Produced by Viva Media
Written by Jane Jensen
When it comes to video games, I don’t care much about the mechanics. Jumping around in my living room, waving a giant electronic doodad holds little appeal for me. Give me a good story, a rich universe to explore, and characters I can get behind. In short, I like to lose myself in games the same way I do movies and books instead of mashing buttons till my thumbs bleed. For this reason alone, I’ve been mourning the death of the adventure game for the better part of a decade, remembering the glory days of those Sierra and Lucasarts PC classics. Thankfully, recent titles like Heavy Rain and developers like Telltale Games have helped reignite the subgenre and paved the way for one of the most exciting titles to come along for old-school gamers: Gray Matter, which marks the long-awaited return of legendary game designer Jane Jensen.
Jensen famously produced the Gabriel Knight franchise for Sierra, which, for my money, is the best genre-based game series of all time. Her ability to blend mythology and history into fully immersive supernatural detective stories is nothing short of staggering, and Gray Matter fits perfectly into that mold. It’s a throwback game in every sense of the word, utilizing a point and click interface to navigate players through an atmospheric world of ghosts, magic, secret societies, and science run amok.
The story revolves around stage magician Sam Everett, whose motorcycle breaks down while traveling through the European countryside. Taking shelter from the storm, she comes across the stately manor of Dread Hill House, home to famous neurobiologist David Styles, and poses as his new lab assistant to get a room for the night. The doctor is a young widower, sporting a Phantom of the Opera mask after surviving the tragic incident that claimed his wife, and spends his days conducting new research experiments. Before long, Sam becomes entangled in several mysteries involving David’s mysterious past, an underground club of magicians, and an experiment gone horribly wrong.
Gray Matter is a handsomely produced title that never goes where you quite expect it to. If you’ve played games of this type, you know the drill: Explore your environments, talk to characters, and use your wits to uncover clues. This isn’t a conventional mystery though: Chapters alternate between playing Sam and Dr. Styles, and several different threads and subplots merge into a surprisingly complex page-turner (or in this case, point-clicker). And like the very best adventure games, nothing is facetious; every action you do is in service to the plot. Beautifully rendered environments, solid voice acting and a haunting score help deepen the mystery as you move through various events in and around Oxford. As you progress, you’ll also have to dig into Sam’s magician’s handbook and pull off classic stage techniques to confuse and manipulate people into giving up information or getting past obstacles. It’s a cool little twist on the traditional logic puzzle (although a tad unchallenging for more experienced adventure gamers).
That said, Gray Matter’s main flaw stems from the same thing that has plagued similar titles over the past decade: the budget. While it boasts impressive production values throughout, the cut-scenes unfold through unanimated hand-drawings that cheapen an otherwise great game. They’re few and far between, but they also rob some moments of their emotional impact, particularly when it comes to the rushed climactic ending which feels like the developers simply ran out of money.
Still, like most adventure games, Gray Matter is about the journey and not the destination. It may not break new ground, but when it comes to gaming, sometimes the classical approach is the best. Hats off to Jane Jensen for crafting another gripping experience that echoes all the great PC games I grew up with and, for the first time in many years, made me excited to reach for my mouse-pad again.
4 1/2 out of 5
Discuss Gray Matter in the comments section below!
American Psycho Meets Creep – Strawberry Flavored Plastic Review
Starring Aidan Bristow, Nicholas Urda, Andres Montejo
Directed by Colin Bemis
Recently I wrote up an article here on Dread Central which was basically an open letter to anyone who was listening called “I Miss Found Footage.” Well, it seems like someone WAS listening, as I was then sent the link to an all-new found footage film called Strawberry Flavored Plastic from first-time writer-director Colin Bemis.
The film follows the “still-at-large crimes of Noel, a repentant, classy and charming serial killer loose in the suburbs of New York.” Basically, you could think of the flick as American Psycho meets Mark Duplass and Partick Brice’s Creep. That, or you could think of it as “Man Bites Dog in color!” However you choose to label Colin Bemis’ psychological thriller, just make sure you check out the film once it hits in the future.
As I alluded to above, the film is basically a found footage version of American Psycho. But that said, the film sports a twist on the charming serial killer subgenre that I have yet to see play out in any of the above-mentioned classics. I’m not going to go into spoiler territory here, but I will say that the film introduces an element to the tale that spins it into much more of a character drama than a straight horror film. Not that there is anything wrong with that!
Truth be told, the film’s turn from serial killer flick into a layered character study might have been its kiss of death, but this slight genre switch is rendered a minor issue as the film’s central narcissistic antagonist is played by Aidan Bristow. Bristow is an actor you may not have heard of before this review, but you will hear his name more and more over the years to come, I promise. The guy gives (no pun intended) a killer performance as the film’s resident serial killer Noel Rose, and time after time surprised me with how chilling, charming, or downright vulnerable he chose to play any given scene.
Bristow’s performance is, in the end, the major element the film has going for it. But that said, as a fan of found footage, I was smiling ear to ear at first-time director Colin Bemis’ understanding of what makes a found footage suspense sequence work.
In Strawberry Flavored Plastic director Colin Bemis is confident and content to allow full emotional scenes to play out with the camera directed at nothing more than a character’s knees. Why is this so important? Because it keeps the reality of the film going. Too many found footage directors would focus on the actors’ faces during such emotional scenes – no matter how contrived the camera angle was. In this film, however, Bemis favors the reality that says, “If you were really in this emotional state and holding a camera, you would let it drop to your side.” I agree, and it is small touches like that which make the film feel authentic and thus – once the shite hits the fan – all the scarier.
On the dull side of the kitchen knife, the film does feel a bit long even given it’s short running time, and there doesn’t seem too much in the way of visceral horror to be found within. Again, graphic blood and gore aren’t a must in a fright flick, but a tad more of the old ultra-violence would have gone a long way in selling our main psychopath’s insanity and unpredictability. But all the same, the film does feature a rather shocking sequence where our main baddie performs a brutal home invasion/murder that puts this film firmly in the realm of horror. In fact, the particular POV home invasion scene I’m talking about holds about as much horror as you’ll ever wish to witness.
In the end, Colin Bemis’ Strawberry Flavored Plastic is a must-see for fans of found footage and serial killer studies such as American Pyscho, Creep, and Man Bites Dog. I recommend giving it a watch once it premieres. If only to be able to point to Aidan Bristow in the near future and tell all your friends that you watched (one of) his first movies.
Lead actor Aidan Bristow turns in a star-making performance in Colin Bemis’ Strawberry Flavored Plastic, a found footage film that plays out like Man Bites Dog in Color before introducing a new element to the charming-serial-killer subgenre and becoming more character study than a straight horror. Think American Psycho meets Creep.
Who Goes There Podcast: Ep 148 – Inside (2017 Remake)
We’ve all heard the old saying, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Well, I’m here to tell you that’s only partially true. It seems there is a third certainty that had been omitted from the original quote, “It is certain, if you enjoy a movie, at some point someone will remake that movie.” Now is the time when one of my favorite movies gets reimagined, “for an American audience”.
In the late 2000’s an explosion of “French extreme” horror films was released. Martyrs and or High Tension can often be found on any number of lists of the “most fucked up horror movies ever”. Unfortunately, the vastly superior Inside is often forgotten (as well as Frontier(s), but that’s a whole ‘nother rant). Now, ten years after it’s initial release, Inside has been Americanized. Don’t worry, we watched it so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.
Mommy says you’re not dead. Is that true? It’s the Who Goes There Podcast episode 148!
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Totem Review – It’s Not Always A Bad Thing To Look Up From The Bottom Level, If You Like That View
Starring Kerris Dorsey, James Tupper, Ahna O’Reilly
Directed by Marcel Sarmiento
Following the untimely death of a family’s matriarchal figure, a young woman finds out that managing to hold all of the pieces in place becomes increasingly more difficult when otherworldly infiltrators make their presence felt. We’re going to have to work our way up this Totem, as
17 year old Kellie is the leading lady of the home following the passing of her mother Lexy, and with a needy father and tiny tot of a baby sister, she still keeps things in working order, regardless of the rather large hole that’s been left in the dynamic due to the death. Kellie’s dad after a while decides to ask his lady-friend to move in with the family, so that everyone can move onto a more peaceful existence…yeah, because those types of instances always seem to work seamlessly. As fate would have it, Kellie’s sense of pride is now taking a beating with the new woman in the mix, and her little sister’s new “visitor” is even more disturbed by this intruder – only question is, exactly who is this supernatural pal of sorts? Is it the spirit of their dead mother standing by to keep watch over the family, or is it something that’s found its way to this group, and has much more evil intentions at hand?
What works here is the context of something innately malicious that has found its way into the home – there are only a couple moments that come off as unsettling, but the notion of having to weave through more than half the film acting as a sullen-teen drama is rather painful. The presentation of the “broken family” is one that’s been done to death, and with better results overall, and that’s not to say that the movie is a complete loss, it just takes far too much weeding through at times stale performances and even more stagnant pacing to get to a moderately decent late-stage conclusion to the film. Under the direction of Marcel Sarmiento (Deadgirl), I’d truly hoped for something a bit more along the lines of a disturbing project such as that one, but the only thing disturbing was the time I’d invested in checking this one out. My best advice is to tune into the Lifetime channel if you want a sulky teen-melodrama with a tinge of horror, or you could simply jump into this one and work your way up…but it’s a LONG way to the top.
Sulky, moody, and ridden with teen-angst buried in the middle of a supernatural mystery – SOUNDS like a decent premise, doesn’t it?
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