Texas Chain Saw Massacre (film) – Review

Texas Chain Saw Cemetery 7

It’s hard for me to think of it this way, but Texas Chain Saw Massacre is now almost fifty years old. It’s an iconic and hugely influential horror movie, and even after all these years it remains an extremely effective and frightening film. As a teenager in the UK in the 1990s with an interest in the horror genre, I was intrigued by the aura of fear and danger around the movie, which was not classified for distribution in the UK until 1998. I saw it for the first time a year later, in 1999, when it was screened for the first time on British television by Channel 4. I remember finding certain sequences of the film to be utterly terrifying and profoundly disturbing; but I was also intrigued by some of the film’s subtext. Two decades later, the raw power of its horror hasn’t faded, and even if its thematic content feels a bit hackneyed, it hasn’t lost its relevance.

Texas Chain Saw Massacre is presented as a true story, but it isn’t actually based on real events (although like many other horror movies, it was informed by the real-life crimes of Ed Gein). Part of the film’s influence can be seen in that its early sequences – a group of twenty-somethings on a roadtrip in Texas come across a cabin in the woods – have been reproduced endlessly by later movies. While most horror movies tend to be shot at night, the Texas Chain Saw Massacre is shot for the most part during the day, and in intense sun and heat too. There’s a lurid quality to the cinematography that’s quite unsettling, and it’s not just down to the references to graverobbing and dead animals on the highway. The (admittedly outlandish) events of the film are situated in close proximity to the meat industry and the industrial slaughter of livestock, and the callous and inhumane treatment of animals is an important part of establishing the film’s horrific atmosphere; because of course when we see people treated in such a way, it is appalling and really scary. It would be too much to say the film has a vegetarian message as such, but it does make you think about the meat industry, in a really unsettling way.

Texas Chain Saw Massacre inspired legions of films that tried to copy its formula for success, but few have been able to reproduce the sense of tension and dread which it establishes over its first half hour. The whole hitch hiker sequence in the beginning is disturbing as hell; shortly after that, the film also features arguably the most frightening sequence in cinematic history, which anyone with an interest in the genre really has to experience.

The film gets your emotions to boiling point early on, and sets a high-water-mark which the rest of the film finds hard to match; to my mind, the second half gets a bit bogged down in unnecessary quasi-supernatural material. Filmmaker Tobe Hooper has explained the film was partly a reaction to events like Watergate and the Vietnam War, and it certainly exhibits a cynicism about American culture which was very much of its time in the early 1970s. In general, there’s probably too much pseudo-intellectual deconstruction of films like this (pot, meet kettle), and I think it’s misguided to regard Texas Chain Saw Massacre as a post-modernist film per se. But, with its cynical perspective, it’s easy to retrospectively cast the film in such a category.

On a purely functional level, it’s hard to criticize Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Its power to disturb and terrify is undiminished, which testifies to its basic integrity and twisted artistry. It’s remarkable that after so much time, it is still unsurpassed in the stakes of pure horror; which is also a statement on the development (or otherwise) of the genre. That said, certain things that helped makeTexas Chain Saw Massacre feel authentic would not fly well today (the health and safety conditions the actors and crew worked in are almost as frightening as the film itself). Also, while the first half of the film is perfectly paced, the second half does feel like it spins its wheels too long. It’s already a short film, but it probably could have afforded to lose ten minutes. You feel for the poor actress who spends so long screaming – it must have played havoc with her vocal chords. But as T. pointed out to me, at least here the screaming is in the service of a plot point, rather than the plot point itself: in other words, at least this film shows you there is good reason to scream, and you know what’s going on.

Considering that Texas Chain Saw Massacre provides the perfect template for a horror film, you’d think others would follow it better. While it might not have much of a soul of its own, it certainly does a good job of making you fear for your own.


Pacific Rim (film) – Review


2013’s sci-fi/fantasy epic Pacific Rim was something of a risk. That’s something of a rarity these days, with most big-budget movies being sequels or new iterations of established, well-worn IPs. Pacific Rim, on the other hand, was new; an entertaining action film not based on a comic book and not part of any existing narrative universe. Although the central conceit of giant robots fighting monsters/aliens is familiar to older viewers thanks to the likes of Godzilla, director Guillermo Del Toro wanted to re-envision this neglected genre for modern audiences and bring it to a new generation. Pacific Rim was a qualified success at the box office and had a mixed critical reception, but thankfully a sequel was finally greenlit and will appear next year. That’s a good thing in my view, because Pacific Rim is an outstanding film, and one of the best action films of the last decade.

Pacific Rim is set in a near-future Earth devastated by attacks from giant monsters called Kaiju which appear from a dimensional rift at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. To combat the threat, mankind devised giant robots called Jaegers; they’re piloted by humans, but the “neural load” of piloting one means the job has to be shared between two pilots. This introduces an important aspect of teamwork, meaning the film doesn’t just focus on the genius of individual pilots, but instead has a more democratic focus on co-operation and working together to overcome a terrifying foe.

Indeed, the general mood and timbre of Pacific Rim is quite progressive and inclusive. Del Toro makes a point of avoiding the gung-ho, glamorized version of the traditional military which is familiar from most conventional blockbusters, to the point that the film barely features any conventional weaponry at all. While the film features an enormous amount of jaw-dropping destruction of major cities, it’s emphasized that for the most parts these cities have been evacuated; so the cost is mainly in bricks and mortar. The script is clear that what is ultimately at stake in Pacific Rim is the survival of our species, but because it doesn’t show lots of people dying, it largely succeeds in keeping the tone relatively light and upbeat. It’s a refreshing take on things.

The visual design in Pacific Rim is absolutely spectacular. The Jaegers and Kaiju look incredible, but the pilots’ armour also looks tremendous (and the film features arguably the most glorious pair of shoes ever designed). The fight sequences between the giant behemoths are a joy to behold, and a reminder of what a powerful and invigorating medium cinema can be at its best. 3D cinema seems to have had its day, but Pacific Rim is a movie which benefits from being seen on the largest screen available, and in 3D if possible.

Pacific Rim manages to have its cake and eat it by combining stunning aesthetics and action set-pieces with a solid script and poignant and sincere human drama. The central character, hotheaded pilot Raleigh, is appealing and benefits from actor Charlie Hunnam’s good looks, humour and charm. But over the course of the film the supporting cast are given a surprising amount of development. Hunnam has good chemistry with Rinko Kikuchi, who plays Jaeger pilot Mako and who has an endearing and entertaining crush on Raleigh. Idris Elba is great as Stacker, the head of the Jaeger programme and therefore Raleigh’s boss as well as Mako’s surrogate father. Apparently Del Toro wanted Tom Cruise to play the role at first (which would have been awesome), but Elba has the presence and authority to pull it off. Unlike many people, I’ve not been a huge fan of most of Elba’s work since The Wire, but this is one of his best roles.

The icing on the cake is that Del Toro associate Ron Perlman gets a predictably entertaining cameo as Kaiju organ-trader Hannibal Chau. But even someone like Raleigh’s at-first irritating rival Chuck, played by ex-Eastenders actor Robert Kazinsky, becomes more sympathetic once you understand his motivations. The script features much more depth and compassion than your average summer blockbuster or superhero film, and it’s a real joy to watch from beginning to end. It might not be the most sophisticated or intellectual film around, but it achieves everything it sets out to do, and what it aims for is actually quite ambitious. Pacific Rim showcased a different approach to the summer blockbuster, and shows up how limited, negative and cynical most of those films are. I wish more films were brave enough to use the approach Del Toro deploys here, but at least there’s going to be a sequel – and here’s hoping it matches the heart and spectacle of the original.


Blair Witch (film) – Review


Don’t go into the woods today.

Some horror movie directors don’t seem to understand that just watching other people lose their shit from fear isn’t necessarilly scary; it can inspire other emotions depending on the context, like amusement, irritation, or even apathy. Quarantine, the extraneous remake of Spanish zombie film REC, was a good example: Jennifer Carpenter was a hysterical mess for the last 30 minutes of the movie, rendering it all but unwatchable. Blair Witch relies on the same technique, with equally disappointing results.

The last half hour of Blair Witch see the surviving characters running around aimlessly while shouting each other’s names over and over again. The setting and events of the film are unsettling, but the OTT panicking and idiotic behaviour of the characters drains the proceedings of any tension. When I think back to unforgettably scary sequences in movies – the first kill in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the shower scene in Psycho, or the ending of Don’t Look Now – the characters themselves aren’t  acting like they’re about to shit their pants from fear (not until the last second, anyway). The fear and tension comes from the dreadful atmosphere and the fact the audience has access to information the characters don’t. It’s true you can have effective extended sequences where someone is absolutely terrified (the end of Texas Chainsaw Massacre), but if you try to keep that level up for too long you’ll just wear out your audience. I felt like the makers of Blair Witch didn’t have any ideas beyond mimicking the events of the first film, and sought to rely on on viewers having an uncritical reaction along the lines of “look, these guys are totally scared, so this must be a really frightening situation!”

Blair Witch Project was an influential film that popularized the whole “found footage” genre, as well as the amateur shaky-cam visual style. It received plenty of critical accolades when it was released, but it also has a very mixed reputation among horror fans with many considering it rather overrated. This sequel, simply titled Blair Witch, is set two decades after the original, and sees the brother of one of the people who disappeared all those years ago going back to the woods to try and find out what happened to her. He manages to rope a couple of friends into joining him, and is also obliged to bring a couple of local horror nuts along as well (bad idea). The characters are cliched and lacking in charisma, and the script is moribund; there’s no wit or humour, and it’s hard to care about the characters even in the face of their inevitable fates.

The Black Hills Forest in which the movie is set is actually quite atmospheric, and the first half of the film is functional if generic. The movie’s real problems start once things begin to go wrong in the forest, and it becomes clear that the makers of Blair Witch either didn’t trust their own abilities to create frightening sequences, or the capacity of its audience to pay attention. In the end, the surviving characters spend an eternity searching for each other in the dark, through the woods and abandoned buildings, breathing heavily and repeatedly calling out one another’s names. There’s nothing scary about it, it’s just inane and boring. Blair Witch is a stultifying film and it’s guaranteed to try the patience of most serious horror fans.


Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (film) – Review


Tom Cruise has had a hell of a career. Few actors have been so consistent over such a long period of time: if you look at his filmography over the last 35 years or so, every couple of years has been punctuated by a critically and commercially successful movie. Even as Cruise has entered his 50s he’s continued to put out stuff that’s interesting, entertaining and relevant. 2014’s Live Die Repeat (a kind of sci-fi Groundhog Day that’s also known as Edge of Tomorrow) was great, and Cruise followed that up a year later with his fifth Mission Impossible film, Rogue Nation.

One might have expected the Mission Impossible franchise to have fallen into irrelevance and critical ignominy by now, but 2011’s Ghost Protocol was pretty good, and made an enormous amount of money at the box office. Rogue Nation is another solid entry in the long-running series. Cruise is in fine fettle: not only is he in excellent shape (such as would put to shame most men half his age), but he demonstrates good humour and a self-deprecating streak with visual jokes about his height and so on. Rogue Nation is a high-octane action movie with a great sense of visual spectacle, and once again the MI series comes up with interesting scenarios, locations, and stunning set-pieces that make for a very good two-hour ride. Moreover, the script is written with enough sincerity and emotional intelligence that it doesn’t make you feel particularly bad for watching it, unlike a lot of the stuff that comes out of Hollywood these days. In a lot of ways, Rogue Nation is a refreshingly traditional action film, and a good palette cleanser in this postmodern age of Marvel-style self-referential irony.

On which note, my personal gripe with Rogue Nation is the prominence of Simon Pegg’s character, Ethan Hunt’s sidekick Benji. Pegg has forged a lucrative niche Stateside portraying an American stereotype of the sarcastic, sexless British man-child, but I am really not a fan. Ving Rhames also reprises his increasingly irrelevant role in Hunt’s entourage as the hacker Luther; unlike Cruise, Rhames has not maintained his physique and no longer exudes the menace and masculine charisma he once did. I really hope the next MI film shakes up the supporting cast.

One thing that Rogue Nation does get right is the character of Ilsa Faust, a British intelligence operative played by Rebecca Ferguson. Ilsa’s apparent playing of both sides helps hold interest in the main story, which is otherwise best described as functional. She’s a good foil for Hunt, with a distinctive look and fighting style, and also a much better actor than Ghost Protocol’s Paula Patton. The main villain, by contrast, isn’t given much to work with and is a fairly unthreatening and unmemorable figure with a weird nasal voice. It doesn’t help that he bears more than a passing resemblance to the actor who plays Ilsa’s handler in British intelligence, which is sort of confusing and a bit of a faux pas as far as casting goes.

You really can’t go wrong witch watching Rogue Nation, though. The Mission Impossible franchise has earned a solid reputation for turning out reliably entertaining movies that can appeal to wide audiences, and Rogue Nation is no exception. While I probably preferred Ghost Protocol on the whole, you can’t really go wrong with watching Rogue Nation, whoever you’re with and whatever the situation. It’s a consummate Hollywood action movie, and a perfect vehicle for Cruise’s undeniable and remarkable talents.


Castlevania (season one) – Review


Castlevania fans have had a hard time in recent years, as the venerable game series has been left to gather dust by owner Konami. Thus news of a Netflix-produced animated series stoked excitement, particularly once it became clear the show was intended for “mature” audiences and would not hold back on blood and gore. Castlevania’s subject matter has tried-and-tested appeal, and the successful blueprint for atmospheric gothic anime has been well-established by films like Vampire Hunter D. What could possibly go wrong?

First impressions are promising: Castlevania looks really, really good. The characters and settings are well-designed and animated, and if the aesthetic is somewhat hackneyed, that can be forgiven considering that it’s paying homage not just to a game series but to an entire genre. That said, much of the season’s four episodes are set in a generic medieval town, which is a bit disappointing considering that most Castlevania games are set in some version or other of Dracula’s castle. Indeed, apart from the names of the characters, and Trevor Belmont’s whip, I didn’t find there was much here to distinguish this as a Castlevania series: if they changed the names it would have been a pretty generic anime horror.

Having announced a Castlevania ‘series’, I think a few eyebrows were raised when the show was released and it turned out to be four episodes long, clocking in at about 100 minutes total. That’s really more the length of a movie, and the ‘episodic’ structure felt a bit phony. In particular, episodes two and three naturally segue into each other, and the ending of episode two felt rather abrupt. More problematic is that the ‘season’ finishes in an unsatisfying way, as the ‘conclusion’ is anything but and just sets the stage for future episodes. Netflix has inevitably announced that Castlevania has been ‘renewed’ for a second season, but it all feels completely pre-planned, and fundamentally cynical. If there was ever any doubt about a second season (clue: there wasn’t), it wouldn’t have ended as it did. Netflix knew there would be a lot of hype about the show because of the name alone, so they served up a laughably short first ‘season’, enabling them to spread a wafer-thin story over twelve episodes, when one feature-length movie would have sufficed.

But what really condemns Castlevania is its awful script. Set in a fictionalized C15th Europe, Dracula’s human wife is burnt as a witch by evil Christians, so he decides to wipe out the local population in retaliation. The only person who can stop him is Trevor Belmont, a cynical young outcast aristocrat and the last surviving member of the vampire-hunting Belmont clan. Trevor is an unappealing lead, not motivated by anything other than alcohol, and constantly complaining about having to rescue ungrateful peasants. Most of the inhabitants of Wallachia are portrayed unsympathetically, either as cringing cowards or as perverts who have sex with farm animals. It’s a singularly charmless script, and one that’s devoid of any humour, wit or passion.

This is made even worse by the voice acting, which ranges from indifferent to downright awful. More than one character suffers from dreadful mumbling, to the point that we had to turn on the subtitles to follow what people were saying. It’s not limited to one character, which suggests it was a technical problem or a production decision; if the latter, god knows what they were trying to achieve. Belmont’s voice acting is infuriating, as he rushes through sentences, fails to enunciate his words properly, and tails off inaudibly. But the worst of all is the villainous Bishop of Gresit. I don’t know what they were trying to achieve with his voice, but it doesn’t work at all. You can barely make out what he’s saying half the time. Considering how much work goes into creating the visuals for something like this, it beggars belief that the audio would be so incompetently directed and edited.

It used to be the case that licensed video games were guaranteed to be terrible. Cynical publishers would acquire a well-known license and use it to market a crap game, relying on name recognition to get people to buy a shitty product. Here that dynamic is reversed. Visuals aside, Castlevania is a pathetically lazy, cynical and low-effort attempt by Netflix to use a well-regarded video game franchise to generate interest among a certain demographic. Don’t encourage them. Do yourself a favour, and give it a miss.


Xenoblade Chronicles X (Wii U) – Review


Xenoblade Chronicles X was released in the West at Christmas 2015. A spiritual successor to revered Wii JRPG Xenoblade Chronicles (but not a sequel – that’s coming to Switch later this year), X is a sprawling open-world sci-fi RPG set on the planet Mira. The game’s story quickly establishes that Earth has been destroyed by hostile alien races; because humanity had some advance warning, as many people as possible were sent into space on giant ark ships to try and stop us going extinct. The struggle to survive against the odds is a major theme throughout the story, and X tells an often inspiring and moving story, largely due to a strong script and a varied and likable cast of characters.

The player character, canonically known as Cross, exhibits that most convenient of storytelling devices – amnesia – and his introduction to the planet Mira serves for us as well. The humans on Mira all come from an ark known as the White Whale, which crashed on the planet with hostile aliens in pursuit. The stranded humans have set about establishing a colony which they’ve christened New Los Angeles. Fortunately, Mira is a miraculously Earth-like planet, and so humans can get by pretty well. The game is host to a vast array of flora and fauna, many of which are quite spectacular, and the game’s visual design is a real highlight. Although the character designs might not be the most sophisticated, the landscapes and vistas unfurled as you traverse Mira are often jaw-dropping. I really missed having a screenshot feature on the Wii U, as this is a game that was really made for such a function. The Wii U is not the most powerful games console, but X shows that design and artistry are more important than raw power. This is one of the most visually impressive games I’ve played.

The sound design is on a par with the game’s visuals, a testament to the passion that went into building the game. At first I was a bit put off by the soundtrack’s unusual nature and the fact that many of the songs feature vocals: most games prefer instrumental, ambient tracks, which are less likely to distract the player’s attention. However, after a while I really started to get into the music, and it won me over as one of the most enjoyable and memorable game soundtracks I’ve experienced. It reminded me of the excellent Kill La Kill soundtrack, which is no coincidence as it was composed by the same guy, Hiroyuki Sawano. There are several stand-out tracks I came to look forward to hearing, and some real earworms. That said, with over four hours of original music, there are inevitably a couple of tracks that will get on your nerves. Although the music is epic and very good, it’s not perfect.

X plays a bit like an MMORPG, even though it’s primarily a single-player game. It is possible to team up with other players online, but that’s not something that appeals to me these days. The main story is divided up into 12 ‘chapters’, some of which are quite short, so much of the story and context is filled out with a bewildering array of side missions. Some of these are picked up from a central mission board, and are often MMORPG staples like gathering or hunting missions, but there are also a huge amount of flavour missions you pick up from the denizens of New LA. The city expands considerably over the course of the game, but it can be a bit of a feast or famine situation as far as missions go. Some missions unlock a huge number of new side stories, and so completing the right missions at the right time is important to ensure you have a steady flow of content. If you go through the main story missions too quickly, you will soon find yourself under-leveled, and miss out on a lot of important content.

Gameplay revolves around exploration and combat. Once you initiate combat you can cast ranged and melee special attacks, buffs and debuffs, and can launch a high damage ‘overdrive’ mode if you build up enough ‘tension’ from your other attacks. You can also spend tension to perform more powerful attacks. Your teammates’ attacks can trigger combos to increase damage, restore health, and so on. You can also target enemy appendages to do increased damage and make them less threatening. I honestly found the combat to be a bit over-complicated, and this sort of gameplay is really better suited to a keyboard than a console controller, even a monster like the Wii U Gamepad.

Combat is more fun once you unlock Skells, giant mechs that reminded me a lot of Transformers. Skells also make it a lot easier to travel around Mira: while for the first 30 hours or so you have to go everywhere on foot – sneaking round powerful monsters that can kill you in one hit – Skells make getting around a lot easier. But even then, you’ll have to be careful not to aggro powerful beasts, as there is an abundance of elite and high-level monsters throughout Mira who can easily kill you even after you complete the game. It’s a bit frustrating, as replacing your Skell can become prohibitively expensive, so having it destroyed is not a trivial matter. The game only allows you one save file, so you need to ensure you save regularly, especially if you’re worried about replacing your Skell. The game doesn’t auto-save, and losing an hour or more of progress due to the game crashing (which happened to me more than once) is not fun.

X makes good use of the Wii U Gamepad, using the touchscreen to manage an interactive map, as well as your mining and exploration probes which generate revenue and resources. The whole game can also be played on the Gamepad screen, but it really benefits from being seen on a big screen.

This is a game that eschews holding the player’s hand and expects you to find out a lot on your own. There is an enormous variety of combat and exploration mechanics which are not thoroughly explained: there is a cumbersome in-game manual, but most people will end up relying on the internet for advice. I don’t think I’ve ever gone online as much while playing a game as I did during X, not just for help with quests and battles, but also for help understanding the myriad combat and leveling systems.

I’m all for complexity, but this game takes things too far with its obtuse systems, and seems contemptuous of the player’s time and convenience. The party management system is a case in point. You can have up to four characters in your party, but to add someone to your party you have to physically find them in New LA and talk to them – you can’t just switch them out using a menu. Moreover, to unlock character-based side quests (‘affinity missions’) you have to raise the affinity level between that character and your avatar, which takes ages and can only happen if they are in your party. The icing on the cake is that characters only gain experience if they are in your party, so you’re almost certain to have a host of squadmates who are seriously under-leveled and therefore useless in combat: which is a problem because fights can be very tough. It’s a shame because many of the side stories are really well-written, but getting to experience all the content with each of the fifteen or so party members is a massive chore.

Once you complete the game, there are a few repeatable missions you can do to raise your affinity a bit faster, but even then, it takes much longer than it should. Some missions are also just ludicrously difficult, and completely out of sync with the level requirements specified for the mission. Even after beating the game, and having played for over 100 hours, I finally gave up on trying to do everything when a level 37 mission featuring a level 46 boss repeatedly wiped my squad of level 55+ characters. Frustrating as it was, this wouldn’t have been such a problem were it not for the fact you can’t abandon missions once you start them. So, in order to do anything else I would have had to go and grind for hours to be able to complete the mission before I could move on. Then there are things like a character recruitment mission you have to be level 44 to begin, but at the end of said mission the character who joins is level 32 – guaranteeing they are at least 12 levels below you, and requiring you to grind for ages if you want them to be remotely useful.

The often disrespectful and sadistic nature of the gameplay is at odds with the positive tone of the story. It really is an inspiring tale which features a wonderful cast of characters, and both the main story and the side missions are a trove of joy and entertainment. X features some wonderfully-designed alien races, at times even giving something like Mass Effect a run for its money. Though it’s ostensibly set in a grimdark universe, X has an optimistic, light-hearted and childlike sincerity that you rarely see in a genre dominated by more cynical Western games, and it’s a refreshing and beautiful take on the space opera formula. The stand-out character is Elma, wonderfully voiced by Caitlin Glass, who is basically the protagonist of the main story and an inspirational lead in the Shepherd mould.

photo 1

Elma and Cross enjoying some down-time.

X is a long game, and the Western release contains additional content that was released as DLC in Japan, which stretches things out even further. If you’re looking for a hardcore RPG to play on the Wii U, this is probably your best bet, and it could last you for ages (I was playing it on and off for about six months). It’s just a shame that the game makes it so hard to experience everything it has to offer. Xenoblade Chronicles X could and should have been a great game, but it falls frustratingly short through fault of its own.


Vikings (season four, part two) – Review


Fuck off, Ivar.

The ending of the first half of Vikings’ fourth season strongly hinted that the story was about to focus on Ivar the Boneless, one of the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok. Sure enough, Ivar is the dominant figure across these ten episodes, and the show suffers for it. That Ragnar had five sons should have meant there was lots of potential for different storylines showing them working together and competing for power and prestige. But this opportunity is wasted as most of the sons just serve as tools to put over Ivar in one of the most egregious cases of character shilling I’ve seen.

Ivar’s ingenuity and ruthlessness are constantly referred to by characters throughout the season, but his genius is largely an informed attribute. One of the golden rules of storytelling is show, don’t tell; but Viking’s writers apparently aren’t capable of showing us Ivar’s brilliance, and instead make people say it over and over in the hope that we’ll come to believe it. His ruthlessness is manifest only in temper tantrums and the kind of reckless violence that befits a pampered mummy’s boy, which is what he is. The idea that someone could get away with the kind of nonsense Ivar does in this season stretches credulity. As one of Ragnar’s sons, clearly Ivar would get a pass up to a point, but it’s tiresome to see him get away with murder (literally and figuratively) time and again simply because of his disability, when people would have queued up to kill an able-bodied person behaving the same way. The character is badly written, but it doesn’t help that the actor who portrays Ivar is dreadfully limited, capable only of a wretched smirk to communicate sneering sarcasm, or a sulky teenager’s teeth-grinding pout to show rage. Ivar is an awful character and his presence was enough to ruin my enjoyment of this season.

That said, the character of Ivar is really just symptomatic of a general decline in the quality of Viking’s script. This is an ambitious show but the writing hasn’t been able to keep pace with the broader horizons brought about by the viking expansion. These ten episodes take in Britain, France, and Spain as well as Scandinavia, and they cover some momentous events. The scale and sweep of the story makes up somewhat for the unsatisfying character drama, and the set pieces and battles are very impressive. But season four cashes out some pretty big characters to maintain your attention, in a way that is not sustainable, particularly considering how unappealing most of the new cast are.

Thankfully, Lagertha figures quite prominently in the series, which is a positive, although the writers have decided to make her bisexual in a charmless effort to sex things up. Her new lover, Astrid, endears herself to us by hitting on both Lagertha’s son Bjorn and her ex-husband Ragnar, and serves no discernible purpose beyond titillation. Other than Bjorn and Ivar, the sons of Ragnar are very generic, and the writers can’t think of anything for them to do other than all bonking the same slave-girl in between talking about how much they fear their youngest brother, Ivar. If they’re so scared of him why don’t they just kill him? He’s only a threat because they allow him to be. Meanwhile, Harald Finehair and his staring brother continue to loom large, devoid of any charisma or personality, plotting to become kings of Norway in a plot nobody cares about.

A particular low point for me across these episodes saw Helga “adopt” a teenaged Muslim girl following a Viking raid on Spain. It’s always irritating when writers turn a previously sensible character into a deluded idiot overnight. Helga’s absurd plan to raise the girl as her daughter fails to come across as the tragedy the writers probably intended, and instead just felt like a transparent and tasteless attempt at emotional manipulation.

I’m sorry to see Vikings reduced to this state, as the first few seasons were really good. But seeing the way things are poised at the end of season four, I have no interest in following the story any further,