Sunday, 31 May 2020

North Korea's Floating Hotel (Night's Black Agents)

Once again this video comes courtesy of Side Note.

This location combines the unusual locale of a cruise ship with the happy fun times any enterprising agent might have in North Korea. For those of you who don't want to watch the whole video, a brief precis:

Once upon a time a man with more money than sense thought it would be a spiffing idea to open a grand hotel floating on the Grand Barrier Reef in Australia. In theory this is a fantastic location for a boutique hotel. You have all the beauty of nature at your disposal coupled with the luxuries a top tier hotel can offer. In practice this rapidly fell apart. Hotels, like all other service industry enterprises, operate on the basis of low cost high return. Even the Ritz scrimps. However a floating hotel was always going to be an expensive proposition, particularly given the ecologically sensitive nature of the Grand Banks. There were expensive delays which meant it didn't open when it needed to. Added to that is the less obvious problem that once you plonk it out there, there's not a lot you can do with it. Any other hotel can offer excursions, change the look up, offer deals. Operating costs being what they were, deals were off the table: you paid through the nose. If you didn't really enjoy watersports or suffered from seasickness, you weren't going to have a good time. Any local problems, like starfish eating the coral or cyclones knocking out the pool, meant the site was less desirable. Then they found discarded WWII ammo - possibly live ammo - dumped nearby.


Incidentally if any of you are suffering from an advanced case of deja vu, then you've read Chris Brookmyre's One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night.  In that comic crime novel a developer puts all his eggs in one floating basket and opens a hotel in a converted oil rig off the coast of Scotland. A floating "Butlins meets ethnic cleansing", with "every modern British urban leisure activity, but without the British urban clouds and rain. A resort where all the staff didn't merely speak English, but spoke it in comfortably familiar accents … And crucially, a resort where you could be guaranteed never to see the front page of Bild staring back at you from your desired poolside spot." As a kind of fuck-you to his past he arranges a class reunion aboard his pride and joy, so he can flaunt his success in front of the people he wants most to acknowledge his greatness: the kids he knew at Catholic school St Michael's, Auchinlea. Then terrorists show up, shoot the place up, and plant a bomb in the oil rig.


Australia's pride and joy migrated to North Korea via Vietnam, and was used for a brief period as a kind of way station for reunited Koreans when NK flirted with reconciliation. The idea being that those who'd been on one side of the Bamboo Curtain could meet their relatives from the South on what seemed more or less neutral ground. As with all things designed by man this too fell apart, and for now the empty hotel floats off Mount Kumgang. Allegedly it's slated for redevelopment, a project temporarily delayed by COVID quarantine. In practice given the idiosyncrasies of NK's current government it is likely to be mothballed till it sinks.

Its timeline is:
  • Inception and late opening 1988, as the John Brewer Floating Hotel off Australia's Barrier Reef. It was very briefly also known as the Four Seasons Floating Hotel, when some addled philanthropist bought it from Brewer. If further proof were needed that the average rich man's brain consists entirely of warmed-over pudding ...
  • Relocated 1989 (oh dear) to Vietnam, where it had a home on the Saigon River near the Tran Hung Dao Statue
  • Relocated 1998 to North Korea.
  • Closed 2008 after a shooting incident in which a NK soldier shot a South Korean visitor dead. Allegedly the tourist was entering a militarily sensitive zone and did not heed warnings. Remains closed to this day.
There is a free Night's Black Agents RPG based aboard a cruise ship, Pleasures of the Flesh, written by Alasdair Sinclair and available in Pelgrane's downloads section. With some small modification it could as easily take place aboard Brewer's seven story luxury floating hotel. Given it was only at the Barrier Reef for a year, unless you want to set the game in the 1980s - which is perfectly doable - you're better off having it a 1990s scenario, or even a North Korean getaway. What sinister secrets lurk inside North Korea's luxury resort, and why do so many NK officials want to stay there?  If it's a Vietnam scenario you have other options, not least returning veterans of the Vietnam war trying to recapture their lost youth in a sparkling high-end nightclub playground. Dance the night away in the Downunder Bar, then restore your strength with one of the management's special tonics …

To close out, here's a scenario seed:

Dead Drop

A North Korean source claims to have what Edom would describe as a Special Biological Asset - a vampire. The source wants to smuggle it out of North Korea, allegedly because the powers that be want to use it as part of a North Korean eternal life program and the source fears what might happen if Kim Jong-un lives forever. Terms include a fat payoff for the source, to be routed via casinos in the Philippines. A fixer in Macao is arranging the deal, negotiating with interested parties which include every known vampire program - so America's Find Forever, whatever's left of Germany's Unternehmen Braun, the Vatican's St Lazarus - only China's Room 452 isn't on the bidder list. That may or may not be a warning signal that something dodgy's going on, given North Korea's historic ties to China.

The deal is, pay through the nose via the casino and the buyer collects the asset at the floating Hotel Haegumgang. How the buyer gets to the hotel and retrieves the asset is entirely up to the buyer. The seller only promises to deliver the asset, as securely bound up as possible. This offer's only open for a  limited time - buy now, beat the rush.

Verifying the vendor's bona fides is a chancy proposition. The only contact is the Macau fixer, Wan Kuok-koi, aka Broken Tooth, a notorious gangster affiliated with the 14K Triad. Recently released from jail and enjoying millions earned from a cryptocurrency scheme, Broken Tooth isn't the sort to cave under intimidation tactics and he knows how to keep his mouth shut. However someone able to do him political favors or wipe out a few outstanding warrants for friends of his will get him to talk. The vendor is an elder statesman, ally to Kim Jong's father and now out in the cold, politically speaking. 

The asset will be in one of the hotel's most expensive suites, in five day's time. Either the agents represent the buyers, or they represent a disappointed bidder who wants to snatch the asset before the buyer takes possession. All they have to do is sneak into North Korea, take possession, and get out without being arrested and thrown into a North Korean re-education camp. Assuming the vendor's trustworthy. Assuming the asset's as securely bound as the vendor says it is. Assuming this isn't all some double-bluff on someone's part to capture a foreign vampire hunter and use that person's knowledge to kick-start North Korea's vampire program.

Easy peasy lemon squeezy ...

Sunday, 24 May 2020

The Harker Intrusion & the Van Helsing Letter (Dracula Dossier)

I've been asked to talk about weaving (S)entries, the Harker Intrusion and the Van Helsing Letter into an introduction to the gory chocolate box that is the Dracula Dossier. I've already talked about (S)entries and where I would put it in the list. Today's the day the Harker Intrusion and the Van Helsing Letter get their time in the limelight.

As always I will try to avoid spoilers, but if you want to be completely unspoilt then stop reading now.

I should begin by saying that the Harker Intrusion appears in several different formats. It was a free RPG pdf download that was later incorporated into the Edom Files, and I believe it also features in a KWAS Collection. I'm unaware of any significant difference between the publications, but if there are any then you should know I'm relying on the version in the Edom Files for this discussion. To my knowledge the Van Helsing Letter only exists as a Free RPG day scenario.

Like (S)entries the Harker Intrusion demonstrates the core concepts of the game. However, unlike (S)entries, the Harker Intrusion isn't concerned with game mechanics. This one's all about mood. There's a potential Thrilling Chase early on, but this one's much more about chills than thrills.

The ultimate objective of the Harker Intrusion is to hand the players a McGuffin which can be used in later scenarios. There are some creepshow moments before that point, in several different geographic locations, and the climactic scenes take place in the heart of London. One optional moment puts the agents face-to-face with a significant threat, but it is very much optional; if the agents don't want to run the risk, they don't have to.

Whereas in the Van Helsing Letter the objective is to pit the agents in direct conflict with the Conspiracy. There is a significant threat, and it is not an optional encounter. An even mix of thrills and chills with this one, with the added bonus of an artefact which can be used in future scenarios - though there's no guarantee the agents will find it.

If I were using these three scenarios in combination then a great deal depends on whether they're playing as Edom, or whether they're playing against Edom.

In either case, (S)entries goes first. That's just good sense. Then I would use the (S)entries option whereby the NPC with the laptop is already in contact with Harker, who's the driving force in the Harker Intrusion. Harker's been gathering intel from several different sources and employing others to root out intel. The (S)entries NPC is just one of Harker's many sources. Perhaps Harker was trying to sell that NPC the Dossier, or some of the information that book contains. Perhaps Harker was after something else, but whatever it might have been there is enough information on that laptop to put the agents in contact with Harker.

Perhaps the agents contact Harker, or, if they do not, Harker contacts them. To get the laptop back, to find out who the agents are, it doesn't really matter; whichever way this goes, Harker and the agents are in contact by the end of (S)entries. If the agents are Edom, then this can be an elaborate double-bluff, since Harker is very definitely against Edom and all its works.

The question then becomes where to place the Harker Intrusion? The answer, as I've delicately hinted, depends on whether your agents are Edom or are against Edom.

If they are Edom, then Harker comes last. If against Edom, then Harker can be last, but fits in just as well in the second slot.

If they are Edom, then their role is either to protect the Dossier at all costs or to use it against the Conspiracy. That book is Edom's beating heart. This makes any scenario in which the Dossier plays a major role the natural capstone for the opening chapter. By obtaining that McGuffin they're doing their job, and incidentally opening themselves up to a larger, more complicated world.

The only real switcheroo is whether or not the OPFOR in Harker is Edom. That ultimately depends on how the Director intends to portray Edom. Perhaps the agency is corrupt, either suborned by Dracula or too committed to its own debased ends to care how it gets the job done. In that event Edom using lethal force against its own is par for the course.

Alternatively the OPFOR could be a different organization entirely. It might be the Conspiracy, or it might be one of the other intelligence agencies making a play for the ultimate prize. The logical choice, if using the Van Helsing Letter, is the German Vampire Program, Unternehmen Braun. However it could be any of the other contestants for the prize: the Vatican, China's Room 452, the US' Find Forever program - whoever you fancy, though it might be especially delicious if it was Find Forever since that pits UK vs US, and in any battle between those contestants the US will have the best toys and cash to burn. Added to that, if the agents upset the Americans then their own people will be very upset with the agents. Tea with the Queen is cancelled, that sort of thing.

Which brings me to Van Helsing, which in many ways is a much simpler introductory scenario. No globe-trotting, lots of chances for fisticuffs, big gribbly bad boy, spooky setting. Plus a genuine artifact from the Good Old Days, left behind by one of the major players in the first operation.

If the agents are Edom then there are good reasons to make this the second scenario in the trilogy. The best being that it shows them what might happen if Dracula's left to his own devices. It raises the stakes; Dracula isn't just some sleepy bloodsucker content to hang out in his castle, he's a mover and a shaker intent on nefarious goals. He has access to sophisticated equipment, minions, and big gribblies. Dracula's an active threat. This fits in best with Stakes games, but works just as well with the other variations on the formula.

The only change I might make depends on who the OPFOR is in Harker. If the idea is to make the OPFOR Find Forever, for example, then I would make it clear that Find Forever is linked somehow to Germany's Unternehmen Braun, since Germany's vampire program plays a big part in Van Helsing. Perhaps this dates back to the Cold War days, or even immediately post-war, when the US was snatching every ex-Nazi asset it could get its hands on. The same applies to all the other potential OPFORs, just with different variations on the theme. That provides a clear link between this scenario and Harker.

If Harker is still in play at this stage - which might not be so, if the Harker Intrusion was the middle scenario - then Harker introduces the agents to the NPC who kicks off the Van Helsing scenario. However Harker plays no other significant role; this isn't Harker's story to tell.

The objective of all three scenarios taken together is:

  1. Introduce the players to all the major rules mechanics. (S)entries goes first, for that reason.
  2. Introduce the agents to the major driving forces in the game world. Van Helsing works well as second scenario for this reason, but it could as easily be Harker.
  3. Provide the agents with a dramatic capstone for the opening chapter while at the same time leaving dangling plot hooks for future scenarios. If the agents are Edom then Harker is the obvious capstone, but Van Helsing can be just as useful as it introduces the agents to the Conspiracy, with all the dangling plot hooks that implies.
Now, I've talked enough on this topic. Next time, something different!  

Sunday, 17 May 2020

(S)entries & the Dracula Dossier (Night's Black Agents)

I've been asked to talk about how I would use (S)entries, the Harker Intrusion and the Van Helsing Letter as an introduction to the glittering treasure box that is the Dracula Dossier. This week I'll be discussing (S)entries, the opening scenario published in the main rulebook. 

For those of you who don't want any spoilers whatsoever, stop reading now. I'm going to be as spoiler-light as I can, but any discussion must inevitably drift into spoiler territory.

The opening scenario of any game needs to do two things: demonstrate the core concept, and show off the game world. The core concept is the crunchy rules bit of the campaign. How do you do combat? How do you resolve tests, uncover clues, uncover the twisty turns of the plot and win the day? Is this grim and gritty, high stakes stuff? Le Carre, Bond or Bourne? Who are these characters and what is their relationship with the setting?

(S)entries is very good at this. By the time the agents have completed their task they will have had to engage with most of the core mechanics of the game. They will also have encountered an unusual adversary. Odds are one or more of them will be injured, but unless things have gone badly wrong nobody will have died. However there is the potential for things to go badly wrong. This isn't a cakewalk. Incautious agents will get reamed. 

They will also have encountered a  McGuffin, and may still be in possession of same by the end of the scenario. 

Yes I know, you've seen that one before. It bears repeating. Particularly if you're new to this, you need to know just how disposable McGuffins are. That means if the players drop the McGuffin there is always another McGuffin round the corner. If, at the end of (S)entires, the agents no longer have the McGuffin that shouldn't bring the plot to a premature conclusion.

In the Dracula Dossier, the McGuffin is the Dossier itself. A copy of Stoker's Dracula that theoretically contains vital information which, if used correctly, can stop Dracula in his tracks. Or not. Several generations of spies have used it, and come up short. It is protected by the strongest and most lethal defenses Edom has to offer. Or it's been hiding in a box for however long. Or someone stole it. Or someone lost it. 

'Someone lost it' is more common than you might think, in spy circles. Magician John Mulholland's Manual of Trickery, written to help the CIA, went missing for decades after MKUltra went blooey. It finally turned up in someone's desk drawer in the early 2000s. Peter Wright in Spycatcher mentions in passing clearing out his office safe, full of all kinds of oddments he'd squirrelled away over a lifetime of espionage. Files get taken out of archive and not put back. Things get taken out of the office even when every available protocol says they shouldn't leave the archivist's store. It's said it's better to seek forgiveness than ask permission - some people seem to spend their entire careers asking for forgiveness.

In this instance I would play it that the McGuffin found in (S)entries is a much smaller version of the Dossier. A few pages at most, obtained at great expense and effort. When I did this in my game I had the scanned pages on the hard drive of the laptop that the agents have to snatch, and played it that the NPC the laptop belongs to was negotiating with the Dossier's holder for full access. The scanned pages were to establish the holder's bona fides.

The physical book is part of the Dracula Dossier set. However there's nothing to say that you, as Director, can't buy a copy of Dracula and use it in your game. In fact if you're feeling particularly crafty you can get a completely unrelated book and switch out the cover for the first edition. People assume that first editions must be spectacular, high-end items with lavish production values. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Theoretically the actual first edition ought to be a fairly battered artefact. Even if its owner kept it as pristine as possible, when first released Dracula wasn't what you'd call highbrow literature. Nobody was releasing high-end limited editions. This is practically Mills and Boon mass-produced commercial tat. Yellow cloth cover with red lettering, and eight pages of publisher's advertisements at the end. The 1927 Doubleday edition is prettier. The 1931 dustjacket is more evocative. The annotated version is more informative. None of that matters. People don't buy first editions to read them. First editions are all about bragging rights. 

In short: make your own Dossier. A little bit of Photoshop, and you're golden. Whatever it is, it's just as viable as any other version of the McGuffin. It can lose pages. It can be valuable, or at least desirable to a collector. Buy a cheap one second-hand and let the players keep it. Splatter it with blood or write on the pages with glow-in-the-dark ink. Treat it as disposable, because it very much is. 

For reference, this is the back cover of an Agatha Christie White Circle Pocket paperback circa 1930-something. The inside cover has an advert for something called Pelmanism. The back page just says I WANT CADBURYS. This is the very definition of cheap disposable tat. I picked this up when I was last in London for three quid and a bit, as the condition isn't collector's standard. Haunt your second-hand shop and you too can come away with gold. 

If I were using (S)entries as an introduction to the Dossier I wouldn't touch the scenario at all. I would leave it exactly as it is, but I would make sure that the McGuffin in the scenario either includes information that leads to the Dossier, or information about whoever has the Dossier. 

I would also make this the very first scenario of the series. In part because it does everything you want a first scenario to do, and also because there's a decent chance the characters will end up with the McGuffin at the end which in turn can include information that leads to other scenarios.

The Director-controlled character who possesses the McGuffin at the start of the scenario is fairly undefined. He has a name and a plot function, but there's nothing in the scenario to indicate why he's interested in the McGuffin. He may not even realize the importance of what he has. The only change I would make to the scenario is to tie that character more firmly to the ongoing plot as a whole. There are several ways to do this:

  • The NPC is an agent working for X (Edom? The Conspiracy? Someone else?). In the course of the scenario the characters find out a little about X, and X's ongoing plot function.
  • The NPC is a Legacy.
  • The NPC is part of an independent group dedicated to finding the Dossier.
  • The NPC is a Stoker enthusiast whose search for a first edition has uncovered some very odd facts.
In each of these instances it may or may not be useful if the NPC is a recurring character. Alternatively the NPC's mysterious disappearance or death shortly after the events of the scenario gives the characters the first indication of the seriousness of their long-term situation.

There is one other optional change the Director could make: change the location of the NATO base. 

The opening scenes take place in Bosnia, where the agents have to infiltrate a NATO base. However if you're playing the Dracula Dossier then some of the action - possibly a lot of it - will be taking place in Romania. As Director you're going to want to introduce the agents to the setting as early as possible. As luck would have it, there's a perfectly serviceable NATO base in Deveselu, Romania. It used to be a Romanian Air Force Base before it was shut down in 2003. Technically you may want to play with dates a little bit as NATO doesn't move in until 2016, and the usual modern day start date is 2014. That said, there's no law that says your game has to start in 2014, and if you wanted to move the occupation date for Deveselu forward a couple years nobody's going to cry foul. Plus an air base that's been mothballed for more than ten years in a relatively rural part of Romania sounds like the perfect setting for supernatural shenanegans.  

Understand, I'm not saying put Dracula's Castle in sunny downtown Deveselu. I'm saying lay a little groundwork for what's to come. Perhaps Edom's cup insignia on some old monument, or a fleeting glimpse of a Node like Heal the Children. If a Director-controlled character like the Psychic is going to be important later, have the Psychic appear on local television. Just drop hints, with perhaps a bit of folklore attached, so when the agents come back to Romania later it can be more along the lines of 'I remember this from last time - and it was just as creepy then, too.'

In a previous post, Messing with the Protagonists, I give an example of what can be done with the McGuffin itself. I let the players obtain information, but it came with a sting in the tail: viruses, which infected their own hardware. As Director you should consider doing something similar with your McGuffin. After all, once the players have it everyone else wants it, and that means the players will constantly need to defend their prize. The whole point behind a McGuffin is that everyone wants it. If the characters aren't threatened 24/7 as long as they have it, why, it's not a McGuffin.  

Anyway, that should give you enough to be going on with. Next time, a discussion of another scenario that can be used as a lead-in to the Dossier.


Sunday, 10 May 2020

Ten Horror Films You Must See

I just watched one of those top ten videos. You know the kind; you've probably seen far too many of them. I know I have. It got me thinking. I don't really have a top ten and I don't want one. There are far too many films out there for me to winnow down a list to just ten. Still, in these happy-go-lucky times when watching film is a solid go-to for folks who have to stay indoors, which ten horror films would I recommend to any horror fan?

Vampyr, 1932, Carl Theodor Dreyer. Semi-silent.

The silent film era birthed some of horror's finest talents. Directors and writers were finding their feet in a new medium, and an entirely new craft was invented: cameraman. Sometimes the results were less than satisfactory, but that didn't matter because you could put together a solid film with next to nothing in the bank. Many did.

One of the silent era's significant advantages was any film could be shown anywhere. Without language getting in the way, the audience could concentrate on what was happening on-screen. Sound broke that market, ushering in a new era where films had to stay in their home market to find any kind of success at all.

Dreyer, a Dane, was an orphan and had an unhappy childhood. He first worked as a journalist but switched to writing title cards for film, eventually graduating to film direction. Vampyr was very nearly his last feature, as it was a commercial failure and he was unable to find work for almost a decade afterward.

Vampyr is just at the cusp of silent and sound. Perhaps because of this Dreyer intentionally included as little dialogue as possible. Basing his plot on two Sheridan Le Fanu chillers, Carmilla and The Room in the Dragon Volant which features live burial, he cobbled together a serviceable plot about a young traveler who finds himself caught in a spectral drama. The plot's good but not great; what makes this film sing is its dreamlike imagery. The dancing shadows, the burial in the glass-fronted coffin, the corn mill - those stick with you years after watching Vampyr.

Cat People, 1942, Jacques Tourneur.

Produced by Val Lewton for RKO's low budget horror studio, this gives the horror world one unique artefact which I know you're familiar with: the jump scare. Or, as it's known then, the Lewton Bus, as the first known example involves a bus.

Young Serb immigrant to the US Irena Dubrovna fears the dark, because she thinks she knows what lives in the dark. The people she comes from tell stories about witches who can turn into savage beasts, a gift given them by Satan. Though good King John punished them for their many bloody crimes, a few survived and thrived in unhappy places up in the mountains. Irena's terrified their wickedness lives in her, and is careful never to become too exited, too passionate, in case their curse overwhelms her. Even so her American friend Oliver persuades her to marry him, only to bring doom on them both. She refuses to make love, terrified that passion will awake the beast. So he, in his misery and frustration, turns to his friend and work colleague Alice for a shoulder to cry on. Jealousy provokes Irena, and before long her passions get the better of her.

This, and Lewton's other films, show what can be done with imaginative camera work, clever editing, and above all a good story. If for no other reason than to see the very first jump scare, you should see this film.

Night of the Living Dead, 1968, George Romero.

Romero and his buddies, most of whom worked making cheapo commercials, became frustrated watching fourth and fifth rate horror flicks. Anyone could do better. Hell, they could do better. All they needed was a bunch of young people, plenty of blood and guts, and some nudity. That was what the kids in the drive-in wanted to see.

So that's what they set out to do, on a next-to-nothing budget. Movie legend says it was $12,000, though it ended up being more than that. About $60-70K in cash, plus extra in credit and equipment, or a little over $100K total. The main camera was second-hand, and the costumes came from Goodwill. The house was borrowed and due to be demolished, so they could do whatever they liked. For actors, they turned to friends and neighbors. Those friends and neighbors soon became investors - after all, the film's cash had to come from somewhere. Every single person you see on screen, zombies or otherwise, had at least a couple bucks invested. It was a hectic shoot, and nobody had only one job. You weren't just the woman who did make-up, you were the ghoul who ate the live bug and worked on sound too. They were young, inexperienced and ready for anything - and it shows.

John Russo, one of Romero's partners, is the zombie you see set on fire about halfway through the film as well as another zombie seen stabbed through the head by hero Ben. The fire story is one of my favorite bits of film trivia. Like pretty much every other special effects sequence the production team had very little idea how to do it. These days the sequence would be carefully plotted out for maximum safety. In Night of the Living Dead, they dressed Russo in several layers of baggy clothing and threw a Molotov cocktail near him. "I was trying to hit a stone out there," recalls Hardman. "Sometimes I hit it, and sometimes …I just can't believe, to this day, that I thought I could hit a stone that was really, what, twenty-four inches across, from the second floor window, over the porch roof." Some strategically pooled gasoline and a match would then set Russo on fire. It was Russo's plan. He felt it was unreasonable, as written, for Harry to throw all those Molotovs and not set a single zombie ablaze.

The idea was Russo'd catch fire and run off-shot, where he'd be extinguished. "I just went until I felt my hair burning." The look on people's faces as he ran past them, "this worried look mixed with glee," he remembered later, stuck with him the rest of his life.

Night of the Living Dead is my go-to example of how budget doesn't matter, experience doesn't matter, when making a movie. The only thing that counts is a willingness to get out there and shoot the film, no matter what.

Onibaba 1964, Kaneto Shindo. 

Japan is wracked by civil war, and the country is falling apart. Two women, a mother and daughter-in-law whose husband has gone off to war, fend off starvation by killing straggler soldiers and selling their equipment to a middleman. Then one of their neighbors returns from the battlefield with stories to tell, and he settles in nearby. The son isn't coming home, he says. He was executed for stealing food.

The lonely young widow sneaks out to see the young man every chance she gets, much to the displeasure of her mother-in-law who blames him for her son's death. She concocts a plan: with the help of a hideous mask she stole from a samurai's corpse, she pretends to be a demon spirit to keep the daughter-in-law at home through fear.

Thus begins the reign of Onibaba: the Hag Woman.

This is how you do a lot with a little. There's practically no set. Everything takes place out in the rushes next to a river, and in two rough huts. The only complicated bit was the hole in which the women disposed of the corpses, and into which the mother-in-law has to crawl in order to steal the mask from the samurai's body. It was impossible to dig any kind of hole where they were, as it immediately filled in with water. So they built a 'hole' above ground in a kind of tower supported by scaffolding, in order to get the shot.

Yet those night sequences, particularly once Onibaba shows her masked face, will stick with you forever. I don't want to spoil, but I will say that the ending sequence in particular … brrrr. Chills.

Dead of Night 1945, various directors. Black and white.

An architect, Walter Craig, is asked to visit a house in the country to advise on alterations. When he gets there he discovers he's seen the place before, in a recurring nightmare. What's more all the people in the house are the people in his dream, except he can't remember exactly how it ends. He knows it ends badly ...

This is an anthology movie, one of the earliest - possibly the first. Each person in the house tries to reassure Craig by telling him their own stories: the young kid with a bad experience at a house party, the racing driver who had a nasty dream after a car crash, the young bride who got a very dangerous wedding present, the psychiatrist who once had a patient whose delusions might not have been delusions. Each story is a short sequence, perhaps ten minutes long. Some of the stories are almost pleasant. You may recognize one or two, as they're based on famous short fiction.

Then comes the end, when Walter Craig finds out what happens after the lights go out.

I couldn't find a version of the trailer that didn't give away significant plot points so if you want to see this unspoilt, don't search YouTube.

This is an Ealing Studio movie, and while Ealing is best known for its comedies it could produce serious dramas when it wanted to. This is a rare example of Ealing's chiller side, and it works very well. It's hokey and creaky at the start, and then it begins to tighten the screws. By the final moments like Walter Craig the audience is hopelessly ensnared. What happens when the lights go out? What happens when the lights go out?

R-Point, 2004, Kong Su-Chang.

In 1972 South Korean High Command in Vietnam is worried about a series of radio messages received from a platoon that High Command thinks is long dead. They say they're lost at Romeo-Point and beg for extraction. Is this some sort of hoax? An enemy broadcast? Can anyone really be alive out there?

Heroic Lieutenant Choi and a group of cooks and ne'er-do-wells is sent to find out. It's a kind of Lost Patrol of the malingering and useless. Nobody expects them to find anything, and God forbid actual effort's expended to find soldiers lost out in the jungle. Except they do find those missing soldiers, and much more besides, out at the old colonial plantation house at the heart of R-Point.

It's got all the war movie goodness you'd expect and in many ways it's not much more than solid B-class filmmaking. But. But. It does the right thing. It lets the atmosphere carry the film, not the special effects or gung-ho guns blasting heroics. That means the creeps start in your mind, and once your mind is caught everything else follows.

Apologies for the non-subtitled trailer, but while there are subtitled trailers none of them are HD, so I went for pretty over convenient.

Ju-On 2002, Takashi Shimizu.

OK, either this or the Ring was going to be on the list. I went for the Grudge because of the two it was the first one I saw, and stuck with me the longest. It's loosely based on a short by Lafcadio Hearn, who you may remember me mentioning before.

This is actually the third in the series, but the first to see a theatrical release. The shot above is one of the earliest in the film, where social worker Rika Nishina goes to a house to check on an invalid. The invalid's an elderly woman who's supposed to be in her son's care. Rika discovers the old woman abandoned, the son nowhere to be seen. But the house isn't empty ...

The core concept is that, in folklore, a person who dies while consumed in a fit of rage comes back as an angry ghost. In the original story that spirit is obsessed with completing a task, and will never stop until the task is complete. In Ju-On the ghosts just come back angry, not obsessed - but whoever they encounter is infected by their curse, and whoever those people encounter also become infected. It operates on zombie movie mechanics, where first bit spreads the contagion until everyone's bit.

Kudos to Rika for carrying on, by the way. Was it me, no amount of dedication to the job would have had me set foot in that house.

Atmosphere does a lot of the work here. It helps that this is very much a house-next-door story. Many spooky house dramas take place in cobwebbed mansions. This is a perfectly ordinary suburban house. What could possibly happen there?

Well ...

Seoul Station 2017, Yeon Sang-Ho.

A precursor to the better-known Train to Busan, this zombie story focuses on events the night before Busan. Things are just starting to kick off, and one man's tragedy soon turns into citywide chaos and devestation.

OK, so far so zombie but what makes this work is not the animation nor the gore - though there's plenty of gore. It works because Yeon Sang-Ho has the sense to focus on three characters: a runaway daughter turned prostitute, her wannabe-pimp boyfriend, and her raging father. Those three carry the film. It's never just about zombies. The boyfriend and father comb a city on the verge of collapse trying to save the daughter, and it's their struggle above all else that really makes this work.

In that sense it's a spiritual successor to Night of the Living Dead, which also had the sense to focus on the characters and not the action surrounding the characters. Sure there was plenty of gore in Night - those zombies were chomping down on actual guts sourced from a slaughterhouse, after all. That wasn't what the audience was interested in. The audience desperately wants to know who will live and who will die, and that's because the audience quickly becomes invested in the characters.

The same is true in Seoul Station. Right up to those last few terrifying minutes, you want to know what will happen next to those three lost souls.

Hardware, 1990, Richard Stanley.

I was in two minds whether to put this or Stanley's Dust Devil on the list. They're both excellent, atmospheric films but I've seen Hardware more often and keep wanting to see Hardware more often, so I suppose this is the better pick.

If you know Stanley it's probably because of his recent Lovecraftian release, The Color Out of Space. This is Stanley at the start of his career. Up till now he's been shooting music videos for the likes of Field of the Nephilim. He's just this minute come back from Afghanistan, where he shot a documentary about the Soviet-Afghan War and the USSR's withdrawal from that bloody conflict. He goes from the battlefield straight into Hardware, and you can see the influence it had on his story. Chunks of the shoot feel like goth rock tracks too.

Yet where this works is in the visuals. Like R-Point there's a lot of solid B-picture filmmaking on display, and the SFX are about as ropey as you'd expect from a cheapo Miramax product of the '90s. Like Night of the Living Dead Stanley opts for violence, blood and nudity as those sell. However the visuals are what really makes it sing, just as they do for Vampyr.

For a very long time controversy prevented this getting a DVD release, but it finally became available in 2009. It can be difficult to find, but if you do get a copy, settle in for a midnight showing with a six-pack to hand. You won't regret it.

That's it from me! Next week, something completely different.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

XCOM: Chimera Squad (Not Quite Review Corner)

This is a fun one!

In the world of XCOM, an alien invasion in 2016 subjugated Earth under the rule of the Elders and their many unusual minions. However the secretive military counter-insurgency XCOM rallied, the Elders were defeated, and now everyone gets to live happily ever after.


The problem is there are millions of non-humans, human hybrids, clones and other remnants of the bad old days kicking around. Mass slaughter is off the table. Everyone has to learn to live together and forget the past. In the riot-torn starport of City 31, precise geographic location unspecified, that means someone has to keep the peace.

That someone is Chimera Squad. That someone is you.

Chimera Squad is a group of hero-level characters, some human, others not. They all have their unique abilities, personalities, and quirks. Axiom the Muton likes to eat what he catches, and loses his temper very easily. Blueblood the ex-cop has personal ties to City 31. Torque the Viper just wants a chance to tear loose and chew on Canadian bacon. None of it is in-depth; you learn about as much about these characters as you do the bulls of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct or any police procedural.

The characterization's strong, voice acting's good and the game isn't so hung up on its cinematics as to require full motion capture of every least facial twitch. There are radio bits and other snippets to keep you engaged with the city, and while City 31 doesn't have the same gravitas a city of its size in the real world would, it does feel solid and engaging.

Chimera Squad's special ops cops face off against former soldiers of the occupation, weapons smugglers and psychic psychotics, trying to keep a lid on the city's roiling pot of trouble. If things get too hot, the city will collapse and your mission will end.

Mechanically this is the same small scale squad tactical game you enjoyed when it was called XCOM 2. The maps aren't as huge, but you face the same strategic challenges: hide here, go there, run to higher ground for a better shot? Flank, and risk being flanked? Play it safe but miss out on an opportunity? These are the questions you'll have to answer on the battlefield, but be warned: the enemy's intelligent and very dangerous. Get it wrong, and you're cooked.

The big difference is in this game there is no permadeath. If a cop falls, they have to be rescued before they Bleed Out. Otherwise the game ends there; Chimera Squad can't afford to lose a single operative.

At least, that's the obvious big difference. Having played, I now know that the bigger difference by far is how the game treats its special use items.

In previous iterations when you gave your troopers a grenade, a medkit or a similar one-shot item, you knew that to use that item you needed to spend one of your trooper's action points. Each trooper only had two, so it became part of the game's economy. The opportunity cost of using an item meant you didn't have that action point to shoot or move.

That's gone. Using an item costs nothing. It's grenade Christmas, and you are Santa Boom-Boom. Spray medkits everywhere, charge up your troopers with whatever hot alien tech you bought at the Scavenger's Market. You can still move and shoot after flinging your kit around like a frenzied monkey. Throw a bubble grenade to tie down the trooper who otherwise would flank you, move up, and beat his buddy senseless with the butt of your shotgun.

That's the other big battlefield change: you can bring them in alive. I started using the Subdue maneuver early on because it suited my concept of how cops should behave: take them alive whenever possible. Sure, you get Intelligence rewards from the interrogation, but that wasn't why I did it. I figure, I'm playing a cop. Cops arrest people.

Then I noticed something. Subdue never fails. If you can get to the target you have a 100% chance to hit, which in RNG-happy XCOM is the Golden Snitch. Subdue doesn't use ammunition. Subdue can do as much as 5 points of damage under the right circumstances. Some characters like Cherub and Zephyr can do much more than that. Zephyr can crush multiple targets in one action, and Cherub can hit several targets with his shield bash wave. So given the option between taking a shot that might miss and uses ammunition, or Subdue, which never fails and costs nothing, I often pick Subdue. Perps vanish under a wall of beefy cop flesh, while off in the back Torque reads the Miranda warning - or whatever passes for Miranda in City 31.

Which is the game in a nutshell. Chimera Squad seems simple enough, but there's a lot going on under the hood. It allows you to play several different ways, but understanding all the systems feels like juggling frogs. I lost my first Ironman game to Anarchy after creaming the first two opposing factions, because I didn't understand all the ways I could crush Anarchy and keep the city moving. I didn't put Verge first in the Breach because I didn't understand how his Levitation ability helps me. I didn't appreciate Scars until I noticed my guys missing shots and moving slowly because they were covered in Scars.

You'll find yourself falling in love with one character, like Terminal, swearing you can't go out without her. Then you'll see how Zephyr's martial arts are game-winners, or how Cherub's shield block can save a tricky breach. There's enough variety in your heroes that you will want to see how they all perform, and find new ways to use their abilities. There's no reason to pick one squad and stick with that one squad forever and ever Amen.

As a game it's remarkably forgiving, technically as well as mechanically. My NUC's processor is underpowered for this and occasionally smells bunt toast, immediately crashing out. It often coincides with a lot of on-screen activity, like enemy reinforcements arriving on-scene. This is infrequent; it happens maybe once in a four hour session, and sometimes doesn't happen at all. Given my machine's not up to the game's spec, I'm pleased I get this level of functionality. There are one or two graphical glitches, but nothing to write home about. Frankly, I've seen top-end AAA titles with worse graphical issues.

So of course I'm recommending it, particularly in these times of wonder where staying in all day is the new normal. If you're not already mainlining Animal Crossing because you like noodling around with raccoon bankers, then now's the time to save the city with your band of misfit 5-0.