Available on PS4 and PC
Rated M for Mature
Despite being a heavy advocate for mental health rights in the real world, I’m that kind of guy who gets all picky about their depiction in media. This is probably why I avoided Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice until my end of the year wrap up. I didn’t relish the idea of spending four hours watching a girl’s face contort as she screams at the demons in her head and swats away imaginary monsters. Having schizophrenia doesn’t inherently make you see demons flying around, and it’s debatable if dissociative identity disorder even exists. Mental illness is much more subtle than that. More importantly, it also isn’t the entirety of what makes a person. No matter how severe, you are not your disorder. It’s just a part of the whole you.
Luckily, the people over at Ninja Theory seem to understand this. I should have expected no less from the team that brought us masterpieces like Heavenly Sword and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. A Pict warrior from a now demolished and depopulated village, Senua is a warrior, hero, lover, and sufferer of mental illness. She’s a badass on a quest first, and just so happens to also be afflicted by what she calls the “Furies.” Her illness manifests as a number of doubting and contradicting voices that ceaselessly whisper in her ear. The effect in game is quite haunting.
You meet Senua as she begins her journey into Helheim, the literal Norse underworld. She has come with the head of her dead lover Dillion, who for reasons later revealed was killed while Senua was away. Failing to reach a bargain with lord of the underworld Hela, Senua has to God of War her way through some lesser Norse mythical figures to take Dillion back by force.
Right off the bat, I said to myself that if this turned out to all be in her head that I’d give the game 2 stars. I really hate when mental illness is portrayed in such hyperbolic light. Though there is some ambiguity in the ending, it does seem like all of the stuff that Senua accomplishes really happens. There’s a hell of a lot of metaphor to it, but I’m going to choose to believe she really did kill Garmr in that cave and the relevance it had to her life was just coincidence.
I’ll talk about the gameplay before I get to praising the shit out of the visuals, as there isn’t really much gameplay to speak of. It’s all basically divided into two parts: combat and environment puzzles. Combat is that now familiar fast/heavy attack/counter/block system that is best described as functional. There are about 5 different types of enemies in the game, all which require slight variations on the basic tactics to beat. You can also periodically use your focus to slow time and heal up if things get too heated.
Outside of the game’s few impressive bossfights, it’s nothing to write home about. Some of the longer segments are a nightmare to get through, but apart from maybe two parts I’d be hard pressed to remember a single fight. The way that cuts are laid into your opponent’s flesh is impressive, but this is a game that really could have taken advantage of some impressive finishers. The way your sword flashes and camera zooms when you perfectly counter an attack looks great, but the follow up is just kind of bland.
The other main mechanic is the environmental puzzles, which 90% of the time involves looking at things at weird angles to make the shape of runes. The game does a pretty decent job of hinting at where to go. I only once really got stuck on it, and for a game with 0 tutorials and HUD it’s an impressive display of good level design. The concept is cool, that you have to look at the world in a different way to find the hidden secrets, but I’m honestly just trying to drum up praise for something that rarely raises past filler content.
What really stands out about Hellblade is the aesthetic design and character. Ninja Theory have always had some of—if not absolutely—the best facial animation in the industry. This is on full display in Hellblade. Senua looks fantastic. From her matted hair to her darting eyes, everything looks perfect. In some of the cutscenes she’s across from a real actor, and it took me a good while to figure out that those were real people. She just looks that good.
Some of the environments can be bland in the way that they were certainly designed to be arenas in a video game, but most of the levels are simply breathtaking. There’s this one in particular that took place in the underworld that seriously sent chills down my spine. For a small game that costs just 30 dollars, it’s really unmatched.
But visuals without substance is just so much window dressing on an empty room. What really gives Hellblade its meat is Senua herself. She’s haunted by far more than the simple fact that she hears voices. She’s determined, resilient, and courageous despite being terrified. She really doesn’t want to have to be doing this. We rarely get her take on things, instead hearing the bickering voices and are left to imagine what Senua actually thinks. It’s integral to how Hellblade tells its story, as the evolving nature of the Furies reflects where Senua is on her emotional journey. It’s a rather nuanced take on a concept so many narratives so often get wrong.
There is one other mechanic that I should mention out of sheer infamy, and that is the permadeath system. Early on, Senua is cursed by Hela with a creeping darkness. Starting at her hand, each death will cause the darkness to grow until it reaches her head. It’s a bold move, and would instill a sense of urgency if it actually was real. Yes, it turns out that the darkness actually can’t consume you as the game states. I respect them for having the stones to make death meaningful, but not following through is just weak. I’d rather a few scrubs lose their progress for the overall uniqueness of the game than this neutered half measure.
At 30 bucks, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is definitely worth checking out just for how different it is. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and the gameplay isn’t ever outright bad. The bickering Furies might get on your nerves, but that’s the point. This is about a woman killing Gods. She just also happens to be mentally ill. And for that I commend it. It also manages to be truly shocking, spreading enough gore and torment across the screen to make Clive Barker blush. An overall average gameplay experience raised up by its excellent visual design and unique narrative.
At 30 bucks, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is definitely worth checking out just for how different it is. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and the gameplay isn’t ever outright bad. The bickering Furies might get on your nerves, but that’s the point. This is about a woman killing Gods. She just also happens to be mentally ill.
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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American Psycho Meets Creep – Strawberry Flavored Plastic Review
Who Goes There Podcast: Ep 148 – Inside (2017 Remake)
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