Last Year in Fear: Our Top Picks for Horror Media in 2015

Even without the stellar horror releases that littered the media landscape, 2015 was a pretty terrifying year in of itself. France suffered the Paris Attacks; the US was subject to nearly 300 mass shootings; and large parts of England appear to currently be underwater. The outlook for the planet isn’t great and, since North Korea apparently decided to ring in the New Year by setting off a nuclear bomb, the fate of the world is hanging by an ever thinner thread. So why, in light of all these real dangers, should you be excited about media that was designed to scare us? Because it gives us an outlet, a way to release all of that pent up fear in one hour-long frenzy of pillow-hugging, squealing, and violent popcorn throwing. So, as 2016 gets underway, take the time to indulge in a few of last year’s horror titles and feel the terror slip away. Let’s just call it Shock Therapy.

Film

Although a lot of critics would disagree with me, I personally thought that 2015 was a strong year for horror in film. On the one hand, you had the numerous tacky sequels, reboots, and remakes like Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (yes, I really hate Paranormal Activity, thanks for noticing), Poltergeist, and Sinister 2. But, on the other hand, we were treated to some top quality horror titles reminiscent of 2014’s The Babadook and Oculus. Without further ado, here are my top film picks for 2015:

  1. It’s Behind You – It Follows

8385_poster_iphoneIt Follows was one of the most intelligent and impressive horror films that I’ve seen in decades. It combined an original story-line with a winning cast, stunning cinematography, and a soundtrack so provocative that I still get shivers down my spine when I listen to it. That being said, it tends to be one of those films that divides opinion. Some people, myself included, were willing to accept the film’s slow-pace and ambiguous ending because the journey was ultimately more important than the destination, while others were disappointed at the lack of closure and what they perceived as lazy “filler” scenes. For that reason alone, it’s definitely worth watching since, whether you like it or not, it’s sure to create a debate. For a broad perspective (and some spoilers!), we recommend reading Slash Film’s review, which you can find here, and Variety’s review, which you can find here. Alternatively you can read our review (with no spoilers) here.

  1. Who Needs the Summer of Love – Spring

9af64d532c3cdfe6304e627e2d210dfeSpring is a romantic sci-fi horror which, if anything, makes it reasonably unique in the horror community. Like It Follows, Spring tackles an unusual story-line and its success in doing so, or lack thereof, has similarly divided public opinion. The score is beautifully simplistic, the cinematography is undeniably opulent and visually nourishing, the acting is superb, but the strangeness of the story and the use of that age-old, hackneyed “scientific” explanation has disappointed many viewers. As such, it makes for another fantastic watch since it’s sure to stimulate your brain cells and leave you wanting more. We recommend reading The Missing Reel’s review here, or alternatively check out our review here.

  1. You Better Watch Out, You Better Not Cry – Krampus

krampus-2015-horror-movie-posterKrampus is one of those films that puts a smile on my face every time I think of it. And that’s a relative miracle, considering I despise comedy horrors. My major bone of contention with this subgenre is that they’re often just comedies. If you can just bung a few scary moments or horror tropes into an otherwise non-scary film and call it a “comedy horror” or a “fantasy horror” or (dare I say it) a “Disney horror”, then Scary Movie, A Nightmare Before Christmas, and Pan’s Labyrinth would all be considered horror movies. Where Krampus ultimately succeeds as an actual comedy horror is that the horror and comedy elements are perfectly balanced. The film is funny and scary in equal measure, leading to several moments where my brain became desperately confused as to whether I should laugh or cry (or wet my pants). Like Gremlins and Poltergeist, it’s the perfect gateway horror film for the younger generation and one that people of all ages are sure to enjoy. We recommend watching Red Letter Media’s video review here, or you can check out our written review here.

Honourable Mentions – Goodnight Mommy and Bone Tomahawk, both of which I have yet to watch but have been phenomenally well-reviewed.

Television

Unlike the horror film scene, which has gone from strength to strength, it seems that horror television has really let the side down. There were very few fresh or new series’, leaving us only with stale continuations of franchises that are doomed to (hopefully) burn out in the near future. Don’t get me wrong, I love American Horror Story and The Walking Dead as much as the next person, but sometimes it really does feel like they’re flogging an undead horse. I’ve caught myself yawning my way through whole episodes or, in one instance, falling asleep in an almost upright position. At this stage, if I fall and crack my head open while watching, I’m going to consider suing these guys for “risk of criminal boredom”.

  1. Let’s Get Groovy – Ash vs Evil Dead: Season 1

ash-vs-evil-dead-posterIn amongst horror television behemoths like TWD and AHS, Ash vs Evil Dead stood its ground as one of the most anticipated horror series to grace our television screens. The show sees the return of notorious horror hero Ash, played by the ever enigmatic Bruce Campbell, as he forgoes a much deserved retirement and returns to his one true passion: fighting off evil Deadites. As a comedy horror, the show mixes fun and fear in equal measure, with enough hilariously over-the-top gore to give any of the Evil Dead films a run for their money. What started off as an unexpectedly popular and incredibly low budget festival film has spawned into one of horror’s greatest legacies; and this latest edition proves to be one of the best yet. We strongly recommend you read The Missing Reel’s reviews, as they’ve been following the series episode by episode. You can find their summary review here.

  1. You Can Count on the Countess – American Horror Story: Hotel

8d2a54303c3a74432a9b91af4b1b142fAfter the crushing disappointment of Freak Show and the looming threat of Wes Bentley’s soul-suckingly dull return, my hopes for Hotel and for American Horror Story in general were all but dashed. In many ways, my misgivings were well-founded. Wes Bentley did in fact prove to be one of the worst leading men that the series has ever championed and, like Freak Show, it seemed that the season would largely depend on a sequence of unconnected, exploitative scenes that were designed to shock rather than create a coherent and interesting story-line. That being said, thanks to the superlative acting of Denis O’Hare, Evan Peters, and Kathy Bates, coupled with the intriguing character of the Countess (Lady Gaga) and the eventual development of a solid and stimulating storyline, the season seems to have turned its luck around. It’s certainly not one of their best, but it’s probably not their worst. Probably. We recommend you read Nouse’s episode by episode reviews here, but be forewarned that they are full of spoilers.

  1. A Netflix Unoriginal – Scream: Season 1

tumblr_ngjisf4r8v1u4whbwo1_500Let me be candid here, just because Scream has made it onto my top 3 list does by no means indicate that the series is good or that I liked it. It was simply the lesser of several evils. Scream is one of my all-time favourite movie franchises, and the thought of watching an abortive televised attempt to bleed it dry troubled me deeply. Particularly since beloved horror director Wes Craven tragically died last year, leaving behind an illustrious legacy that could be deeply marred by such an unnecessary reboot. Yet marred it was not. To me, this Netflix original series (which was actually and unsurprisingly produced by MTV) was kind of like a well-choreographed train wreck; it was awful, but I somehow felt compelled to keep watching. In fact, I watched the entire first season in less than two days. It essentially copies several major story elements from the original films, but the key to its success is that it never takes itself too seriously. It makes no claim to be as good as its predecessors; it’s just grade-A TV schlock for teenagers. And, as such, it’s ultimately entertaining, so long as you take it with a pinch of salt. We recommend you read Bloody Disgusting’s incredibly well-balanced episode reviews here, which are chock full of delicious spoilers.

Honourable Mentions – The Walking Dead: Season 6 and Penny Dreadful: Season 2

Video Gaming

2015 may not have been the most prolific year for horror gaming, but lack of quantity was definitely made up for by superb quality. Although the Top 3 games I’ve chosen for 2015 may have been some of the only ones to come out, they certainly made an impression on me and are worthy of any top list, regardless of their release dates.

  1. The Butterfly Effect – Until Dawn

ce3aa35b3dac605f3b543700356c89f8Although it only represented about 8 hours of solid gameplay, Until Dawn was one of the best horror games I’ve ever played. Within the first few weeks of owning it, I had already played it through three times, which goes to show just how little I value my free time. The key to the game’s brilliance is in its Butterfly Effect dynamic. The choices you make in-game will drastically affect the outcome of the story, so much so that certain characters will either live or die. What I loved about Until Dawn was that it inverts your expectations, toying with the behaviours that you will have learnt from other games. When a character dies, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve “failed”; just because the game is telling you to do something, doesn’t mean you should automatically do it; and sometimes exploring the whole area for clues and opening that cellar door simply because “it’s there” isn’t always a good idea. For an ultimately negative but still well-rounded view, we recommend reading Polygon’s review here. If you want something a little more positive, check out our review here.

  1. Let’s Get Digital – Soma

150922094246490097From the makers of the outstanding horror titles Penumbra and Amnesia comes Soma, a sci-fi survival horror about the ramifications of developing AI (Artificial Intelligence). It’s been far too long since we’ve seen a good sci-fi horror game and, in 2015, it seems horror fans were in for a real treat. And what a treat Soma was. As character Stephen Garrett, you find yourself trapped in a submerged research station known as PATHOS-II. The game’s underwater vibe is reminiscent of Bioshock, a game that didn’t exploit its horrific elements nearly as much as it could have done, and its futuristic facility setting evokes scenes from Dead Space. However, like the Amnesia series, the point of Soma is not to fight, but to hide. What follows is a subtle yet disturbing exploration into humanity, providing deep and probing layers of fear that go far beyond what you experience at face-value. We recommend you read Game Rant’s review here.

  1. It’s Like I Have ESPN or Something – The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

eathan-carterFor all of you citizens of the PC master race, I realise that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter technically came out in 2014, but for console plebs like myself it wasn’t playable until 2015. The game follows paranormal investigator Paul Prospero, who receives a worrisome fan-letter from 12-year-old Ethan Carter and is prompted to visit Ethan’s home in Red Creek Valley. The game’s graphics are stunning and the world that surrounds you evokes imagery of the New England countryside, making you feel as though you’ve just been dropped into a Stephen King novel. And the similarities to King’s work don’t end there. Like the fictional town of Derry, Red Creek Valley is a beautiful place with a dark secret. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter might not be the scariest horror game in the canon, but the intrigue it produces in the player is undeniable. As you become more wrapped up in the fate of Ethan, you feel yourself slowly disappearing down a rabbit-hole that may have no end. Playstation Lifestyle’s review, which you can find here, describes these elements in far more detail.

 

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Last Year in Fear: Our Top Picks for Horror Media in 2015

Float Like a Butterfly: A Review of Until Dawn

Release Date: August 25th 2015

Developer: Supermassive Games

Platform(s): PS4 exclusive

Playtime: Approximately 10 to 15 hours, but with great replay value

In the style of games like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls comes that slasher film you never wanted to be a part of (but secretly kind of did), Until Dawn. This interactive survival horror game follows eight hapless protagonists, who have made the trek to their friend’s mountain lodge for a weekend of sex, booze, and horrifying violence. The game utilises a Butterfly Effect dynamic, whereby all of the choices you make directly affect whether any given character lives or dies. These choices can be anything from slapping an angry wolf to backing a friend in an argument, so be wary. As the great, albeit completely fictional, Andrew Ryan of Bioshock once said: “We all make choices. But in the end, our choices make us”.

I have to say, I approached Until Dawn with not just a little trepidation. Although I absolutely loved Heavy Rain, it sometimes felt as though I was playing one long cut-scene rather than a fully formed video game. The experience was undoubtedly fulfilling, and the positive critical response the game garnered was well-deserved, but it inevitably felt like something was missing. I worried that Until Dawn would fall into the same trap, dooming the player to a series of QTEs (Quick Time Events) and a handful of choices that only marginally affected the outcome of the story. Having started my third playthrough of the game this week, I can happily say that I was horribly wrong.

In many ways, Until Dawn masterfully surpasses its predecessors. For one thing, the game involves you taking the helm far more often than you may like. It practically inundates you with choices, making it hard to tell which ones will affect the outcome and which ones won’t. What felt like major decisions in the game turned out to be inconsequential, while certain smaller choices led to pivotal events. Should I hide or should I run? What happens if I take that pair of scissors? Will anyone notice if I make out with this ice sculpture? In Until Dawn, the possibilities are as endless as they are endlessly horrifying.

Yet this alone isn’t enough to make the Butterfly Effect dynamic work. Sure it’s clever, and it made me think a lot about my actions, but I wouldn’t have cared quite so much about my choices if I’d been put in charge of, let’s say, the members of One Direction. While I’d happily watch Harry Styles be chased by a knife-wielding maniac, I came to care about several of the characters in Until Dawn that I was charged to protect. And this is where the game ultimately succeeds, not just as a survival horror game but as a video game in general. The eight main characters felt incredibly real and fleshed out, causing me to love some of them and abjectly hate others.

This meant that, regardless of how scary the game actually was, I felt terrified simply because I didn’t want my reckless decision-making to endanger the people I’d come to care about. It induced in me a sort of trembling paranoia that caused me to nearly snap my controller in half more than once. On top of this, the game is visually stunning and many of the scenes are incredibly well-realised, looking as though they’ve just been cropped from a big budget blockbuster. This, coupled with the effective use of music, combined to create an effectively oppressive atmosphere.

So, as with all survival horror video games, here’s the rub; is it scary? The game is like a bizarre amalgamation of every horror movie you’ve ever seen and ever horror game you’ve ever played. There’s a sprinkling of Saw, a dollop of Friday the 13th, some hints of Silent Hill, and a huge steaming helping of meta-commentary à la Scream. You’d think stuffing a game full of so many horror clichés would be a bad idea, but Until Dawn somehow manages to make it work.

My greatest criticism of The Evil Within, another survival horror game to have recently graced next-gen consoles, was that it relied far too heavily on clichés without having a substantial storyline to justify them. Until Dawn does just the opposite and uses these horror tropes to great effect while still maintaining a level of self-awareness. At certain points the game even directly confronts you, asking why you are doing this and what you think you might get out of it.

By making you complicit in the survival and/or death of the characters, it begs the question; why do we want to watch these people be terrorised? It is every horror movie you’ve ever seen, and in being so it forces you to ask yourself why you would ever watch a horror movie in the first place. What joy do we get out of a genre that necessitates and advocates the suffering of others? Well, that’s a debate for another day. But let’s just say the game is scary, in more ways than one.

Please don’t force me to make adult decisions. Please.

Gameplay: 8/10, for those of you who despise QTES, it may not be the one for you, but the game contains a lot more playable portions than its predecessors

Storyline: 9/10, the Butterfly Effect dynamic is mind-blowing, and becomes even more so on a second or third (or tenth) playthrough

Fear Factor: 8.5/10, the game uses just the right amount of gore, jump scares, and atmosphere to make it pretty damn scary, coupled with that most terrifying of things: a sense of responsibility

Overall: 8.5/10, in spite of having played “Alien: Isolation” and “The Evil Within”, this has to be my standout survival horror game of 2015

Float Like a Butterfly: A Review of Until Dawn

You Wanna Play A Game? My Top 5 Creepiest Sequences in Childhood Video Games

The other day, I was scrolling through a few of my more deeply repressed memories when I had a sudden flashback of one of my favourite childhood video games; Primal. Primal incorporated all of those elements that I wanted from a video game at the time; Goth culture, “heavy” metal, terrifying demons, shape-shifting, and creepy worlds dominated by eternal night, drowned in water, or overwhelmed with scorching sand. Primal was undoubtedly one of the first horror masterpieces, with heaps of untapped potential and a beautifully realised storyline.

Yet gushing about Primal is for another day. Thinking about this game, one of the first real horror games I ever played, reminded me of all of those childhood video games that I’d long forgotten. All of the games in this list were rated 15 or under, yet contain sequences that have been etched in my memory as some of the scariest in my childhood. Without further ado, here are my Top 5 Creepiest Sequences in Childhood Video Games.

Note: This post contains spoilers for all of the listed games.

  1. Klonoa 2 Lunatea’s Veil: The Ghost House

So Klonoa 2  may not seem like a horror game, but bear in mind that the main storyline is about a villain hell-bent on plunging the world into eternal sorrow. That being said, messed-up though the story may be, it’s hardly a scary game, which is precisely why this sequence freaked me out so much. It comes out of nowhere, and nothing quite prepared me for the uncharacteristic creepiness of it. I recently replayed the game and, at the age of 25, the exact same sequence had me reeling. Perhaps even more bizarre is the fact that it takes place in a level called Joliant or the Kingdom of Joy. Joliant is just one huge theme park and, like every good theme park, it has a ghost house. The ghost house itself isn’t particularly marvellous, but it’s the cut-scene as you enter that gave me sleepless nights.

Swiggity-Swooty

Cut-scenes are littered almost at random throughout levels in Klonoa 2, so you never know when one’s going to flash up. This one begins with a character simply dubbed “The Butler”, who is definitely more “Lurch” than “Alfred”. He floats through the air and, even though he clearly has no body, he’s inexplicably able to wear a jacket and some adorable blue shorts. His dark face is forever transfixed in an eerie, yellow grin and, just to amp up the fear factor, instead of hands he simply has tiny replicas of his own face. As the language in Klonoa 2 is all expressed through random noises, his voice is a weird mixture of manic laughter and spooky ghost sounds. This guy is freaky enough on his own, but just when you think you’re safe, he suddenly portals directly in front of you. His face practically fills the screen. No matter how old I am, this jump scare gets me every time.

Peek-a-boo
  1. Pokémon Red and Blue: The Pokémon Tower

Although it’s always been traditionally viewed as a children’s franchise, Pokémon is not without its fair share of horrifying moments. The Pokémon Gothita can see dead people. Drowzee feeds off the nightmares of children. And Banette is a cursed doll that was driven into being by its hatred for the child who abandoned it. Amongst these psychopathic creatures, it’s hardly surprising that Pokémon made it onto this list.

Yes, yes they are.

Anyone who has ever played the original Pokémon games will be painfully aware of the Pokémon Tower. Unless they’ve repressed the memory, that is. Like the ghost house in Klonoa 2, the Pokémon Tower is a sudden diversion from the game’s otherwise upbeat, positive atmosphere. As you enter the tower, eerie, 8-bit music pervades and marks the change from “friendly adventure” to “harrowing ascent through a seven-storey Pokémon graveyard”. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but graveyards don’t strike me as an appropriate location for a children’s game. As you attempt to climb the tower, your character will frequently be assaulted by ghosts and elderly members of the occult. But there’s no need to panic, ghost-type Pokémon are apparently able to disguise themselves as the ghosts of human beings, which are far less terrifying, right?

Not to worry, the friendly folks at Pokémon Inc. have invented the Silph Scope, a device that allows you to see the ghosts for what they actually are! The chilling atmosphere builds as you ascend each storey of the tower, until you finally reach the top and the Silph Scope reveals the ghost of a Marowak. Specifically, a female Marowak. This leads to the darkest origin story of the Pokémon canon, the one where you find out that cute little Cubone, the dinosaur with the bone helmet, is in fact wearing the skull of his dead mother, the deceased Marowak. If you look closely, most depictions of Cubone will even feature a lone tear making its way out of his mother’s eye-socket. We’re not sure whether every Cubone tragically lost its mother, or whether one trendsetting Cubone simply popularised the “dead parent skull-hat” look. All we know is, this is really messed-up.

  1. Monkey Island: My Friend the Severed Head
I’m Guybrush Threepwood, Mighty Pirate!

The comedy franchise Monkey Island has churned out some of the most memorable and beloved games of my childhood. At the tender age of twelve, Guybrush Threepwood was one of my first crushes and the numerous, long-running jokes throughout the series had me roaring with laughter every time. Any game with a character named Ignatius Cheese is bound to tickle my funny bone. Yet I recently replayed the excellent remake (remaster?) The Secret of Monkey Island and found myself…a little taken aback.

Towards the end of the game, you acquire an object known as “the Head of the Navigator”. Throughout the game, you’re led to believe that this is some short of fancy compass or perhaps a monkey-themed Satnav. Well it’s not. It’s a severed head. With a necklace made of eyeballs. As a distant, pixelated image in your inventory this is creepy enough, but at one point in the game you have to have a conversation with it. The camera zooms in on the withered face, with its boss eyes, wispy hair, and coy hint of a spine. The original and redrawn versions are both equally terrifying, giving you absolutely no respite from this shrivelled, chattering skull. If that wasn’t bad enough, you need it to navigate your way through a cave made of deformed body parts. You won’t find that in Shameless Disney Rip-off…I mean Pirates of the Caribbean.

Kill it with fire
  1. Jade Empire: Mother and the Cannibals
Just another creepy ghost

Okay, so Mother and the Cannibals may sound like a hip 80s rock band. But rest assured, it’s far from. Lest I gush too much, Jade Empire is my favourite video game of all time. I love it. Like, really love it. I’d marry it if I could. So during my many play-throughs of the game, I came across this sequence many times. Throughout the game, you’re constantly exposed to ghosts, spirits, and demons, usually bearing down on you with the intention of corrupting you, killing you or…most terrifying of all…telling you scary ghost stories. Your character is no stranger to terror, as you suffer disturbing visions of the Water Dragon and navigate your way through a world plagued by those who cannot crossover.

So when you reach the second stage, Tien’s Landing, and are met with still more ghosts and ghouls, you’re feeling pretty prepared. That is, until you head into the Great Southern Forest and make a pit-stop at Pilgrim’s Rest Inn. You’re initially met by the Keeper, a man who simply oozes charisma. And by charisma I mean used-car-salesman charisma. This guy is clearly hiding something. As the story progresses, you discover that all of the men in the inn except Hen-Pecked Hou are actually followers of a powerful demon called “The Mother” and have gained supernatural powers by eating human flesh. When you finally confront the innkeepers, they start to…change. Their skin turns ash-grey and hangs, sallow and gaunt, on their thin frames. Their bodies contort into twisted shapes. And their teeth become sharp and ragged. Perhaps worst of all, amidst the Rat Demons and skinned corpses in the tunnels below the Inn, you’ll finally confront the Mother. There are no words that aptly portray how repulsive this abomination is. No words.

The Mother
  1. Shadow Hearts: More Cannibals!

Shadow Hearts was one of those JRPGs that largely went under the radar, but was popular enough to spawn two sequels. Although the game explored dark themes, such as vampirism, loss, and attempted kidnapping, it was never explicitly a horror game. Most of the horror tropes littered throughout the game are kitschy and stereotypical, making them more laughable than terrifying. Yet, within the first hour of playing the game, you swiftly come upon a place called Zhaoyang Village. Just like Pilgrim’s Rest Inn in Jade Empire, there is immediately something not quite right about Zhaoyang. From the two creepy kids that doggedly follow you through the village to the maniacal laughter of the “Granny Mayor”, the inhabitants of this small village immediately unsettle you.

It is not until you reach the village shrine, shrouded in human bones, that you uncover the horrible truth; the villagers are cannibals. As you tentatively return to confront good ol’ Granny Mayor, she openly exposes her overwhelming desire to gnaw on your juicy, juicy shinbones. That being said, with an army of just one OAP and two children, they can hardly overpower you. But, since the village is sealed by dark magic, it’s not like you can just leave either. All the hungry villagers need to do is wait for exhaustion to overcome you and, as you gently drift off to sleep, they’ll set to preparing some tasty human stew.

With the formalities out of the way, the village uncovers its “true form”. The children become Hell Cats, their skin riddled with scar tissue. Granny Mayor transforms into a fearsome boss named Felinus, its claws daubed in blood. And, worst of all, the town itself appears to be covered in a fleshy substance that squelches under your feet as you walk. That awful, squishy sound still makes me shiver. Ew.

So how do you think the list stacks up in your experience? And what were your creepiest video game moments? Comment below and let us know what childhood trauma led to your chronic, adulthood insomnia.

You Wanna Play A Game? My Top 5 Creepiest Sequences in Childhood Video Games