Developed by Creative Assembly
Published by SEGA
Available on PC through Steam
Rated T for Teen
Oh, thanks SEGA. Here I am, being a productive adult with a big new proposal due at work, and you just HAVE to drop Total War: Warhammer 2 into my lap. How rude. Well I guess there goes my lucrative new office job. Whatever, we all know being a starving games journalist is where it’s all at. Plus, now I have plenty of time to play Warhammer 2!
If there are three things I’m known for, it’s my killer smile, unparallelled wit, and ludicrous devotion to all things Total War and Warhammer. In the two weeks I had before writing this review, I have put a combined 140 hours into Total War: Warhammer II. That’s a level of devotion that high school girls dream of and women in their 20’s find deeply unsettling. Even while writing this I’m fighting off the shakes to move my mouse over to the Steam tab and click the Play button.
Damage to my body and social skills aside, this is the kind of obsession that’s rather good for a game like Total War: Warhammer 2. If you’ve read any of my previous Total War articles, you might notice that they more resemble a mix between a history textbook and some social misanthrope’s manifesto. Laden with individual unit analysis, meta speculations, and other minutia, it’s the kind of thing that’s like crack to a hypernerd and equally appealing as a crack addict to normal people.
To me the appeal of Total War: Warhammer II is obvious. Then again, I sometimes forget that not everyone is the kind of person that enjoys spending multiple day-long sessions festering in their own sweat as they crank out turn after turn for the glorious prize of a Legendary campaign victory. So it’s actually pretty accurate to say that if you aren’t the kind of person that can sit through the impenetrable tome that is this review, you probably won’t get a whole lot out of Total War: Warhammer II.
“Why not?” You may ask, “Isn’t this a game where dinosaurs riding dinosaurs fight rat people for domination of a magic tornado that eats demons?” Well, yes. That is Total War: Warhammer 2. But actually getting to that part and enjoying it is quite the process. You’ll have to build bases, manage your generals, prioritize your outputs, and recruit your army before you can even get into your first battle. And that’s just if you want to play. Getting good at the game is a whole different level of spreadsheets, unit comparisons, positioning, and strategic planning. If this sounds like a chore, keep in mind that this is the FUN part for the fans. Bottom line, Total War games just might not be what you’re looking for.
Okay, cool. Are the casuals gone? Awwwww yeah baby, time to get into the nerdy shit. Seeing as how this is a sequel to Total War: Warhammer, I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this you are familiar with at least the basics of the game. It’s a grand strategy/RTS hybrid set in the Warhammer universe. Playing as one of four unique races, you’ll build up your armies and battle for supremacy against basically everyone else (for there is no real diplomacy in Total War games). Play your cards right, and in a dozen or so hours you just might win.
It’s almost impossible to talk about Total War: Warhammer II without comparing it to Total War: Warhammer, the most apparent of reason being that the two games actually combine into one super game. Total War: Warhammer II is the middle child of a proposed three game series, all of which are supposed to combine to give you access to the entire Warhammer world. In the first game we had access to the “Old World,” basically the Warhammer equivalent of europe. There the Empire, Dwarves, Greenskins, Chaos, Norsca, Vampire Counts, Wood Elves, Beastmen, and Bretonnia all duked it out for total domination of the lands. You’ll notice a lot of blue in those links. Total War games always have monsters of DLC packs, something I’ll get into later in the review.
In Total War: Warhammer II we now travel westward/southward. If you look at a map of the Warhammer world—such as the one I have hanging over my bed next to the shrine of Sigmar that keeps me safe as I sleep—you’ll notice that the area around the Old World is significantly larger. In Warhammer II, it shows. This map is really, really, really, really freaking big. Instead of just the one large continent, the map of Total War: Warhammer II is chopped up into four different land masses. And what a coincidence, we also have four new teams! Imagine that.
For the most part, each team starts on its own continent with its own set of rivals. The layout of the land is going to dictate how you play as much as the team you pick. First up, we have the High Elves of Ulthuan, the vanilla team of the expansion. Asur fanboys are going to be pissed about my calling their favorite team “vanilla,” pointing to the rich history of the Phoenix Kings and whatever stupid lore makes them friends with magic dragons. But their archers are just called “Archers” and their spearmen just “Spearmen.” As the High Elves, you get your spear dudes, your siege dude, your cavalry dudes, your ranged cavalry dudes, your upgraded spear dudes, your bow dudes, your upgraded cavalry dudes, your greatsword dudes, and some dragons. Like… five different dragons. Okay, two of them are phoenixes. For a team with only one artillery piece, five whole flying fire-breathing monsters seems a bit much.
Your main goal as the Elves is to take over all the lands of Ulthuan, then put up your walls and point your spears outwards until the game ends. Aside from a few rogue armies (I’ll get to those later) and two Dark Elf teams, you pretty much only have to contend with other High Elves and the occasional marauding Norsca. It’s the easiest of the campaigns, but also the least diverse. It can get a bit boring fighting the same armies over and over in the inevitable slog for supremacy. Luckily, the High Elves are also masters of diplomacy, and can spend their influence to make their neighbors fight and confederate much easier. It’s nothing more complicated than pushing a button and a dice telling you how much the selected factions like/dislike each other now, but it can easily be used to your advantage.
By the same coin, playing the Ulthuan High Elves feels the most like a polished traditional Total War game. The battle lines are well drawn, and with no factions that use the Underway or Beast Paths nearby it’s unlikely you’ll be caught off guard by a surprise attack on your undefended settlements. There are also loads of special buildings (I think I counted 13) on the Ulthuan isle, meaning that each conquest feels meaningful. By the time you have it all captured, you’ll have plenty of options to pop out high value units and some really nice global buffs. Your empire actually feels like a growing, secure empire. It’s clearly the noob option, but straightforward games can be fun sometimes.
Their most immediate outside threat comes from the Dark Elves of Naggaroth. Though similar in pale complexion to their brothers in the east, the Dark Elves owe their name to their murderous nature. And that isn’t an empty claim. They literally worship the god of murder. Their society is basically a perpetual blood orgy fueled by the lives of thousands of slaves. Slaves play a big role in the Dark Elf campaign, as they are used to boost your economy and are your currency to conduct Rites. Rites are temporary buffs that every team has access to, but the Dark Elves are unique in spending captured lives for them instead of just money. Slave populations constantly decay, meaning you’ll keep having to raid and plunder to get more.
Building your Dark Elf empire is slightly less straightforward than the High Elves. Without the ability to influence your friends/foes, Dark Elves will have to do things the old fashioned way. With an abundance of enemies, making powerful alliances is relatively easy. But the lands of Naggaroth have the highest concentration of desirable special buildings outside of Ulthuan, meaning you won’t want your greedy allies hogging their precious territory. It’s a classic Total War dilema: do you make friends, or kill them for their nice stuff?
Luckily, the Dark Elves have the highest amount of combat options to pursue this goal. Unique amongst all the teams, the Dark Elves attack not only by land, but from sea. Fielding massive Black Arcs, these floating cities can reinforce troops and provide devastating support bombardments. That’s not to say that the Dark Elves can’t take care of themselves without their magic boats around. Pound for pound, Dark Elf units are the most potent in the game. Though outclassed in raw strength by the Lizardmen and the specialist strengths of the Skaven, the Dark Elves have consistent access to crucial battlefield tools. There’s some really specific shit I’ll get into later with balancing, but a quick example is that they’re the only team in the new game with early armor-piercing ranged damage.
The kingdom of Naggaroth is connected to the south by a narrow land bridge to the continent of Lustria. You’ll want to think twice before mistaking this lands as easy pickings, as this is where the Lizardmen make their home. Sentient dinosaur with a flair for Mesoamerican architecture, the Lizardmen are hilariously the actual “good guys” of the Warhammer world. While other noble races like human and Dwarf frequently fall to chaos and at least half of the Elves eat slaves for breakfast, the Lizardmen just want to fulfil the plans of the Old Ones and shut the doors on chaos for good. Problem is, they are dinosaurs that speak an ancient indecipherable language. So when the Lizardbros are just trying to say, “Please don’t take our magic crystals, it’s the only thing keeping the world together,” all the other races just go, “Ah! A scary dinosaur! Kill it!”
Despite that, the Lizardmen are actually a pretty straightforward team. Most of their buildings follow the basic money/growth/recruitment/public order dynamics. Their campaign gimmick is the Geomantic Web, an invisible series of ley lines that connect their cities. The stronger these connections, the better their provincial commandments. So basically, the bigger and more secure their empire is, the better it gets. Fancy that, they’re like the exact opposite of Chaos.
Where the Lizardmen really shine is in combat. Each of their units are powerhouses, that juxtapose their calculated and noble society with straight up dinosaur savagery. Their basic Skink units are kind of pushovers (despite being adorable) but even their basic Saurus warriors can go toe to toe with Chaos Warriors. It’s actually a big balance problem. The Lizardmen basic units are such badasses, that they are nigh indestructible to their immediate Skaven rivals. On top of that, all of their support units are on the backs of dinosaurs. Poison flamethrowers are way better on the back of a Stegadon.
Finally, we have everyone’s favorite evil ratmen, the Skaven. Primarily starting in the final continent, the Southlands, the Skaven represent everything that makes Warhammer so great. The ultimate murderers if not for being so cowardly, the greatest inventors if not for being so accident prone, and the greatest force of evil in the world if not for being just so hard to take seriously. They follow a Chaos diety named the Horned Rat, who just like his minions is a great big crossover of being totally inept yet somehow always pulling through. Lore wise, the Skaven are the most real threat to the civilized world. In Total War: Warhammer II? Eh… not so much.
Individually frail, what they Skaven lack in strength they make up for in sheer numbers. Where a normal stack of spearmen might number 60, a meaty Stormvermin stack will be 80. As with all things Total War: Warhammer, it’s hard to draw straight parallels, but overall there will be far more Skaven than other races. This is significantly bolstered by their “The Menace Below” ability, which allows them to spawn a set number of Clanrat units anywhere on the field over the course of a battle. Though not as powerful as other basic swordsman units, these can easily kill archers and artillery or flank heavier units from the back.
Where the Skaven really shine is in their special units, which are the most devastating in the game. While the massive Ancient Stegodons certainly dish out tons of damage, nothing can melt units quite like the Warpfire Throwers and Death-Wind Globadiers. They also have the only consistent artillery in the game with their Warp Lightning Cannons and Plague Claw Catapults. All of these units, including the towering Hell Pit Abomination, are weak if left unprotected. Working together as a unit, these armies are as unstoppable as food poisoning on a cruise ship.
Now before I get into the Skaven base building, this is a good time to transition to my discussion on balance. I know, expecting balance from a Total War game at launch is like opening a box of cornflakes and expecting a cache of unicorn tears. Actually, the basics of the AI are much better this time around. There are no glaring flaws like cavalry running straight up to your gates. I was actually impressed by how frequently I was flanked while playing sleep deprived. No, the biggest problems with Total War: Warhammer 2 come from a staggering amount of imbalance in key areas of the game.
Let’s start with the starting areas. If you’re familiar with Total War: Warhammer 2, you may have noticed my team recap left out some key players. For each of the four mentioned teams, there are actually two options for starting Legendary Lords. Each Legendary Lord has their own specialty, team buffs, quests, and most importantly starting location. This last one is crucial, as some areas are wildly more habitable than others. The most glaring example comes from the High Elves. My previous description of a lovely classic Total War experience rich with special buildings and predictable battlelines only pertains to their primary legendary lord, Tyrion. If you chose their second lord, Teclis, his Order of Loremasters starts way over on the southwest coast of Lustria. You know what there aren’t many of in Lustria? Special High Elf structures. You know, the entire reason Ulthuan is fun to conquer.
It feels like certain areas of the map were vastly underdeveloped. Teams that start there just feel like playing the game on hard/less fun mode. Which is sad, because Lords like Teclis are freaking awesome thematically. He has access to a spell from every lore of magic, and the passive casting buffs from each of them. He’s an absolute machines! Too bad his one special building doesn’t stack up to the freaking thirteen or so that Tyrion has easy access to. The same goes for the entire continent of the Southlands. This is where Kroq-Gar of the Lizardmen and Queek of the Skaven start out. There are two quick victory resource (more on that in a bit) locations, a few sprawling provinces, and then a vampire doom desert for the other half of the continent. Half of the continent isn’t even ideally habitable for the team that spawns there. Awesome.
So what you’re left with is an A-list of Tyrion, Mazdamundi, and Lord Skrulk, and a B-list of Kroq-gar, Queek, and Teclis. These B-listers don’t even start with a fancy 10-slot capitol building, just a regular 8-slot. The only team that has a meaningful choice is the Dark Elves, who pick between Malekith and Morthai. They both start in the same general area, have a diplomatic buff with each other, but Morthai spits out Chaos while Malekith does not. It’s interesting having a built in ally that is actively sabotaging you by corruption/removing corruption, making the choice between long term friendship and your friend’s tasty special buildings all the more compelling.
Beyond that, the game has absolutely no idea how to handle the Auto-resolve for Skaven armies. If you play as Skaven, get ready to manually control even the simplest battle. For a game this long with load times up to two minutes, this is brutal. It was common for me to ambush an enemy and have the predicted result be a crushing defeat, only to manually take control and win with a 10-1 casualty rate. It’s as if they don’t calculate any of the Skaven’s special abilities or The Menace Below. It’s the opposite for Lizardmen, who are heavily favored in almost every single calculation. I get that their cannons happen to also be on the backs of dinosaurs, which is badass. But what the hell is the point of your Carnosaurs if my Warp Lightning Cannon is taking it down before it even gets to me?
On the flip side, I think a lot of people are going to incorrectly complain about the team balance. With over 100 hours in, I can confidently say that no team has the clear top spot (I’m not talking about multiplayer, I try not to touch that). The Skaven are easily the hardest team to play, as you have to manage food along with the normal money and troops. It’s hard to keep your food in the positive without taking a big economic hit, so you’ll have to do a lot of raiding and killing to keep afloat. The Skaven economy is made even more difficult by the fact that none of their buildings really jump up their income. For most teams, there are specific economic buildings you build to gain a few hundred extra income a turn. For the Skaven, every building provides a nominal amount of income. The lowest is 40, and the biggest is 80. Everything contributes to the warchest, but you have to keep expanding to get bigger. More towns means you need more food, which means you might have to take an economic hit. It’s a delicate balancing act, but the rewards are a consistent empire that can’t be taken down with a single devastating blow.
Lizardmen have the strongest infrastructure with their Geomantic Web, but are weak to the individual losses that make the Skaven so resilient. On top of their armies being expensive (I think the Ancient Stegadon costs somewhere in the ballpark of 3k), a single lost town can remove the commandment being buffed by their Geomantic Web. Take out an entire province, and those connected lose the Geomantic Web buffs that it provided. Their a tough nut to crack, but their losses are each felt far more than the other teams. Their bolstered however by their Slaan Lords, who wield the most devastating magic in the game. They can only be summoned through a Rite once every 25 turns, so be sure to keep them well protected.
There’s not much more to say about the complexities of the two Elves. Dark Elves are better at attacking, and High Elves prefer defending. This is reflected in their special combat abilities Murderous/Martial Prowess. After a certain number of kills, Dark Elves gain a massive buff to combat effectiveness. On the flip side, High Elves gain a small buff as long as their units are above 50% health. Martial Prowess is default and easy, and Murderous Prowess is hard and rewarding. They also have some interesting lords, with the High Elves having to spend influence to gain some of the strongest basic Lords in the game. Dark Elves can also get similar powerful leaders, but only by choosing a title once they reach level ten. Once again, the High Elves gain from hunkering down and growing, and the Dark Elves gain through murder.
There’s one big issue I haven’t yet hit on, as I’m still not sure if I hate or love it. I’m talking about the new global victory condition, the Vortex. As opposed to the previous Total War: Warhammer where each team had a specific victory condition, all of the teams in Total War: Warhammer II are in a race to control the Vortex. Nestled in the heart of Ulthuan, controlling it isn’t a territorial matter. Rather, each team will have to collect a special victory resource to perform five increasingly challenging rituals. As soon as a ritual starts, three pre-designated towns start “channeling” for ten turns. Meanwhile, a number of hostile Chaos and Skaven armies will spawn to try and take those towns to stop you. Opposing factions can also send interventions for 2k/5k/10k gold, which will spawn a powerful army to try and stop the ritual. Once you complete all five rituals (not at all a simple feat), you can teleport to the final battle in an effort to beat four other armies and win.
Now I’m all for new and interesting victory objectives. My favorite part of the Wood Elves faction was their attitude of, “fuck the world, I just want my tree to be big.” I like having the option to win without needing to march across the world conquering an arbitrary number of provinces. I like that the climax of my campaign isn’t contingent on the Dwarves not randomly killing all the vampires by turn 50.
The problem is, you have almost no incentive to actually seek out the other major factions. With how massive the map is, it’s almost impossible to actually set out to directly oppose your opponent’s rituals. For the most part, I was happy just to sit in my fortified territory and complete my rituals in peace. As long as you control the most victory resource generators, it’s a pretty easy task. There’s no denying that winning without ever storming the enemy’s capitol just feels kind of lame.
Despite the flaws, Total War: Warhammer II is a staggering improvement over its predecessor. From simple UI improvements to a new climate system for settlements, the state of Warhammer II at launch compared to the mess of Warhammer is phenomenal. It’s not for nothing that I’ve put over 100 hours into it in just two weeks. There are some inconsistencies in the map, but I get the feeling that this will mostly be filled out in DLC. That large expanse of vampire deserts? That’s where Khemri is.
It’s funny that after 100 hours I’m still hungry for more. Total War: Warhammer II just came out, but I already want the DLC to start. When the Mortal Empires combines the two maps later next month, I can expect another 100 hours to be poured right into the void. If this is a metric of what to expect from Total War: Warhammer III, I might just look into suspended animation. If you are a fan of Total War: Warhammer, this is an absolute must have. Given how Creative Assembly fixed the flaws in the first game, I have the utmost faith that my nitpicks about Warhammer II will soon be quashed. Time to go back to playing.
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 Yafit Shalev 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.
Beyond the Seventh Door DVD Review – No-Budget S.O.V. Canuxploitation At Its Finest!
Starring Lazar Rockwood, Bonnie Beck, Gary Freedman
Directed by B.D. Benedikt
Distributed by Severin Films/Intervision
Two people trapped within a labyrinthine complex. Booby traps. Rigged doors. Death lurking around every corner. And a mysterious voice communicating clues every step of the way via recorded tapes. No, this isn’t the latest Saw film but a Canuxploitation entry from the shot-on-video market, 1987’s Beyond the Seventh Door. Oozing ambition and bolstered by a truly bravado performance from newcomer Lazar Rockwood – a man who looks like the love child of Tommy Wiseau and Billy Drago – this no-budget Canadian shocker delivers just as many twists and turns as Lionsgate’s dead-horse franchise. The main difference being that instead of having to mutilate yours or someone else’s body, the protagonists here are forced to solve obtuse riddles in order to move on to the next room; failure means death. Intervision has been crushing it throughout 2017 – and this release may be the best yet.
Boris (Lazar Rockwood) is a career thief and recent ex-con who is trying to turn his life around when Wendy (Bonnie Beck), a former flame, comes back into his life. She now works for a rich paraplegic, Lord Breston (Gary Freedman), who lives in an actual castle just outside of town. Desperate for “one more job” and a big payday, Boris begs for a gig and Wendy delivers; the plan is for the two of them to break into the basement of Breston’s castle and steal whatever treasures he has socked away, all while her boss is busy entertaining guests at his costume party. The next night, the plan is enacted and the duo clandestinely slip into the castle’s lower level, when suddenly the door locks behind them and a tape recorder begins to play. Breston’s voice is heard, welcoming the thieves into his home and offering up a challenge: use scant clues (or sometimes, none at all) and uncover a way out of each of the six rooms linked together down here. Succeed and a briefcase of money awaits; fail and you die. Truly motivating.
Going into this film blind is my best recommendation, and so for that reason no other plot points will be revealed here. Besides, the real motivation for watching this movie is to witness the raw acting prowess of Lazar Rockwood. Glad in a denim jacket and rocking the ubiquitous ‘80s bandana headband, Rockwood has the delivery of a porno actor stammering lines between sex scenes. His accent is impenetrably thick and the range of his acting could fit within a matchbox, but dammit the man is weirdly magnetic on screen. He’s clearly throwing everything in his arsenal onto the screen with tremendous bravado. Modesty must be a scarce commodity when you have a name that would go perfectly alongside Dirk Diggler on an adult theater marquee in the ‘70s. My favorite line in the entire film is when Wendy is trying to solve the first clue, which has something to do with rings. When she’s rifling through possibilities and says, “Lord of the Rings?” Boris replies with, “Lord of the ring… who the hell is that guy?” said with equal parts confusion and annoyance. The kicker is viewers will believe that query could have come from either Boris or Lazar.
The rooms aren’t likely to impress viewers with their intricacy or set design, but each has a clever solution that is often a stretch to imagine our leads managing to solve within the allotted time. The clues provided by Lord Breston are esoteric and Boris isn’t exactly the erudite type, but working together with Wendy they are able to move ahead, often with mere seconds to spare. Evidence of past would-be thieves’ unlucky attempts are glimpsed, including one room where a body remains. NON-SPOILER: I completely expected the body to in actuality be Lord Breston, “checking up” on his unwanted guests much like John Kramer in Saw (2004), especially since you can clearly see the actor breathing, but this is not the case. Instead, the he’s-clearly-not-dead guy is played by a local eccentric, whose life is briefly chronicled in the bonus features.
Viewers will already be hooked on Beyond the Seventh Door by the time the climax arrives, but the final twists are what drive this S.O.V. thriller over the edge and into the cult territory it so richly deserves. It’s crazy to think this film went virtually unseen for years, being impossible to acquire on VHS and never receiving the proper home video release until now. Director B.D. Benedikt offers up further proof that strong ideas can be realized on any budget, and fans of films like Saw or Cube (1997) will enjoy this “store brand” version of those bigger budgeted hits.
The video quality review for every Intervision title could probably be a copy/paste job since each one is shot on video, always with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The quality here is comparable to a remastered VHS tape. There is a slight jerkiness to the opening but that passes quickly. Colors appear accurate and contrast is about as strong as can be. The picture is often soft which, again, is just something inherent to shooting on video. Film grain is minimized as much as possible; don’t expect a noisy mess just because this isn’t shot on film.
The English Dolby Digital 2.0 track plays with no obvious issues. Dialogue is clean and free from hissing and pops. The score is another awesomely cheesy ‘80s keyboard love-fest, with the three (!) composers – Michael Clive, Brock Fricker, and Philip Strong – getting plenty of mileage out of the main theme, which sounds like it would be the in-store demo default keyboard setting. No subtitles are included.
There is an audio commentary with writer/director B.D. Benedikt & actor Lazar Rockwood, moderated by Paul Corupe of Canuxploitation.com.
“Beyond Beyond the 7th Door features new interviews with Benedikt, Rockwood, and Corupe.
“The King of Cayenne” – Focusing on “legendary Toronto eccentric Ben Kerr”, a street performer who played the role of “dead guy in that one room”.
- Audio Commentary with Writer/Director BD Benedikt and Actor Lazar Rockwood, moderated by Paul Corupe (Canuxploitation.com)
- Beyond Beyond the 7th Door: Interviews with Writer/Director BD Benedikt, Actor Lazar Rockwood, and Canuxploitation.com’s Paul Corupe
- The King of Cayenne: An Appreciation of Legendary Toronto Eccentric Ben Kerr
Virtually lost for nearly three decades, Beyond the Seventh Door deserves a wider audience and Intervision’s DVD should bring it. The then-novel plot and sheer ambition should be enough to get most viewers hooked, but if not the Yugoslavian wonder Lazar Rockwood will handily have them glued to the screen.
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