along to a drive-in performance of an R-rated horror movie – with Maddy’s twin 11-years-ish-old sons, Terry and Todd, sleeping in the back. In the middle of the movie, the twins wake up and Terry finds himself a nice, sharp axe, hacks up a dude in another car, and then hands over the axe to Todd and smears him with blood to frame him. Ten years later, at Thanksgiving dinner Maddy announces that she’s gotten engaged to new squeeze Brad King (William Fuller), manager of the Shadow Wood lakeside housing development where they live, and receives the news that Todd (played as an adult by Mark Soper) has escaped from the special school they sent him to – but not before regaining his memories of that night and telling his therapist, Doctor Berman, the truth about the events.

Well, Terry (also played as an adult by Mark) isn’t having any of that, and he’s decided that a good old-fashioned killing spree is just what’s called for: after all, the more over-the-top, gruesome killings he can pull off tonight and pin on Todd, the longer Todd will be put away for and the better chance Terry will have of getting away with the original murder. With Todd making his way home and much confusion between the twins ensuing, the scene is set for a sort of slasher movie take on The Comedy of Errors. Can Todd get anyone to believe him – and can Terry really get away with his terrible scheme? Will everyone keep their cool, or will someone end up losing their temper and flying into a… Blood Rage?

Continue reading “Not the Thanksgiving Turkey I Expected”

A (Moon)Missed Opportunity

In the pantheon of game developers specialising in text adventures back in the golden age of the genre, Infocom’s name looms large, and with good reason. By heavily pushing the line that their products are “Interactive Fiction” – and going out of their way to cover a range of genres from classic videogame fare like SF/fantasy to less traditional subject matter for games, they not only presented their products as refined pursuits for elite gamers who are too good for games which involve hand/eye co-ordination or actual game mechanics, but they arguably also set the tone for the IF fan community who beaver away producing new games to this day.

The “Interactive Fiction” label is still used by those who want to hype up the artistic potential of the medium or who otherwise find “text adventure” to be an embarrassing term – something which rather bugs me, since I think the more effort you put in to make the things you like seem less embarrassing to others, the more obvious it is that you are a bit embarrassed of them, and therefore the more embarrassing it seems. (To take an example from a very different field, the famed Gimp Man of Essex seems to be mostly regarded as a national treasure rather than a weird pervert, largely because he’s very casual about it and doesn’t go out of his way to make it weird; if he acted all embarrassed about his activities then I think he’d have a much more negative reception.)

Another beef I have with the term “Interactive Fiction” is that it’s horribly imprecise. Any videogame with a plot is interactive fiction. A gamebook is interactive fiction. A pantomime is arguably interactive fiction, at least in the sense that the characters acknowledge the audience and respond to their calls. Lots of stuff is a) clearly presenting fiction and b) clearly offering interactivity of some form. “Text adventure” pins down the medium far more precisely, and if it’s got some embarrassing and unfortunate associations you do the work to decouple it from those associations and promote text adventures which don’t go there, you don’t make up a new word for the stuff you are doing to try and set up some sort of elite divide between the text adventures you approve of and the ones you disapprove of.

More positively, the Inform family of languages, which are probably the most common ones used in the field, were developed to let home coders produce games that would run on Infocom’s Z-machine – a virtual machine which lets Infocom games be played on any computer system with a suitable interpreter.

Infocom’s development of the Z-machine is a happy historical accident which has been a real boon to the modern-day text adventure community. Infocom, it should be remembered, were operating at a time before personal computer architectures and operating systems had ossified into the major standards we have these days. By writing their games for the Z-machine, Infocom effectively only had to write each game once – then all they had to do was make a Z-machine interpreter for whichever computer platform they wanted to publish for, and then they could put out all of their games on that platform, which is obviously massively cheaper than having to rewrite each game for each operating system you want to adapt it to. (It even led to major price savings when it came to the packaging – Infocom games of the classic era came out in the same box with the same handouts and inserts for all platforms, and they’d just stick the appropriate disk or cassette tape in the box and put a sticker on the front specifying which operating system the contents worked on.)

This, of course, has also been very helpful when it comes to running classic Infocom text adventures and brand new Inform-based homebrews on modern computers, because the exact same task applies: simply write a Z-machine interpreter for whatever new platform comes out, and then once you have that working everything written in Inform or by Infocom can be played on that platform.

The fan community has also followed Infocom’s lead in recognising that there’s two things which are really key to a good text adventure: an interpreter which is easy to engage with and can understand a broad range of commands, and really solid writing. (After all, if the sole means a game has of delivering content consists of text, it may as well be really nicely polished text that is a pleasure to read.)

It’s fair to say, then, that whilst the homebrew adventure game scene has made some very important contributions to the genre – making a range of interpreters for running new and old text adventures on modern computers, smartphones, and more or less anything with a computer chip in it, as well as expanding the versatility and hence the user-friendliness of interpreters by widely expanding the range of verbs understood – they’re very much standing on the shoulders of giants, and Infocom is by far the largest giant. Usually, I would say that this position is well-earned; of the 1980s-era text adventures I have played, Infocom ones have almost always had the richest and most flavourful prose, the most forgiving and user-friendly parsers, and the most interesting stories and puzzles.

There are, of course, exceptions…

Continue reading “A (Moon)Missed Opportunity”

What Have You Done To Your Students, Enrico?

Enrico Rosseni (Fabio Testi) teaches Italian and Gynmastics at a swanky London Catholic girls’ school. His marriage with Herta (Karin Baal), the German teacher, is on the rocks, but at least he gets on well with his students – after all, he’s the cool, laid-back teacher who tries to present himself as a peer to the kids. He gets on especially well with final-year student Elizabeth Seccles (Cristina Galbó), who he’s carrying on an affair with behind everyone’s back – though they haven’t consummated it yet, much to his frustration.

One day, as they’re smooching in a boat on the Thames, Elizabeth thinks she sees two figures on the bank, one chasing the other. but it’s only the briefest glimpse, and when the two hop out of the boat to check they don’t see anything untoward. The next morning, though, Enrico catches the morning news and hears that a girl’s body was found in the locale – Hilda Erickson, one of Enrico’s students. As Enrico juggles his curiosity about what happened to Hilda and his desperation to keep his affair with Elizabeth covered up, he ends up looking more and more guilty. Eventually, Enrico, Herta, and police detective Inspector Barth (Joachim Fuchsberger) all end up chasing down leads that find them drawn into the secret lives of the students.

Ultimately, the root of the mystery may be found in something terrible that happened to a mystery girl from another school. The final question our sleuths must resolve might not be “Who killed Hilda?” or “What went on between you and Elizabeth?” but… What Have You Done To Solange?

Continue reading “What Have You Done To Your Students, Enrico?”

All The World’s a Text Adventure, and All the Men and Women Merely Players…

It’s January 1603, and it’s a Plague year in London. You are struggling printer Richard Fletcher, and you receive an invitation to dinner with an old friend of yours, John Croft. After you arrive at Croft’s home, however, you find all is not well – and it stems from Croft’s relationship with Christopher Marlowe and a curious unfinished Marlowe play that Croft had been trying to complete with help from William Shakespeare, entitled The King In Yellowe

Adapted by Jimmy Maher from a Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG scenario by Justin Tynes (the original adventure was published in Strange Aeons, a set of scenarios set in time periods not typically addressed by the game), The King of Shreds and Patches is a remarkably accomplished text adventure, with several important strengths. The first is the extremely high standard of writing; the descriptions are vivid but also to-the-point, and usually succeed at making sure that important matters are highlighted. More or less anything which the text draws your attention to in the area descriptions is something that can be usefully examined, for instance, and each and every description contributes something to the atmosphere.

Continue reading “All The World’s a Text Adventure, and All the Men and Women Merely Players…”