Ghastly Games with Daphne Strasert: Kittens in a Blender

Why are there kittens? Why are they in a blender? Good questions, but shelve your disbelief for one moment and embrace the fact that you will be putting kittens in a blender and gleefully pressing the big red button.

Kittens in a Blender is a party game for 2-8 players (ages 8+, otherwise there are too many tears) and takes about thirty minutes to play.

Game Play

First, choose a color. The many, many kittens are divided into teams by color. Your objective is to save the kittens of your team and shred everyone else’s.

Next, shuffle the deck of cards and deal a hand to each player. Kittens in a Blender contains several types of cards for players to use: Kitten cards, Movement cards, and Blend cards. On their turn, each player must play exactly two cards.

There are three play areas: the blender, the counter, and the box. Kitten cards are played in any of these areas and moved using Move cards. If a kitten is in the blender when any player plays a Blend card, that kitten is blended and removed from the game. If a kitten is in the box when a Blend card is played, then the kitten is saved and placed under the box for safe-keeping. When all the Blend cards have been played, the players count the total number of their kittens that were saved and the person with the most wins.

Game Experience

There is a lot of cringing involved in playing Kittens in a Blender. Am I really the type of person who sends adorable kittens to their doom? After a few rounds, you get over that feeling and start murdering cats with no remorse.

The game creators seem to revel in this. Rather than supplying generic kitten cards, each one has an adorable name and picture to match. Over time, players gain attachments to certain kitties (my favorite is a bulldog-faced kitten named Princess), to the point where they will sacrifice others of their own to save a favorite.

The adorable art style underlines the macabre humor of the game. Each kitten is equally loveable and undeserving of its fate. You’re just a monster for playing this game and worse for enjoying it.

Final Thoughts

I know what you’re thinking: is Kittens in a Blender really a horror game? I guess that depends on who answers, but if you were to ask my 9 year-old cousin, my mother-in-law, or several of my more innocent friends, the idea of putting even fake kittens into a blender and hitting the button is plenty horrific. But, if that doesn’t bother you, then maybe you’re the perfect person to play the game.

Book Review: Lost Highways edited by D. Alexander Ward

Roads are, by design, a space in between — between cities, between the looming wilds on either side of the pavement, or between two versions of oneself. They exist in a perpetual state of flux. Millions of people pass along highways, driving through towns and lives they will never know and through stories stranger than they can imagine.

Lost Highways is an anthology of short stories and artwork edited by D. Alexander Ward and presents 20 stories that you’ll never see from the safety of the passenger seat.

The stories are equal parts entertaining and enlightening. No two ever present the same theme, stretching the anthology’s premise of roads and highways to the limits of connectivity. Each author interpreted the theme in a novel and inspiring way.

Lost Highways was gripping throughout. It presents a wide array of styles within the horror genre: philosophical musings, psychological terror, gruesome violence, and tingling suspense. At no point did I consider a story to be predictable.

Though the anthology is superb from start to finish, several stories stood out to me while reading. “A Life that is not Mine” by Kristi Demeester presented a bleak look at life where the road is both a prison and an escape. Demeester’s writing was haunting and the prose almost lyrical. “The Heart Stops at the end of Laurel Lane” by Jess Landry (an alumni of the HorrorAddicts.net Next Great Horror Writer Contest!) straddled the line between harrowing and heart wrenching and left me reeling through each new revelation. “Outrunning the End” by Cullen Bunn was a trippy experiment in fiction that blurred the lines of reality on the page. These are my favorites, but each story is excellent in its own way and all the contributors should be commended for their work.

Overall, Lost Highways is an expertly curated collection of the best that horror has to offer. I highly recommend taking a look. If you’re especially brave, you might consider making it your companion on a long road trip.

Ghastly Games with Daphne Strasert: Werebeasts

Game Review: WereBeasts

Introduction

Do you love werewolves? Do you wish you had a game with more than just werewolves? There’s a whole world of crazy beasts out there. Werekittens, wereclowns, werezombies, weresharks, wereghosts, werehouses… Excellent.

Werebeasts is a card collecting party game for 3-10 players and takes about fifteen minutes to play.

Game Play

At the beginning, each player is secretly given two goal cards. These are the werebeasts that they will try to collect throughout the game.

During their turn, a player can accuse another player of having a specific goal card. If they guess correctly, the other is removed from the game and the player get their cards. Guess carefully, however, because if you’re wrong, you are removed from the game and the accused get your cards.

After leveraging their accusations (if any), the player then draws a card face up. Other players bid on the card using the cards in front of them. Players try to collect their assigned goals without giving away what their goals are.

Whoever has the most beasts of their goal type when the game ends wins.

Game Experience

Werebeasts is suited to younger players as a card collection game. It is also good for older audiences who want a simple party game.

You would think that it would be easy to guess what others are trying to collect. Not so. Once players know what to look for, they know how to cover their tracks. The secret to Werebeasts is to know the other players. The dynamic changes over time, making Werebeasts an increasingly difficult game of bluffs.

Werebeasts has a simple set up, with a few sets of cards and pieces. All of these are well made and exceptionally detailed. The cards are sturdy and would stand up well to a lot of play time (including by children). The art style suits the game premise, as a cross between cartoon-cute and mock horror.

Final Thoughts

Werebeasts is a good party game for a large crowd. It is a fast, easy game to learn. I thought that it would be overly simplistic, but it was surprisingly engaging.

Ghastly Games with Daphne Strasert: Igor

Introduction

I have never actually see the 2008 CGI animated movie Igor. In fact, I can’t say that I was even really aware that there was a CGI animated movie called Igor. But I found this gem of a game at my local second-hand bookstore and one thing led to another, so here we are.

I haven’t reviewed many games that are suitable for children, so this is a pleasant change of pace for you Horror Addicts with little monsters at home. Igor is suitable for ages 7+ (and younger if you’re willing to provide a little help). It is played with 1-4 people and takes about 20 minutes.

Game Play

In Igor, you are a scientist in a desperate race to complete monsters for the science fair. First, shuffle the monster deck and set out three incomplete monsters. Each monster requires certain numbers and types of parts which are shown on their card.

On your turn, roll the dice to gain the necessary parts. You can use as many dice as you want from the roll to furnish a monster then reroll the rest. If at the end of your turn, a monster has all the necessary parts, yell, “Pull the switch!” and gain the points printed on the monster’s card. However, if none of your dice can be used to add to a monster, you lose the rest of your turn and any completed monsters are discarded and replaced.

When the draw pile of monsters runs out, the player with the most points wins.

Game Experience

Igor was just plain fun. The mechanics are simple, so it takes less than five minutes to learn the rules. For a game made as a promotional material, I was impressed with the playability. This is a game that can be fun for both children and adults. Children can play it as a game of chance, but there is room to scale up the strategy of the dice rolls with adults.

The art is good—in line with the movie style—and fits the monstrous theme. There aren’t many pieces and they are cheaply made, but since the game is intended for children, I count that as a plus.

The best part of the game is, without doubt, making everyone say “PULL THE SWITCH” in the loudest, most ridiculous voice possible.

Final Thoughts

Igor is fun, simple, and silly. It is a perfect addition for a children’s game box (or an adult collection). However, since the movie faded into oblivion over a decade ago, the most difficult part may be finding it.

Ghastly Games with Daphne Strasert: Arkham Horror: The Card Game

Game Review: Arkham Horror: The Card Game

Introduction

Arkham, Massachusetts: an idyllic New England town complete with mysterious disappearances, mangled bodies, and a suffocating sense of doom that lingers over every home. Strange things have always happened here, but it seems something more malevolent is at work this time. Something that wants to come through…

Arkham Horror: The Card Game hails from the same game universe as Arkham Horror, Elder Sign (previously reviewed for HorrorAddicts.net), and Eldritch Horror. It uses a familiar play style, following a Lovecraftian storyline with the addition of obstacles and monsters drawn at random. Players embody characters who have health and sanity, things they risk in order to investigate and defeat the evil lurking just on the other side of our reality.

Arkham Horror: The Card Game is a narrative game for 1-2 players (expansions allow up to 4 players) and takes 1-2 hours to play.

Game Play

Game play consists of characters exploring their environment (represented by cards) and fighting obstacles that appear there. Finding clues allows the investigators to proceed through the storyline, revealing new locations, items, monsters, and characters. If they advance to the end of the story, they win. But with each round, the horrors advance as well—monsters appear and attack and the situation grows ever grimmer.

Arkham Horror: The Card Game is set up with D&D style campaigns, each containing several scenarios. Characters evolve with experience gained during these scenarios, so as you go further into the campaign, your character has more abilities to help you face challenges that are more difficult. Players can go through an entire campaign at once, or tackle each of the scenarios one at a time. Each scenario takes an hour or two (depending on player experience and the desired difficulty), so if you want to play through an entire campaign, be prepared to stay a while.

Game Experience

Often, I review games for a larger group of people (around 5), so this is a refreshing change of pace. Arkham Horror: The Card Game can be played solo or with a partner. You can combine two core games to be able to play with up to four players. I actually played this one by myself, which was an interesting experience, for sure. The game loses something when you don’t talk strategy with others around you. I would recommend playing with the recommended two players or expanding the game to four.

Arkham Horror: The Card Game is a faster, more compact version of the infamous original Arkham Horror and retains most of those features.

The real draw of Arkham Horror: The Card Game is the Lovecraft aesthetic throughout. The game contains quotes from actual Lovecraft stories, which are just as spine tingling as you would expect. The art has a detective noir theme, albeit with a dark twist (is that blood on the cards?). It’s a gruesome, horrifying good time and is best suited for late nights and dim lights.

Final Thoughts

As with other narrative style games, replay may become an issue. So much of the play hinges on the story, so once that is played out, replay holds fewer mysteries. There are expansions for Arkham, which helps, and different monsters and difficulty values can make replaying more challenging. However, if you are mainly interested in the story, you may want to try this game out at a board game café first.

I enjoyed Arkham Horror: The Card Game, and I highly recommend it if you are a fan of narrative games. The additional character building elements that allow the game to change with time are a great asset, as well.

I’ve been reviewing an awful lot of Lovecraft themed games, lately. I can’t help it; I love them so much. The dark mythos, the mystery, the monsters… isn’t that every Horror Addict’s dream?

 

Ghastly Games by Daphne Strasert: Elder Sign

Game Review: Elder Sign

The artifacts in the museum are more than they seem. The collection is opening barriers between our world and other dimensions where an ancient evil lurks, waiting to cross over.

Elder Sign uses the universe of H.P. Lovecraft to create a brilliant atmosphere of supernatural suspense and adventure. Players form a team of investigators trying to prevent an Ancient One from crossing into our world. They do this by collecting Elder Signs and defeating smaller monsters throughout the museum. Players can gain items and powers that aid in this and work together toward success. Failure brings the Ancient One closer to unleashing its wrath on humanity.

Elder Sign is a cooperative dice game for 1-8 players and takes about 90 minutes to play.

Game Play

Before play starts, the players choose an Ancient One to battle in the coming game. Each has a different power that makes gameplay more interesting. Some are more difficult to defeat than others. Players also choose characters. These also have special abilities that give them an advantage in certain encounters.

Throughout the game, characters attempt tasks to succeed in Adventures and gain rewards. Some of these rewards are Elder Signs, which are used to seal away the Ancient One before it can cross over into our world. But beware, failure has dire consequences and can bring the monster even closer.

All the while, time ticks forward, bringing the Ancient One closer to our world. Strange events happen every midnight that make gameplay harder. If players fail to seal the Ancient One, they must fight it in a nearly impossible, last-ditch battle for humanity.

Game Experience

Elder Sign is beautiful. The art is in a lovely dark fantasy style that is perfect for the Lovecraft mythos that it represents. Symbols use are straightforward and easily identified, which is a benefit in complicated gameplay. Each Adventure card has a snippet of a story on it, giving insight into the perilous world of the museum. Reading these bits was an enchanting part of the game.

Despite appearing extremely complicated, Elder Sign is actually straightforward. There is some work in learning the game mechanics, but once you have a handle on that, play runs smoothly. I recommend taking the time to familiarize yourself with the manual before starting and allocate extra time for your first playthrough. Once you have the hang of it, though, you will be able to play many more times.

A benefit of Elder Sign is that the game is actually winnable. Some cooperative games (like Dead Men Tell No Tales, which we also reviewed here at Horror Addicts) are nearly impossible to defeat. Players can succeed in Elder Sign, provided they put thought and strategy into their gameplay and have reasonable luck with dice. It isn’t a guaranteed win, by any means, but players can expect a reasonable return for their effort.

Final Thoughts

What I liked best about Elder Sign (and I liked a lot of things about Elder Sign) was how re-playable it was. There are a variety of Ancient Ones to fight against, but even without that, the different adventures, characters, and items change gameplay significantly. Each game experience is unique. This is a game that I would consider well worth the money to add to my own collection.

Book Review: Freaks edited by Toneye Eyenot and Michael Noe

Are you looking for stories that stick in your dreams? Ones about people twisted both inside and out? You might regret what you wish for.

Freaks, a collection of stories and poetry edited by Toneye Eyenot and Michael Noe, contains 19 chilling tales of monsters, murderers, and madmen.

This anthology is not for the faint of heart. The stories inside may vary in style and subject matter, but the collection holds nothing back. Each is gruesome and stretches the limits of what you as a horror addict can stomach. The authors explore the depths of human depravity, then dig down a few more feet just for good measure.

Each author put their own spin on the anthology’s theme of horror in the realm of circuses and carnivals. The stories are a good mix of the supernatural, the speculative, and the frighteningly realistic. There are killer clowns, sure, but what about a man with a killer appetite, or a roadshow zombie attraction, or a carnival ride that is actually alive? Not all freaks are easy to identify and the worst ones are really the ones that are monsters on the inside.

My personal favorite entries are “Two for the Show” by Tina Piney and “Clownbear’s Last Performance” by Brian Glossup. Both authors created compelling characters within a short span, a difficult task when also including spine-tingling imagery and suspense.

If you’re brave enough to chance reading this, I can guarantee that you’ll be looking over your shoulder and sleeping with the lights on. And no way in hell are you going anywhere near a circus. If you feel a little squeamish, I think that’s the point.

Freaks appeals to a certain variety of horror addict. If you love to stretch the limits of what is appropriate to publish, take a look. If you want stories that will make your skin crawl and stomach churn, check this out. If you want to question your sanity and that of the authors and maybe of humanity in general… read Freaks. And don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Ghastly Games by Daphne Strasert: T.I.M.E. Stories

Game Review: T.I.M.E. Stories

Something awful is happening at the asylum. Patients disappear and frightening creatures appear on the grounds. You and your team are time travelers sent to investigate the cause of the strange events.

T.I.M.E. Stories sits at the intersection of science fiction and fantasy, but it’s no kids’ game. Violence and horror lurk behind every decision. At the core of the game is a mystery that must be solved in order to win and save yourselves.

T.I.M.E. Stories is a cooperative narrative board game for 2-4 players and takes between two and four hours to play.

Game Play

T.I.M.E. Stories works much like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book (or, more appropriately, for Horror Addicts, the “Give Yourself Goosebumps” books by R.L. Stine).

Players begin by choosing their characters. Each has strengths and weaknesses which will affect how you play the game. Some scenarios call for brute strength while others would benefit from a silver tongue. Be careful, though; you’re inhabiting the body of a lunatic, so there are some quirks and traps in each character’s behavior (some can’t be left alone, some can’t deliver a killing blow in combat).

To play, the team explores rooms, discovers items, and talks to characters. What you do affects what happens immediately in the game—offering more rooms to explore and more information about what is going on—but some effects will last much longer. This all happens on a time crunch and the longer you take, the more likely your team will have to start all over again (you are a time traveler after all).

The team wins when they solve the mystery and successfully

Game Experience

T.I.M.E. Stories is definitely a story game. There are elements of game play (combat and challenges), but for the most part, the team doesn’t “win” or “lose”. Players don’t defeat each other and the game never really beats the players. The fun is in making decisions and discovering the story along the way.

Since the majority of the base game is themed around a 1920’s asylum, the atmosphere is heavily horror related (with monsters, lunatics, and mad doctors). The art reinforces this. It is stunning and gruesome in equal measure, perfect for the story. The mystery itself is soaked in blood.

The game is nominally themed as science fiction, which allows you to expand the game (with other stories in new locations) and to keep playing a game that might otherwise be too hard (by restarting when all players die). However, while playing, you are immersed in the world of the story (the asylum), so, the science fiction elements become jarring when they are reintroduced.

This adds to T.I.M.E. Stories‘ complexity. This game isn’t for people new to board games or the faint of heart. There are a lot of pieces and parts to game play. The board, while beautiful, is not immediately easy to understand. If you wish to play, either find a veteran to explain or take the time to familiarize yourself with the manual.

Final Thoughts

While T.I.M.E. Stories was a fun and interesting game, the truth is, it isn’t a game you can play over and over. Unlike a “Give Yourself Goosebumps”, the story here has a definite path to follow and does not diverge greatly. There is only one major story included and once you’ve figured that out, the game loses its appeal. You already know the twists and ending. Given that most of the fun of the game is in exploring and discovering what is going on, that’s a big disadvantage.

There are seven expansion packs for T.I.M.E. Stories, so you can play some different stories, but from an investment point of view, it isn’t cost effective to buy. If you really want to experience this game (and I do recommend playing), visit a board game café that has T.I.M.E. Stories and its expansions.

Ghastly Games by Daphne Strasert: Enchanted in the Moonlight

Game Review: Enchanted in the Moonlight

Monsters are big business right now. I mean, they’ve always been the stars of horror, but recently audience sympathy has shifted in favor of what were, traditionally, the villains. Wanting a little monstrous romance is more common than it’s ever been (Academy Award Winner for Best Picture The Shape of Water, anyone?). So, in the world of games, romance and horror, there must be an intersection somewhere for those looking for a little action.

Look no more. Today, I will review Enchanted in the Moonlight, a dating simulator game for iPhone and Android where you become romantically involved with a monster.

Enchanted in the Moonlight draws inspiration from traditional Japanese mythology and includes ayakashi, creatures that are similar to monsters (and will be familiar to fans of anime). You, as the main character, have a special power that is coveted by the ayakashi. As a result, you have your pick of supernatural suitors. Choose a suitor, then sit back and enjoy the story.

Game Play

Dating sims have been huge in Japan for a while, so otakus are probably already familiar with the concept. Only in recent years have they made their way into the mainstream minds of Western consumers.

If you haven’t encountered the concept, dating sims work like an electronic Choose Your Own Adventure, plus romance. You play the sim on your phone by downloading the app. The game follows a story and gives you, as the main character, choices throughout that effect what happens next.

Most games are free, but you must purchase stories in the app to play through more than the first chapter. Once you choose which character to pursue, you can then follow the story, choosing what you do and say along the way and hopefully bring about a happy ending.

Enchanted in the Moonlight offers six possible love interests: a kitsune (fox), tengu (black bird), werewolf, oni (demon), yukibito (snow spirit), and house spirit.

Game Experience

I’m not going to lie, I’m a sucker for storytelling games. And the stories included here were addicting. The supernatural premise adds an element of drama that I really enjoyed. I’ve bought all the different character arcs at this point, none of which are repetitive in the slightest.

That said, your choices as a character don’t really hold that much weight. There are really only a handful of endings waiting for you, so you won’t do much more than deviate the events in a minor way. I found myself sometimes wishing that I could respond in ways that weren’t offered, maybe smacking a little sense into characters that tended toward the misogynistic. If you’re looking for something complex, there are better dating sim options. However, if you’re looking for some mindless fun and romance, this is for you.

The showcase of the games is the art. There are lovely anime-style images used throughout, with special pictures for important parts of the story. Most games let you save these in a special gallery to admire later.

Bottom line: the premise is a little contrived, the prologue is rushed, the main character is kind of a pushover, and the writing isn’t the greatest. BUT, it’s fun. It’s silly and ridiculous and romantic.

Final Thoughts

Dating sims aren’t for everyone, but they can be a fun escape. If you’re looking for a story game you can play in your downtime, this is a great option. If you want something mindless to enjoy, I recommend it wholeheartedly. I mean, I always wanted to date a werewolf.

Ghastly Games by Daphne Strasert: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Game Review: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Who doesn’t love pirates? Who doesn’t love undead pirates even more?

In Dead Men Tell No Tales, players take on the characters of a pirate crew and work together to plunder a burning ship, the notorious Skelit’s Revenge. They must defeat the undead crew, find the treasure, and fight the fire to stay alive. Do you have what it takes to survive and win?

Dead Men Tell No Tales is a thematic cooperative board game for 2-5 players and takes about 90 minutes to play.

Game Play

First, choose a character. All characters have different abilities that will help during play (extra speed, fighting power, rum capacity, etc.). Next, board the Skelit’s Revenge and start looking for treasure. You explore the ship, finding new rooms and revealing new obstacles.

Oh, and all the rooms are on fire.

You take damage when exposed to the flames, so as you explore, you’ll need to take time to rest your character—valuable time that could be used fighting the Skelit’s crew. Defeat the crew to find the treasure. Find all the treasure and get it back to your boat to win. Be warned, the fire gets worse and the enemies increase with every turn, so winning won’t be easy.

Game Experience

The game quality is very high. There are many pieces, but each is crafted with either hardy cardboard or wood. All character pieces are exquisitely decorated with detailed fantasy art that fits with the theme. The well-made setup makes the game a physical joy to play.

As far as gameplay, Dead Men Tell No Tales is complicated. There are a lot of things happening at once and it will take a few tries to really get a handle on what strategies work. I have never actually won a game of Dead Men Tell No Tales (and we’ve been playing on easy mode). There is a lot going on; between character powers, monster moves, a raging fire, and explosions, you can lose track of what danger is most immediately threatening.

There are many ways to lose, but only one way to win. There’s some serious strategy involved in playing and I cannot emphasize enough that the game is cooperative. You are working together as a team so—depending on who you choose to play with—you may not feel as if you’re making any of your own decisions at all.

As much as I emphasize the difficulty, the game is fun. I promise. Dead Men Tell No Tales is all about moves, finding the best thing to do from a long list of possibilities. But it isn’t just pure strategy either—luck is just another skill in a pirate’s arsenal.

Final Thoughts

Dead Men Tell No Tales is a good game for those who like a challenge and have experience playing complicated games. There are a lot of moving pieces. This isn’t Chutes and Ladders; no one wins for just showing up. You’ll want your wits about you (so, not a great game for drinking) and every move has potentially dire consequences (so, not a great game for children). If you really think you have what it takes to take on the challenge, look no further.

Movie Review: Within the Darkness

Movie Review: Within the Darkness

Within the Darkness is a horror movie written for those who love horror movies. It features a deeply rooted appreciation for the genre and uses the clichés to offer a fresh perspective interlaced with satisfying suspense. Horror Addicts will enjoy the scares, laughs, and twists. It is a special delight for those who are familiar with what has come before in the universe of haunted horror.

Something terrible happened at the Hewitt House. To this day, the ghostly inhabitants act out their tragic demises in an endless loop. For Austin (Dave Coyne), this provides the perfect opportunity.

Austin wants to make it big in Hollywood and he thinks he knows how to do it: a ghost hunting show. The Hewitt House provides the spooky backdrop, but Austin doesn’t believe anything will really happen, so he rigs the results, setting traps in the house to mimic a haunting. He’s helped by his girlfriend Lucy (Erin Nicole Cline) and a crew of skeptics.

But when a psychic medium, Meagan (Shanna Forrestall), arrives to help with the investigation, unexplainable things begin to happen. The crew descends into madness and the viewer asks: what’s really happening at the Hewitt House?

Within the Darkness is a self-aware horror film. The creators were familiar with the genre tropes and embraced them in order to use them in unexpected ways. From jump scares to psychological horror to paranormal events, they play the viewers expectations from start to finish. If you think you’ve seen it all in horror, Within the Darkness just might surprise you.

The Hewitt House has all the makings of a classic horror haunt, complete with long hallways, too many stairs, suspiciously creaky doors, and a lake dock just begging someone to come swim for all eternity. There’s no end to the shadows where danger lurks. Yet in the daylight, the house is a charming suburban fixture, seemingly too young to host anything evil. In a masterful understanding of the genre, Within the Darkness portrays the Hewitt House as quiet enough in the day to make the characters feel like they must have let their imaginations slip after dark.

The film’s central conflict is between ambitious and irreverent Austin and his girlfriend Lucy, who is more inclined to respect powers beyond her control. Their opposing opinions on the house and what exactly is going on inside tear a rift in the crew and amp up the tension as events escalate. Add in terrifying hallucinations and a host of spooky events and the crew stands all on edge.

While Within the Darkness employs a variety of disturbing imagery, one scene in particular stood out. Between excellent acting on the part of Jessie (Tonya Kay) and well-edited shots, Within the Darkness created a truly creepy illusion that stuck with me long after the movie ended.

At times, Within the Darkness takes comedic turns, barging into the territory of the absurd. This puts it in similar categories as Scary Movie, though without the cheap pop culture references. It shows a developed understanding of horror films and pokes fun at themes that are often overdone.

In general, I think of this as a parody movie that manages to sneak in some good suspense and horror between the satirical commentaries. Fans of horror who don’t take anything too seriously will enjoy this. It still has the spooky chops for those looking for a bit of fright in their night.

Ghastly Games by Daphne Strasert: One Night Ultimate Werewolf

Game Review: One Night Ultimate Werewolf

Introduction

Someone in the village is a werewolf and the townspeople are determined to find out who. Players all have roles and special abilities that will help them determine who is guilty. But, not everyone is going to tell you the truth. Who’s mistaken, who’s lying, and who is the werewolf?

Welcome to One Night Ultimate Werewolf.

Game Play

The concept for One Night Ultimate Werewolf  is simple. There are two teams: the werewolves and the villagers. The villagers win if they kill at least one werewolf. The werewolves win if they all survive.

It is when we reach beyond that that everything gets more complicated.

Every player draws a character from the deck. One Night Ultimate Werewolf has a lot of possible characters. Some are werewolves, some are villagers, and some have special abilities (looking at cards, trading cards, mimicking the powers of others, etc.). After characters are drawn, everyone closes their eyes players take turns performing their action. Beware, some of these actions might change your character card, so you may not end the game as the same person you started as. When player actions are done, the real fun starts. Everyone opens their eyes and players argue over what happened. Ultimately, each player must decide who they want to “kill” in the round.

In the end, One Night Ultimate Werewolf is all about lying. Players want to keep what they know secret until the information will most benefit them. No one can be trusted, and in some cases, you may not even know that you are a werewolf until all cards are flipped at the end.

Game Experience

The best part of One Night Ultimate Werewolf is how fast gameplay is. Each round is played separately. Even if a player is killed, they still participate in the next round. Characters are re-dealt and the game starts fresh. This means that the game can end whenever you want it to.

The game setup is very simple, with a set of plainly illustrated cards and tokens. The art is charming, with a dark comic style that suits the game theme. All cards and pieces are sturdy and can stand up to some wear, which is good for a fast game where players constantly move pieces.

For a game that is—at its heart—extremely simple, learning to play One Night Ultimate Werewolf is a challenge. If you can find a veteran player, do it. They’ll let you know what information you need to know up front and what you can find out as you go along. Otherwise, you’ll spend an hour at the beginning trying to figure out detailed rules that aren’t important.

Luckily, the creators of the game have made a free app to guide players through the game. I highly recommend downloading the app. It has an easy to use interface and a narrator who leads you through the round. The narrator has a wonderful, soothing voice that I could listen to for hours. It’s an enjoyable experience from start to finish and the app reduces the complexity of the game tremendously.

Final Thoughts

I had this game for a long time before I could convince anyone to play with me. Since the game is similar in concept to the Mafia card game, the friends of mine who were inclined toward more complicated games thought it would be boring. And casual family gamers were intimidated by the number of different rules and worried it would be too complicated. In reality, the game was suited to both groups.

It takes a few rounds to fall into the rhythm of the game. This was the largest obstacle I faced in getting new players to join me. They would play one round and, having not gotten the hang of revealing and concealing information, give the game up for being boring and almost impossible.

However, it is very worth playing. It’s perfect for people who like to run their mouths. I recommend it as an excellent party game.

Book Review: Bad Man by Dathan Auerbach

Book Review: Bad Man by Dathan Auerbach

Ben has been searching for his missing brother, Eric, for five years. The three-year-old boy couldn’t have just vanished into thin air in the middle of a grocery store. Eric has to be somewhere. But Ben has run out of rocks to look under and life doesn’t seem to stop no matter what he does. To help support his family, he takes a job at the very store where Eric disappeared.

The night shift plays tricks on Ben’s brain, turning his days into a blur, like the Missing Person posters of Eric that have been copied so many times that the image warped into something that doesn’t even resemble him anymore. Things seem to move when no one is around. Items go missing. Others appear as if from nowhere. The building seems as if it’s trying to tell Ben something if only he could figure out what it is.

The strange occurrences renew Ben’s search, but someone doesn’t want him to find out what really happened to Eric. In small towns, someone always knows more than they say. In this case, everyone has something to hide. Even Ben.

Dathan Auerbach spins a wonderful web of intrigue and suspicion. I sat on edge through the whole book, unsure if I was going to encounter the paranormal or the darkest depths of humanity in each turn of the page.

Bad Man approaches a difficult setting, addressing poverty, abuse, mental illness, and grief in a powerful way. Auerbach doesn’t pull any punches with his descriptions and gives an unflinching account of real-life horror. The characters feel like real people. From Ben’s tenuous grasp on reality to the quiet, sinister nature of the store’s owner, there is depth to every character you meet. No one is safe from the dreadful suspicion in the book. Auerbach masterfully leads readers to conclusion after conclusion, never knowing if they are on the right track.

Bad Man leaves you feeling the way you do in a Walmart at two am. Everything feels overexposed, too brightly lit, too empty, too quiet. It isn’t the darkness that is frightening in Bad Man, it’s the blinding light that reveals that there is nothing there to see.

Auerbach’s prose is a delight to read. He includes masterful descriptions and insights throughout with lingering quotes that you’ll want to remember for yourself. The novel is artfully crafted from cover to cover, each word carefully chosen to draw you in at every turn.

Bad Man may not linger in your nightmares, but the effect is much deeper than that. It deals a slow sort of agony as you face the uncertainty of what happened to Eric and inevitable feeling that there is no happy ending for Ben. Even if Ben gets what he wants, will there ever really be an ending to his torture? The suspense lasts until the last page. It leaves a tingling feeling of dread that claws its way out of your bones and refuses to let you put it down.

Bad Man is a fantastic novel. If you are looking for a dark, atmospheric, gripping book, then make sure to pick up a copy.

Ghastly Games by Daphne Strasert: King of Tokyo

Game Review: King of Tokyo

It’s the mega monster match-up to end all others. Up to six monsters join in one massive fight that will leave the city in ruins. Only one can rule it all. Roll the dice, earn Victory points, and attack your friends to become King of Tokyo.

King of Tokyo is a family game for 2-6 players and takes about a half hour to play.

Game Play

First, choose your monster: Gigazaur, The King, Alienoid, Mekadragon, Cyberbunny, or Kraken (Mekadragon is the best, but you can have your own favorite). Each character has a monster board that tracks the current health and the number of victory points you have earned.

You will want to pay attention to those numbers because there are two ways to win in King of Tokyo:

  • Be the first player to earn 20 Victory Points
  • Be the last monster alive

You gain victory points by rolling matching numbers on the dice, going into or staying inside Tokyo, and through special cards. Attacks from other monsters lower your health and if your health hits zero, you say sayonara and slink back from whence you came.

During play, one monster stands inside Tokyo. While there, every attack they make targets all monsters on the outside. Every attack made by those outside targets them. They can’t heal, but the longer they stay inside, the more victory points they gain. Any time after they are attacked, they can choose to leave Tokyo, throwing their attacker into the city in their place.

King of Tokyo employs dice for the main gameplay. Dice let you attack, heal, earn energy, and gain victory points. Like a game of Monster Yahtzee, you have three rolls to collect what you want and you can reroll as many or as few of the dice as you want.

The game also has bonus cards that you can buy using “energy”. These give your monster extra powers that can boost your gameplay. You earn energy through dice rolls just like everything else, but cards can make all the difference between survival and early death.

Game Experience

King of Tokyo is a fast, fun game. It’s the best game for casual game players that I’ve reviewed so far. The game involves some strategy, but success is mostly left up to luck. In the many times that I’ve played, I have only seen someone win using victory points once. Generally, the game is a battle for survival rather than a race to the top.

My favorite part of the game is the design. The art has a comic book style that suits the theme and pays homage to countless monster movies. Each of the characters is an off-brand monster (Not quite Godzilla, but you know what they’re going for). Over time, players develop attachments to the various characters, so you’ll probably have your own too.

The only drawback that I have for gameplay is that players who die are out for the rest of the game. While that’s how life works sometimes, it isn’t helpful when you want to keep everyone engaged in play.

Even though there is little actual decision making in the game, it often ends in shouting as players try to convince each other to attack or not, risk it all, and possibly knock themselves out of the game. It’s a good time.

Final Thoughts

King of Tokyo is easy to learn and the pay off during play is worthwhile. It would be a good game to play when children are around. I recommend it for anyone who loves (or maybe just casually likes) games.

Movie Review: Apocalypsis

Movie Review: Apocalypsis

Welcome to a world where every conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard seems entirely real.

Apocalypsis introduces a world like our own, but which has followed a much darker path. The American government has implemented an ambitious project of surveillance and control. Most of the population is “chipped”—implanted with RFID devices that allow the government to monitor their activities. Cameras and drones are everywhere and AI tracks the population through facial recognition. Anyone who fights back is a target.

Evelyn and Michael are two such people.

Evelyn (Maria Bruun) is a deeply religious woman who draws her strength from her orthodox faith. She strives to help everyone in need, especially the downtrodden. In her quest for increased enlightenment, she experiences distressing apocalyptic visions while studying the book of Revelation. She sees the End Times in the world around her and becomes determined to act before it’s too late.

Michael (Chris O’Leary), a man with no faith, fights the increasing government control using technology and activism. He seeks to enlighten the populace and save them from themselves if he can. However, Michael knows he’s a hunted man and he wavers between going off the grid to save himself and risking everything to free society.

The film explores the relationship between Evelyn and Michael and their differing approaches to changing the world. Their common goals bring them together, but fundamental differences and deep-seated paranoia threaten to rip the friends apart. All of this take place against a high stakes background that keeps the audience guessing what the heroes can really do and what the final stakes will be.

Apocalypsis takes place in New York, where there are a million places to hide, but no real assurance that any of them are safe. In the city, people are everywhere and it’s impossible to know which ones can be trusted. The setting suggests a near future, where America is a hairsbreadth from martial law and every conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard is taken as absolute fact. You are being watched. You are in danger. The stakes have never been higher.

Michael takes the audience into the nooks and crannies of the city, where he hides like a rat and thinks like one too—survival always foremost on his mind. He showcases the modern side of the city, the underground tunnels and back alleys where he hides from sight, always in the dark, using his computer to fight for him.

Evelyn walks the streets of the most needy, reaching out everywhere she can. The moments of peace that she encounters are within the walls of her orthodox church. There she finds solace in something bigger than herself, a divine benevolent ruler at odds with the paranoid government that rules her on Earth.

Director Eric Leiser takes an artistic approach with the camera. Flashing imagery and overlaying shots create a surreal atmosphere. Evelyn’s visions of the apocalypse are animated, casting a sharp contrast from the rest of the film and heightening the feeling that they are unlike anything that she has seen before.

Apocalypsis delves into the question of religion versus action and what really creates a “good” person. What role does faith play in motivating someone to take action? Evelyn has her faith and good intentions, but is that enough? Does Michael’s single-minded purpose blind him to harm that he may be causing with his zeal?

Apocalypsis is a horror think piece, delving into dystopian and science fiction genres. There isn’t any overt gore or jump scares. Rather, the horror manifests as a lingering sense of dread as you wait to see what happens to the characters and their world. All the while, you question how far Apocalypsis really is from our world right now.

Ghastly Games by Daphne Strasert: Munchkin Bites

Game Review: Munchkin Bites

Kill the Monsters. Steal the Treasure. Bite your Buddy.

Ready to fight the forces of evil? Whether you’re a vampire, werewolf, changeling, or human, you’ll need all the help you can get. Kill monsters to level up, collect treasure to boost your power, and reach level 10 before your opponents to win.

Munchkin Bites is a spinoff of the popular humor card game, Munchkins. The Munchkin games satirize role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. This version follows the theme of monsters and horror. It is a game for 3-6 players and takes about 90 minutes to play.

Game Play Overview

The goal of Munchkin Bites is to be the first player to reach level ten. Everyone starts at level one, but players can improve their characters by assigning a race (vampire, werewolf, or changeling) and by equipping them with items. These increase the chances of defeating monsters you encounter. Munchkin Bites also include Power cards, which give your character special abilities (like forcing others to help you or letting you reroll the die).

You increase levels by defeating monsters that you encounter during the game. Each turn, you flip over a Door card to discover monsters or items behind it. If there is no monster behind the Door, you can play one from your hand to fight. If you kill a monster, you go up a level and collect treasure.

But when you step up to fight, know that the other players can (and will) get involved. They have cards and powers of their own that they can use to help the monsters kick your ass. If you want their help, you’ll have to bargain. This bargaining plays a central role in the game dynamic, forming alliances and breaking them just as easily. When the dust settles, you either kill the monster and collect your reward or suffer the consequences of defeat.

Game Experience

Early gameplay goes quickly; players level up and gain items with little resistance. But as everyone approaches level ten, things get personal. Players start all-out war to keep others from budging in the standings. Friends become enemies and people you’re close with will screw you over if it means the difference of a point.

While the arguments are real, Munchkin Bites refuses to take itself seriously. Most of the fun of the game is in the cards themselves. Each features art from John Kovalic’s Dork Tower comics with a horror twist. It’s a fun play on macabre themes. While anyone can enjoy monsters like the ‘Heck Hounds’ and ‘Were-Hamster’, Horror Addicts will get more out of this game than most (Bela Lugosi impressions, anyone?). The characters are delightfully grim and the culture references are reason enough to play on their own. After all, who wouldn’t want to kill monsters with ‘The Sword Of Beheading People Just Like In That Movie’?

Final Thoughts

Munchkin Bites is a staple of my own Game Nights. It is a fun, silly game, but isn’t for people looking for a casual game with no decisions involved (some people just want to play Sorry!. I’m not one of them, but whatever…). Gameplay is straightforward, but there are built in layers of complexity that mean players who are familiar with role-playing games will catch on more quickly. Don’t be discouraged if you’ve never played D&D! Munchkin Bites is a fun introduction to the essence of role-playing. Even when you’re familiar with gameplay, Munchkin Bites doesn’t lose its luster. The jokes never really get old and players devise new, monstrous ways to torment their opponents with each turn.

You can combine Munchkin Bites with any other core Munchkin games (they come in a lot of varieties), but Horror purists won’t see the need to muddy the cemetery with the riffraff from other versions. For more fun, consider combining it with Munchkin Bites 2: Pants Macabre.

Ghastly Games by Daphne Strasert: Gloom

Game Review: Gloom

The sky is gray, the tea is cold, and a new tragedy lies around every corner…

The distinguished characters of Gloom do not have happy fates awaiting them—not if you have anything to say about it. You control what happens to them through the course of the game, building tales of woe for your unfortunate family. Your objective is simple (and grim): make your characters as miserable as possible before killing them off one by one.

Gloom is a thematic game for 2-4 players. It takes about an hour to play.

Game Play

Gloom offers four nefarious families to torture. Will you play with Darius Dark and his ill-conceived circus of misfits? Or the rich, but malevolent Hemlock family? How about the undead results of Professor Helena Slogar’s experiments? Or the extended kin of the Blackwater Matriarch, who proves you can’t choose your family, but you can choose which of them survive?

Beware, you’ll probably get a little attached to your family as you ruin their lives. In my experience, players develop an affinity for a certain family, sometimes continuing their stories from previous games.

Once you’ve chosen your victims, you’re ready to start their tales of woe. In your hand are several types of cards. Some contain horrific incidents that will make your characters miserable. Some contain happy moments that you can use to lift the spirits of other player’s families. Other portend the ultimate calamity to befall a character of your choice. Choose wisely and time your characters’ deaths to bring you the most advantage.

The game ends with the demise of one entire family. That family doesn’t necessarily win, though. One supremely horrible life can outweigh five mildly grim ones. Whichever player has the most miserable score for their dead characters takes home the macabre victory.

Game Experience

The cards in Gloom are the real stars. Each features delightful callbacks to Edward Gorey style grim humor with cute alliterations that makes torturing your family delightful (“Widowed at the Wedding” or “Mauled by a Manatee”, anyone?).

The cards are clear, so the values of preceding play can still be seen. The clear cards make for more complex gameplay, since all new moves build off former ones. It requires some strategy to maximize misery. Because the cards are plastic, though, there are problems with them sliding off each other (shuffling is not great).

The cards create a great base for weaving together the tales of woe that befall the families. Gloom is a storytelling game and piecing together the miserable lives and deaths of the characters is as much a part of the game as killing them off. However, I found that the story takes a back seat to strategy and is usually summed up by what can be found on the cards. If you’re looking for more creative outlets, there are better options.

Final Thoughts

Gloom is a fun, easy game to play, once you get the concept. Most first-time players struggle with the idea that they want to murder their loved ones, but once they get over that hurdle, they take to the game with glee.

While the premise is simple (bad actions take away happiness points and good actions give them), there are a few different types of “happiness” and the cards interact with each other to change those. First time players should pay attention to what you’re doing. It can get complicated.

My favorite parts of the game are the art, the snippets of writing on the cards, and the characters, which build a macabre tapestry. Overall, Gloom is fun and casual, a little like playing a part in the Addams family.

Movie Review: Wastelander

In a post-apocalyptic world, what remains of the human race clings to life in a vast, desert wasteland. A rampant slave trade, gangs of cybernetic bandits, and sinister warlords plague the land. Rhyous (Brendan Guy Murphy), a lone fighter, searches for Eden, where the remnants of civilization are rumored to remain. Taunted by incomplete memories of pre-war society, Rhyous fights the urge to succumb to savagery and greed, even as he must fight to stay alive.

Wastelander follows Rhyous in his search for Eden and takes us through the last dregs of humanity. The movie is an action filled romp, a la Mad Max. The overarching theme about finding humanity—whether by returning to the old or blazing a new way—ties rival groups together and pushes them apart. Greed and survival fuel ganglands style wars where the price of any misstep is death. Still, slivers of humanity peek through scenes of violence, as Rhyous shows the kind of compassion that seems to have gone extinct.

Rhyous is paired with tough-as-nails Neve (Carol Cardenas), a former slave who doesn’t back down in the face of a fight. Neve humanizes Rhyous in a surprising way, bringing out a protective quality, when Neve isn’t exactly a damsel in distress.

The fight scenes are creative and well choreographed, blending seamlessly into the violent landscape. A mixture of weapon types and fighting styles ensure that no battle is quite like the others.

Creators designed a full and engaging world for Wastelander . Pop culture advertisements linger in the most unlikely places long after the end of the world had come and gone, giving a fascinating look into the time before the wastes. The story has some creative high points when examining what it might mean for humanity to lose all knowledge of the world from before (“What’s ‘years’?”). The costumes offer a glimpse of how humanity would make the best of what resources were left. The film had a clear aesthetic style with regard to post-apocalyptic fashion. Creators merged functional items with a unique style that set the stage without saying a word. They did a lot with seemingly very little, using details to distinguish from the everyday.

The cinematography in Wastelander  fits well with the grim world it portrays. The desert landscape and lighting create a vision of stark lights and darks, much like the ‘rule or be ruled’ morality of the world portrayed. Any escape from the environment brings danger because if any resource is available, survivors can bet that someone else found it first. The film makes creative use of sets and props to find interesting ways to show characters interacting with their world.

Wastelander is a great blend of the action and science fiction genres, with elements of horror throughout. It has a violent edge, so it may not be for all viewers, but the concept and world building are worth experiencing.

Ghastly Games by Daphne Strasert: Betrayal at House on the Hill

 

Game Review: Betrayal at House on the Hill

Can you survive a night at the House on the Hill? Between secret passageways, dangerous relics, and supernatural entities that lurk in every shadow, you’ll have your work cut out for you. But the house is only the start. One of your own party will betray you before the night is through. Whether you’re attacked by a hoard of bloodsucking bats, chosen to marry the ghost of a restless bride, or searching for a companion who has been buried alive, you’ll have to drag yourself out by your fingernails by dawn.

Betrayal at House on the Hill is a strategy board game for 3-6 players. It takes about one hour to play.

Gameplay Overview

The best thing about playing Betrayal at House on the Hill is that the game is different every time you pull it out. There are fifty unique play scenarios (more if you get expansion packs) and each of those can be different depending on the layout of the house and the players present.

All players have a character with physical and mental stats that they track through gameplay. These affect everything from movement to dice rolls to attacks. Players work together to win, but someone in your party will turn against you.

The game is broken into two phases: exploring the house and The Haunt. In the beginning, players find new rooms and expand the layout of the house. Rooms can contain Items, Events, or Omens. Items and Events can help or harm you but find too many Omens and you’ll trigger The Haunt, the second half of the game where play becomes life or death.

When the Haunt is revealed, one player will be designated as the Traitor. From that moment on, they work against the other players, trying to raise the dead, become one with a supernatural being, kill everyone, etc. The goal is different every time. The rest of the players learn how to defeat their particular circumstances by finding specific rooms or objects, and by using character traits to discover information or attack a monster.

The game is finished when either the Traitor or the remaining players fulfill the win conditions of the specific haunt.

Game Experience

Betrayal at House on the Hill is a beautiful, atmospheric horror game. Horror Addicts will love the hundreds of traditional, spine-tingling horror references that are slipped in everywhere. The cards are well crafted with carefully chosen stories and details that make the hair stand up on your arms.

There are A LOT of pieces. Whether this is justified or not is up to personal interpretation. I don’t think they’re all needed, but some people like to have a piece for everything in gameplay. Keeping track of character stats can be difficult since the markers aren’t very good at staying in place.

However, despite a few minor annoyances, the game is pleasing overall and well made. The art is beautiful and the writing is exquisite. Each Haunt scenario is its own horror story. Cards contain details that are wonderful teasers to stories that are never told (and so fuel your own imagination as the game goes on). These make discovering the house as much of a delight as fighting for your life during The Haunt.

Final Thoughts

Betrayal at House on the Hill is complicated. If you can play your first game with a veteran, I suggest you do so. Otherwise, allocate an additional hour for gameplay to figure out how to play. If you’re looking for a quick, fun, family game (or something to play while heavily drunk), look somewhere else. But if you want an absorbing game that can be enjoyed differently each time played, this game is for you.

Movie Review: The Campus

The Campus delivers on chills while paying homage to the breadth of styles that horror has to offer.

After her estranged father’s death, Morgan (Rachel Amanda Bryant) returns home for his funeral. She holds more hostility than love for her family, having been cast out before her eighteenth birthday, and uses the opportunity to burglarize her father’s business. But when she breaks into the studio campus after hours, she finds herself with more to worry about than security and shadows. Morgan finds a fate that she never knew waited for her—a supernatural death warrant her father signed before she was born—and falls into a rabbit hole of terror. She must discover how to escape the cycle of violence before she loses not just her life, but every piece of her soul.

Not satisfied with settling for a single horror subgenre, director Jason Horton uses a unique premise to blend many into one coherent film. Monsters, gore, psychological terror—they all have their place in The Campus. Each new style plays off the others, creating an atmosphere where the next fright waits just around the corner, or just behind the door, or maybe within Morgan herself. The question isn’t if Morgan will die a grisly death, but in which way?

Morgan is far from likable at first—too brash to gain sympathy and too bold for her own safety—but when the reality of her situation sets in, so does true fear. As a uniquely self-aware heroine, Morgan seems to know the ins and outs of horror films and just how to play the system to maximize her changes of survival, not that it saves her from repeated, gruesome deaths. She’s a scream queen who makes all the right choices while confronting her demons, metaphorical and physical, and still can’t escape. It’s the inevitability of the situation that breaks her and brings the audience along for the ride.

The Campus is set largely within the combination film studio and house where Morgan grew up. It’s a paragon of Hollywood—the perfect home that is really just a set with the reality of the studio just out of shot. This plays well with the fragmented personality of the film, showing the disparate aspects of Morgan, her life, and her soul. The confusing layout and mix of professional and personal turns the campus into a labyrinth. It asks the question: which parts of Morgan’s personality are real and which are simply a production? As the movie progresses, the fronts that Morgan puts up are stripped away and we see more of her natural self.

The Campus is a solid horror flick, one that horror addicts will enjoy regardless of subgenre preferences. It takes a new look at horror, hitting on popular themes and ideas in a way that keeps them fresh. There are monsters, blood and gore, and plenty of twists and turns for viewers who want to keep guessing until the last second.

The Campus is available to watch NOW on Amazon Instant Video.

Book Review: Her Dark Inheritance Meg Hafdahl

Book Review: Her Dark Inheritance by Meg Hafdahl

Don’t be alone. Not at Night. Not in Willoughby.

Willoughby, Minnesota is an idyllic small town in Middle America. It boasts one café, one motel, and a population of five-hundred-nine. But, there are more than small town secrets hiding in the shadows of the town square. Something lurks just out of sight—and out of mind—from the residents. A bloody history of accidents, violence, and murder plagues Willoughby and threatens the town even in the present.

In July 1982, someone brutally murdered three members of the Bergman family with an ax in their Willoughby home. For decades, town suspicion has fallen on the sole survivor of the bloody massacre: Caroline, the Bergman’s teenage daughter.

But Daphne Forrest knew her mother not as Caroline Bergman, but as Jane Downs-Forrest. It wasn’t until Jane’s death that Daphne found out that her mother was the suspected murderer that newspapers had dubbed The Minnesota Borden.

Daphne visits Willoughby for the first time, looking for answers to questions about the woman she thought she knew. She may not have grown up in Willoughby, but Daphne quickly finds that she shares a connection with the town that not even the residents can fathom. Willoughby wants to show her something, something that can save the town and, maybe, Daphne herself.

Thrust into memories of unfathomable violence and fear, Daphne must face her own mistakes and find a strength that her mother never had. If she wants to get out of Willoughby alive, she must face an evil that has stalked the small town since its founding.

Her Dark Inheritance follows in a glorious tradition of American ax murderers, but it’s far from the typical tale.

Meg Hafdahl creates characters real enough to climb off the page, including a monster that stalks you long after the novel’s last sentence. The town of Willoughby itself is as real as any character. Vividly described, it’s delightful and terrifying in equal measure. It embodies an abusive relationship that traps the residents in a situation where manipulation masquerades as protection and “this is for your own good” can be just as sinister as any threat. The story raises questions that strike to the core of all of us: What does it mean to be evil? What does it mean to be weak?

Hafdahl weaves an intricate tale of betrayal, murder, and small town intrigue. Her brilliant narrative style keeps you guessing from beginning to end about the next shocking twist. Whether it’s the truth about the Bergman murders or Daphne’s ultimate fate, Hafdahl keeps you at her mercy through every page.

I haven’t read a book in one sitting in a long time, but I couldn’t put down  Her Dark Inheritance. ‘One more chapter’ led to ‘one more chapter’ and ‘one more chapter’ after that. The book is labelled for Young Adults, but is just as gripping for adults. I recommend it whole-heartedly, especially for those who like to see the darker side of the American Dream.

Movie Review: The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro has created a film masterpiece. And, with a stunning thirteen Academy Award nominations for The Shape of Water, I am not the only one who thinks so.

Set during the height of the Cold War, The Shape of Water follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who works as a cleaner at a top-secret government facility. Elisa lives a quiet life of routine and resignation. When abrasive military man, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), arrives at the facility with an aquatic monster from South America, Elisa is captivated by the surprising humanity she witnesses in the creature. She develops a kinship with the amphibian man, who is limited in communication much as she is. When Cold War agendas threaten the creature, Elisa risks everything to save him. Set against a backdrop of ego, intrigue, and romance, The Shape of Water is far more than the typical monster movie.

It’s difficult to characterize The Shape of Water as any one genre—whether spy thriller or romantic drama—but, in many ways, that is the film’s strength. The plot is gripping, driving from one scene to the next, always with a new question in the viewer’s mind. There are no groundbreaking twists or sharp reveals. Things move forward as expected, but at every turn the viewer is left wondering what exactly will come next. At no point do we feel as if any character is safe from the events on the screen. Unexpectedly funny moments set scenes of horror in sharp relief. It all builds to a gripping conclusion that is every bit as harrowing as it is satisfying.

The film features a diverse set of characters, not just in demographics, but in personality, motivation, and abilities. They were all equally memorable, but most importantly, they were believable. What set the characters at odds were their different motivations and values. There were no contrived conflicts. At every crossroad, each character made the decision that was appropriate for them.

Elisa Esposito was a powerful force throughout the film. Elisa is no shrinking violet. Despite the disadvantages of being a single woman in the 1960’s and being unable to speak, she doesn’t back down from what she knows is right. I’m always enamored with characters who have limitations of speech, especially in horror movies. The role of a Scream Queen filled by a woman who literally cannot scream is such a self-aware implementation of the genre that it deserves praise all on its own. The ability to convey emotion without words is an incredible skill and Sally Hawkins delivers, conveying with longing looks more emotion than I felt in all of the Notebook.

As the main villain, Richard Strickland is deliciously easy to hate. A cruel and vain man, Strickland has an inflated sense of his own importance and capability. Portrayed as the ideal 1960’s husband—with the good job, suburban house, beautiful wife, and loving children—his deviance lurks deeper. He treats everyone as beneath him. At the same time, Strickland is a remarkably ordinary villain, the sort of man that everyone will recognize. Even without the backdrop of the supernatural, Strickland would be a terrifying presence. Through the film, it becomes increasingly clear that he will do whatever he wants to fulfil his own sense of overinflated importance, regardless of consequences to others. His predatory attitude toward Elisa is particularly unsettling. Watching his spiral into madness and obsession is both terrifying and satisfying.

Despite being central to The Shape of Water, the character of the Amphibian Man is surprisingly flat. What is there to say about someone that is majorly made up of a costume and CGI? He’s visually entrancing and has a few poignant moments, but his main role is to showcase the way other characters interact with him rather than to give much growth or power in his own right. As for whether you find him attractive, that’s a personal matter and between you and your own sexuality.

The Cold War setting of the movie was indispensable to the plot. The motivation to keep knowledge out of enemy hands, if they weren’t able to obtain it themselves, drives the characters to dark depths, making them willing to pay any price for their country, even if that price is their human soul. I can’t imagine any attempt to make this movie in a modern setting. The film needed the backdrop of the era’s black and white morality to properly set the stage for the movie’s central theme.

After all, what makes a monster is not circumstance or affiliation, but underlying motivations and character. Humanity extends to more than just humans. What is it that makes someone worthy of respect? Worthy of life? The Cold War, during which even other human beings were seen as lesser animals due to their political affiliations, creates a perfect environment in which to address the question of “what makes something human?”

While I would not consider The Shape of Water a horror movie in its own right—certainly not a ‘scary movie’—I think that there are elements that every horror addict will enjoy. It’s a love letter to old horror movies, taking tropes from the height of campiness and drawing them out in ways that only modern filmmaking can. It is a visual delight to watch and a gripping story to follow with plenty of nods to classic horror films. Especially in a world where it feels as if anything and everything has been remade, The Shape of Water stands apart as the only one to take an old concept and do it justice.

Movie Review: Caller ID Entity

The messages are real.

Caller ID Entity is a modern horror think piece, capitalizing on a form of reality driven fear that has become increasingly popular lately. The movie derives from actual messages and testimonials of people claiming to have been the victims of mind-control experiments. While the messages themselves are harrowing, creator Eric Zimmerman transforms them into more than the crazed ravings of deranged individuals. The film asks: whom can you trust when you can’t trust yourself?

Caller ID Entity follows four young men—Dale (Denny Kirkwood), Miles (James Duval), Noah (Nathan Bexton), and Tristan (Triton B. King)—after they enroll in an unusual graduate study program run by Dr. Adam Whitney (Douchan Gersi). At the beginning, they all believe the goal of their research is to understand the causes of psychopathy, but, as the practicalities of their studies grow increasingly disturbing, the men realize that they’re into something far more sinister than they could have imagined. They are the latest victims in a mind-control experiment that challenges the very basis of humanity. The film follows them as they spiral deeper into madness and discover a network of survivors trying to expose the people who used them. They must separate truth from paranoia and find justice before time runs out.

Set in urban Los Angeles, Caller ID Entity capitalizes on the masses of humanity to reinforce the movie’s themes. People are portrayed as pawns—easily disposed and forgotten. Cellphones and cameras are everywhere in the city. When that technology can be used to hijack the mind, the threat is everywhere.

The cinematography reinforces this further. Caller ID Entity pulls from a variety of genres, using filming styles from documentaries, reality television, and experimental film. The result is a story that feels as if it takes place just on the fringe of reality. It walks the edge between life and fiction, between the belief that it could be true and the conviction that it is too crazy to be so.

Flashbacks, flash-forwards, and interviews break up the narrative, creating a looming sense of doom. We suspect throughout that there is no happy conclusion for the characters, yet we cannot turn away from their downfall. We are kept in suspense, hoping for any outcome other than the one we’ve glimpsed and wondering how anyone could fall so far.

The story has more than one basis in reality. A psychology experiment in the 1960’s found that people are willing to commit atrocities if pressured by an authority figure (interested? Look into the Milgram Experiments). This premise finds new life in Caller ID Entity, where the four young men find themselves involved in increasingly sinister experiments, spurred on by Dr. Whitney with encouragement that it is all for the betterment of mankind. While we may sit back and say we would never do anything so twisted, science says otherwise.

Caller ID Entity does not employ jump scares or extreme gore, but if you’re looking for a form of speculative science fiction or experimental horror that piggybacks off the everyday, this film is for you.

Movie Review: CHIMERA

CHIMERA: Not quite horror, but still quite good

Fifty years in the future, the brilliant but disturbed scientist Peter Quint (Henry Ian Cusick) works desperately to save his children from a gruesome and painful death. Miles (Raviv Haeems) and Flora (Kaavya Jayaram) are dying of the same degenerative cellular disease that claimed Quint’s wife, Jessie (Karishma Ahluwalia). The cure to their illness lies in the DNA of turritopsis, the immortal jellyfish. Quint secludes himself with his family and research in a remote manufacturing facility, but without access to fetal stem cells, his progress stalls. He resorts to making a deal with his sinister former boss who has her own selfish designs for Quint’s research. Under pressure and running out of time, Quint continually crosses new ethical lines in his pursuit of a cure.

CHIMERA wastes no time on introductions, instead dropping us right into Quint’s world. The scenes follow a non-linear timeline that mirrors Quint’s unravelling psyche. The effect is to leave us wondering when events happened—if they happened at all. Yet the film never loses its sense of urgency. The entire runtime is a race against the clock as Quint faces the unforgiving deadline of death—though, in this case, not his own. Because Quint’s motivations aren’t selfish, it’s difficult to root against him, even as the nature of his research becomes ghastly. As the story winds deeper into an ethical mire, we come to question some of our own moral standing in hoping for Quint’s success.

The horror of the film rests in the intimate portrayal of the characters as flawed and complex human beings with motivations that are as simple as their resulting actions are complex.

Henry Ian Cusack carries the movie with his excellent portrayal of Quint’s fragile mind. Quint is a cold, calculating scientist in almost every regard except when faced with an immediate moral travesty. These moments where we see through the cracks of his personality give us a glimpse into the terror that Quint faces at his own actions.

Quint is both encouraged and opposed by his former employer, Masterson (Kathleen Quinlan), who wants his research for her own selfish gains. She serves as the major opposing force to Quint, providing him with what he needs but always after significant struggle and always at a high cost. It is her actions that drive Quint the furthest in his pursuit of a cure. She serves as a powerful mirror to Quint’s own obsession, wanting his research for reasons that seem altruistic on the surface, but don’t stand up to ethical scrutiny.

Quint’s family serves as his moral compass, even if he doesn’t listen to them. They appeal to the loving side of him, rather than the scientist and fear for what will happen to his soul in the midst of his work. His wife, Jessie, serves as a strange voice of reason, considering that she is comatose for the entirety of the film.

Charlie (Jenna Harrison), Quint’s former coworker and sometimes lover, pulls him in the opposite direction. She believes and supports his genius, though his deteriorating sanity concerns her. She sees the good that can come of Quint’s work beyond the scope of his immediate family and, ultimately, the profit and fame that could also result. Charlie begins as a flat and uninteresting romantic subplot, but transforms throughout the movie into a complex character with staggering implications for the events of the film that lead to the hair-raising ending.

When speaking of the film, it is necessary to also mention the setting, which is so instrumental that it acts almost as an additional character. An abandoned industrial complex serves as the backdrop for the events of the film. Beyond providing a dangerous maze of tunnels and dark corners behind which secrets and danger lie, the setting diverges sharply with typical science fiction expectations, though it feels familiar for those who watch horror. Science fiction often gravitates toward stainless steel, glass, and sterile facilities. In contrast, the dingy metal, disused equipment, and abandoned hallways of CHIMERA seem like a modern Frankenstein’s laboratory—a madman’s workspace where the line between life and death is manipulated rather than revered. It leaves us with the impression that surely no wholesome science could arise from such origins.

The true horror in CHIMERA is not in anything that happens on screen (though there is plenty to hold you to your seat), but in the implication that this story won’t stay purely fiction for long. When creating the film, writer/director Maurice Haeems tirelessly researched gene therapy and where the field is likely to go in the future. As a result, the scientific premise of the movie is chillingly real. It adds a dimension to the story that would otherwise place this firmly in the hard-science fiction category, the lingering understanding throughout that this story is right around the corner from today. It portrays humanity as incapable of weighing the moral implications of science, dooming us to a spiral of frightening ethics in pursuit of some possibly unobtainable utopian future. CHIMERA asks: if the goal is to save all of mankind, is any price too high? And how do we cope with the atrocities committed in pursuit of it?

If you are looking for violence, gore, or jump scares, this movie is not for you. It focuses instead on a more cerebral sort of horror. The suspense stems from complex characterization and deep insight into the human nature to love even if it makes us monsters. This is not a teen fright flick, but perhaps it can be viewed as a science fiction success.

Creepy Possessions: The New Orleans Doll

The only thing I knew for certain about the doll was that I received it as a gift.

My sister brought it back with her from a high school choir trip to New Orleans. It was a trinket really—a miniature jester wearing a leopard print costume, the face and hands made of porcelain. It wasn’t expensive, just a mass-produced souvenir. The heavy makeup on her painted face nearly tripled the size of her dark eyes. I had never liked clowns, never feared them either, so the doll was a strange thing for me to develop an attachment to. If she hadn’t been a gift from my sister, I never would have liked her much at all.

Odd as she was, I kept her for years, always in a prominent place on my desk or bookshelf. I suppose after a while I simply stopped thinking of her as strange. Whenever anyone asked about her, I proudly told them of my sister thinking of me while away and bringing her back.

I kept a number of art, trinkets, and toys on my bookshelves, mostly gifts from friends. That was where the doll sat since I first lived on my own. Despite being made of fragile porcelain, she survived four moves to and from college and three adult apartments. Occasionally, she would suffer an accident, when a cat or errant breeze pushed her off her perch, but she remained unharmed, now decades older and just as new as the day she arrived.

Then my sister came to visit.

“Jesus, Daphne, where did you get that thing?” she asked. “It’s creepy as hell.”

She could have been referring to anything (I own a number of things Wendy considered spooky, including my Ouija Board phone case), but was pointing at the doll on the shelf, where she sat guarding my reference books on vampire lore.

“You bought it for me,” I said, with all the confidence I had from years of telling the story.

“Why would I give you that?”

“You brought it back when the choir went to New Orleans.”

“When did the choir go to New Orleans?”

I tried to remember. She had gone to New Orleans. She had brought back the doll. Those were facts, as secure in my mind as my own birthday. She had given me the doll… but when had that been? She must have been in high school, but then why did I remember the doll from before then? And why would Wendy, who was notoriously frightened by anything remotely occult, have gone somewhere in New Orleans that sold an item so strange? It was a mystery that, I’ve admitted to myself, was unlikely to ever be solved. And without the special honor that came from having been gifted by my sister, my decades-long attachment and care for the doll no longer made sense.

The doll still sits on my shelves. I’m not one to get rid of a gift. And I am still certain that she was a gift, even if I don’t know who gave it.

Award Winning Horror

It’s awards season and, as Horror Addicts, that isn’t much to get excited about.

Film critics usually rank horror somewhere below stale theater popcorn, if they mention it at all. The only horror film to ever win the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture was The Silence of the Lambs (over 25 years ago) and only four horror films made the cut for the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Films (Jaws, Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Sixth Sense). But the genre pulled in upwards of $983 million last year and was responsible 10% of the market share. Clearly, horror resonates with the public psyche and the lack of credit isn’t from lack of interest.

Perhaps horror gets a bad name from pulp monster flicks created to sell children’s toys or from movies that capitalize on sex at the expense of actual fear. Of course, exploitative movies aren’t exclusive to horror, but it seems that whenever a frightening film is acclaimed, critics are quick to characterize it as a different genre—thriller or science fiction, most often.

Are times changing?

Eliciting true terror is just as difficult as drawing tears and there is great insight achieved through examining cultural roots of fear. Get Out was a box office smash this year, indicating that audiences are ready to use horror to look at the world from a new angle. With the public seeking more than slashers that trade shock for substance, film studios—particularly indie producers—seem poised to push the boundaries of the genre further than ever before. Directors are creating defiant films that plumb the depths of human nature. If you haven’t already, go watch Raw, The Bad Batch, or The Shape of Water for a glimpse at the new frontiers producers are exploring.

Guillermo del Toro just won a Golden Globe for his directing in The Shape of Water. Get Out was also nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Picture (as a Comedy, but still… Horror wasn’t a category). Maybe it’s a sign of things to come. We could be looking forward to some nomination nods when the Oscars come around.

Blood and gore movies filled with jump scares will never really go away, (then again, neither will the Transformers franchise). That isn’t bad—those things have their place. But a new generation of movies is emerging, ones that may earn a place among industry greats as the best films of all time.

#NGHW Winner of the Character Challenge Daphne Strasert

Winner Daphne Strasert!

Daphne wins an Anime character sketch of her character from Pixel Ghost Creations!

CHANGELING

My grandmother warned me when Aria was born. “Keep a wary eye,” she said. “The fairies will spirit away a beautiful baby if they get the chance.” It was superstitious nonsense, or so I thought at the time. Eleven years passed without a thought for her stories about fairies and changelings. Yet, ever since Aria started middle school…

It was absurd—I knew it was absurd—to even entertain the thought, but Aria… she wasn’t my daughter anymore. Not really. Gone were the days of playful giggles and lightning-quick hugs before she skipped from the car to the entrance of her school. Now she rolled her eyes when I asked if she wanted to make cupcakes and threw fits about coming to family dinner. It was as if one night my bubbly darling went to bed as the angel she’d always been and the next morning, a petulant, spoiled imposter emerged.

She looked the same—all curly red hair and freckles—but there was something in her eyes, a sinister glint behind the green that wasn’t there before.

I carried the basket of clothes up the stairs to her room. They had to be washed—had to— before she went to the movies with Christina. She needed her blue shirt, the one she insisted I buy for her because green was so last year.

The door to her room stood ajar, giving me a rare sliver view of the anti-Mom fortress that she had created. She sprawled on her bed, headphones blocking out the rest of the world and phone in her hands as it always was now, like it was surgically attached. She made faces at the screen, snapping selfies in her own private photoshoot. She straightened the hem of her tank top—the one that said “less math, more boys”, the one that bared her midriff, the one that I told her not to wear—and pulled the waistband of her jean shorts lower over her hips. She frowned, tugged at the end of an errant curl, and wrinkled her nose.

I was about to toe open the door, mouth full a lecture I’d repeated without end, when her form shimmered, like looking at her through hot air rising over pavement. Her body wavered, warped, then changed.

She stretched, even as she shrank. Her limbs grew spindly, the flesh sticking to her bones so that her joints protruded in bulbous relief. The skin greyed, then tinted green, turning the color of mint. Her hair grew and grew and grew, the curls unfurling as it did, until it pooled around her. The red drained from the strands, starting at the roots, as if an artery had been cut and all the color ran out leaving only a shimmering, silky lake of silver. Moss green spots replaced the dusting of freckles over her face and shoulders. The afternoon light that filtered through the gauzy curtains bounced off iridescent scales that had sprouted over her collar bones. Sharp cheekbones jutted from her face and her jaw and chin narrowed, giving her the triangular visage of a praying mantis. The fingers that held her phone in front of her face lengthened and her nails, once neatly trimmed, grew into wicked, curved claws.

She wiggled a little, sitting straighter in the bed, and two pairs of translucent wings sprang free from the pillows. They were narrow, like those on a dragonfly, with a pattern of veins twining like lace through the sheer material. The areas between each shone with a different color, like stained glass. She combed her fingers through her hair, arranging it, first over one shoulder, then the other, examining her face from a variety of angles in the screen of her phone, until seemingly pleased with the result. She puckered her thin lips to blow a kiss at the screen, lifting the point of her chin, and snapped another selfie.

The basket fell from my hands.

She jerked from the bed, tearing the headphones off and revealing long, pointed ears that sloped downwards from her hair. For a frozen moment, we stared at each other. Her eyes, now nearly twice as large, glowed a luminous blue. They sparkled, the colors shifting over each other like a kaleidoscope with only a thin, vertical slit of obsidian in the center.

The pupils widened as she blinked, like a cat recognizing prey. A shiver swept up my spine. She advanced toward me, one bare foot placed in front of the other in a silent stalk. Aria’s clothes hung off her skeletal frame, too large for the creature that wore them. My feet froze to the floor. A scream built inside my throat, but as the creature that had been my daughter prowled closer, the sound found no exit.

She stopped only a step away, close enough for me to smell the woodsy scent of rain and organic decay that wafted from her, too wild to be any perfume. The air stilled in my lungs. Her eyes, those swirling pools of blue, never left mine. The corners of her lips tugged upwards, like a curtain drawing back on a stage, baring dozens of interlocked needle-like teeth in a grotesque smile. Her tongue slithered out to stroke the point of each fang in turn.

God, Mom,” she said, her voice tinkling as if accompanied by chimes. “Don’t you know how to knock?” She bent to the basket, snatched the blue shirt from the top of the pile, and whirled back into the room with the slam of the door.


Listen to the contestants battle for points this season on HorrorAddicts.net