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Half Life 2 (Video Game)

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In the case of horror films, it may seem obvious to note that the viewer needs to feel immersed in the reality on the screen before they can get scared. The threats of the situations presented have to be enveloping if your spine is going to start crawling. The same is true of any game, however, the interesting part here is that a game has the ability to take it that much further. While horror films wrestle fear out of making us associate with a character or situation presented on the screen, videogames literally plant our feet into the shoes of the intended victims.

While Half Life 2 reviews have been lighting up the internet with their glowing praise of late, none I’ve seen have touched upon what was, for me, the biggest strength of the first game. It may have only lasted through the first third of the game, but Half Life was scary. Alone, low on ammo, trapped hundreds of feet below ground, crawling through an air vent pursued by an unseen threat, and with only a crowbar to fall back on, those early hours of the game ensured that the ones beyond the blast chamber would be nothing but a disappointment to me.

As effective combatants as the soldiers were, they just weren’t scary. So it’s from this viewpoint that I approached Half Life 2. Valve had been promising something scary and I felt it was about time that someone took a look at one of the biggest releases of the year to see if that promise has been met, after all you haven’t come here to see a carbon copy of what all the game sites are saying about the game.

Are the physics great? Well yes they are. Absolutely. Very impressive and a lot of fun no doubt…but they don’t make the game scarier, so don’t expect me to mention them much again.

What does help any game in being scary of course are better graphics. It’s often said that better graphics don’t make a game better, but when we’re talking about the fear factor, they absolutely do. The more believable the world is up on that screen, the more I’m going to be scared when some thing comes tearing around the corner lusting for my blood. The more human-like characters look, especially when the humans are predominantly on your side, the more likely you are to feel for them if and when they die.

More polygons don’t achieve this by themselves, the art design has to be up there as well or it’s all for nothing. Doom 3 was scary, but it felt cheap. Unrealistic pools of blackness mere feet away from a light is as likely to make your skin crawl at what might be waiting in the darkness as it is to get you annoyed at the designers of the game.

Half Life 2 presents as convincing a reality as I’ve seen in a game. From top to bottom very little is going to make you remember you’re sat in the safety of your own house, instead of fighting through the bizarre future Valve have concocted here. Only the long load times are likely to drop you out of the game.

The early moments of the game introduce you to City 17…a dark, repressed place where European architecture is strongly contrasted against the giant metallic structure, the headquarters of the sinister Combine, and their moving wall munching away at more and more of the city. Citizens look like convicts, and looping propaganda calls to mind the big reveal in They Live. In City 17, though, there are no pretences. The invaders are not hiding behind any facades here. The police are dehumanized behind full face gas masks, the round black lenses giving them a blank, emotionless gaze, adding a layer of threat to the human enemies that Half Life could have done with.

Most of Half Life 2 takes place during the day and in the kind of big open spaces that don’t normally lend themselves well to fear or tension. Even here though, Half Life 2 generates more atmosphere than most games do in these kind of areas. They’re desolate, derelict, empty…like all the life has been sucked out of the landscape.

The original Half Life featured some good monsters. The alien head crabs, obviously inspired by face huggers were especially effective, and wherever they were their victims, zombiefied innocents were never far behind. These in-your-face shocks and reanimated walking pieces of grue were behind a lot of the fear found in the first game, and the same is true here. In Half Life 2 though, there are more types of headcrabs, and the newer, improved headcrabs not only are much scarier, but give birth to more intimidating victims.

While you can go long stretches without seeing the little devils, they’re never far away, lurking in the shadows, and this pervasiveness helps keep you at the very least tense.

You’ll have feelings of claustrophobia, disorientation, vertigo and agoraphobia, and at times you’ll plunge down into the underbelly of City 17. It’s these moments where the fear sets in…slowly picking your way through the levy (which is pretty dry) at the beginning of the game, a rather inspired section midway through seems heavily influenced by Tremors…any time you find yourself alone in the darkness Half Life 2 can and will raise that tension to genuine fear.

The centerpiece, as far as we’re concerned, is Ravenholme. Ravenholme is a town beyond the reach of Combine but not beyond the reach of the zombies. Ravenholme: a burning ghost town stacked high with wall to wall frights. Ammo is relatively scarce meaning that you’ll be falling back on the gravity gun a lot, and as far as fall back weapons go there’s none finer.

Imagine a tool shed stacked up with circular saw blades, spanners, and steel vices. Imagine such a tool shed infested with the undead. Then imagine you had a weapon that could pick things up and hurl them around with great force; Ash could have done well with one of these babies out in the woods.

I’ll be honest, there are only sections of Half Life 2 that feel like outright horror but there’s a lot for the horror fan to enjoy: the vibe of They Live runs throughout the game, at times the environments feel like something straight out of Escape from New York, while at other times it feels like War of the Worlds. And if Steven Spielberg can’t do three legged Martian landing units believably, I’ll be pretty annoyed since a game like Half Life 2 has similar enemies that work flawlessly in an interactive environment.

You’ll never get the feeling of being more than a thorn in the Combine’s side. You’ll never feel like you can walk through a battlefield laying waste to everything. What you are going to do is run, hide, drive at breakneck speeds; do anything you can to get out of a situation.

Audio deserves a special mention here; the music fits perfectly with the situation and while not having any strong themes that will get stuck in your head, it almost subliminally ratchets up the atmosphere. The screams and screeches of the aliens and monsters are perfect, and the modulated voices of the Combine guards add to their sinister air. If you have a surround setup for your PC, it’s even better; separation is excellent and the amount of bass is perfect . If Half Life 2 has a weak point, it isn’t sound.

I leave Half Life 2 impressed. It’s unquestionably one of the greatest PC games, but if fear is what you’re after you might come away a little disappointed that the terror you’ll feel in Ravenholme isn’t spread throughout the whole game. What sells me on Half Life 2 is that at no point does it feel like any other game. There’s always something unexpected just around the corner. The world is more believable than any I’ve seen before, and it’s not a nice place. Even when you’re fighting human enemies wielding machine guns in what should be a familiar environment, Half Life 2 manages to eke more tension than you would expect. Are those parts scary? No, but they’re scarier than they’ve been in other games.

Half Life 2 is all about variety, and part of that variety is fear. If you consider War of the Worlds and They Live horror, then you’ll find a lot to like in Half Life 2. Doom 3 may be consistently scarier, but it has all the life of a haunted house attraction; it never feels real whereas Half Life 2 does. It has its missed opportunities (it’s far too kind to its human characters) and one ugly difficulty spike mid way through, but all in all, the story and world it presents are far easier to buy into.


4 1/2 out of 5

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AHS: Cult Review – Clowns, Cults, Politics, and Peters

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Starring Evan Peters, Sarah Paulson, Billie Lourd, Cheyenne Jackson, Frances Conroy, Mare Winningham, and Allison Pill

Created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk


** NO SPOILERS **

It’s here. We’ve reached the end. The newest season of “American Horror Story” has ended and now we are here to provide you guys with our season review of AHS: Cult.

Spoiler free.

To start things off let me say I’m not the world’s biggest fan of “American Horror Story”. It breaks down like this: I enjoyed the absolute hell out of the first season of the series (“Murder House”), couldn’t get through “Asylum” (I know, I know, I’ve tried), dug “Coven” for what it was, really enjoyed “Freak Show”, and again I couldn’t get into “Hotel” or “Roanoke”.

That’s the story of me and “American Horror Story”. Plain And simple. But what did I think of the new seventh season of the notorious horror anthology series? Let’s find out.

Back when the seventh season of AHS was first announced (then going by the title “AHS: Election”) I was immediately intrigued by the new season because I heard it would not include any supernatural elements. Like the fourth season, “Freak Show”.

Now I’m a fan of ghosts and weird creature-men with drills for d*cks, don’t get me wrong. But the series has thus far relied almost exclusively on horrors of the supernatural variety (other than “Freak Show”) so this major change of pace was again welcomed by this guy.

Instead of vampires, aliens, and witches this season relied on terrors of the mind. Psychological fears and anxieties. The horrors man does to man. Deep issues.

Oh, and clowns. Like a lot of clowns.

But just because this new season didn’t include anything supernatural, that doesn’t mean the 11-episode season wasn’t filled with twisted visuals and horrifically disturbing acts. No, sir. This season boasted some showstoppers including S&M, gimps, and a house of horrors that wouldn’t be out of place in a Rob Zombie flick. It was all good.

But let’s backtrack a bit here.

Allow me to rundown the season’s plot for those who may be unaware. “AHS: Cult” tells the tale of a world post-election night. The literal dawn of Trump’s America. In one corner we have Sarah Paulson’s soccer mom, trying to fight through life with a series of crippling phobias (including clowns, holes, blood, and being a good person).

And in the other corner, we have Evan Peter’s angry, white (blue-haired) male, looking to seize Trump’s new position of power to bring about the end of… Actually, I want this to be a spoiler-free season review, so I’m just going to say the dude’s got big plans.

Like Manson-size plans. Let’s leave it at that.

With these two characters established, the new season then proceeds to send them spiraling into a collision course of political sabotage, intrigue, and clown-based nope, nope, nope-ing that can only end with one – or both – of them dead as Dillinger.

Overall “AHS: Cult” belonged end-to-end to Mr. Evan Peters. The young actor has continued to show his striking range from season to season of Ryan Murphy’s horror show and this season was no different. Peters’ turn as not only Kai, the blue-haired leader of the titular cult, but as infamous leaders such as David Koresh, Jim Jones, and Charles Manson – to name a few – owed this season.

I can only hope he doesn’t pull a Jessica Lange and opt-out of more AHS next year.

Speaking of top performances, “AHS: Cult ” showcases some other chilling and memorable turns with Alison Pill’s strangely vulnerable, put-upon wife character being the best next to Peters in my eyes. This actress needs to be in more films/TV!

Along with Pill, actress Billie Lourd killed it time and time again. The “Scream Queens” breakout star and Carrie Fisher spawn was yet again a highlight in her second Ryan Murphy series. Bet she has the starring role in next season. Mark my words.

Add to that, the season also boasts a handful of fun cameos, including John Carroll Lynch’s return as Twisty the Clown, Emma Roberts as a bitchy reporter that will do anything to end up on top, and Lena Dunham as SCUM Manifesto writer Valerie Solanas. The cameo cast killed it and I wish they would have been present for more episodes. What are you gonna do?

On the sour side of the season, I didn’t dig Sarah Paulson’s character. At all. But I’m sure that was the point. Right? I’m still not sure. But, boy, I wouldn’t even want to be stuck in line behind her at a Starbucks for three minutes, let alone spend the better part of this season’s 11-hours with her and her whiny bullshite. Urgh.

That said, she pulled it out by the finale. That’s all I’ll say.

In the end, I enjoyed this season as much as – if not more – than any other of the series. “Murder House” will still no doubt go on as my favorite season of the series, but “AHS: Cult” will rank third after season one and “Freak Show”.

While I was on the fence about the season after three episodes, the show ended up ditching Paulson’s character (and/or shifting her arch) after a lull so the episodes picked up quickly. Whenever the season turned its focus back towards Peters (in whichever incarnation he was playing at the time) the show got better and better. Every time.

Not a bad way to spend my Tuesday night for the past 11 weeks.

Bring on season 12.

  • American Horror Story: Cult (2018)
3.5

Summary

The seventh season of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story was Evan Peters’ show all the way through. The young actor pulled out all the stops time and time again to make what may have been a lackluster supernatural-free season a winner.

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User Rating 4.33 (6 votes)
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The Axiom Review – A Stylish and Clever Slice of Independent Horror

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Starring Hattie Smith, Zac Titus, Nicole Dambro

Directed by Nicholas Woods


The Axiom is an ambitious, well directed, impressively acted and stunningly shot independent horror film that has just a few, teensy little flaws holding it back from greatness (and therefore will have to settle for just being really, really good, instead).

The first thing you realize when watching The Axiom is that this is a beautiful film. Everything is framed and shot in a lush and stylish manner, but one which is always tonally appropriate for the scene.

The second thing you’ll notice, and keep noticing as the film plays out, is that the movie really struck gold with this cast. Not only is there a total lack of the sort of stilted and unnatural acting seen in countless other microbudget horror affairs, but the performances are genuinely fantastic across the board. The main characters are believably chill and relatably normal in the early scenes, and the acting remains just as impressive once things start getting a bit more… intense. It’s not often that an independent horror film has so many good performances that it makes it hard to pick the movie’s acting VIP, but that is undeniably the case here. Taylor Flowers delivers what is probably the showiest performance (and does it very well, indeed), but the entire cast really is quite good.

The central premise of the film is both interesting and original, and touches upon the real life fact (given some recent attention in the ‘Missing 411’ books and documentary) that a lot more people sure seem to go missing out in the woods than seems reasonable, while simultaneously weaving all sorts of folklore, fairy tales and urban legends into the mix. It’s also clever in the way that it very naturally reveals aspects to the relationships between characters that serve to later – or sometimes retroactively – explain some of the more questionable decisions they make or attitudes they display. While that may sound like screenwriting 101, it’s surprising how many films fail to do this. The Axiom rewards the viewer’s attention in other ways as well, with many aspects of the movie that initially feel odd or unnatural receiving reasonable explanations (within the context of the movie) by the end. It’s not quite as challenging (or as rewarding) in this regard as, say, something like Session 9, but it does add a nice layer of complexity to the storytelling.

The film’s score, by Leo Kaliski, is also quite good. There may be a moment here or there where the music hits an overly familiar beat, but overall it not only fits the movie’s tone, but does quite a bit to help set that tone as well.

The only thing that I don’t feel the movie quite pulls off – and I’m trying to be vague here, because I feel like the less you know going into this film, the better – is some of the makeup effects work. The gore stuff is very well executed, but some of the other stuff feels like it was crafted with the intention of shooting it in a more… stylized manner. Instead, filmed as it is here, the result is sometimes less than impressive and can fail to make the impact that the movie seems to be implying that it should. And while some of what the makeup effects lack in execution is made up for with the ingenuity and creativity of their design, it’s still a bit of a shame when they don’t quite pull them off because, aside from a few niggles that I have with the writing, the effects are the only aspect of the film that occasionally fails to live up to the high level of technical proficiency that The Axiom otherwise demonstrates.

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS:

  • Man, the acting in this movie is really good. The dialogue may stumble once or twice, but these actors always sell it anyway.
  • Give back Mia Sara’s DNA, Hattie Smith!
  • If you’re going to put your female lead in shorts this small, I hope you’re not sensitive to viewers unleashing a nonstop parade of “Has anyone seen my pants / OH GOD WHERE ARE MY PANTS!” jokes.
  • “You just pop this here ‘Blair Witch Stick Person / Anarchy sign’ sticker up on that there windshield of yours, and them park rangers? Well – heh heh – they won’t bother you none, no sir.” Hmmmmm…
  • The film really is shot amazingly well – better than a lot of mainstream releases. Cinematographer Sten Olson has a real future ahead of him.
  • As does writer / director Nicholas Woods, for that matter. Any director who can get this level of quality out of their cast and crew on their first ever film is someone to keep an eye on.
  • “I’ll make a run for it and get help,” says the female lead, and I’m like “Yeah, let her go – she has no pants to weigh her down.”
  • The gore effects in the movie are both realized and utilized very well.
  • Welcome back to horror movies, “I’ll be right back” dialogue spoken unironically by and/or to ill-fated characters.
  • The Axiom
4.0

Summary

In the end, The Axiom is a solid and entertaining flick that manages to wring a level of quality and originality out of the somewhat tired “Don’t Go in the Woods” horror subgenre not seen since 2012’s Cabin in the Woods. The cinematography and acting are hugely impressive, it features a nice, unnerving score, the premise is original and captivating, and the whole thing moves at a nice pace that helps keep the film’s flaws from dragging it down.

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User Rating 3.9 (10 votes)
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The Dollmaker Short Film Review – Welcome to Heebie Jeebie City!

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Starring Perri Lauren, Sean Meehan, Dan Berkey

Directed by Alan Lougher


The loss of a young child drives a mother to take a set of unusual measures to preserve his memory, and all it takes is one call to The Dollmaker.

When the short film by Alan Lougher opens up, we see a rather disturbing image of a little boy inside a casket, and the sound of a grieving mom speaking with an unidentified man in the background – he’s requesting something personal of the child to help “finish” his product, and it’s not before long that mom has her little boy back…well, kind of. What remains of the child is the representation of his former self, although it’s contained within the frame of a not-so-attractive doll, and the boy’s father isn’t a believer in this type of hocus-pocus (or the price to have this constructed, either). The doll comes with a specific set of instructions, but most importantly, you cannot spend more than one hour a day with the doll, or else you’ll go mad thinking that the soul inside of it is actually the person that you lost – sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

Well this is just too good to be true for Mommy, and as the short film progresses, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens to her mind – it’s ultimately a depressing scenario, but Lougher gives it that creepy feel, almost like visiting a relative’s home and seeing their dearly departed pet stuffed and staring at you over the fireplace – HEEBIE-JEEBIE CITY, if you ask me. All in all, the quickie is gloomy, but ultimately chilling in nature, and is most definitely worth a watch, and if I might use a quote from one of my favorite films to apply to this subject matter: “Sometimes…dead is better.”

  • Film
3.5

Summary

Ultimately chilling in nature!

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User Rating 3.31 (16 votes)
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