Scream (season two) – Review

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Stop tilting your head you f*cking loser

I found the first season of Netflix’s episodic reboot of the Scream franchise to be fairly entertaining, partly due to the inherent novelty of a TV show based around the slasher format. The series suffered from major problems, particularly a poor script, but there was enough action and gore to keep your interest, and the killer reveal at the end of the season felt fairly satisfying. Scream’s first season was predictably heavy on the pop-culture references and had a generally cringeworthy, self-referential postmodern style, but on the whole it did just enough to earn itself a relatively sympathetic audience.

Well, Scream has come back for a second season, and I have to say it was a massive disappointment. The main mystery this time revolves around the identity of the accomplice to the first season’s killer, who now runs amok tormenting the first season’s survivors. One of the season’s weaknesses is that you never really get the sense the writers have fully embraced their choice of killer, and even by the last episode it felt to me like they hadn’t quite decided who it was going to be. In the end, the reveal was massively predictable and entirely underwhelming, and for a franchise that takes pride in how genre savvy it is, it felt very poorly done.

The first season had a fairly high body count and so season two has to introduce some new characters to get the core cast to a critical mass. This is a good thing as most of the original cast are pretty unbearable by this point. Main character Emma has become somewhat unhinged after the first season, but the main problem here is that she is so insecure and lacking in confidence that she constantly seeks validation from other characters; she’s incapable of making any decisions for herself and therefore frequently manipulated by anyone and everyone. Considering that many of the characters here are clearly sociopaths if not actually serial killers, this makes for some pretty ludicrous scenarios. It’s not helped by the fact the actress playing 17 year old Emma is actually 25, and made to wear some truly bizarre and frumpy outfits. It’s all rather strange.

Audrey, Emma’s bestie/rival, is played by a younger actress who at least looks the part, but who can’t act for toffee. Meanwhile, her nymphomaniac friend Brooke spends the whole season pining after boys, seemingly under the impression she is the main character in Dawson’s Creek rather than a sidekick in what’s supposed to be a horror show. Supposedly genre-savvy horror nerd Noah also becomes insufferable in this season, with practically his entire dialogue consisting of tortured references to horror tropes and witty ‘banter’ with Audrey. Moreover, Noah is involved in a ‘sex’ scene in this season which is probably the worst and least sexy love scene I have ever witnessed in television, accompanied by the most inappropriate choice of music imaginable. It’s utterly bizarre and completely painful to watch.

It would be easier to put up with all this if there was more action in the season, but it felt like there was significantly less than first time around; perhaps not helped by the unnecessary decision to increase the series length from ten to twelve episodes. Most of the season consists of endless scenes of 20-somethings who are pretending to be teenagers texting each other ad nauseam, about how sorry they are for betraying each other, or whatever. It’s so, so lame. You might come to decide you wouldn’t mind for some of these characters to be bumped off.

Another major problem is that by this point the killer holds practically no menace to a seasoned viewer. We’re used to people putting up a bit of a fight in our horror films these days, not just acting like headless chickens and running around screaming. The original Scream came out when I was 12, and it was actually fairly scary at times. Twenty years later, whenever I see one of these cloaked douchebags on my screen I just want to take their knife off them and knock them over the head. Especially when I see them do the ’tilt your head slightly to the side’ motion so beloved of lazy directors, which I suppose is supposed to indicate some kind of sadistic toying with the victim, but which has become such a cliche it makes me want to scream in frustration at the lack of imagination on display. This is a franchise that was originally supposed to be about exposing the staid, formulaic nature of the slasher genre, but which is now irrelevant, creatively moribund and bereft of ideas. It’s time to kill it off for good.

2/10

Krull (movie) – Review

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Krull is an unusual movie, a big-budget British sci-fi/fantasy hybrid released in the early 1980s that cost an absolute fortune to make and was a critical and commercial failure on release. I remember seeing it on TV a number of times as a child in the early 90s, when frankly it scared me to bits. Although in some ways it’s pitched as a family film, Krull is actually quite dark, which probably contributed to its lack of commercial success. However, it means that the film stands out now and it has something of the status of a cult classic.

Krull begins with an alien spaceship landing on an Earth-like planet, and we soon learn that the ship contains an alien race known as the ‘Slayers’ who intend to subjugate and enslave the planet’s humanoid population. The Slayers are a frightening bunch: they appear to consist of a sort of large, fleshy insect which resides in the helmet of a suit of armour which functions as a sort of exoskeleton. They are seemingly devoid of individuality and the only sound you ever hear from them is a piercing death screech if you somehow manage to kill one. The Slayers are technologically advanced and much more martially capable than the kind of cannon fodder you encounter in something like Star Wars. Indeed, this is one of the things that used to scare me most about Krull: an early scene sees a royal wedding attacked by Slayers, and their brutal efficiency is quite different from the kind of comic ineptitude you’d expect from Stormtroopers and their ilk.

The Slayers are led by a big bad who is known only as ‘The Beast’. The Beast is a hideous, giant monster who captures a beautiful young princess (the stunning Lysette Anthony) and tries to force her to marry him. Meanwhile, her betrothed (Ken Marshall) sets out to rescue her, recruiting a ragtag band to assist him along the way. The plot is quite standard, but what’s unusual is the setting. Krull’s world features an unusual fusion of medieval fantasy tropes with futuristic sci-fi flourishes and architecture, and the result is something quite unique. The film has also received a lot of plaudits for its score, but personally I actually find this to be one of the weaknesses of the film: it just strikes me as a second-rate imitation of a John Williams score, which is not a style I’m fond of at the best of times. Still, the set design and cinematography make up for it.

However, possibly Krull’s greatest strength is its knack of setting up surprisingly moving and poignant set pieces and conversations. Having seen the film as a young child, I’ve never forgotten the story of the cyclopses: a powerful ancient race, they were tricked by the Beast into trading their second eye for the ability to see into the future–the problem being, the only thing they could see was their own death. Or there’s the scene featuring the Widow of the Web, a memorable and pathetic sequence featuring some characters with a deeply tragic back story. Scenes like this give the film a lot more resonance than one might expect given the genre. Krull also has a surprisingly high body count, and death (particularly of the ‘good’ guys) punctuates the movie from beginning to end.

Krull is surprisingly scary, and has some moments that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror film. It’s not quite the same experience now as when I watched it as an 8 year old, but it’s still decidedly creepy at times. Another odd aspect of the film is the number of British TV and movie actors present here in early roles: everyone from Liam Neeson to Robbie Coltrane, Todd Carty and the aforementioned Lysette Anthony. It won’t mean anything to youngsters now, but anyone who grew up in the 80s and 90s might do the odd double take.

For me, Krull is one of the most enjoyable fantasy romps of the 80s, up there with movies like Willow and Labyrinth, and its arguably aged better than the likes of Legend, Neverending Story, and Dark Crystal. If you haven’t seen it, it’s definitely worth tracking down.

8/10

Music of the 16-bit era: five of the best

Introduction: I spent much of my late teens and my 20s playing and listening to loud music, earning me tinnitus by the age of 30. Its got a bit better in the years since I gave up being in bands, but nevertheless my days of listening to heavy metal are largely behind me (with a few exceptions), and my music of choice now tends to be video game soundtracks. This isn’t just because my hearing is a bit sensitive: even though I spend more time playing games than any man in his 30s should, it’s still not as much time as I would like, and so listening to old video game music is a way to make up for it a bit.

Plus, there is a massive nostalgic appeal to listening to game music from my childhood, not least because it reminds me of spending time with family and friends who I don’t get to see much these days, or who in some cases are gone for good. After all, the word nostalgia comes from the Greek words for ‘homecoming’ and ‘pain’; another word that evokes the same idea is the old German word ‘heimweh’, homesickness. Nostalgia is like the pain of going home, the pain of the past.

Here are some of my favourite tracks from the 16-bit era, mainly from games I first played between the ages of about 10-15. Quite apart from their inherent musical appeal, some of these tracks really stand out for their compositional and technical ingenuity, if you consider the limitations of the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive/Genesis.

In no particular order:

  1. Fear Factory – Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country was a hugely important game for Nintendo, an amazing technical achievement that boasted brilliant graphics at a time when Nintendo was first challenged by Sony’s Playstation. The game was memorable not only for its visual and clever level design, but also for one of the best soundtracks featured on the Super Nintendo. From the catchy scene-setting of the brilliantly orchestrated opener Jungle Japes, to the beautifully atmospheric Aquatic Ambience, this is a soundtrack that features a number of iconic pieces of music. Gang Plank Galleon, heard when you’re fighting end boss King K. Rool, segues from a pirate-themed intro into a rollicking rhythmic beast of a track that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Iced Earth album. But for me, the highlight has to be Fear Factory, a stunningly futuristic track that at times makes me think of Mass Effect and Blade Runner. It perfectly captures the sense of incongruity Donkey and Diddy encounter as they traverse the strange (for them) industrial and technologically advanced levels towards the end of the game.

2. Upper Brinstar (The Jungle Floor) – Super Metroid

One of the best games for the Super Nintendo, one of the best RPGs of all time, and arguably the best Metroid game ever made, depending on how you feel about Metroid Prime. Super Metroid’s soundtrack is incredible: hugely atmospheric, it’s surprisingly varied and does a good job of conveying the feel of the diverse regions of planet Zebes. Some parts of the soundtrack are minimalist, reminiscent of something like John Carpenter’s The Thing; then you have a track like Jungle Floor. It’s ridiculously catchy, almost like a disco track, but still menacing and with those weird alien synths washing over it at the same time. It’s a perfect change of pace, but the entire soundtrack is worth listening to from beginning to end.

3. Under Logic – Streets of Rage 2

I never had a Mega Drive as a kid (we were a Nintendo household), and the only game that made me wish I had one was the original Streets of Rage. Side-scrolling beat ’em ups were huge in the late 80s/early 90s, and for me SOR was the best of them all, better than Double Dragon, Final Fight, and everything else. I remember playing it at my friends house and absolutely loving it. So, I never owned Streets of Rage 2 as a kid, but I do now, and its soundtrack is my go-to for easy listening at work. The whole soundtrack is killer, with major standouts obviously being Go Straight and Dreamer. Under Logic, though, is probably my favourite, not least due to its opening, which is just insanely good. One of the best video game soundtracks ever composed, hands down, on any system, from any era.

4. Pyramids – Zombies Ate My Neighbours

Zombies is a cult classic: a top-down, hard-as-nails B-movie horror themed shooter that supported two-player co-op. I got it for my tenth birthday and absolutely loved it, even though I was terrible at it and never completed it. One of the best things about the game is its soundtrack, composed by the inestimable Joe McDermott, who kindly gave me an interview for this very blog earlier this year. The award-winning soundtrack has received many plaudits over the years, and for good reason: it’s spooky, catchy, and perfectly captures the comedy-horror vibe exuded by the game’s graphics and writing. My personal favourite track is Pyramids, a remarkable piece of music that features a ridiculously groovy and catchy bass line, amazing keys, some sick samples, and is just pure gold from beginning to end. It’s an underappreciated gem that deserves more attention. I’ve often wondered if the members of the band Ghoul played this game as kids.

5. Phantom and a Rose – Secret of Mana

Secret of Mana was a very special game, probably my favourite RPG on the Super Nintendo and one of my favourite games of all time. Many aspects of the game were very unusual and have never been successfully copied since, like its weird three-player support, peculiar fusion of real-time combat with ATB gauges, and expansive magic levelling system. But somehow everything came together perfectly, due in large part to its fascinating, rich, and beautiful world, and it’s long, complex, dark, and sad story. A big part of this appeal was its stunning soundtrack, which is full of hauntingly beautiful pieces of music, and it’s really hard to pick out any one from the others. Just listen to the whole thing. For me, nothing captures the feeling of listening to music from my childhood quite like this.

Chrono Trigger, a successor to Secret of Mana and regarded by many to be a superior game, was never released for the SNES in Europe, and so I never played it as a child. CT has a famously good soundtrack, and I am finally getting round to playing it now, on the DS, over 20 years after its original release. But no matter how good it is, I doubt I will ever have the same emotional response to it as I do with Secret of Mana.

So, these are some of my favourite pieces of music from the 16-bit era–arguably video gaming’s golden age. I hope you like them, and if you’re not familiar with the source games, I encourage you to check them all out!

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D (3DS) – Review

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Majora’s Mask is widely regarded as one of the best Zelda games ever made, but because it was released towards the very end of the N64’s life cycle, comparatively few people actually played it when it was first released. So it’s a good thing that Nintendo gave it a proper re-make for the 3DS last year. Having never played it before, and aware of its high critical standing, playing Majora’s Mask was one of my top priorities when I acquired a 3DS earlier this year.

Majora’s Mask eschews the older version of Link who figured prominently in Ocarina of Time and later games like Twilight Princess, focusing instead on Young Link. The story seems to pick up where Ocarina left off, and finds Young Link travelling the world trying to find his ‘friend’. I couldn’t figure out from the game who this was supposed to be, but apparently it’s Na’vi, Link’s erstwhile fairy companion. During his travels he is accosted by the mischievous ‘Skull Kid’, who steals a bunch of Link’s stuff, leaves him stranded, and turns him into a Deku Scrub! What a jerk. Link’s adventure starts by trying to return to normal, but soon expands into a mission to save the land of Termina, a kind of parallel dimension inhabited by the Skull Kid as well as a bunch of other characters who are more or less familiar from Ocarina of Time.

Majora’s Mask’s world occupies an odd place, being quite reminiscent of Hyrule in many respects, and containing a lot of its iconography and races, but also seeming quite separate and distinct. This has given rise to a slew of fan theories about the true nature of Termina, its inhabitants, and its mythology, ranging from dream-state theories to how the whole game is a metaphor for Link’s sense of grief. This all seems a bit excessive to me: the game was made in a single year, heavily recycling a lot of the aesthetic and technical assets of Ocarina of Time, and there is a simple practical explanation for the perceived tension or ‘weirdness’, in that the designers faced a challenge in making the game artistically and thematically distinctive from Ocarina while still relying on that game’s engine and art pool.

What is unique about Majora’s Mask is its three-day time cycle. Link is tasked with preventing an apocalypse, as Skull Kid is pulling the moon towards Termina, threatening to crash it into the surface and obliterate all life. It’s a terrifying prospect, enhanced by the deeply disturbing appearance of the moon itself. Fortunately, Link can use his ocarina to turn back time, meaning he has a seemingly endless supply of three-day cycles to complete the various tasks necessary to stop Skull Kid’s plans. The time-travelling mechanic is well-executed, and integrated into a lot of storylines and side quests.

Majora’s Mask has a somber and at times very sad atmosphere. It’s not just the impending destruction of the world, as if that weren’t bad enough; the game is full of the spirits of people who have died, often in tragic ways, and who are often filled with remorse or regret. Similarly, there are many characters who have lost loved ones, and are filled with pain and loss. Many of the game’s quests involve Link working to help people come to terms with their grief, which can lead to some quite moving moments. At the same time, one of the curious things about the game is that every time you reset the cycle, all these incidental events are reset, meaning everyone goes back to the state they were in before, plunged once more into the midst of their pain and grief.

From a gameplay perspective, this resetting of the gameworld contributes to a certain amount of frustration. Many of the side quests have a specific time limit, as you have to complete a certain task by a certain time in order to leave enough time to move on to the next step of the quest. Sometimes this can be quite arbitrary, for example if you have to wait until the next sunrise or whatever. Considering that in order to even begin certain sidequests, you have to kill a dungeon boss to, say, change the season in an area from winter to summer, this can turn a potentially interesting side mission into a frustrating chore. Moreover, the game has a certain inherent difficulty: this isn’t exactly Dark Souls, but neither is the difficulty trivial, and it has the potential to be a punishing experience for players unfamiliar with older Zelda games.

The fact you are always playing against the clock makes this even more acute. This can create a positive sense of tension, as you race against the clock to get things done, but it can also lead to frustration if you run out of time when trying to complete a long-winded side quest and have to go back to the beginning. Some people won’t mind this, of course, but from a contemporary point of view it is quite a ‘hardcore’ mechanic.

Probably the most interesting thing about Majora’s Mask is its general sense of poignancy and its thematic emphasis on loneliness and companionship, and love and death. It’s a curious mix, and for a company not known for its fondness for ‘mature’ themes, this is an emotionally mature and sophisticated game. In a world where it seems most people don’t get a happy ending, the game emphasizes the value of kindness and compassion in a way that’s all too rare. Although Majora’s Mask is probably not for everyone, it’s certainly a unique and memorable experience.

8/10

The White Goddess (book) – Review

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I first came across references to The White Goddess while doing some general research on Celtic mythology, specifically the Morrigan, or Morrigan, the famous Irish goddess of fate and death. Pagan myths and legends have always interested me, and so I was quite eager to check out this book, which is widely regarded as one of the most important to investigate the links between goddess-worship and matriarchal culture. The book is written by Robert Graves, someone I’ve admired ever since I watched the TV adaptation of his most famous work, I, Claudius.

Clocking in at over 500 pages, it took me several months to read The White Goddess, which is a very challenging book. Graves is not primarily a historian, but a poet, and he describes his book as a ‘Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth’, rather than an academic work of history, anthropology or even literary criticism. The book is suffused with classical, literary, historical and mythological allusions and references, and it is frankly impossible and pointless to try and pursue all of the twists and turns Graves makes as he pursues his argument. This is partly because the book is ludicrously dense, as Graves bombards the reader with endless obscure references from all over Europe and the Near East, dating from any time between about 2000 BC and 1500 AD.

Much of the book is devoted to some hopelessly convoluted analysis of a few little-known Welsh and Irish myths and legends. Whatever the inrinsic interest of these stories, their appeal or indeed significance is not well communicated by Graves, who gets hopelessly lost in the maze of his own investigations and speculations. However, the one good thing I got out of these sections was a love for trees. I’ve never been interested in trees or plants, but the prevailing importance of trees in Celtic myths and legends is something I now appreciate, and I’m grateful to the book for opening my eyes to this hugely important, and indeed beautiful subject.

Graves’s critical method is quite undisciplined, and the book would have benefited from proper editing; but then again, it probably would have been impossible to edit this book properly. Graves is obsessed with the idea that all ‘true’ poetry is inspired by a ‘single poetic theme’, Goddess-worshship, and his book essentially consists of an unending effort to find evidence for this argument. At times it’s akin to a form of monomania. Graves has an absurd method of presenting ‘evidence’: if something seems to flatly contradict his thesis on the face of it, he will simply assert that the ancients got it wrong, and that in fact the true allusion or story behind the myth is literally the opposite of what it has been taken to mean for thousands of years. At times he presents a credible reason for this, but time and again he simply asserts it without backing it up at all.

What’s worse, towards the end of the book Graves has two chapters in which major parts of his argument consist of pure fiction. The first is a novel interpretation of the meaning of 666, the ‘number of the beast’, where Graves converts the number into Roman numerals and then imagines a sequence of words starting with the appropriate letters, DCLXVI. The second is a cringeworthy section where he ‘imagines’ a conversation between some Romans discussing the subject matter of his book. It’s excruciating and embarrassing to read, and a massive disappointment considering that these sections come towards the end of the book, just when you’re expecting his argument to finally come together in a coherent way. Graves describes these chapters as the product of ‘analeptic thought’, referring to the idea that you can throw your mind back in time to get a new perspective on something that happened a long time ago. This has been suggested as a way of examining prehistoric art, by looking at its intrinsic visual patterns and moving away from the methods of art criticism that are a modern construct and arguably not valid for examining prehistoric creations. However, there’s a difference between that, and what Graves does here, which I would simply describe as ‘making things up’.

The sad thing is, that the book does actually contain nuggets of inspiration as well as some fascinating comments on comparative religion and the development of religious mythology and iconography. Graves takes his inspiration from Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a pioneering book which analysed the material basis for myths and legends in ancient and prehistoric rituals. This book’s best sections are in that tradition, and Graves highlights familiar religious tropes which can be traced across not just Egyptian, Graeco-Roman, and Judaeo-Christian religion, but also between Norse, Germanic, Celtic, and Babylonian religious custom. Moreover, although Graves takes the subject in a personal and subjective direction, the core subject matter is something that has interested me since discovering the ‘materialist conception of history’ as a student and reading Friedrich Engels book, ‘The origins of the family, private property, and the state.’

The key theme here is the role of ‘The White Goddess’, also referred to as the Triple Goddess, who recurs in most religious pantheons as a mother/wife figure, often in a triple aspect as mother, daughter, and crone (or as maiden, seductress, and hag). The argument is that in matriarchal society, before the development of agriculture and before the Bronze Age, this goddess was a prevailing archetype across most of Europe and indeed the wider world, whose primary position was overthrown by male gods over a period of time due to the rise of patriarchal society and the concomitant development of patriarchal religion. This goddess figure was thenceforth subjugated in her commonly known forms such as Isis, Hera/Juno, Frigg/Freya, etc.

One thing that surprised me was that Graves doesn’t seem to examine the role of Gaia-type goddesses. In Greek mythology, for example, Gaia (‘Mother Earth’) is the original deity who gave birth to the fatherless Uranus, and then mated with him to produce offspring which included Cronus (the father of Zeus). The trope of a virgin birth, or the child without a father, is an obvious indicator of matriarchy or matrilinear descent, ie, a form of social organization where a child’s paternity is either unknown or unimportant. But Graves tends to shy away from this kind of social comment in favour of obtuse linguistic references. He also makes no comment on the well-known ‘fat lady’ iconography that existed across Europe in the neolithic period, and which is a clear sign of worship of fertility and the female form.

It’s a significant problem that Graves did not do a better job with this book. This is an important subject, and one can’t help think that he was onto something with his central argument. The problem is that his irresponsible and self-indulgent treatment of the subject matter tends to discredit the whole line of investigation. Sadly, if you do an internet search about matriarchal religions today you’ll find the subject is largely the preserve of mystics and cranks, which is a far cry from the late-nineteenth century when there was a great deal of serious study devoted to this important subject, by women and men alike. As Graves points out in connection to the replacement of matriarchy by patriarchy, the onward march of time brings regression as well as progression.

6/10