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Hellraiser: Judgment Review

Gary Tunnicliffe’s sequel is a flawed but earnest and important addition to the franchise.

Pinhead 2

As an enthusiast of horror, there is no franchise that I love more than Hellraiser. The original film, based on Clive Barker’s sharply written novella The Hellbound Heart, was an interesting and bold fusion of hedonism and gore tinged with the author’s signature flare for evocatively surrealistic imagery. Barker wrote and directed the adaptation of his novella and in the process, gave birth to Pinhead, one of the most iconic horror screen villains of the twentieth century

Flanked by the Cenobites, an entourage of equally scarred and devout acolytes, Pinhead was an atypical horror villain in comparison to his pop culture counterparts of the era. Neither a silent killer who slaughtered indiscriminately like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers nor a cackling trickster espousing quips and puns like Freddy Kruger, Pinhead was a stoic, deliberate presence. Authoritative and regal, he commanded immediate respect and his visage suggested nary a shred of hypocrisy.

His bald head adorned with nails driven directly into his skull, one understood on appearance alone that whatever he was going to do to you he had likely already done to himself. As much a theologian as a monster, Pinhead and his minions were devoted to the purest explorations of experience and sensation and clearly believed in the inviolability of their endeavors.


Barker laid a cerebral and potentially complex foundation when creating the Cenobites, crafting a more nuanced doctrine of hell and its demons. And although some of this was explored in the sequel Hellbound: Hellraiser II, the character and franchise unfortunately devolved into a simplistic commodity. Rather than being expounded upon in any meaningful way, the series was merely exploited for profit. Both Hellraiser III and Bloodline were entertaining films but they were also the product of studio interference and an attempt to commoditize and mainstream something that was, inherently, niche. After Bloodline, the franchise was regulated to direct-to-video offerings, the quality ranging from mediocre to downright abysmal. The only saving grace of these b-tier flicks was the magnetic and compelling work of Doug Bradley, whose ability to deliver poignancy and elevate the pabulum surrounding him made the drudgery of these films palatable.

The series’ low-point was 2011’s Hellraiser: Revelations, an ashcan film that was only made because Dimension studios was contractually obligated to generate a movie or lose the film rights to the franchise. Knowing the film would be unconscionably poor, Doug Bradley opted out of playing Pinhead and the film was shot quickly and cheaply. The final product was to be screened only once for staff and crew. Unfortunately, the executives at Dimension allowed their more mercenary instincts to override common sense and made the unwise decision to release the film on streaming services and home video.

Needless to say, the few critics who bothered to review Revelations tore the film asunder in a manner that would have made the Hell Priest blush.

In the years since, the persistent rumors of a possible remake or reboot of the franchise have come and gone. Clive Barker, who penned his own farewell to the character of Pinhead in his 2015 novel The Scarlet Gospels, reportedly wrote a script for the remake that was – to the dismay of the fanbase –  rejected by Dimension.

The reason I’m prefacing this review with a brief historical survey of the franchise is to demonstrate that those of us who are passionate about Hellraiser have suffered innumerable indignities regarding our beloved series. This is true even as other horror mainstays have enjoyed revivals to varying degrees of success. And even if you believe that the Nightmare on Elm Street remake was a soulless cash-grab or that Rob Zombie’s Halloween reboot was an affront to Carpenter’s classic, these films are practically high art next to the bulk of Hellraiser’s direct-to-video bargain bin tripe.

With all of this in mind, I approached Gary Tunnicliffe’s Hellraiser: Judgment with a certain degree of trepidation. Reports about his film seemed promising despite the lack of money fueling it.

Tunnicliffe’s bona fides with regards to the Hellraiser property are interesting. He wrote the original script for Revelations yet insisted it was butchered by Dimension. He also produced an unofficial Hellraiser short entitled No More Souls which posited a dour and listless Pinhead occupying a post-apocalyptic world where all of humanity has perished from nuclear war. With no more humans left to slake the sadistic thirst of his minions, Pinhead has no other choice but to offer himself as a final sacrament. Competent and creative, the short was one of the best fan films I’ve ever come across.

no more

Given the quality of No More Souls, I had hopes that Tunnicliffe might bring something unique to a franchise that has essentially been strip-mined and largely disregarded.

As it turns out, I was correct.

Now to be perfectly clear, Hellraiser: Judgment is an incredibly flawed film. And to be fair, many of these failings are due directly to the threadbare budget of the movie. The cost-cuts bleed through in various places and expose seams which are jarring and, at times, unintentionally funny. But beyond this admittedly rough exterior, Tunnicliffe has delivered a Hellraiser experience that is not only very much faithful to the original spirit of Barker’s work but manages to add some of its own interesting mythology to the equation.

The film opens with Pinhead (Paul T. Taylor) and The Auditor, (played by Tunnicliffe himself) discussing their difficulty in luring new victims. Technology has outmoded the likes of the Lament Configuration and they seek new ways to bait their human prey. From here we are made privy to an induction of sorts as a sadistic murderer finds himself strapped to a chair while the Auditor – a bald, sunglass-bespectacled monstrosity whose face and head are covered with deep, crimson lacerations – efficiently catalogues his transgressions on an ancient typewriter. We are then given access to the very ordered yet bizarre process by which these crimes are tallied, processed, aggregated and ultimately ruled upon by an esoteric cast of grotesqueries. This procedure, while not for the squeamish, is a fascinating combination of bureaucracy and pagan ritualism culminating in a grisly scene that pays tacit homage to the original film.

Pinhead and Autitor

After this admittedly compelling opening, things slow considerably. The low production values and clunky script, centered around a biblically-inspired killer who derives homicidal inspiration from the Ten Commandments, threatens to derail the film entirely. This element is tired and derivative and Tunnicliffe lacks the budgetary resources to bring any real credence or viability to the storyline. Instead of being filled with forensics investigators and busy police officers, a crime scene contains only the principle actors. A police precinct office interior looks like a rented trailer and is notably incongruous with an exterior establishing shot. Compounding these logistical problems are some very wonky dialogue choices and hackneyed thriller tropes.

As much as I respect the director’s ambition, I can’t help but think that winnowing down the scope of this film would have been a wise decision given the meager funds available. In some ways, Hellraiser: Judgment feels like two distinctive films, one of which is boring, languid and difficult to watch.

The other film, taking up less screen time, is gruesomely enjoyable. This better part of Judgment is a deft exploration of an ethereal realm and its intrigues the likes of which hasn’t been glimpsed in the franchise since Hellraiser II. While Tunnicliffe’s rendition of the hellish afterlife is markedly different in many ways, his creative decisions still feel very much in proportion with both Barker’s cinematic and written work. Unlike the clunky, cliché-ridden detective story wraparound, the sequences in hell (or it’s earthy proxy as it appears in the movie) are fresh, interesting and populated with startling imagery and compelling characters.

Paul T. Taylor as Pinhead proves himself to be a solid replacement for Bradley. While the latter will always be known for the role and rightly credited for nurturing the character’s growth into something truly special, Taylor cuts his own swath as the Hell Priest and possesses both the acting chops and the onscreen presence to make the role his own.


Perhaps the biggest surprise however is Tunnicliffe’s work as the Auditor. The director plays him as a bookish, nervous being, one whose officious demeanor sits atop a darker, nastier layer of potential violence. Looking like a cross between a Cenobite and one of their victims, the Auditor speaks with a slight and hesitant European accent. It makes him both menacing and vaguely endearing, especially when contrasted with the stoicism of his demonic colleague. What could easily have been a throwaway addition is instead a character I would very much enjoy seeing integrated into future installations of the franchise.

Tunnicliffe, once he draws back the uninspired veil of the serial killer plotline and gives us access to the supernatural underpinnings of the film, delivers these macabre images and scenarios with gusto and a steady hand. For all of the budgetary restrictions foisted onto this production, little of those shortcomings are evident in the exceptional makeup and costume design. The dialogue likewise is mostly on point. While a few stilted lines of fanservice stick out from time to time, the overall flow of these scenes carry both pathos and a familiarity rooted in the aesthetics and tone of first two films.

Tunnicliffe even manages to extrapolate on Barker’s work, including elements and ideas not seen in previous installments but alluded to in The Hellbound Heart and The Scarlet Gospels. Unlike previous sequels where the mythology was clumsily attached to a mediocre plotline, Hellraiser: Judgment feels like a genuine entry in the series. It offers something new even to the most devout and longtime fans. There is an indelible pulse at the heart of Tunnicliffe’s work here; a passion that is evident even when obscured by the shoestring budget or the questionable structural and narrative choices.

Some may be quick to dismiss this film as another cheap cash-in or ashcan movie. But the more I reflect on Hellraiser: Judgment, the more I’m convinced that the movie, despite its problems, possesses some of the greatest highs of the franchise since Hellraiser II. When looking at the film with an eye for what could be improved, it is evident that the majority of the problems are largely financial. All things considered, I’m impressed that Tunnicliffe was able to squeeze out as much blood from this particular turnip as he did.

If the execs over at Dimension have even the slightest respect for the franchise, they’d hand Tunnicliffe a halfway-modest production budget and allow him to make a film without such ridiculously anemic financial restraints. Regardless, Hellraiser: Judgement, despite its flaws, is the best thing to happen to this franchise in a very long time. With any luck, somebody with decision-making clout is watching carefully.

Hellraiser: Judgment is out today on Blu-ray, DVD, and Video on Demand.

Box Art

The Ultimate Straw Man Argument: How Nostalgia Effectively Impedes the Fair Analysis of Sequels

I’ll readily admit to being an optimist.

The rampant and persistent cynicism of the Internet – seemingly punctuated by a billion voices trawling incessantly for negativity – continues to mystify me.

I go into most films with the hope of seeing something good, enjoyable, or even legitimately fantastic.

To be certain I’m often disappointed but the idea of being predisposed to dislike something even before seeing it is difficult for me to fathom, especially when the film in question is a sequel to something I enjoyed immensely.

In a couple of weeks, the sequel to the seminal and massively influential science fiction masterpiece Blade Runner drops and outside of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, it is my most anticipated film of the year. Directed by the talented auteur filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, The Arrival), and starring Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling, this long-gestating and belated sequel is a project many of us assumed would never come to fruition.


Everything about the film has looked entirely on point, from the tone and the aesthetics to the casting, yet I recently stumbled onto a large smattering of individuals who are convinced that this movie will be at best a disappointment and at worst an unmitigated disaster.

The rationale employed by these naysayers is largely rooted in speculative conjecture that appears to be housed primarily in their nostalgic reverence for the original. The most common complaint levied against the small amount of footage shown is that it looks and feels “different” than the original movie and that it will never live up to the greatness of the first film.

I’ve always found such criticisms – especially those that are rooted in speculation – to be utterly meritless. For such a criticism to have any validity, you would first have to demonstrate – either by inference or by explicit statement from the director – that the intention of this or any sequel is to somehow supplant or surpass the original.

In logic we call this the straw man fallacy, whereby you refute or attack an argument that was never actually posited, making it easy to knock over. The entire notion that a sequel must be equal or superior to the original is a classic straw man because rarely (if ever) has anyone associated with a sequel proclaimed it as superior to the first.

And for certain, nobody associated with the making of Blade Runner 2049 has suggested it will eclipse its progenitor.

The thing is, even if Blade Runner 2049 is the better film – something I don’t consider impossible given the tremendous coalescence of talent behind it – I would argue that most of the pessimists would never admit it for two very specific reasons:

Pride and nostalgia.

The first isn’t something I’ll waste time addressing other than to state that pride gets in the way of humility and we tend to learn the most when we are humble beings.

As for the latter, nostalgia is sweet glaze that warmly coats our memories and experiences with a thin layer of golden honey that makes even the bitter seem saccharine upon reflection.

But it also makes difficult the ability to give new things and endeavors a fair shake.

My theory as to why this is stems from the power of belief and how it acts like cement of the mind, holding us firmly to an idea with no room to expand, shift or pivot. This type of cognitive stagnation is never a good thing, even when analyzing art, yet people cling to their beliefs with a stubborn, almost desperate tenacity.


For them, it doesn’t matter that Villeneuve is a master craftsman or that Harrison Ford is reprising his role or that the screenwriter who penned the original script returned to help write the sequel but instead what matters is that the very existence of this film is a threat to the status of their beloved original.

They do not want this film to be better or to even approach the proximity of the original because in doing so, the microcosmic perspective where their favorite films hold sway forever over anything that will ever come afterwards is splintered into irrelevant fragments.

Even if Blade Runner 2049 is a critical darling, there is already a large faction of people who have decided – without seeing the film – that it is an inferior work and those individuals do themselves and the medium a disservice by fallaciously asserting that the quality of a sequel in any way diminishes the impact and legacy of the original.

The respective merit of these two films is not a binary scenario; both can be excellent and the sequel can be a great movie without taking anything at all away from the accomplishments of its forbearer.

And the sweet confection of nostalgia can be pleasant and comforting without acting as a sticky adhesive for the mind, rooting us in place and robbing us of new, expansive experiences.

Just a thought from an eternal optimist looking forward to a long-awaited sequel.


That Just Happened: Why IT’s Success Should Bode Well For The Horror Genre


Various outlets are reporting that the Warner Bros. adaptation of Stephen King’s novel IT has grossed a staggering 117 million dollars in its first weekend of release.

Now, just let the reality of that revelation waft over you for a few moments.

One month after the colossal disappointment of The Dark Tower, which was eviscerated critically and largely ignored by the general public, another King adaptation has just become the highest grossing September release of all time and is tracking to be the most commercially successfully horror movie ever made.

So why is this a big deal?

For one, horror films are traditionally regulated to the lower tier of the film industry. While often profitable because of their relatively low budgets, most horror films don’t enjoy anywhere near the resources or the promotion of other competing genres. Even larger horror films released by major studios tend to have much smaller production and advertising budgets and many of these films are given the Video-on-Demand treatment, which entails a limited theatrical run followed by streaming and physical media sales.

By contrast, Warner Bros. implemented an aggressive and clever advertising blitz that began nearly a year prior with strategical leaks of images and information leading to the reveal of the first official trailer, which dropped on March 28 of this year. The preview subsequently earned the record for the trailer with the most views in a single day. In the months since that preview was released, additional stories, pics and trailers have generated a considerable and ever-growing fervor, culminating in a debut that puts many of the movies earmarked for blockbuster status this year to shame.

To place this success in perspective, IT will enjoy the same initial weekend earnings as Spider-Man: Homecoming, and that was Marvel’s tentpole film of the summer.

But beyond the financial success, the deeper question is what the film industry can learn from the accomplishments of this film.

IT is a hard-R horror film; an unapologetically dark, mature movie that pulls no punches and doesn’t cater to the adolescent crowd. The film also has a modest production budget estimated at 35 million, which is a fraction of the budget of the typical blockbuster yet is relatively high for a horror film. IT also has garnered widespread critical acclaim and is being hailed as one of the best King adaptations ever made.

When you examine these elements both separately and collectively, what is clear is that the same message consumers and critics have been attempting to convey for years to the obtuse corporate culture within the film industry has been once again made readily apparent: Make quality films that don’t pander to the lowest common denominator and when adapting beloved source material, create and deliver a reasonable filmic approximation.

And above all else, know that a quality horror film with a decent budget can yield some of the healthiest profit margins within the industry.

With the success of IT on the heels of the impressive performance by Jordan Peele’s Get Out – which has grossed more than 200 million dollars from a production budget of less than five million – studios may want to start considering how to effectively produce and release more high-profile horror films over the next few years as clearly, there is a voracious and insatiable demand for quality movies within the genre that far outstrips the current output.

IT is the kind of seismic shift that can forever alter the topography of the film industry.

Let’s hope the studio heads and producers are learning the right lessons from IT’s success.


The Top Ten Bad-Asses of Gaming (Part One)

I Rank Them So You Don’t Have To. (But you probably still want to)

Videogames are all about player agency and the proactive roles we assume when picking up the controller.

Games are also about empowerment; letting us assume the role of a persona – good or evil – and becoming somebody else who acts definitively and unapologetically.

The following is the first part in a two-part series where I rank the most prominent gaming bad-asses; characters who in turn make us feel like bad-asses when playing as them.

10. Sergei Dragunov (Tekken)

The Tekken universe is filled to the absolute brim with a colorful and lethal assortment of combatants, ranging from hulking androids to demonic martial artists, yet even among this collection of heroes, rogues and villains, Sergei Dragunov distinguishes himself as a force to be feared.

First introduced in Tekken: Dark Resurrection, Dragunov is an icy-blooded member of the Spetsnaz Russian special forces and is highly trained in Sambo – a form of grappling that places an emphasis on breaking bones and pulverizing joints. With pale, almost translucent skin and a deeply scarred visage, Sergei looks as if he can withstand as much physical brutality as he doles out and his fighting style is a combination of sharp, withering strikes coupled with vicious and relentless ground techniques that can end a fight in seconds.

At the conclusion of an encounter that inevitably leaves his opposition defeated and crumpled before him, the stoic Russian remains silent, allowing the violence of his actions to speak louder than any words.


Games Featuring Dragunov:

  • Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection
  • Tekken 6
  • Tekken Tag 2
  • Tekken 7


9. Samus Aaran (Metroid Franchise)


Though equipped with powerful and versatile armor that affords this interstellar bounty hunter a broad swath of functionality, what truly defines the lovely and lethal Samus Aaron is her courage and resolve as well as her willingness to explore the deepest and most solitary subterranean destinations in the galaxy to obliterate the eponymous Metroid and those who would use this lethal lifeform as the ultimate bioweapon.

First introduced to the gaming world with the original Metroid in 1986, the developers purposely hid the gender of this lone protagonist, which the player discovered only after beating the game. A trailblazer for female characters, Samus shattered the oft-utilized trope of the girl as the helpless princess or sidekick and instead gave players a female lead as tough and heroic as any man.

A skilled warrior with a myriad of combative-centric talents, Samus is a woman of few words but copious action. Nimble, fast, and efficient, she’s less a mercenary than a rogue hero; a singular force capable of taking on a planet of pirates or an entire species of parasitic organisms.


Games Featuring Samus Aaran:

  • Metroid
  • Metroid II: Return of Samus
  • Super Metroid
  • Metroid Fusion
  • Metroid Prime
  • Metroid: Zero Mission
  • Metroid Prime 2: Echoes
  • Metroid Prime Pinball
  • Metroid Prime Hunters
  • Metroid Prime 3: Corruption
  • Metroid: Other M
  • Metroid Prime: Federation Force
  • Metroid: Samus Returns
  • Metroid Prime 4
  • Super Smash Bros. 1-4


8. Strider Hiryu (Strider Franchise, Marvel vs. Capcom)


Essentially a cosmic ninja, Strider Hiryu has been a gaming mainstay since his debut in the original arcade version of Strider. Armed with a singular, atom-slicing blade called the Cypher, Hiryu can best be described as a whirling dervish and acrobatic harbinger of death. Fast, precise and fearless, this lithe hero is forthright and honorable but also a merciless warrior, hacking his adversaries into trace molecules while somersaulting about, dodging bullets and engaging in a combative ballet that would make even the most accomplished shinobi feel inadequate by comparison.

strider-arcade-big  strider-hiryu-key-art-e1500576870582.jpg

Hiryu has enjoyed a storied legacy, including a classic arcade game and an altogether different NES version that is a masterpiece in its own right, both of which portray Strider as the definitive one-man army capable of toppling all comers, including a mystical despot and traitorous members of his own organization. Strider has also enjoyed the distinction of being included in the Marvel vs. Capcom series and remains a popular choice for his distinctive and relentless playstyle.

Games Featuring Strider:

  • Strider (arcade)
  • Strider (NES)
  • Journey from Darkness: Strider Returns (Released by U.S. Gold)
  • Strider 2
  • Strider (2014)
  • Namco X Capcom
  • Marvel vs. Capcom Series


7. Kain (Legacy of Kain and Soul Reaver Franchises)


Kain is a complicated fellow.

We first met him as a wandering nobleman; a spoiled aristocrat who is murdered on a cold, dark evening and given the chance for vengeance through resurrection as a vampire. Filled with rage at his abrupt death, he hastily agrees, setting off a chain of events that would go on to span a slew of games and complex timelines that sees Kain as both the hero and the villain of a sprawling and dense mythology .


But what truly defines Kain is his haughty, almost poetic dialogue and regal demeanor fused with his unremittent brutality. For much of the series, Kain is an antihero, willing to slaughter anyone – innocent or villain alike – to achieve his ends. A master swordsman, Kain is able to dispatch his victims and levitate their very blood in thick streams that feed directly into his maw, sustaining him with their fleeting vitality. Kain is also inhumanly agile, capable of shapeshifting, mind control, telekinesis and can even dissipate into fog, emerging to kill and vanishing back into the mist.


First introduced to gaming audiences in 1997’s Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, the eponymous character hasn’t been seen since 2003’s Legacy of Kain: Defiance, yet the vampiric savior of Nosgoth remains an immensely popular icon and an example of what a true and distilled badass looks and sounds like.

(A special mention is required here regarding the excellent voice work done by Simon Templeman, who imbues Kain with a rich, nuanced personality and is largely responsible for the success of the character.) 

Games Featuring Kain:

  • Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain
  • Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver
  • Legacy of Kain: Blood Omen 2
  • Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2
  • Legacy of Kain: Defiance


6. Chris Redfield (Resident Evil Franchise)

Like his partner Jill Valentine, Chris Redfield has been with Resident Evil since the beginning of the franchise and over the last two decades, our heroic protagonist has gotten bigger, better, and…well…bigger.


When not fighting zombies or other vestiges of Umbrella Corporation’s bioweapon division, Chris apparently takes growth hormones, eats lots of protein and prepares for Mr. Universe contests.

When we first met Chris, he was a highly trained but decidedly mortal soldier who needed keys to open doors.

By the time Resident Evil 5 arrived, Chris had transformed into a hulking mass of zombie-killing muscularity, capable of punching boulders into submission.


Chris also spends his spare time fighting amongst the illuminati of the Marvel vs. Capcom roster, where he is able to hold his own with metahumans and makes everyone except the Hulk and Thor feel puny and inadequate.

While at this point he’s a walking, talking sack of testosterone, Chris is also a genuine hero, a fearless soldier, expert gunfighter and puncher of anything that needs to be laid out, be it man or mutated monstrosity.

Games Featuring Chris Redfield:

  • Resident Evil
  • Resident Evil – Code: Veronica
  • Resident Evil Umbrella Chronicles
  • Resident Evil (Remake)
  • Resident Evil 5
  • Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles
  • Resident Evil 6
  • Resident Evil: The Mercenaries
  • Resident Evil: Revelations
  • Resident Evil 7 (Cameo)


5. Faith (Mirror’s Edge)


It has been opined by some that the avoidance of conflict is the ultimate combative art; that the ability to stop a fight or nullify it before it escalates is the purest form of conflict resolution.

If there’s any truth to that statement, the character of Faith – protagonist of the Mirror’s Edge series – is a posterchild for such an ideology, as the swift-of-foot courier and would-be rebel is as apt and able to evade her opponents as she is to fight them directly.

An expert practitioner in parkour, Faith is nimble, fearless and moves with the deliberate speed and grace of a jungle cat, able to deftly pounce, hop and slide her way through even the most dangerous and fortified of spaces. Where most see obstacles and impediments, faith sees alternative routes and environments where she can press her sprightly advantage, moving in such a way as to leave her pursuers far behind.


That isn’t to say Faith can’t fight because when she does engage her opponents, her martial arts skills are honed, precise and can render an adversary unconscious in seconds. She’s also handy with a gun but what defines Faith and makes her such an interesting and distinctive bad-ass is that she is somebody who uses violence only when cornered; lethal when necessary but more invested in getting to her goal than sending men to their graves.

There’s something uniquely compelling about a character who – amongst videogame contemporaries that kill at the slightest provocation – seems compelled to spare life whenever possible and avoid rather than engage.


Games Featuring Faith:

  • Mirror’s Edge
  • Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst

I’ll be back soon to complete my list, revealing who I consider the ultimate bad-ass of the gaming continuum.

Faces of Fathers Forgotten: Why The Dark Tower Should Have Been a Cable Series


Recently, the international trailer for The Dark Tower hit online, prompting a bevy of analysis and discussions about the impending release of a film still very much shrouded in mystery, anticipation and a heap of trepidation. The filmic adaptation of Stephen King’s magnum opus – which serves as a lynchpin for practically the entirety of his shared fictional universe – has slogged through developmental hell for decades, finally coming to fruition as a modestly budgeted end-of-summer film that is being marketed as something between an action movie and a fantasy/sci-fi hybrid. Many fans of the series have expressed their concerns regarding the footage shown in the trailers, as very little of what has been revealed looks familiar. To a legion of King devotees who have waited decades to see this particular universe brought to life, this is incredibly disconcerting.

The director – Nikolaj Arcel – is a relative unknown, especially when contrasted to the previous directors attached to this project, including Ron Howard and the man who resurrected Star Wars, J. J. Abrams. Both men publicly outlined their respective strategies to tackle the Dark Tower universe in a manner that would be respectful to the source material, with Abrams wanting to do a full slew of films and Howard wanting to do both theatrical entries and a TV series to bridge the gaps between installments. While neither was necessarily a perfect approach to tackling what is an incredibly dense and nuanced work, what we apparently have now is the very thing fans have always feared: A quick and cheap cash-in via an ultra-condensed version of The Dark Tower mythology that will probably confuse the uninitiated and aggravate the fanbase.

In other words, something that was made to cater to both segments of the populace but will ultimately serve neither.

Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I’m still very eager to see this film. Both the director and King himself have stated that they see this movie as the equivalent of a sequel to the books – something that will make sense to those who have read them. I’m also open-minded enough to embrace the fact that whatever this film is, it won’t be the Dark Tower film I’ve envisioned since reading the first book as a kid. I would also be remiss not to mention that both Elba and McConaughey are fantastic actors – absolutely top shelf – so my hope is that, at the very least, this film will be an interesting addendum to a series of novels that I adore. I sincerely believe that The Dark Tower could be a great film on its own merits, removed from the burden of being a direct adaptation of the source material and instead function as a genuine sequel, especially given the inclusion of The Horn of Eld, an artifact that lends serious credence to the theory.

That understood, I do think that anyone truly vested in translating this universe to the screen should have taken a hard and protracted gander at the success of Game of Thrones, HBO’s phenomenally popular series adapted from the works of George R. R. Martin. Like King’s Dark Tower franchise, Game of Thrones is a dense, complex work filled to the brim with a variety of characters, parallel and intersecting plotlines, and shifting factions. The very notion of taking such a complex work and condensing it down into a two-hour movie is, at this point in the show’s run, unimaginable, and it is clear just how much character development, plotting and details would have to be winnowed down or otherwise tossed out to adapt even one of the GOT novels into a theatrical film.

Matthew McConaughey;Idris Elba

The Dark Tower saga would lend itself beautifully to the cable series format, with each novel potentially being represented by a lengthy string of episodes that would fully encapsulate the rich tapestry of characters, settings, and sights afforded by King’s work. This isn’t about artistic merit or the capability of the director but rather a simple equation; an understanding that you can’t fit hundreds of thousands of words worth of storytelling into a two-hour construct and not expect to lose some pretty important details in the process. If King’s series of novels is a lake, the movie would be the equivalent of a 16-oz. water bottle – a container so fundamentally inappropriate for the task that it becomes difficult to imagine why they even bothered.

Compounding this disappointment is that studios clearly have come far enough to know better, yet persist in attempting these cash-ins instead of selecting the proper format and proceeding without the benefit of a long-term perspective. Consider for example the upcoming theatrical release of IT, which has garnered tremendous excitement. Based on another of King’s novels, IT is a massive tome and so the producers and director wisely decided to slice the story in half, essentially making two films to adequately address the content rather than dilute the impact of the narrative. And while there is most certainly franchise potential in The Dark Tower, the very fact that this film isn’t called The Gunslinger – which is the first novel in the series – suggests what we are getting is either very condensed or heavily altered.

Truthfully, we won’t know what we’re getting for a few more weeks but regardless of what the final product is – a grand continuum to the franchise or a muddled, incoherent cash grab – those of us who wanted a literal translation clearly won’t be getting it, even when the model to successfully accomplish such a tight adaptation has been around for six years,  generating millions of dollars in revenue for all parties involved.

That said, I’ll be in the theater come August 4 with the sincerest hope of being proven wrong.



Netflix’s Castlevania Series is Blood-Soaked Excellence.


While calling Netflix’s animated Castlevania series a full season is a bit misleading – it’s essentially four 25-minute episodes that feel more like a prologue to a much larger endeavor – what has been delivered, however brief, is an utterly fantastic adaptation of one the most beloved and enduring videogame franchises in the medium.

It also stands firmly on its own merits, regardless of your history with the series.

Castlevania: Season One is based loosely on the third game of the franchise, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, which was released for the NES nearly thirty years ago and, chronologically speaking, is essentially the beginning of the Castlevania narrative. (Though there are some earlier games on the timeline)

In an interesting twist, the first episode is dedicated to the backstory of Dracula (Graham McTavish) – a reclusive exile living in his grandiose but lonely castle – as he is sought out by a young, ambitious woman (Emily Swallow), unafraid of his reputation and moved to seek his guidance and wisdom as a student of science. Bemused and intrigued by her courage and passion, he invites her to stay as his guest and study the knowledge he has accumulated over the centuries. Sometime later, having fallen in love, they are married and Dracula, on a sabbatical at the urging of his wife for the purpose of reconnecting with humankind, arrives home to discover she has been burned at the stake as a heretic and a witch, specifically because of her pursuit of science. Enraged, Dracula grants humanity one year before he unleashes a supernatural, genocidal campaign to obliterate what he sees as the human scourge entirely from the planet.

This backstory is an intriguing slant on a character that has been traditionally unsympathetic and portrayed as largely malevolent, imbuing his actions with a bit of sympathetic justification, regardless of his admittedly evil machinations. The notion of Dracula being a solitary hermit whose rage is awakened by a craven and brutal act against the love of his life is a unique way to set up the character as something more than a two-dimensional megalomaniac and despot.


The show then shifts to an introduction of Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage), member of House Belmont, a family that for generations swore an oath to defend humanity against supernatural malignancies. However, the proliferation of Christianity has seen the Belmont clan excommunicated and disgraced by the Catholic Church, with Trevor now a wandering vagabond and drunkard who stumbles upon a conflict between a corrupt bishop and a group of seers called The Speakers, who are being scapegoated for the dark violence now spreading throughout the countryside. Among their ranks Trevor makes a rapid alliance with a powerful female sorcerer, Sypha Belnades (Alejandra Reynoso), and the two unite to pursue an end to Dracula’s menace.

There’s a significant amount of world-building in Castlevania, astutely woven into a pre-existing, mosaic-like mythos which has been essentially pieced together by numerous games over the years. Though only a handful of prominent characters are introduced in the course of four short episodes, all of them are fleshed out relatively well, especially Trevor, who, though a bit of a sullen grump, is given several opportunities to let his heroics shine as tensions escalate.

As animated shows go, Castlevania enjoys a solid script. Penned by veteran comic book scribe Warren Ellis, the story he weaves in these first episodes is tight, focused, and enjoyable. While there is an occasional bit of clunky dialogue or odd bit of humor that falls flat, most of the writing is quite good and the voicework is, overall, superb. Likewise, the visuals are respectable and though not spectacular, they effectively emulate the disparate aesthetics of the numerous games within the franchise and arrive at a type of visual compromise that manages to represent the overall look and feel of the series cohesively.

Where the show truly shines however is the action, which is excellent and reflective of a game franchise that has always been, primarily, a combat-driven endeavor. Trevor’s talents as a warrior are given plenty of screen time and the battles are fast, frantic and filled with the types of excessive, over-the-top flourishes that might look downright silly in a live action film but come off as nothing less than stellar in an animated movie. Of note are battles Trevor has with a basement-dwelling cyclops and an epic confrontation with another series mainstay, Alucard (James Callis), resulting in a protracted fight that sees both combatants pulling out all the stops as they try to best each other. It’s also important to note that the whip – the primary weapon of the franchise – is utilized to its fullest potential here, with Trevor wielding his consecrated weapon to strike down both human and non-human enemies alike with nimble ferocity.


Castlevania is also an unapologetically violent affair, with copious gore, dismemberment, and even some genuinely disturbing scenes of hapless villagers being slaughtered by Dracula’s encroaching horde of satanic beasts. While this violence is never gratuitous, it does brand the series as something meant for mature viewers instead of some trite, Saturday morning TV show aimed at selling cereal and cheap, plastic toys. Animation here in the U.S. has always struggled for legitimacy among older viewers and Castelvania is further evidence that an animated series can offer mature, compelling content.

The only problem with the series is that this first season simply feels half-baked. The whole thing can be watched in well under two hours and ends abruptly, just when things really begin to get interesting. While I’m encouraged that Netflix has already ordered a second season, I sincerely wish they had invested a bit more money into making this first season something more substantive. It’s not an exaggeration to say that season one of Castlevania feels more like a tease of something larger and more ambitious and hopefully, that promise will come to fruition when season two arrives at a later date.

Regardless, Castlevania is a fantastic, fun romp through a familiar franchise that should make the majority of fanboys (and girls) grin widely. It’s the kind of thing I’m a bit shocked was even made but more surprising is that it is clearly a labor of love and dedication, fashioned by a creative team who respect the source material enough to make it a worthy extension of an already prolific and intriguing fictional continuum.

Let’s hope season 2 can keep up the pace.


Friday the 13th: The Game. Why Developers and Publishers Should Be Taking Notes.


Released less than two months ago, Gun Media’s Friday the 13th: The Game, developed by IllFonic, has already achieved considerable buzz among gamers and horror enthusiasts. I bought it on the PS4 as soon as it was released and have enjoyed my time with it immensely. While the game is admittedly rough around the edges, I’m actually quite impressed with what such a small studio has accomplished within a modest timeframe and more importantly, they seem committed to patching the game post-release to ensure the experience only gets better.

Regardless of those inevitable, indie-related growing pains, Friday the 13th represents precisely the type of interactive experience developers and publishers should be examining closely, if not outright cribbing. I recently had a conversation with a friend after he had an opportunity to play the game and we both agreed it was astounding that it had taken this long for something like Friday the 13th to get made and perhaps even more mystifying is that larger developers and publishers aren’t currently scrambling to follow suit.

The central conceit of the game is succinctly brilliant: a group of online gamers are assigned the roles of camp counselors and one person is randomly designated to play as Jason Voorhees. The gameplay takes place in a semi-open world map replicating key locations from the franchise and the counselors must essentially survive or flee as they are hunted, individually, by Jason, who is in possession of a myriad of abilities that make him persistently lethal. The counselors, while given some offensive options like weapons and distractions, are by design grossly underpowered. The best they can do is slow Jason down and try to escape or avoid Jason long enough to make it to the end of the gaming session.

When distilled, Friday the 13th is basically an interactive version of hide-and-seek, which emulates the thematic arc of the franchise exceptionally well and also creates a genuinely tense and evocative horror atmosphere. As previously mentioned, the game has some technical issues and its presentation reflects a relatively modest budget, yet none of this dilutes the enjoyment of the simple, direct premise, which is to play through a truncated version of a Friday the 13th episode as either the victim or Jason.


However, there’s a broader takeaway from this game, specifically that the premise is so effectively simple yet undeniably engaging that other games based on existing horror franchises could very easily be made, with larger studios dedicating more extensive resources into creating these types of titles. Judging by the word-of-mouth and overall response to this game, there appears to be a largely untapped market emerging and I would estimate the demand for this type of software will only increase as trailblazer developers help to further define what it is that consumers want.

To be fair, Friday the 13th isn’t entirely without contemporaries. Dead By Daylight, created by Behaviour Interactive, operates on a similar premise and even has an additional level that mimics John Carpenter’s seminal classic Halloween, allowing a group of online players to be stalked by Michael Myers in a level that astutely replicates Haddonfield. Also, while markedly different in terms of gameplay, developer Creative Assembly released the much-lauded Alien: Isolation back in 2014, a single-player game largely defined by having to run and hide from the infamous xenomorph. There are also examples like Evolve, where a single player assumes the role of a large monster while the remaining participants band together to take it down.

But even with these handful of games occupying space and mindshare in the marketplace, the reality is that Friday the 13th still manages to differentiate itself for several key reasons and these reasons are precisely what other studios and their publishers should be examining more closely.

First and foremost, it’s clear that developer IllFonic loves this movie franchise and understands it, a fact that is readily apparent in every facet of the game’s execution. Developed in tandem with Kane Hodder – the quintessential cinematic Jason – and horror icon Tom Savini, this game oozes with fandom credibility and reflects the genuine passion of those involved. This is crucially important because when examining the history of videogames based on pre-existing intellectual property, it is astounding how many of those games were clearly made by people who had little emotional investment in what they were creating. And while this game is most certainly a product, it’s a product made by people who obviously adore the source material and their desire to accurately emulate the look and tone of the films is why – regardless of a smattering of technical foibles – the game is largely successful at doing just that.

Perhaps even more compelling however is how perfectly suited gaming is to further the horror genre. Videogames are predicated on interactivity – they require proactive, concerted involvement rather than passivity. Horror is perfectly situated to become a dominant genre within gaming because the nature of horror – usually founded on the exploration of the unknown or the survival of a character against insurmountable odds – lends itself perfectly to a playable construct.

As soon as you find a match and begin playing Friday the 13th, you are struck immediately by the atmosphere. Yes, there is silliness abound, be it other players doing puerile things or occasional glitches, yet there are also moments that can only be described as sublime horror at its finest:

Walking through the forest with tendrils of fog swirling about.

The sound of your footsteps as you move through an empty cabin engaged in solitary exploration.

The iconic Jason music echoing abruptly in your ears, causing you to glance wildly around and forcing you to consistently look over your shoulder.

Lastly, I think it’s important to note the impact of Friday the 13th being an online-centric endeavor. I’m personally not a huge fan of online multiplayer and tend to gravitate towards solitary experiences but the multiplayer aspects of Friday the 13th are crucial, as it lends to the proceedings two very interesting and important components, namely that the game often requires collaboration with others to survive and that communal aspect of the game is both intriguing and unique within a horror setting. Also, while I’m sure having a CPU-controlled Jason would be plenty fun, having him controlled by a person who is hunting you down is quite thrilling. Most game AI still hasn’t reached a level yet where it simulates a flexible intelligence and rapid adaptation to situations but a person in possession of these attributes makes every encounter very unpredictable, which subsequently amps up the tension and scare factor.


When tallying these intriguing components, my mind swims with the possibilities for other horror-related games:

Imagine a Nightmare on Elm Street game where players are thrust into a dream world where they are not only stalked by Freddy but must endure and survive an environment that can be directly manipulated by their nemesis.

Envision a Hellraiser game where players must navigate the seemingly endless labyrinth of Hell, piecing together clues to escape or attempting to find and solve the Lament Configuration.

What about a Predator game where a group of humans are pitted against the eponymous extraterrestrial hunter and must unite to take down a vastly superior foe?

Or a JAWS game where a collective of players hunt the beast as it stalks them from beneath the waves of Amity?

Ultimately, Friday the 13th is a legitimate game-changer and the lessons that other studios can and should glean from IllFonic are numerous and potentially very profitable.

Let’s hope the right people are paying attention.