Developed by Robot Invader
Available on PC and PSN
Suitable for ages 14+
It’s very hard for me to consider virtual reality as anything more than a gimmick. Just look at how many of its most popular games are simulators of how to do something shitty. I get the point of comedy games, but when the key mechanic of most of your titles is fumbling around like an idiot, perhaps there’s something to that. It’s not that I don’t like the idea of being able to look around the game world with my eyeballs instead of my mouse. I just think that most developers care more about the gimmick than the game.
Which is why it’s particularly commendable when a company makes a VR game that is actually a game and not a tech demo. So, kudos Robot Invader. Dead Secret puts the game first, using the VR as a simple means to experience the world. Most notably, you actually don’t need VR to play it. Though the point-to-point movement system makes walking around a bit clunky, the game is entirely playable and equally enjoyable without an expensive headset.
You play as a young investigative reporter in the 1960’s whose dissatisfied with the bit pieces she’s constantly assigned. When reclusive professor Harris Bullard dies in his rural Kansas home, you sense the opportunity for a scoop big enough to put you on the map. Though the murder mystery premise is simple enough, the game quickly shifts to a level of eerie and bizarre that’s difficult to describe. You’ll go from simple slider puzzles and code hunting, to putting electric leeches into a moon reader to calibrate a magic dream machine. And that’s not even mentioning the masked demon you can only see while wearing your altered reality goggles.
It isn’t all puzzles and collectible notes. There is a real threat in the house, in the form of a very creepy masked assailant. You only encounter it a few times, but it’s always a tense race to safety. Most commendable, the exploration and chase scenes are entirely separate. I know some people like hunting for collectibles while a monster shambles just feet away, but I don’t. I like having the freedom to explore and take in the complicated and layered narrative. It’s particularly necessary in Dead Secrets, because there is a quiz at the end, so you better pay attention to all that story stuff.
Unfortunately, I can’t really get into the specifics of the Dead Secret story without spoiling it. There’s a real murder mystery at the core outside of all the ghosts and techno-wizardry. You’ll have to solve not only the puzzle in front of you, but the question of who murdered Harris Bullard. Each of the five suspects are equally motivated, and each has their own piece of damning evidence. Still, it isn’t terribly difficult to figure out.
What makes Dead Secret stand out so much to me is how naturally it integrates all of its elements. The very real threat of the person in the house doesn’t conflict with all of the ghosts and dream machines. It’s all presented with a degree of seriousness and scientific realism that grounds it. The game also makes discoveries feel rewarding. There’s a golden point of difficulty between chore and clever challenge. Generally, games will make the mandatory puzzles obvious, while the secrets require real attention. Dead Secret requires ingenuity to the point that the line between secret and main path is blurred. Several times I would unlock a hidden room and feel really clever about it, only to find that it was just another part of the primary objective.
The only real complaint I have with Dead Secret is the visuals. It certainly isn’t ugly, with the character design being genuinely spooky. I mostly just didn’t feel like this was a real place. It was too bare to feel natural. Aside from the well decorated study, this didn’t feel like a lived-in home. This is an important point. If a game feels like a series boxes for puzzles to take place, it loses a lot of its impact. It has a great narrative design, and the elements that made up the main story felt well developed. It just lacked the connective tissue to make this place feel like a real location.
Dead Secret also doesn’t do anything terribly unique. I’m not the guy that’s going to tell every game to reinvent the wheel, but it could have used a bit more innovation. Maybe I’m being too harsh, and the inclusion of VR is enough. I did play this just on my PC without a headset afterall. The scares were effective, and the game wasn’t afraid to let something linger. In an industry inundated with jump scares, it was nice to be forced to overcome my fears to figure out what the spooky thing was trying to show me. Even so, all of it was in service of collecting item A to fit in slot B to get the code for lock C.
This is the part where reviewing this becomes interesting for me, because I have to choose how to judge Dead Secret. As a VR game specifically, it’s great. It uses the medium well without devolving into gimmick. On the other had, as a standard PC title, it’s nothing groundbreaking. It’s certainly good, but doesn’t rise to the level of amazing. That being said, how is it fair for me to criticize the title for being too playable in too many different ways? Discrediting a great VR game for being just a good standard title neglects how hard it is to make a game that is both.
So while my reflex is to judge something negatively for being inconsistent across mediums, I’m going to temper myself and flip that. This is a great VR game and should be a part of any horror fan’s library. It’s also a decent horror mystery, and is worth checking out without a Vive or Oculus. The fact that it can be both is an example of how this industry can function past the novelty. When you get over the fact that you can look anywhere and start using that to make a good game, not just a “unique experience,” that’s when the technology really starts to come into its own. Robot Invader did something commendable with Dead Secret. So, like I said, kudos.
Desolation Review: Campers + Lunatic = Simplicity, But Not Always a Better Product
Starring Jaimi Page, Alyshia Ochse, Toby Nichols
Directed by Sam Patton
I’m usually all in when it comes to a psycho in the woods flick, but there was just something about Sam Patton’s Desolation that seemed a bit distant for me…distance…desolation – I’m sure there’s a connection in there somewhere. Either that or I’m suffering from a minor case of sleep-deprivation. Either way, make sure you’ve got your backpack stuffed, cause we’re hitting the timber-lands for this one.
The film focuses on mother and son tandem Abby and Sam, and the tragic notion that Abby’s love and father to her son, has passed away. The absence has been a crippling one, and Abby’s idea of closure is to take her adolescent offspring to the woods where her husband used to love to run and scatter his ashes as a memorial tribute. Abby invites her best friend Jenn along as emotional support, and together all three are planning on making this trip a fitting and dedicatory experience…until the mystery man shows up. Looking like a member of the Ted Kaczynski clan (The Unabomber himself), this creepy fellow seems content to simply watch the threesome, and when he ultimately decides to close the distance, it’ll be a jaunt in the forest that this close-knit group will never forget.
So there you have it – doesn’t beg a long, descriptive, bled-out dissertation – Patton tosses all of his cards on the table in plain view for the audience to scan at their leisure. While the tension is palpable at times, it’s the equivalent of watching someone stumble towards the edge of a cliff, and NEVER tumble over…for a long time – you literally watch them do the drunken two-step near the lip for what seems like an eternity. What I’m getting at is that the movie has the bells and whistles to give white-knucklers something to get amped about, yet it never all seems to come into complete focus, or allow itself to spread out in such a way that you can feel satisfied after the credits roll. If I may harp on the performance-aspect for a few, it basically broke down this way for me: both Abby and Jenn’s characters were well-displayed, making you feel as if you really were watching long-time besties at play. Sam’s character was a bit tough to swallow, as he was the sadder-than-sad kid due to his father’s absence, but JEEZ this kid was a friggin malcontented little jerk – all I can say is “role well-played, young man.”
As we get to our leading transient, kook, outsider – whatever you want to call him: he simply shaved down into a hum-drum personality – no sizzle here, folks. Truly a disappointment for someone who was hoping for an enigmatic nutbag to terrorize our not-so-merry band of backpackers – oh well, Santa isn’t always listening, I guess. Simplicity has its place and time when displaying the picture-perfect lunatic, and before everyone gets a wild hair across their ass because of what I’m saying, all this is was the wish to have THIS PARTICULAR psycho be a bit more colorful – I can still appreciate face-biters like Hannibal Lecter and those of the restrained lunacy set. Overall, Desolation is one of those films that had all the pieces meticulously set in place, like a house of cards…until that drunk friend stumbled into the table, sending everything crumbling down. A one-timer if you can’t find anything else readily available to watch.
Looking for a little direction way out in the woods? Look elsewhere, because this guide doesn’t have a whole lot to offer.
Children of the Fall Review – This Israeli Slasher Gets Political
Starring Noa Maiman, Aki Avni, Yafit Shalev, Iftach Ophir, Michael Ironside
Directed by Eitan Gafny
Reviewed out of Utopia 2017
Slashers are a subgenre of horror that are often looked down upon. After all, what can a movie about a killer slaughtering multiple people have to say about, well…anything. Those of us in the community know full well that this is nonsense and that any kind of horror movie can be a jabbing (no pun intended) commentary on society, culture, politics, art, etc… And that’s precisely what Eitan Gafny aims to do with Children of the Fall, one of the few Israeli slashers ever created.
Set on the eve of the Yom Kippur war, the film follows Rachel (Maiman), a young American woman who comes to Israel to join a kibbutz after suffering some serious personal tragedies. Her goal to make aliyah (the return of Jews to Israel) is however hampered by some rather unpleasant encounters with local IDF soldiers and members of the kibbutz. Pushing through, she makes friends with others in the commune and her Zionistic views are only strengthened, although they do not go untested. Once Yom Kippur, one of the holiest holidays in Jewish culture, begins, a killer begins picking off the kibbutz workers one by one in violent and gruesome ways.
Let’s start with what Children of the Fall gets right, okay? As slashers go, it’s actually quite beautiful. There are wonderfully expansive shots that make use of the size and diversity of the kibbutz. The film opens with a beautiful shot of a cow stable, barn, water towers, and miscellaneous outbuildings, all set against a dark and stormy night. The lighting of this scene, and throughout the film, is also very good. I found myself darting my eyes across the screen multiple times throughout the film thinking I’d seen something lurking in the shadows.
The kills, while unoriginal, are very satisfying. Each death is meaty, bloody, and doesn’t feel rushed. In fact, the camera has no problems lingering during each kill, allowing us to appreciate the practical FX and copious amounts of blood used. And if you believe that a slasher needs to have nudity, you won’t be disappointed.
The acting is middle of the road. Maiman is serviceable as Rachel but the real star of the film is Aki Avni as “Yaron”. His range of emotion is fantastic, from warm and welcoming to Rachel when she arrives to emoting grief and pain during his Yom Kippur announcement where we learn that he was a child in a concentration camp. The rest of the cast are perfectly acceptable as fodder for the killer.
So where does Children of the Fall stray? Let’s start with the most obvious part: the runtime. Clocking in at nearly two hours, that’s about 30 minutes too much. The film could easily have gone through some hefty editing without affecting the final product. Instead, we have a movie that feels elongated when unnecessary.
Additionally, the societal and political commentary is very in-your-face but the film can’t seem to make up its mind as to what it’s trying to get across. Natalia, a Belarussian kibbutz worker, raises the concept of Israeli racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, her hostility unabashedly pouring out in the midst of IDF soldiers, locals, other kibbutz members, and more. Is there validity to what she’s saying? Undoubtedly. But there is also validity to Rachel’s retorts, which include calling this woman out on her own vitriolic views. This back-and-forth mentality frustratingly prevails throughout the film, as though Gafny was unwilling to just commit.
The dialogue is also quite painful at times, although I attribute this to difficulties with translating from Hebrew to English. Even the best English speakers in Israel don’t get everything perfect and the little quirks here and there, while charming, are quite detracting. Also, why is this movie trying to tell me that Robert Smith of The Cure is a character here? While amusing, it makes absolutely no sense nor does it fit in Smith’s own timeline.
Had this film gone through a couple rounds of editing, I feel like we’d have gotten something really great. Eitan Gafny is definitely someone that we need to be watching very closely.
While Children of the Fall has a lot going for it, it has just as much working against it. Overly long, you’ll get a really great slasher that is bogged down by uneven social and political commentary.
Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club Review – A Charming, Quirky Dark Drama
Starring Keren Mor, Yiftach Klein, Hana Laslo, Ania Bukstein
Directed by Guilhad Emilio Schenker
Reviewed out of Utopia 2017
One of the great joys I have in being a horror fan is seeing horror films from around the world. I view these films as a chance to learn about the fears, folklore, mythology, and lore of varied cultures. Films like Inugami, Frontier(s), [REC], and the like transport me across oceans and into places I might never get the chance to visit otherwise. Hence my interest in the Israeli dark drama Madam Yankeolva’s Fine Literature Club, the feature debut of director Guilhad Emilio Schenker.
The film follows Sophie (Mor), a member of a strange, female-only reading club – who believes that love is a lie – that we soon realize brings men into its midst only to have them killed. The woman who brings the most fitting man is awarded a trophy for her fine taste. When a member reaches 100 trophies, they get to enter a coveted and highly esteemed upper echelon of the reading club’s society, one that includes lavish surroundings and an almost regal lifestyle. Sophie starts the film earning her 99th trophy but her plans towards the all-important 100th trophy are thrown askew when she ends up developing feelings for her latest victim. She must now decide if the mission that has been so dear to her for so many years is something she wishes to see through or if she’s ready to take a huge risk and fall in love.
Now, if this seems like a strange story for a horror website, I don’t disagree. Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is certainly not your traditional horror film. In fact, I’d liken it far more to the more playful works of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children than something more grotesque and violent. It’s very playful and quite charming, although there are times when the presentation feels amateurish and certain moments when things become wildly unbelievable. That being said, the film aims to be a dark fairy tale come to life, so a healthy amount of “I’m okay letting that go” will not go unappreciated.
The film is shot in such a way that it’s very soft around the edges, almost like we’re constantly in a dream. This is aided by composer Tal Yardeni’s score, which obviously takes inspiration from Danny Elfman, playfully weaving its way through each scene.
While there’s a lot to love about Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club, it’s certainly not a flawless film. As mentioned previously, there are times when it feels quite amateurish, as though no one thought to look at how a scene is being filmed and say, “People, this isn’t how things would go down. We can have fun but this just doesn’t sit right.” Additionally, the story moves very quickly. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard of love at first sight. But that’s not how this story plays out, so the wildly strong feelings that develop between Sophie and Yosef (Klein) seem strangely out of place.
All things being what they are, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a charming film that can definitely appeal to horror fans if they’re willing to stretch their boundaries to include films that have absolutely no scares or gore but imply quite a horrific situation.
Charming, quirky, but not without its faults, Madam Yankelova’s Fine Literature Club is a dark drama for fans of Tim Burton and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Don’t go in expecting any scares or gore. Rather, anticipate a fairy tale that might be just a bit too gruesome in tone for young children.
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