Month: October 2015

7 Cool Horror Films to Watch This Halloween

Looking for something fun and spooky to watch this Halloween? These are my picks—and my reasons why they’re so awesome—for some of the most thrilling horror movies out there. Perfect for staying in on the night when the border between our world and the other side is at its thinnest. Here they are, in no particular order…

#1 – The Omen

ZZZZ The Omen creepy kid

This one is a classic, a suspense-filled masterpiece of 70’s cinema. It’s also one of the best examples of the Creepy Kid genre of horror films. The darkness that surrounds little Damien is palpable throughout the entire movie, from the moment his nanny commits suicide, all the way to the terrifying revelation in the graveyard. The movie also boasts one of the best decapitations in movie history. (You know… if you’re into that sort of thing…)

#2 – The Blair Witch Project

ZZZZ Blair Witch found footage

The film that singlehandedly popularized the “found footage” movie genre, The Blair Witch Project remains one of the best films of its kind. It’s low-budget, devoid of color, with few actors and a somewhat-vague mythology, but it remains effective. Much of the tension comes from watching the characters slowly start to panic as they realize the terrifying truth about their situation. Good luck walking in the woods alone right after watching this.

#3 – Tremors

ZZZZ Tremors monster movie

This list wouldn’t be complete without a good old-fashioned monster movie. Tremors is unique because most monster movies rely on darkness to instill the fear of the unknown in the viewer, but since the lethal sandworms attack from under the ground, it’s not necessary. Most of the movie takes place in broad daylight, and it’s still frightening. The danger is balanced with a healthy dose of comedy, making the movie great fun.

#4 – Kairo

ZZZZ Kairo Japanese horror

Ghosts are invading our world through the Internet. Japanese cinema has plenty of great horror films, but this one is my personal favorite, partly because of the philosophical undertones and themes of human connectedness in a world where so many of our relationships are online, and partly because of the brilliant slow unfolding of what is actually happening to the world at large. The threat seems undefinable at first, but as the number of characters in the background dwindles with each passing scene, it comes into frightening focus.

#5 – Poltergeist

ZZZZ Poltergeist ghost story

What is it with ghosts trying to reach us through our technology? This time they are talking to a little girl (resident Creepy Kid Carol Anne) through her television set. Like Tremors (and the next film on this list), the movie strikes the balance between terror and comedy. The family being haunted by these spirits is likable, so you actually care to see them survive. Even so, there are some truly iconic horror scenes here: the spooky tree, Carol Anne trapped in the TV, that horrible clown doll… moments that will stay with you long after the end credits roll.

#6 – John Dies at the End

ZZZZ John Dies at the End horror comedy

Extradimensional beings are trying to invade our reality, and only a pair of slackers that have been exposed to an alien drug called Soy Sauce can stop them. This film is based on the book by David Wong, one of my all-time favorite Fictioneers. Want to see someone attacked by a flying mustache? How about a drug trip that rewrites the past? A young woman open a door with the ghost of the hand she lost in an accident years ago? This movie has it all (and still manages to leave out over half of the things that happen in the book). It’s funny. It’s frightening. It’s awesome.

#7 – Event Horizon

ZZZZ Event horizon ghost ship

At its heart, Event Horizon is a story about a Ghost Ship. Only this one is in space. Lovecraftian Horror meets science fiction and Sam Neill gives a chilling performance as the architect of the damned vessel, Doctor Weir. Very Bad Things happened to the crew of the Event Horizon, and our crew of unfortunate souls are looking for answers. Rumor has it there’s an unedited copy of the massacre scene floating around somewhere on the Internet, but you can also just read the novelization of the film if you are morbidly curious. It’s suitably awful. But it’s Weir’s character arc and the way the ship messes with the minds of the crew that provide the real thrills here. Even in a distant future in which humankind is exploring the universe, the scariest place is still inside our own heads.

Making Friends of Monsters

Undertale title banner

I’ve slain a lot of fantasy creatures in my time. That’s the way most role playing games work: you kill monsters, you gain experience, you level up, and eventually you fight the last boss of the game and you win. Toby Fox’s indie RPG Undertale subverts a system that I’ve become quite comfortable with over the years and instead offers you the option of seeking a nonviolent resolution to every single fight in the game, from random encounters all the way to the final boss.

 

The story of Undertale is beautifully simple: you play as a human child of indeterminate gender who has fallen down into the monster world, and has to choose whether to save or destroy it as you find your way back home. It’s a ghostly Alice-In-Wonderland story with characters that are every bit as outlandish and memorable. But this fairy tale’s Alice has some heavy choices to make along the way.

 

Even though my fantasy trophy room is lined with the heads of slimes and cactuars by the hundreds, I do tend to play the kindhearted role in games when I’m given the choice between choosing an good or evil path. But usually even taking the “good” path means killing a lot of random monsters, or bandits, or postapocalyptic raiders. It’s only the big dramatic decisions that decide whether you are a hero or villain, not the thousands of insignificant creatures you kill in the name of gaining levels and powering up. The world of Undertale works differently, though. Every monster is treated as a life, with insecurities and motivations of its own. Whether it’s a wannabe commedian trying to tell jokes to you even as he attacks you (and worrying that his father is right and he won’t ever make it as a comic), to the adorable Tsunderplane (a sentient airplane that might have a crush on you, and is only attacking so you won’t realize she actually likes you), every random encounter has a soul. Right from the start, the game appeals to the player’s sense of empathy, humanizing the enemies it throws at you and challenging you to find peaceful ways to end the encounter instead of butchering them for the experience points.

Undertale fire lives here now

Empathy is in short supply in gaming. From all the First Person Shooter clones that train you to see human beings through the scope of a rifle, to RPGs that send armies of fantasy creatures after you, most games reward you for not caring. Undertale’s empathy-based gameplay is a refreshing change, but by being the exception it throws a glaring light on the rule. Adventure games train us to mow down hordes of foes without a second thought, and they reward us for doing it. In fact, Undertale‘s gameplay is so counter-intuitive to me that when I realized after sparing my first few monsters that I wasn’t getting any experience points for it, I strongly considered abandoning my original plan to complete the game nonviolently. Because I wanted to go up a level and see my stats increase. It sounds horrible when I think about how much I came to care for all the characters I encountered, but my first instinct was to feel cheated that I was going to miss out on growing more powerful. Where does that instinct come from? The answer, of course, is that a lifetime of Final Fantasies, Dragon Quests, and Mass Effects have taught me to enjoy the feeling of gain that comes from killing enemies without a care. I like getting cool new weapons and having my strength and health points increase. The phrase “Level Up!” is music to my ears. And that’s because most games don’t work at making you feel that your bloodthirsty actions have any cost. Well, in Undertale they do.

Undertale totally have to kill you and stuff

If you kill monsters in Undertale, eventually they are gone for good. The weird deer creature whose antlers kids draped in gaudy Christmas decorations? Gone. The dog knight that really just wants to be petted? Erased from the world. You can kill everyone. The game’s bosses? Each one can be destroyed, just like they are in countless other games, but in this world it’s going to cost you, because if you choose to play nonviolently, to do what the fans are calling a “pacifist run” of the game, they can become your friends. You can have friends that are skeletons and ghosts, a mermaid knight and a reptilian scientist that loves anime, all monsters that you can turn into allies and get to know better and have fun with. And all it costs you is some silly experience points and level-ups. Who cares about things like that when you can go on a date with a puzzle-loving, pasta cooking skeleton dork? And that’s Undertale‘s secret: it finds other ways to reward you. A peaceful playthrough of the game can be tough. You never seem to have enough health because you never went up a level, so the 20 health points you start with are the 20 health points you enter the final battle with. You get hurt. You die a lot. But you get friends and the reward of knowing you are doing the compassionate thing. And that is something that thrills me. Violence is the easy answer to problems. Love is harder, and leaves you hurt, but it is the power that saves rather than destroy. I’d rather make friends of these cool characters than kill them. They are monsters, but they are also people.

 

Having finished my pacifist run of Undertale, I can say confidently that love and kindness are rewarded in ways far better than merely making your character more powerful. It stands in stark contrast to the sea of games that encourage the player to put personal power and advancement over friendship and kindness. If that sounds sappy, well it fits the charm and humor of the game, but maybe we should question why love in gaming sounds silly to us, but killing a score of enemies to gain a level makes perfect sense. In a way, playing Undertale is like retraining your gaming brain. It rewards player empathy and caring, and it leaves you wishing there were more like it.