Video Game Review: Blood (One Unit Whole Blood)

Blood was one of many games I played as a shareware experience. Shareware, for those of you who are too young to recognize the term, meant you got a portion of the game for free—usually the first episode—but much of its content was locked away on later levels. You could tell what you were getting into if you decided to buy the full package—unlike today’s market, where pre-orders and dishonest game trailers are ubiquitous with mainstream releases.

Developed by Monolith and released for PC in 1997, Blood puts you in the boots of Caleb, a follower of the dark god Tchernobog. A sloppily-animated cutscene at the beginning of episode one shows the demon betraying his inner circle for reasons unknown, and casts Caleb into a shallow grave.

The first level begins with your grave sliding open, a pitchfork in your hands, and Caleb quoting Army of Darkness:

“I live… again.”

The story doesn’t go much deeper than that. The plot doesn’t make a ton of sense, but that’s not the point of a game called Blood. There are some little narrative flourishes within the levels here and there—Caleb offers commentary from time to time, we see evidence of a ramping up of Tchernobog’s forces, there’s a war on (in France?), and the different environments give clues that may or may not add up to a coherent narrative experience. It’s fun to fill in the blanks, but not necessary.

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Blood has the most creative and satisfying arsenal I’ve ever encountered in a shooter. Sure, the pitchfork is essentially a re-skinned knife/boot/melee attack, but at least it deals damage along its prongs (strike the wall to see what I mean). The basic pistol is a flare gun, which causes a slow burning effect in enemies, eventually incinerating them… but in the meantime, they can still move and deal you damage.

The sawed-off double barrel shotgun is satisfying, and is an excellent close-range weapon. There’s an accurate tommy gun, a napalm launcher (rocket launcher), all sorts of different kinds of dynamite, a lighter and a spray paint can, a Tesla energy cannon, a voodoo doll, and a mystic staff. The level design is very generous with ammo, so you won’t have to stick with just the shotgun/machinegun/rocket launcher combination that Doom pioneered and the industry was satisfied with not innovating beyond.

You can mix it up from time to time, and really experiment with different weapons against different enemy types, and with the satisfying alternate fire modes. Whenever I got bored with a given weapon, I’d switch over to something else. Generally speaking, each weapon has a good set of uses for a variety of situations. Flares and dynamite are good against the zombies, the sawed off and the machine gun are good against the cultists, the Tesla cannon evens the odds against gargoyles and fire-breathing dogs, and so on.

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The exceptions to this are the voodoo doll and mystic staff—both of which have rather limited utility, and can damage you if not used properly. They’re fun to use for boss fights, but not much else. The staff’s alternate fire mode is a little overpowered—I made short work of the final boss with minimal effort and one staff. It was a bit anticlimactic.

There is also an inventory system, but, beyond the doctor’s medical bag and the jump boots, there isn’t much to write home about. Power ups are also scattered around the levels—the guns akimbo is a hoot—but they don’t last long enough to make seeking them out all that worthwhile. Often I’d get an invisibility or akimbo item, only to have it burn out before I found any fresh enemies.

The defining weapon experience in Blood has to be using dynamite. There are several variations, but they all function pretty much the same: throw them at groups of enemies, and watch as their blood and viscera splatter all over the environment. Tossing a bundle with a lit fuse at a group of zombies is an experience that never gets old. They are somewhat overpowered and unbalanced, and you’ll blow yourself up if you’re not careful. That added danger simply enhances the freewheeling fun that the game emphasizes.

Blood’s enemies demonstrate the same level of innovation as the weaponry. Axe-wielding zombies (who resurrect if you don’t burn them or shoot off their heads), cultists (of various types), gargoyles, fire-breathing dogs, shark men, phantoms, dismembered hands, spiders, and more all eagerly rush toward you, eager to be picked off or blown up in grisly fashion. For the most part, the enemies are well-animated, have distinctive audio cues, and have a couple of attacks to dish out. Unfortunately, some move so quickly—a quirk of the Build Engine—making it next to impossible to get a well-aimed shot off. Some enemy types also deal obscene amounts of damage in little to no time, negatively affecting the game’s balance.

Intense enemies and weaponry is great—but the atmosphere and environments in Blood really seal the deal. You’ll fight through graveyards, mausoleums, a train station, a speeding locomotive (a simple yet memorable trick of the engine), a dark carnival, ice floes, haunted Shining-style mansions, hedge mazes, meat processing plants, bombed-out streets, evil temples, living environments, and more.

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There are some filler levels—you can’t escape warehouses, crate mazes, and drab tunnels in 90s-era first person shooters—but the levels that are beyond good are great. Utilizing largely non-abstract level design, the game really rewards you for exploration. Much of my motivation for completing the game was to see what comes next—what devious traps, impressive architecture, and hidden passages were ahead. Perseverance through the more drab stock levels is rewarded with trips through clever temples, spooky manses, and even an excellent “outdoors” level set at Camp Crystal Lake of Friday the 13th fame.

While I love Doom, the labyrinthine layout of every level in those games—even most tech bases—made for a non-intuitive exploration experience. Blood’s level design is a mix between the abstract and the real, and the levels are more interesting to explore because of it.

Although not on the level of Shadow Warrior, the game has some interactivity in the environment. However, the emphasis is on atmosphere—creative use of light, color, sound, and textures—rather than on doodad gimmicks.

As mentioned earlier, one of the strikes against this game is that its difficulty is over the top. Regular enemies can hit you with pinpoint accuracy from across the room while you struggle to get a bead on them. Enemy placement throughout many maps exploits their razor-sharp accuracy and quick-fast-in-a-hurry reaction times. You’ll often explore a new wing of a map, only to find cultists, fire-breathing dogs, or worse waiting around every blind corner, ready to shrink your health by a few dozen points in less than a second. The most unbalanced aspect of the enemies comes in the form of the gargoyles’ air attack (it’s next to impossible to hit them when they are flying above or below you) and the dogs’ fire breath (once you catch on fire, you can literally lose over 100 points of health… and running, jumping, or smashing the USE key repeatedly doesn’t always seem to douse the flames).

Healing items are in short supply. It’s very easy to get stuck in a situation where you don’t have enough health to progress—forcing you to re-load an earlier save state. Create multiple save states—including a backup at the beginning of each level. Trust me. I played the game on the second difficulty—and died a lot. Veterans of the genre will find a lot of challenge; newcomers might be put off by the difficulty, some of which is due to the aforementioned balance issues.

For all of its faults and quirks, Blood is a fantastic, spooky, and action-packed joyride down the tunnels and crypts of yesteryear’s game design and horror iconography. The game has personality, clever design, memorable weapons and enemies, and is, above all, a lot of fun to play.

A quality-focused modding community churned out some really spectacular add-ons for the game. Do some digging and you’ll find everything from one-shot levels to whole new episodes.

Horror fans and gamers who understand that first person shooters can be more than MMOs or Call of Duty clones will love the experience that is Blood.

4/5 Immolated Cultists

The commercial version, known as ONE UNIT WHOLE BLOOD, is available from GOG.com. It comes with the original four episodes, plus the two official expansions, Cryptic Passage (which is a little difficult to get running) and the Plasma Pak. It’s often on sale, and never more than a few bucks. Buy it immediately!

The game as packaged runs through DosBox. Getting the game to play with contemporary control schemes, higher display modes, and at a decent frame rate requires quite a bit of work on your part. The boards on GOG.com are a great place to start—but be prepared to do some tinkering with the configuration files and programs. I was experiencing significant frame rate issues on display settings above the default until I found a way to switch from DirectDraw to OpenGL. Additionally, I had to try many, many variations on the mouse sensitivity to get the game playable.

Because the game lacks a proper source port (the source code was never publicly released), you have to use the front-end Just Add Blood (and its three [!] patches). This program takes some tinkering to get the game running properly—follow the installation instructions—but once you do, you’re in for a grand old time.

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Film Review: V/H/S: Viral – One Tape Forward, Three Vlogs Back

V/H/S: Viral (multiple directors)

by Jonathan Raab

I’m a big fan of the V/H/S series. The first two films are the exception to the universal rule: found footage movies are boring, bad, and the last refuge of movie studios hoping to trick horror fans into shelling out their hard-earned money in exchange for an unprofessional product.

I’ll spare you the history lesson of the subgenre since The Blair Witch Project (a film that deserves recognition and acclaim as both an experimental film and a milestone in horror, even if it doesn’t quite have the same impact anymore), and say that the majority of found-footage movies have degenerated into shaky-cam addled, formulaic snoozers. There’s a few exceptions for me—the Paranormal Activity movies are usually good for one watch—but on the whole, I’ve learned to avoid these movies like the plague.

But not the V/H/S series.

The first film’s opening ten minutes are boring and tired—meant to shock us with violence, sexuality, and coarse language—but it soon gets into high gear, with a series of memorable and creative vignettes, all supposedly contained on weird VHS tapes found in a mysterious stockpile. The second film follows suit, with slightly better stories, effects, and payoff, and a subtle building of the mythos behind the supernatural snuff films.

The first two V/H/S movies have a ton of fun moments, cool creatures, and genuine jump scares. The series was, to my mind, a love letter to both anthology films and a testament to the (albeit limited) utility of “found footage” as a concept within horror cinema. They had their moments, were entertaining, and showcased a variety of directors trying new things.

It’s with great disappointment to announce that V/H/S: Viral feels like a cheap knock off of these movies. There’s a complete abandonment of the VHS concept—something that made the idea of an underground supernatural snuff film circuit seemed real, as it was limited almost exclusively to a dead technology. Want in the club? Go find a working VCR from the pawn shop. You can’t see this stuff online, or anywhere else.

It made what you were seeing seem exclusive, as if your entrance into this coven of extreme video had to be kept secret, because it was special. In the first two movies, you saw things that you shouldn’t have seen, things the rest of the world would never accept.

Not so here. The overarching narrative that bookends the different pieces is confusing, a semi-coherent series of somewhat-interrelated vignettes. It’s not clear how this footage was assembled—or if we’re supposed to think it’s been assembled—and it’s a mishmash of lazy social commentary about everyone being on their phones, filming when they should be helping.

He's tilting his head so you know he's looking at you, because you're stupid.
He’s tilting his head so you know he’s looking at you, because you’re stupid.

“See you bitches on YouTube!” sneers some faceless clown trying to get a good angle on the action, before predictably falling to his death.

Get it?

GET IT?

It’s not clear how the framework narrative—which was one of the more interesting parts of the first two films—connects the shorts together.

Some images from each do show up during the disappointing conclusion in a ham-fisted attempt at pulling it all together, but at that point the film has devolved into a teenager’s bright idea of metaness that left a sour taste in my mouth.

I knew I was in trouble when the film started with a boyfriend filming his girl’s lady parts. Get it? He’s a horny guy with a camera. He’s also a douchebag.

Both characters were cardboard cut-outs from INSERT NAME OF FOUND FOOTAGE MOVIE HERE and instantly unlikeable. Unfortunately, the same can be said about the rest of the cast. I’m not sure it was the acting that turned me off—it was probably the dialogue, which mostly consisted of people swearing, making crude sexual comments, or screaming.

Despite being the third film in a supposedly evolutionary series, the movie just couldn’t break out of established found footage movie tropes. “Are you filming me?” “Why do you have that camera?” and the like are heard over and over again. And there’s not one, but two creeper with a camera films a pretty girl’s cleavage sequences. Seriously.

Most disappointing of all is that the film ejects (pun intended) the found footage concept at times, seemingly at random. It’s not clear when we’re seeing something on a security cam, as footage from a documentary, on a handheld video, or even when we’re not seeing through a recording device. Yes, that happens in this movie on several occasions—it’ll switch from something on a camera, to supposedly objective perspective. I think. This is both disorienting and confusing, as even these sequences are shot like they are on camera, complete with shaky cam and Battlestar Galactica-style pans and zooms.

Visually, the film is a complete mess. Found footage movies have low standards to begin with, but close ups from helmet cams on gap-mouthed teens, digitized interference effects, and blood-soaked darkness creeping all over the lens combine to make the movie hard to sit through. Not only is slussing out what the film is trying to be difficult (documentary? a single tape? an online webcast? a film student’s pretentious art house project?), it’s visually grating. It gave me a headache.

The movie is not helped by its shorts. There’s the bookend narrative, which, while starting out with an interesting concept, devolves into nonsense by the end; a documentary (?) about a murderous magician; a scientist exploring an alternate reality; a boring stereotype-filled Mexican ghetto mass murder; and unlikeable male skater stereotypes fighting people in bad Halloween costumes.

The high point of the film is the short about a scientist who opens a door to a parallel universe—and meets his double. V/H/S: Viral is not worth watching, but this short definitely is. It does everything right: it starts with a simple concept, doesn’t confuse the viewer with too many perspective shifts, and ratchets up the tension until the inevitable, frightening climax(es). To say more would give it away—but let’s just say that the short gives you just enough information to freak you the hell out, while mixing it up with some grotesque and effective make up and production design.

As for the rest of the shorts, I couldn’t wait until they were over. The worst offender was the skate punks-go-to-Tijuana sequence. I couldn’t wait for them to shut up or die. Unfortunately, the creatures in this one literally look like people wearing surplus haunted house masks. I felt dumber just watching the confused, unfinished mess that was this bloody skateboarding/melee sequence. I suppose the crappy hip-hop music and skeleton guy giving the middle finger before exploding was supposed to be cool or funny or something, but I’m probably about twenty years too old to think so. Also, this sequence had some stylized still-frame, color-modified shots. I thought we were watching found footage, not processed music video crap. Oh, but look, blood, and he said the “F” word a thousand times.

“LOL!”

Every sequence is marred by horrific, cheap digital special effects. Even the blood is digital in some sequences. What, they couldn’t spring $6 for Karo syrup? I try to be forgiving for low-budget movies, but a little practical SFX can go a long way. Since most sequences look like they were filmed over a weekend by a bunch of drunk college students, I’m willing to bet that craft and quality were not motivations for the filmmakers.

Cool poster, great trailer, crap film.
Cool poster, great trailer, crap film.

I spent $9.99 to see this movie early on Amazon Instant Video, and I regret throwing that money away. What makes this all the more disappointing is that the producers work over at Bloody Disgusting, a great horror site that loves to emphasize quality (and practical effects! ha!).

I’m a fan of the series because the first two were fun, with some great “oh sh—!” moments. This film feels more like a lazy, cynical cash grab designed for fourteen year old boys. There’s nothing wrong with movies for fourteen year old boys, if you’re a fourteen year old boy.

But for the rest of you, you can spend your money better elsewhere.

Here’s hoping that the inevitable V/H/S 4 gets the series back on track.

1.5 Clunky Social Commentaries Out of 5

Book Review: Turn the Radio Off

Gateways to Abomination by Matthew M. Bartlett

$3.99 e-book; $7.99 paperback from Amazon

Leeds, Massachusetts isn’t a place you want to visit.

You see, things have gone bad. Real bad. A mysterious radio station—WXXT—transmits polka music, distorted church broadcasts, snippets of history, and accounts of unspeakable terror. Just listening to the station—even once or twice, to something as harmless as atonal distortion or a folksy, repetitive sing-along—can have terrible effects on mind, body, and environment.

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Gateways to Abomination takes a lot of risks. While there are subtle narrative threads laced throughout the many stories, transmissions, transcripts, newspaper articles, and poetry-like accounts, the book is neither conventional nor linear. Each piece can be read on its own, but works best in full context. That said, stomaching more than a couple of stories at a time can be difficult. Not because they’re not well-written—because they are—but because of their nightmare-like prose and disturbing content. It’s a lot to absorb.

I’ve been consuming horror movies and literature for most of my life, and this book managed to punch through the walls of my jaded expectations. There is some truly horrific content here: gore, violence against children, body horror, and much more. What’s most disturbing is that these elements are used to facilitate a despairing sense of unavoidable damnation and suffering. This isn’t a horror work where you scream at the characters to make better decisions; if you’re in Leeds, and you’ve heard WXXT, you’re doomed, no matter what you do.

Each glimpse of the unspeakable—men covered in soul-sucking leeches, people turned into goats and vice versa, mysterious men in black hats, secret ceremonies in the woods—builds to something greater. An apocalypse of sorts is underway in New England, and we’ve got a worm’s eye view of the terror to come.

Don’t approach the book thinking of it as a short story collection. Consider it more a panoramic view of terror, of the approaching darkness, of evil in a small community that gradually infects and corrupts everything it touches.

Bartlett’s voice is strong, his scenes unnerving, his characters damnable and relatable. Gateways to Abomination is a happy discovery in the side alleys of independent horror. Readers interested in something that will push their buttons, something that will inspire a contagious sort of fear beyond the reading experience, would do well to pick up a copy of this book and support a truly unique and disturbing take on Satanic horror and weird fiction.

5/5 Dark Rituals

Film Review: Good ( and Dead) Burger

Ghost Burger directed by Lee Hardcastle

Available at Vimeo ($.99 rental; $1.99 purchase)

Lee Hardcastle says he makes “claymations… not for children.” Indeed. His claymation films have gained a cult following on YouTube, where a search of his name will reveal a variety of handcrafted, still-shot, detail-heavy videos that range from spoofs of violent movies (Evil Dead II – with cats!), never-to-be film trailers (Ghostbusters 3 as directed by Quentin Tarantino), and original shorts.

If you’re not familiar with his work, Hardcastle brings a disarming and purposefully childish claymation aesthetic to action and horror presentations. The result is equal parts hilarious and grotesque. His creations kill, dismember, eat, and attempt to microwave one another with the madcap energy of a Monty Python sketch written by Clive Barker and directed by Stuart Gordon. His videos are instantly mesmerizing: so unlike anything you’ve seen since childhood Christmases watching Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and wondering what the Abominable Snowman would do if those little elves caught him on a really bad day.

The best part? His claymation is not just a gimmick. Watching the horror play out goes beyond the novelty of the form; it’s frenetic, funny, and creative. Hardcastle employs lighting, sets, pacing, music, sound effects, and creative camera work that is the equal (proportionally) to the films he seeks to emulate and pay tribute. His shorts seem familiar somehow—even the original works. That’s because, like all great directors, he pulls techniques and call backs from those who came before him. He’s a talented visionary, and an obvious horror fan and student of the greats. Claymation as a concept may pull you in, but you’ll stay for the substance.

Ghost Burger comes on the heels of Hardcastle’s unfulfilled crowd-funded effort Spook Train, which was to be a full-length, semi-episodic exploration of a haunted carnival ride gone wrong. The trailer itself is a work of demented art, and I can only hope he one day gets the funding to complete his vision. Ghost Burger, meanwhile, is a hearty replacement. Available for free (in episodes) on YouTube, or for less than two bucks to download and keep, you can watch 22 minutes of genre filmmaking at its best.

Set after “T is for Toilet” in the ABCs of Death anthology film, John, a young boy disfigured by his encounter with a possessed toilet, discovers that he can fight back against the ghosts that haunt him. Not only that, but they make tasty hamburgers. It just so happens that his uncle runs a struggling burger stand, and, when John and his cousin Ritchie hide the ghost’s ground-up remains at his stand, the ghost burger is born. No surprise—it’s a big hit, and all the townspeople want a taste. His uncle directs him to go get more—and doesn’t care where the meat comes from.

Thus ensues an action-adventure-horror romp that’s equal parts Ghostbusters, Monster Squad, and Evil Dead. John and Ritchie become more and more desperate to track down and kill ghosts for their “meat,” the townsfolk gobble up their efforts… and a mysterious old man warns them of impending doom.

To get into much more would spoil the surprise—and the chaos—to follow. At 22 minutes it’s rather short, but well worth the $1.99 you can pay to own the film. Think of it less as a price of admission, and more of an investment in the talents of a growing and promising filmmaker. Hardcastle’s style and form call back to the glory days of 80’s horror and genre film while doing something new in an old medium.

Here’s hoping that Spook Train gets to leave the station someday.

5/5 Piles of Premium Ghost Meat