Episode 60: Ghost Story
Sunday, October 30, 2022
Thursday, October 27, 2022
The horror movie train don't stop for no one. Here's more of what I've been watching in October as I marathon horror movies:
Sometimes you're just in the mood for a trashy 80s slasher movie and nothing else will hit the spot. The Majorettes was surprisingly not bad for this sort of thing. It's got all the elements you expect (murders, shower scenes), but it also has some unexpected texture to it. Oddly, toward the end it effectively stops being a slasher movie and morphs into a "criminal delinquents on heat" sort of movie. Everything comes full circle, of course, but the brief interlude of gunplay and explosions did serve to liven up the formula a bit.
The Old Dark House
I saw The Old Dark House for the first time last year, but I enjoyed it so much that I was totally down to watch it again when my girlfriend requested an old black and white spookfest as our next movie pick. With its characters straight out of central casting, its titular old dark house, and the charmingly dated elements of the movie, you just can't go wrong with The Old Dark House. All that and Boris Karloff? Get out of here! Unbeatable mix. This is one of the few horror-comedies that really gets it right, in my opinion.
What an absolutely garbage movie! Shame on the director for fooling us with the first film in this trilogy, which actually seemed intent on both enlivening the franchise and exploring trauma as an aspect of horror. Halloween Ends betrays both of those goals. Not only does it come up empty on figuring out something new to do with Michael Myers, who doesn't even show up until over forty minutes into the flick, it ultimately has nothing worth saying about trauma too. Add in some ridiculous turn of events that don't make much sense in the context of the trilogy as a whole, some oddly placed boomer romance, a meet-cute that beggars belief, and a lack of any tension, and you got yourself a recipe for frustration and disappointment. At least we can all get back to pretending that there is only one Halloween movie and that the sequels don't exist.
The Demon Lover
Unfortunately, the movie bit of The Demon Lover doesn't hold a candle to the great painted-on-the-side-of-a-1970s-van art from the poster. The premise is pretty funny: a black magician feels jilted when his coven, who are only in it to party, man, get fed up with his dictates and leave him. In revenge, he summons a demon to kill them off. The only even slightly interesting thing in this movie is that the warlock character is very much a type I've encountered in real life: way too into the occult, way too into karate, and when you go to his house for the first time you're dismayed to see a Nazi flag inexplicably hanging on the wall. Oh yeah, a bunch of character names in this are references to horror and comics luminaries, but with a movie this bad it feels more like a slight than an honor.
Oddly, The Undead has nothing to do with the undead; it was instead a cheapie horror flick created to capitalize on the then-current cultural fascination with reincarnation! As an experiment, two scientists send a prostitute's psyche back in time to experience her past life as a medieval maiden accused of witchcraft. Interestingly, this movie has a real moral dilemma to it: is it better for the medieval woman to face her execution and insure that she will live other lives, even though some of those lives are terrible, or is it better for her to escape immediate death and live with the man who loves her? Really fun little movie. Also, the brunettes in this movie are something else.
The Witch Who Came From the Sea
I was not adequately prepared for The Witch Who Came From the Sea! Frankly, I was expecting some sort of supernatural element--an actual witch, instead of metaphor. What I got was an insane psycho-sexual murder spree thriller in which a woman's idolization of her abuser creates a thirst for blood and...television?
Anyway, I love that Daphne and her never-ending avalanche of pills is frequently referenced by characters in the film, but we never actually meet Daphne. Stay mysterious, Daphne! Also, as my friend Steve pointed out, that badass poster is a total rip of a Frazetta work.
I first saw Audition on Halloween night in Whitby, and you know...I don't think I'll ever be fully prepared for the intensity of the last twenty minutes of this movie.
A widower makes the terrible decision to "audition" women to be his next wife under the guise of hiring someone to star in a forthcoming production. Of course, he gets more than he bargains for with the woman he chooses.
Not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach, Audition will leave a mark.
Made with the leftover funds from one of Roger Corman's movies, Dementia 13 was Francis Ford Coppola's first "real" film. It's definitely a Psycho ripoff, but it's admittedly a pretty good one. When a man's grief-stricken mother plans to leave the family's wealth to charity in the name of her deceased daughter, his wife begins scheming to get her hands on the loot. Little does she realize that there is more going on in Castle Haloran than she initially suspects.
One thing that's pretty funny about this one is that the Irish Haloran family has nary an Irish accent to be heard!
Shock was Italian maestro Mario Bava's last film, and to be honest it isn't among his best work. A late entry in the craze for films about possessed children, there's nothing inherently wrong with Shock, but there isn't much that is noteworthy about it either. There are some instances of strong imagery, but the real attraction--at least for me--is Daria Nicolodi's knock-out performance as a widow who returns to the house she lived in with her husband before his untimely death. Nicolodi does not get enough credit as a scream queen, in my opinion.
When I worked at a video store in the 90s, I did my absolutely best to watch everything in our measly "foreign film" section. Sometimes you'd get stuck with a ponderous, post-war meditation on sadness, but sometimes you'd hit on a real firecracker like Diabolique. Diabolique works in the Hitchcockian mode; an abusive man's wife and mistress conspire to kill him and free themselves from his tyranny, but not all is what it seems--especially when his body disappears before it can be found publicly and his death confirmed.
Tuesday, October 25, 2022
This revision of the domain of Keening in Ravenloft was inspired by the peculiar flavor of British folk horror-meets-science fiction from the 1970s that has come to be called hauntology. Media such as Children of the Stones, The Stone Tape, Quatermass and the Pit, the “Image of the Fendahl” Doctor Who serial, Scarfolk, Welcome to Night Vale, and Robin of Sherwood were my primary influences. The full write-up appears in issue nine of Strahd Loves, Man Kills.
Domain of Hauntology
Genres: Folk horror, ghost stories
Hallmarks: The uncanny, the pull of the past, pagan undercurrents, spectral repetitions
Mist Talismans: Broken pocket watch, druidic amulet
The domain of Keening is haunted by the possibilities of futures that will never arrive. Intractably tethered to the past, prior misdeeds, bygone traumas, and buried secrets continually return to trouble the present in Keening, but the weighty burdens of history can never be fully dealt with in the domain. Nothing is truly ever dead and buried or forgotten in Keening; the past echoes in the present as a series of uncanny reverberations—repetitions of painful moments of sorrow, anguish, and despair.
Those familiar with Keening know the following facts:
• The people of Anwrtyn, Keening’s largest settlement, purposefully deafen themselves so they do not hear the wails of the banshee who haunts the nearby Mount Lament.
• Every village within Keening is located near a physical reminder of the land’s connection to bygone eras of ancient history.
• The spectral undead are common in Keening, as the domain refuses to let the unquiet past lay dormant.
• The areas of wilderness between Keening’s villages are prowled by undead monstrosities such as wights, zombies, and bog mummies.
Characters from Keening tend to be regarded as quaint and often possess a pronounced interest in history, but those who spend time with them soon realize that Keenians are unhealthily obsessed with the past. They are generally unable to break away from the cyclical repetition of events that have already transpired; they often seem “stuck in the past.” When players create characters from Keening, consider asking them the following questions.
What remnant of the past stood near the village where you grew up? The villages that Keenians hail from each have their own local reminder of the ancient past close by. For some villages, this remnant is a circle of standing stones, but others might have been built in proximity to a cairn, a field of barrows, or an antediluvian stone keep.
What haunts you? Everyone from Keening is haunted by an event from their personal history—some painful or traumatic moment that plays out over and over again in their minds during quiet moments.
What dream of the future tempts you? Because Keening is so inextricably tied to the past, few Keenians hold much hope for a better or different future. And yet, perhaps you cherish a dream of a future that would be restorative or recuperative.
Settlements and Sites
The forbidding land of Keening hosts no settlements larger than a village. Each settlement is located near a primeval remnant of the past. These remnants take forms such as cairns, circles of standing stones, henges, eerie monoliths, primitive statues, barrow mounds, and crumbling fortresses.
Villages in Keening are notable for their strange local customs, ceremonies, and celebrations. These traditions are immutable and are often tied to the natural cycle of the seasons. Although their origins are lost to time, the people of the villages are fastidious about keeping their traditions alive.
Keening’s countryside is rough terrain, yet it is also breathtakingly beautiful. Dense pine forests, taiga, and perilous mountains dominate the highlands, while the lowlands are comprised of plains, murky bogs, and forested fens.
At the base of Mount Lament lies the village of Anwrtyn, where all the residents are deaf. This is no accident, for the locals purposefully deafen themselves so they won’t be subjected to the shrieking of the banshee who haunts Mount Lament.
Within the village of Eldkirk sits a hoary old church, decrepit and in a state of shameful disrepair, dedicated to the goddess Ezra. The people of Eldkirk still attend services at night within the church, even though it is sometimes assaulted by a monstrous barghest called Old Blood Eye. When Old Blood Eye attacks the church, he rends its door from its hinges and seizes upon one of the gathered congregants, dragging them off to what is presumed to be a gruesome end.
The village of Gristgale Tor is unremarkable, save for the uncanny Gristgale Tor Public Library. The library has no entrance, but the village’s residents report emerging within the library in their dreams, where they must wander the dusty stacks until they find the book they are fated to check out. Once it has been located and the faceless librarian has taken down their name, they awake in their beds—with the book from their dream beside them. The book always gives them nightmares when read.
Lynbury is a small village surrounded by a circle of eldritch standing stones inscribed with druidic runes and sigils. Once the circle has been entered, is is impossible to leave Lynbury until the mystery of the standing stones has been solved; any attempt to leave leads those seeking an exit into the Mists, which shunt them back out into Lynbury no matter which direction they attempt to travel away from the village.
The people of Lynbury are unfailingly polite, kind, and welcoming. They encourage newcomers to make themselves at home and to consider settling down permanently in Lynbury. Indeed, life in Lynbury is an attractive prospect—visitors will be offered gainful employment, comfortable abandoned homes to take as their own domiciles, and a fair share of the food harvested from local gardens. Amiable companionship is also used as a lure; those who enter the Lynbury Circle find that the populace of the village coax them to join in nights of drinking and singing at the village pub and offer to induct them into the village’s troupe of folk dancers. Any unattached visitors will discover that an attractive and attentive villager has set their eye on them as a romantic prospect.
For all its offered comforts, Lynbury is a snare for the unwary and weak of will. Lord Glaston, Lynbury’s country squire and unofficial magistrate, taps into the magic of the standing stones to siphon away his fellow villagers’ emotions and feelings to feed Nihal, the Serpent Star. The villagers of Lynbury are happy, but only because all other sentiments and emotional responses have been drained from them by horrid sorcery.
When an outsider probes too deeply into the nature of the standing stones or the villagers’ unnatural happiness, Lord Glaston invites them to give up the burden of unpleasant feelings by participating in the ritual that activates Lynbury’s standing stones. If they refuse to lose themselves to the standing stones of Lynbury, Lord Glaston hunts them through the village with monstrous snakes gifted to him by the Serpent Star.
The only way to escape Lynbury is to slay Lord Glaston and offer his blood to the standing stones. Although this will allow visitors to escape the confines of the Lynbury Circle, it does not banish evil from the village; once the current Lord Glaston is dead, a villager will be elevated to his position and begin his malign work anew. The village will wait for new victims, and the stones will continue to hunger for the negative emotions that nourish Nihal.
Sladestone Keep is a dilapidated fortress currently being investigated by a team of researchers into the paranormal from Ludendorf University. A particular chamber in the keep has long been rumored to be haunted; this room has become the focal point of the investigators’ work. The researchers have discovered that playing musical instruments within the room causes the spectral scene of a ghastly murder to manifest. The scene plays out the same way every time: a man is violently attacked by a manic woman wielding a dagger made of black stone.
Close examination of the chamber’s walls reveals that it is etched all round with curious grooves, not unlike a modern record. The room is not so much haunted as it is an architectural recording of a horrible deed committed long ago. The room’s details suggest that the invention of a “stylus” able to play the recording fully could provide a method of ending the haunting permanently. However, using such a device on the chamber’s grooves will not result in the spectral scene playing out further or being dispelled—it will cause everyone in the room to be thrown into the past, mere days before the murder took place.
Anyone drawn into the keep’s past will be faced with deciding whether the murder should be prevented and determining how they might attempt to return to their native era.
In life, Tristessa was a dark elf dwelling under Mount Arak in Tepest, but she was exiled for crimes against her people. Formerly a priestess of Lolth, Tristessa earned the ire of her cruel goddess. She refused to sacrifice her male consort, and was punished for an obstinacy that sprang from true love: their child was born a drider. Although the culture of the Unseelie fey living beneath Mount Arak demanded it, Tristessa refused to abandon her child as an abomination or abject outcast. In light of her refusal, Tristessa, her consort, and their child were dragged to the mountain’s surface. Stakes were driven through their bodies; they were left to die of exposure and hunger upon the mountainside of Arak.
Tristessa could only howl with grief as she watched both her child and her beloved consort slowly expire. As she began to slip into the arms of death, her thoughts turned to joining her family in the world to come. Death, however, would not hold her. The Mists surrounded her as her spirit departed her body, capturing and transporting it to a new mountainous prison in the newly formed domain of Keening.
Tristessa’s spirit wanders Mount Lament, bereft and wailing for the family that was taken from her. The few who have survived an encounter with her claim that in between cries of sorrow, she whispers, “Tell me—where is my child? Where is my beloved?”
Tristessa’s Powers and Dominion
Tristessa has the stats of a banshee. Tristessa is tall, thin, and graceful. She appears to be wearing the tattered remains of a once-fine gown. Her face, however, is distorted by grief and torment. When she wails, tears stream down her face.
Undead Hordes. Tristessa has control over the undead who haunt Keening’s wilderness. She sometimes uses these minions to funnel victims toward her mountainous abode. Her favorites among her undead servitors are: a troop of unliving soldiers whose faces are frozen in silent screams; a beggar woman with a raspy voice, a milky eye, and a face half-disfigured by rot and decay; and a beekeeper whose body has become the hollowed hive of his poisonous buzzing companions.
Closing the Borders. When Tristessa wishes to close the borders of her domain, the Mists echo with an unbearable cacophony of lamentations. Anyone who ventures into the Mists will find themselves unable to withstand the onslaught; they will lose consciousness and awaken somewhere within Keening.
Tristessa is tortured by painful reminders of the loved ones she has lost and her inability to reach them beyond the veil of death. The Dark Powers taunt her in the following ways:
• Tristessa longs for her pain to be recognized and soothed, but since the people of Anwrtyn deafen themselves to her deadly cries they provide no true witness to her suffering. She wishes to be heard and understood, but the villagers deny her that comfort.
• The people of Anwrtyn are compelled by the Dark Powers to offer a yearly sacrifice of a young man and a child to Tristessa in hopes that their companionship will quiet her. Since Tristessa has no way to provide for this proxy family, she must watch as the replacements for her lost loved ones also die of starvation and exposure upon Mount Lament.
• Tristessa’s pain and loneliness is mocked by shadowy, half-real visions of the fey she formerly lived among under Mount Arak.
Tristessa has been consumed by sorrow and pushed past the point of madness. She cannot stop herself from fixating upon the loss of her lover and child, nor can she control her need to wail and scream—though doing so does nothing to expend the desolation that eats away at her.
Personality Trait. “I vent my pain upon an uncaring world.”
Ideal. “One day I will be reunited with those I love. There must be a way to end this torment.”
Bond. “My fondest memories of my beloved and my child turn to rot and ash in my mind.”
Flaw. “The ache of loneliness has made me cruel. I have no sympathy for others.”
Sunday, October 23, 2022
I got to play in the first session of Aos's Spelljammer game. Here's what happened!
Ted, bugbear ranger, played by Heather
Xastra, githyanki warlock, played by me
Rough Night in Rumble City
Left behind aboard the ship as the rest of the crew went on shore leave, Ted and Xastra proceeded to get hellaciously drunk, which did not leave them in a great position when the bosun woke them up to tell them that the away group had not returned. Xastra was a bit sad to learn that this did not mean she had been promoted by absence to captain of the ship. The bosun asked them to head into Rumble City to find the rest of the crew, so Xastra and Ted grabbed their gear and set off.
The first sign that something was amiss was that the custom's office had seemingly been abandoned. No one was manning the desk and papers were strewn about. There were no signs of violence, but clearly something had happened.
Ted was insistent on visiting the Purple Pump, the local brothel. The brothel was similarly vacant; patrons had left drinks undrunk, but the patrons themselves were no longer in attendance. In an upstairs room, Xastra and Ted found two lizard-apes defiling the furniture. The creatures attacked, but Ted and Xastra killed one of the creature and sent the other fleeing from the window. Xastra yelled threats at the departing monster, vowing to kill its parents.
Since the Purple Pump was a bust, Xastra wanted to check on the repair shop where the crew were supposed to take their ship's spelljamming helm for repairs. The repair shop was ransacked and emptied, which was a problem since there was no chance of leaving Rumble City on their ship without the helm.
While scouting Rumble City's market, they overheard voices. Despite his large size, Ted was adept at sneaking and skulking; after approaching the mysterious duo stealthily, he observed two neogi arguing with each other and stealing pickles. Ted and Xastra hatched a plan; Xastra would draw the attention of one of the neogi, while Ted knocked the other out for interrogation. The plan worked pretty well, though one of the neogi bit Xastra. He paid for this slight with his life, eating a faceful of hellish rebuke. The neogi they took captive was not too forthcoming; he was a bit of a gigglepuss, but he did drop an important piece of information: everyone was being held down in one of Rumble City's parks. His usefulness expended, Ted put an arrow between the Neogi's eyes.
To Ted and Xastra, it sounded like the crew and the people of Rumble City were being held captive. Xastra was further saddened to learn that she and Ted had not been promoted to the role of joint mayor in the absence of Rumble City's lawful government.
As someone who had been imprisoned by the illithid, Xastra had a hatred of slavers, so thwarting the neogi was now high on her list of things to do in Rumble City. And so the pair were off into the High Park, which they managed to traverse without encountering whatever huge monstrosity was prowling within it.
In the further reaches of the park, Ted and Xastra watched in horror as a man dressed in stereotypical wizard garb was paid by a neogi--clearly an exchange for the residents of Rumble City and the crew of their ship, who were bound in the trees with blue webbing! The duo quickly hatched a plan to kill two birds with one stone and rescue the captives before they could be fed to the nearby (and grotesquely fleshy) neogi egg sac.
As the neogi began to depart, Xastra ran out from cover and cast charm person on the wizard. She quickly convinced him that she was a friend who had come to warn him that the neogi were planning to betray him and that the best thing to do would be to help kill the neogi and then find a new buyer for the slaves he had collected. The wizard and Xastra unleashed their magic against the neogi while Ted feathered him with arrows from the underbrush.
Once the neogi was delt with (and the wizard had used some of his precious allotment of spells), Xastra turned her eldritch blast on her enchanted "ally" while Ted rushed him with his sword. Before the wizard succumbed to his many wounds, he awakened the neogi egg sac, which erupted into a swarm of neogi mites. The swarm was also dealt with in short order.
Xasta and Ted cut down their allies and the remaining residents of Rumble City, all the while expectant to hear their praises sung by the now-freed captives.
One hitch remained: the helm of the ship was somewhere in the wizard's tower and needed to be retrieved. But that's a tale for another time.
Thursday, October 20, 2022
Here's a really excellent documentary series on history and folk horror:
Tuesday, October 18, 2022
Below is a location and two fiendish NPCs from my Ravenloft campaign. The obvious inspiration here is Swenney Todd. The full write up appears in Strahd Loves, Man Kills 9.
While I'm shilling, note that there are three copies left of issue 6. When those sell out, as usual I will make the pdf available to all and sundry. To sweeten the deal, I'll even post something else people have been asking for: a cleaned up compilation of the first six issues of SLMK, ready for printing as a book or viewing as a pdf.
Crouch & Treacle’s Pie Shop
Crouch & Treacle’s Pie Shop is an eatery serving meat pies in the Richemuloise city of Pont-a-Museau. Although some residents of the city suspect that Lucinda Treacle and Bartram Crouch, the shop’s joint proprietors, supplement the filling in their pies with rat meat, the truth of the matter is much worse: both are serial killers who murder their fellow humanoids and use their flesh to make the pies they sell in their shop.
Bartram and Lucinda are former sailors. Wishing to leave the seafaring life behind, they pooled their savings and opened a pie shop in Pont-a-Museau. However, desperation soon set in when they found it impossible to source meat cheaply enough to keep their business afloat. With the end of their business and the loss of all their money in view, the duo sought the aid of a demonic force to help them escape dire straits.
An entity calling itself the Candlestick Maker answered their call. It promised to usher them into prosperity and ease—if they would make a pact with it, allow themselves to be transformed into fiendish killers, and take up the task of murdering their fellow citizens and baking their bloody flesh into delectable savory pies. Once they agreed to the creature’s terms, the Candlestick Maker dubbed Crouch and Treacle the Butcher and Baker, respectively.
Before opening Crouch & Treacle’s Pie Shop, Bartram Crouch served as a brutal boatswain onboard a mercantile vessel. He was charged with maintaining discipline and applying the lash to wayward sailors—a task he relished.
He has the stats of a relentless juggernaut. He wields a sledgehammer that has the same attack profile as a relentless juggernaut’s executioner’s pick, save that it deals bludgeoning damage instead of piercing. When Crouch is on the hunt for victims on the darkened streets of Pont-a-Museau, he wears a mask of humanoid leather styled to resemble the grinning visage of a feral hog.
Lucinda Treacle worked as a ship’s cook aboard a privateer that often turned pirate during lean times. Used to the ways of rough sailors and cutthroats, Lucinda knows how to hold her own even among ruffians. Sharp of tongue and quick with a knife, few survive unscathed when her fiery temper is roused.
She has the stats of a relentless slasher. When Lucinda is on the hunt for meat, she poses as a prostitute to lure her “clients” into dark alleyways where she can slit their throats out of view. She has been known to take trophies from her victims, amassing a small collection of their personal affects.
Sunday, October 16, 2022
Shane, a troublemaker whose anthem is Dio's "Holy Diver," played by Michael
Gene, a bookworm whose anthem is Barry Manilow's "Daybreak," played by Joe
Riley, a weirdo whose anthem is "Kiss Off" by the Violent Femmes, played by Aspen
Charlie's Strange Behavior
Prior to heading off for school for the day, each of the kids had an unnerving encounter that set the tone for the day to come. Gene was pursued by bullies who taunted him that his mom was a drunk. Riley overheard her dad crying and talking to their mom about accidentally hitting a kid with a car. Shane was used to his parents already being at work in the factory when he got up, but on this Friday that were both still at home--smoking in bed with the tv blaring.
Things got even weirder when they arrived at Ahwaga Middle School. An IBM service van was parked in front of the school and a hulking construction robot stood on the school's lawn. The school's heavy front doors had been ripped from their hinges and thrown onto the ground. Mr. Thompson, the kids' history teacher, was laying injured on the grass and was being tended by the school nurse.
A few kids who had seen what happened filled in a few details. Charlie, a classmate of theirs who had transferred to the school at the beginning of the year, had been stopped by Mr. Thompson, who wanted Charlie to go see the school nurse because he was "acting weird." Another kid added the Charlie had been referring to himself as "we" or "us" instead of "I" lately, and behaving strangely. When Charlie tried to run away, Mr. Thompson grabbed him, and then the robot had come running into the schoolyard, tore off the school's door, and hit Mr. Thompson with it!
Riley crept closer to Mr. Thompson and the nurse. From their conversation, Riley overheard that no one knew where Charlie went and that his parents couldn't be reached at home or at work. Deciding that their classmate was in danger, the kids decided to play hooky, sneak away from the school before the ambulance and cops arrived, and look into the mystery themselves.
The kids walked to Charlie's house on the outskirts of town. It was an old farmhouse, with two grain silos out back. When no one answered the door, the kids scouting the perimeter. Gene discovered that every door and window was connected to an alarm system, but he was able to deactivate it using his nerdy bookworm skills. Inside the house, Riley found a half-written letter from Charlie's mom to a "sister." The letter expressed concern about Charlie's health or wellbeing; his mother wrote of how she had seen Charlie get hit by a car driven by "you-know-who," but Charlie denied that the incident happened at all. The letter also mentioned the recipient's home on Golmen Road. Riley related the contents of the letter, except for the part that implicated their father in driving the car that had struck Charlie.
The living room of the house was filled with strange aquariums and terrariums, each connected to tubes that ran through the ceiling to an upper floor. They also heard an unnerving sound coming from behind the couch; when it was moved aside, a large, two-legged "lizard" darted past them and up the stairs to the second floor. The kids were paranoid about being ambushed by the lizard-creature for the rest of the time they were in the house. (It was hiding under the parents' bed upstairs.)
The second floor was fairly standard for a family home, except for Charlie's bedroom. Although it had all the standard accoutrements of a kid's bedroom, such as a Duran Duran poster on the wall, one aspect of the room immediately struck the kids as bizarre: instead of a bed, Charlie had a long metal tube with flashing lights and computer readouts along the top of it. The tube was wired to the computer sitting on Charlie's desk. The kids' attempts to hack into the computer were fruitless--apparently the password to access the computer was not "password."
The third floor also held few surprises, save for the family's library. Bags from the Riverrow Bookshop indicated some recent purchases, which turned out to be piles of biographies of history's greatest scientists and books on spiritualism and seances. They had also spotted a number of family photographs of Charlie with his parents on a sailboat docked at Hiawatha Island on the Susquehanna River.
Before leaving, the kids also explored the two silos out back. The small silo held nothing but a round wooden table surrounded by chairs. On the table was a Ouija board and several burned-down candles. The larger silo held a number of cannisters of mysterious chemicals, like the ones fed into the aquariums and terrariums in the living room. Behind the cannisters they also found a (thankfully empty) child-sized coffin.
The Bunker on Golmen Road
Following the mention of a house on Golmen Road that Riley had found in the letter, the group set out to the other side of town. They almost missed their destination, as they were looking for a house but the building referred to in the letter turned out to be a moss-covered bunker--the kind of thing built by people paranoid about nukes falling in WWIII.
The bunker's door was suspiciously unlocked. Inside, they saw an astounding variety of experimental robots going about their business. Out of the darkness lumbered a particularly massive and menacing robot whose faceplate had been replaced by the head of a Cabbage Patch Kid. "Mommy?" the robot asked in a harsh, grating voice as it attempted to scoop Gene up into its embrace. Gene managed to dodge out of the way and Shane tackled the robot from behind, knocking it facedown. The robot said "Baby sad!" and then began to cry and kick its legs and arms.
Just then the kids heard the telltale sound of a pump-action shotgun as a woman's voice called out "Hey, what are you kids doing in here?" The woman emerged from the shadows; she was a wild-haired old crank in a filthy flannel shirt and sweatpants. Riley took the opportunity to sneak behind the woman and retreat further into the bunker to see what they could find.
Shane and Gene managed to convince the woman that they were friends of Charlie and that they were looking for him because they thought he was in danger. After explaining everything they already knew, the woman resigned herself to explaining the strangeness at work
Charlie's "parents" were unable to have a child the natural way, so they had worked with his woman (a genius former coworker of theirs at IBM) on making a bespoke son. Charlie's body was actually the reanimated corpse of a dead boy (which explained the coffin they found in the silo). To animate him, they had bound the spirits of the world's greatest scientists to his mortal shell (which explained the books in the library). The woman thought that the car accident had probably damaged some of his cybernetic implants, resulting in the various strands of ghostly personas that made up Charlie's sense of sense to become "unwoven" (which explained why Charlie had started calling himself "we" and "us" instead of "I".)
(Riley discovered a photograph of her dad being kissed on the cheek by Charlie's mom among the bunker woman's possessions; what a way to find out one of your parents is having an affair and ran their lover's kid over with the family car!)
The woman thought that Charlie was mostly likely either hiding out on the family's sailboat at Hiawatha Island or had sought shelter in the cooling chambers above the Loop's reactors. Before they left, she gave them a souped-up remote control that might be capable of turning off some of the cybernetic components of Charlie's system.
Shane "borrowed a boat from his uncle" (aka stole a rowboat) and rowed them out to Hiawatha Island. They spotted a strange luminescent construct in the water near the sailboat, but they managed to skirt around it without it noticing. Climbing aboard the sailboat, they found Charlie's parents hard at work on two computer terminals. After explaining who they were and that they had already spoken to Greta, the woman in the bunker, Charlie's parents said that Charlie had freaked out and accused them of being "their" enemies. They believed that they had come up a way to reunite the ghosts inside Charlie into a single, coherent personality, but they were afraid of approaching him after he turned violent.
The kids volunteered to try to subdue Charlie and bring him to his "parents" so they could fix him. Since both Greta and his parents had mentioned Charlie's fascination with the cooling towers at the Loop, so that seemed like the only place remaining where he might be hiding out.
The kids had to wait for the guards to be out of sight before they attempted to scale the chain link fence protecting the Loop's cooling towers from trespassers. Finding the correct tower proved easy; one of them had piles of robotic bits and pieces outside and the door was ajar. As the kids entered the tower, they took one last look behind them and saw the IBM security guards being chased by a robot lawnmower!
After scaling the tower's stairs, they found Charlie seated atop a throne made of deconstructed robots. He announced that "they" were the most intelligent super-genius to ever live and that "they" knew that their classmates were there to stop "them." On Charlie's right hand was a heavily modified Nintendo power glove--evidently a device of his own creation that he was using to take control of any robots in the area. Charlie demonstrated its power by activating three wolf-like robots that ran at the kids!
Shane juked to the right and Riley juked to the left, effectively splitting Charlie's attention and causing him to loose focus on which robo-wolf he was sending after who. This gave Gene the opportunity to press the correct combination of buttons to shut Charlie off. Charlie, and his wolves, all slumped to the ground, inert.
The kids carried Charlie out of the cooling tower and snuck away while the security guards were firing rounds into a now-unmoving robotic lawnmower. Stealing a red Radio Flyer wagon, they carted Charlie's body back to his parents' house, where they were able to place him in the strange "bed" and reprogram the souls within him into a single entity once more. Returned to normal, or at least as normal as a cyborg zombie boy inhabited by the spirits of long-dead scientists could be, Charlie sat up and asked them if they wanted to hear the new Duran Duran single.
Thursday, October 13, 2022
Every year in the run-up to Halloween I pack out my viewing schedule with as much horror as I can handle. Here's what I've watched so far. (Spoilers ahead, obviously.)
Nope is another triumph for Jordan Peele, although I have to admit that I like each new movie of his just a little bit less than the one that came before it. Which really isn't much of a criticism as I've enjoyed all of them quite a bit. Even so, Nope's greatest strength is how beautiful it is to look at on the big screen. From the monster design to the general sense of place, Nope is simply a visual delight. I found it a little light on scares (but then again aliens aren't something that especially gets under my skin), although I do think the visual spectacle makes it more than worthwhile.
It is both a surprise and a delight that this sequel to Predator is pretty good, especially after the massive waste of time that was Predators. Although I wouldn't say Prey is pitch-perfect--there's some strange dialog that feels oddly modern--the premise of a Predator versus a Native American woman looking to prove herself as a huntress is pretty solid and the action pops along throughout.
I've been meaning to scratch The Changeling off my list for years, and I finally got a chance in early September. The Changeling belongs to the style of horror movie I tend to enjoy most: it's focused on creating a haunting atmosphere and it does a lot of work with very little.
While the film is a bit slow, it's tale of a grieving composer who moves into a house haunted by a perverse tragedy features some truly unnerving and memorable scenes. Also, like The Haunting, one of my all time favorite haunted house films, it uses sound design to good effect. In a spooky bit of synchronicity, I watched this the same night as I read Daniel Mills' Among the Lilies, a short story that also combines classical music with flights of terror.
I was pretty surprised that Black Phone was a pretty good movie! One thing that was interesting to me was that the violence perpetrated by the serial child killer is basically given a tertiary place in the story; the movie shows far more graphic depictions of the violence of bullying and the kind of child abuse that happens at home. That felt like an apt way of pointing out where the real threats to children are more likely to come from.
Also, although a lot of design went into the killer's variable two-part mask, I didn't really feel that him being a "masked killer" added much, if anything, to the movie. He'd be just as effective, and perhaps more so, if he were just an average guy with a pair of aviators. This is an instance where a "look" or aesthetic isn't really necessary.
Adding a gloss of "addressing LGBT issues" fails to enliven this absolutely by-the-numbers camp slasher movie. You will be able to predict every move this movie makes, even the ones that don't make much sense in the context of the film.
I also doubt that anyone will even want to claim They/Them as a triumph of representation, as all the characters are at least moderately annoying. Things are not improved by the musical sequence.
The ending is also trite, gutless nonsense.
The real gut punch for me came at the end credits, when I realized that John Logan, whose Penny Dreadful is one of my favorite things of all time, was responsible for this boring mess of a movie.
It's pretty rare that a modern horror movie impresses me, but there's a lot to praise in Barbarian. The cast is solid throughout, the cinematography is varied and inventive, the sound design works well to create an atmosphere of unease, and the effects are certainly memorable. (On that last point, I'm not sure if the fx are all practical, but they look damn good if they were done digitally.)
I don't want to say too much about the plot in case anyone was planning on seeing Barbarian, as I think it works best going in cold, but the basic gist is that two people have booked the same Air BnB and are forced by circumstances to bunk down in a strange house together...and then they discover that they aren't alone in the house. There's a Psycho-esque shift in characters to keep you on your toes, and a bunch of twists and turns that keep things nice and uncertain.
Despite the gruesome murders that feature prominently in Pearl, I'm not sure it's actually a horror movie. Instead, Pearl is a character study clothed in layers of sumptuous aesthetics drawn from old Hollywood. Trapped with her immigrant parents, one crippled with illness, the other a hardened and empty disciplinarian, Pearl dreams of leaving her dreary life behind for a place as a dancer on the big screen. And when her aspirations are frustrated, things get bloody.
Sometimes more a mood than a movie, Pearl gets by with its stunning visuals and a powerful performance from Mia Goth. Her monolog near the end of the movie is hard to forget; rarely does an actor get the chance to actually lay it all out on the screen out like that.
The Wicker Man
There are some movies that you just love so much that you end up watching them over and over again. The Wicker Man is one of those for me, and it never gets old. The Wicker Man essentially set the formula for what we consider "folk horror," but it's never really been equaled. The crucial difference between The Wicker Man and something like, say, Midsommar, is that The Wicker Man is unafraid to be weird. Deeply, deeply weird.
Speaking of deeply weird, even though I like Phantasm, I cannot explain its popularity among horror fans or why it was a perennial favorite of the Friday night movie rental circuit. Nothing in the movie really adds up, and although it looks pretty exceptional for what is an indie horror film made with amateurs, by the end you're left with a vague fever dream born of a young boy's grief. Still, I have to admit that several scenes from Phantasm have lived rent free in my brain ever since I first saw it.
It would be no exaggeration to say that the 1986 Hellraiser was a game-changer for me. I was already well and truly steeped in horror movies, but I had never seen anything as transgressively weird as Hellraiser up until that point. That fateful viewing turned me into a Clive Barker obsessive in general and a Hellraiser fan in specific; after watching it I was on a path to read the original book, collect the comics, and write my own DIY rpg about characters who had escaped from the cenobites' clutches.
All of which means that the 2022 reboot of the film franchise had a lot of live up to. While I wouldn't call it an essential film, I feel it's safe to say that it's the best Hellraiser movie we've gotten since Hellraiser II, and by a wide margin at that. (Though I do have a soft spot for the oft-maligned Hellraiser IV.) The new film manages to capture some of the original's fetishistic energy, and it doesn't skimp on the gore either. The plot might be a little too self-involved for its own good, but I had a surprisingly good time watching this one.
Tuesday, October 11, 2022
Issue Nine of Strahd Loves, Man Kills, my Ravenloft fanzine has been released! This issue will be the last one of 2022; if you order soon, it will probably get into your hands before Halloween.
Lurid Locations expands the domain of Keening as described in Van Richten’s Guide and delves into the horrid mysteries of Crouch & Treacle’s Pie Shop.
Baleful Backgrounds adds revolutionary to the roster of backgrounds available for characters.
Seeds of Evil describes the basis of a scenario or campaign focused on young adults who have been raised inside a dungeon-like mansion. Now free from the confines of their nursery, they begin to explore the terrifying house in which they are entrapped.
Grim Phantasmagoria offers some chilling thoughts on the allure of quiet folk horror and the nature of dungeon exploration.
Wicked Wanderings proffers a number of variant methods for using 5e D&D’s inspiration mechanics.
Fatal Frames deploys three additional frameworks to explain why the characters in your campaign are working together as a cohesive group with compatible goals.
Tragic Heroes contemplates ways to make characters with intimate connections to the Darklords of the Land of the Mists.
Echoes of Doom recommends a number of metal albums to serve as inspiration for your own Ravenloft musings.
Sunday, October 9, 2022
Vaz Popovych, the editor, played by Joe
Chad Nugent, the on-air talent, played by Michael
Terrance "Brick" Tellerman, the researcher, played by Aspen
Sybil, the intern, played by Heather
Back in the 1970s, a series of horrific axe murders took place in Tillamook State Forest in Oregon. The murders were committed by Logan Baxter, aka “the Paul Bunyan Butcher.” Baxter claimed six victims, each a hiker or visitor to the forest. All six victims were decapitated; their severed heads were later found buried next to a hovel that Baxter had built deep in the forest. Once caught, Baxter was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.
However, forty-eight hours ago, two park rangers were discovered beheaded in Tillamook State Forest in an apparent copycat killing. As true crime youtubers looping to get their video on the killings out first, the characters flew into Eugene, rented a car, and drove to Timber Grove–a small town near Tillamook State Forest. The likes, comments, and subscribes must flow! The bell icon must be rung!
Their prominence in the true crime world snagged them an interview with Logan Baxter at the town jail before he was to be transported to end-of-life hospital care. But before the interview, they had about two hours to “kill.” Vaz and Chad busied themselves capturing b-roll footage and conducting "man on the street" interviews about the Paul Bunyan Butcher killings and the recent copycat murders. They heard a few crackpot theories about werewolves in the forests, alien abductions, and the usual blaming of the internet for inspiring the copycat killer.
Brick and Sybil headed to the local library to pour over old microfiche. Their efforts yielded an interesting snippet from the local paper. The group also learned that several missing persons cases were thought to be likely additional victims of Logan Baxter, but no hard evidence had ever been found to support that theory.
Armed with interview questions, the group went over to the Timber Grove jail, where they were ushered in by Sheriff Dave Perry, whose daughter was a huge fan of their channel, and allowed to set up their recording equipment. They were separated from Logan Baxter by a pane of glass. The Paul Bunyan Butcher's tall, once-powerful body had been winnowed by time; the man handcuffed to the metal chair in the other room was thin, balding, and clearly deathly ill. Baxter was flanked by two guards, one who seemed disinterested and bored by the whole affair and one who glared at the killer with naked contempt.
Baxter responded to some of the group's questions with an arrogant lack of repentance; he stated that he had kept the heads of his victims buried near his hovel so that he would "own their souls" after death. However, when asked about the self-satisfied smile he was noted as having in the newspaper article they had uncovered, Baxter became agitated and began ranting about how he had actually claimed seven victims, and that it was the seventh who had committed the recent copycat killings. He even seemed to believe that the seventh victim had been appearing in his cell as a specter, taunting him that he would be the next to die! When questioned about the whereabouts of the seventh victim's body, he said that he killed her in the fall and had left her buried under a "big gold rock."
The room suddenly filled with a sickly floral smell. Vaz, a psychic sensitive, opened his mind to the unseen world and detected an evil presence in the room with Baxter.
Before they could get more information from Baxter, Sheriff Perry suddenly barged in and exclaimed "Oh my god, we just found another headless body--right here in the station, hidden in a closet! Officer Rutherford is dead!" Perry then looked into the room beyond the glass partition and exclaimed, "But that can't be possible!" He pointed at the officer who had been staring at Baxter with hatred. "That's Kyle Rutherford!"
All hell broke loose. "Kyle Rutherford" turned his gaze on the group assembled beyond the glass, smiled grotesquely, and then suddenly lashed out against the other officer in the room. The cop's head was separated from his shoulders, and gouts of blood splattered against the glass partition. Baxter began to scream "It's you! The seventh!" as "Officer Rutherford" turned on him next. Sheriff Perry and the youtubers ran for it, grabbing their recording equipment as they fled, their minds unable to cope with the horrific scene before them. Only Sybil remained behind, hidden in the observation room. Sybil watched in terror as "Rutherford" severed Baxter's head with a machete and then slowly disappeared, leaving behind nothing but a bloody crime scene.
Outside, Sheriff Perry asked the group to make themselves scarce so he wouldn't have to answer any questions about letting them interview Baxter. The group decided to take shelter in their room at the local Holiday Inn and plan their next move. When they watched their footage from the interview, "Kyle Rutherford" only appeared to be an ambiguous, scratched-out figure. The group argued over whether to immediately investigate further or wait until morning. Cooler heads prevailed and they decided to resume their investigation under the light of day.
Around one a.m., Sheriff Perry called them with some new information. He had re-examined the files from the original Paul Bunyan Butcher case and found one name that might be a likely candidate for Baxter's mysterious seventh victim: Audrey Burke, a college student who had gone missing during Baxter's reign of terror. He gave them the address of Audrey's mother, but then he said "Wait. Who's there? No, not you!" The next thing the group heard was Perry's death scream and the sound of his phone hitting the floor.
Shaken by Perry's death, the group slept little. In the morning, they drove to the outskirts of town to speak with Cindy Burke, Audrey's mother. The woman who answered the door was clearly Cindy's homecare worker, who was reluctant to let them in. However, after they mentioned they wanted to talk to her about Audrey, Cindy insisted from the living room that they come in. The homecare worker left them to do dishes in the kitchen.
Cindy Burke was an ailing old woman, forever broken by her daughter's disappearance. She always felt that her daughter had been killed by Logan Baxter, and she blamed the police for not pursuing the case diligently. The group now began to suspect that Audrey's unsettled ghost was killing people in the style of her murderer because she felt betrayed that the mystery of her disappearance was never solved.
She also told them that Audrey was attending veterinary school at Oregon State University and that her favorite way to unwind was to go to Tillamook State Forest and sketch the flowers there. Cindy produced one of Audrey's sketchbooks, which was filled with page upon page of drawings of flowers. In particular, Audrey seemed to favor a particular flower found near the waterfall.
Just then, the smell of flowers became overpowering in the little house and the group heard the crashing of dishes in the kitchen. The homecare worker was approaching them from the hallway, a wicked grin on her face and a machete in her hand! The group grabbed Cindy and hustled her out of the house and into their car. As they ran down the hallway, they saw the real homecare worker lying decapitated in the kitchen.
Of course, their rental car wouldn't start! The engine leapt into life just as the machete came crashing down on the driver's side window, cutting Sybil fiercely. As they sped away, they noticed that Cindy clutched a charm necklace inside her shirt. When she did so, the pursuing figure with the machete vanished. When asked about the necklace, Cindy told them it had been a present she had given to Audrey and that Audrey always wore it. It was a mystery to her why Audrey had apparently left it behind on the day of her disappearance.
The group drove to Tillamook State Forest, hoping to find Audrey's burial place and put an end to the killings. Since Tillamook State Forest was currently a crime scene, the gate was locked--but soon picked by our slightly criminally minded youtubers. The group left Cindy in the car and navigated by foot to the waterfall. The area around the falls was blanketed with forget-me-nots, the flower that Audrey had so often drawn in her sketchbook. A "golden rock," actually a large piece of pyrite, was spotted in the pool beneath the fall.
At this point, the scent of flowers became overpowering again and the group saw Audrey approaching them, machete in hand. This time, Audrey appeared in her true form: a teenage girl caked with blood and mud. Chad leapt into the pool to look for Audrey's corpse beneath the pyrite; however, he found that it would require holding his breath and digging the stone out of the surrounding silt, a process that sometimes left him choking for air. Although they group were skeptical about their ability to harm or hinder a ghost, they found that attacking Audrey consumed her concentration and that her bodily form was held together only by force of will and hatred.
However, Audrey was nothing if not strong of will. Again and again, the machete rained down upon the youtubers, wounding them severely. Just as their continued attacks managed to disperse Audrey for the moment, Chad emerged from the pool with the rotting and beheaded remains of Audrey Burke.
When Sybil held Audrey's charm necklace, she had a vision of Logan Baxter killing the girl, stealing her necklace, breaking into the Burke home, and leaving it behind to taunt Cindy. She knew that returning the necklace to Audrey's corpse would dispel the wraith permanently.
As Vaz bent to place the charm necklace on Audrey's body, Audrey suddenly reformed with the machete poised to strike Chad down from behind. The group watched as the blade seemed to descend in slow motion, but Vaz was faster. The ghost disappeared with a final howl of rage as the necklace touched the dead girl's rotten flesh.
The killings were over, the group had recovered a previously unrecognized seventh victim of Logan Baxter's murder spree, and they had more than enough content to craft the most popular video of their Youtube careers. One questioned remained: who would play them in the film after they sold the movie rights to their story?