Who cares? Not me. Maybe you? Ooh, you’re not going to get along with this article. ‘Is Wednesday Addams a Mary Sue?’ skips right on past any conversation about whether the series “Wednesday” is good or bad, and what we might like or dislike about the character. It goes straight to debating a categorization Camille Bacon-Smith once defined as “self-imposed sexism”. Yet where once it was self-imposed, these days it’s often groups of men online throwing the term at Rey, Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk, Naru…basically any woman lead who displays competence.
Let’s start with whether the series is worth your watch. The Addams Family spinoff is most closely linked to the 90s movies directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. The role once played by Christina Ricci is assumed by Jenna Ortega, essentially without missing a beat. Disengaged with teenage life and too troublesome to handle, Wednesday is shipped off to Nevermore Academy, a high school for supernatural outcasts like herself.
“Wednesday” is good, it’s funny, and it resurrects a deadpan humor that I didn’t know I missed until the show started cracking monotone one-liners. While the broad strokes of the supernatural high school mystery are all there, Wednesday’s utter lack of interest in engaging with the most tiresome tropes is what breathes life into the series.
The characters are well realized, the music fitting and clever, and the set design is what you’d expect out of a series with Tim Burton’s involvement. Despite a cast that involves Gwendoline Christie, Christina Ricci, Riki Lindhome, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Luis Guzman, it still might be a bit too familiar to the teen supernatural subgenre if not for Jenna Ortega’s leading role – and to be fair, Victor Dorobantu’s performance as her sidekick, the severed hand named Thing.
It’s like one of those chemistry experiments where you add a bunch of interesting ingredients and nothing happens, but then you drop gothanium into it and suddenly the room’s filled with deadly interdimensional soapfoam worms coming straight at you. Ortega’s already got my performance of the year (so far) for a film with “The Fallout”, and now she has an argument in “Wednesday” for performance of the year for a series.
That Ortega’s required to elevate it all isn’t a criticism given that the series is purpose-built for Ortega to elevate it all. It’s exactly what the series sets out to do, which is a joy to see for someone who’s already one of our best actors. If macabre humor is your thing, then “Wednesday” is probably going to be your thing. Not to be confused with Thing, who’s Wednesday’s Thing.
But what about the criticism that Wednesday Addams is too capable? This is coming from both women and male critics (including Jenna Scherer at A.V. Club and Sarah Milner at Slash Film), as well as spurring the usual misogynist forums into a froth.
I understand the criticism of a Mary Sue, the basic concept being that a dude gazing at his navel has figured out a way he can fight people on the internet today. The origin of the term ‘Mary Sue’ comes from a 1970s fanfiction about original flavor Star Trek, where a woman’s satirical self-insert character is treated as beautiful, uniquely talented, honest, diplomatic, skillful, desired – you know, all the things creator Gene Roddenberry made Captain Kirk. For another example of a Mary Sue, consider Superman, who flies and fights and laser eyes and freezy breathes and x-ray sees and saves swooning damsels and everyone loves and is only ever not good at something by comparison when he’s just not quite as amazing as a god-tier villain for half-a-second before he wins anyway cause he remembers the power of friendship or family or taking a step further away from kryptonite. But doing this as a woman, which everyone agreed for decades would add a layer of unreality to the whole affair.
Truth is, we’re fine with Mary Sues. We always have been. They just have to be men. And I’d love to be making a feminist comment here and maybe I should be or maybe this is anyway, but really, I’m starting from a storytelling one. A Mary Sue is like any other character – they can be written well, or badly. There’s got to be a purpose to making someone a Mary Sue, just as there has to be a purpose to making any character an anything-at-all.
Does the term even belong? In modern usage, the requirement for the character to be a self-insert has been shorn away, though Bacon-Smith pointed out 30 years ago that this element is inherently hypocritical. It judges a woman character self-insert in Star Trek fanfiction when Star Trek wouldn’t exist without Roddenberry’s male one. This highlights that male self-inserted heroes are the norm and expected – Bacon-Smith argued that the term ‘Mary Sue’ is already sexist on the basis of criticizing women for what it assumes is normal for men. If the term’s inherently broken before it’s even applied to any material, then what value can it possibly have? Critics like Bacon-Smith and MaryAnn Johanson have argued that the term itself is self-suppressive.
Insofar as Wednesday Addams is concerned, she’s a skilled fencer, archer, rower, cellist, vocalist, detective, martial artist, escape artist, pathologist, writer, master strategist, gets straight A’s, is an expert on innumerable subjects, and speaks countless languages including ASL, English, German, Italian, and Latin. Her only weaknesses are not being weak enough and being too eager to defend the downtrodden and outcast.
You’re watching a series about an (attempted?) murderess and her faithful severed hand investigating a prophesied mystery at a school whose cliques are split into Vampires, Werewolves, Sirens, and stoners (Gorgons). There are other folk from myth and fable, too. If that’s all cool but your sense of reality is broken by Wednesday being good at stuff, I don’t know what to tell you, but that’s mainly because I’m going to avoid talking to you in the first place.
But wait! Gary Stus have a reason for being so great! For instance, Superman is excused from being a Gary Stu because he’s an aspirational concept more than he is a character. Yes, that’s the whole point, and this is where the conversation normally breaks down to dudes going, “Oi, but she’s a Mary Sue, she is!” Sit down and take a deep breath for this, my fellow dudes: women can also be aspirational characters. And just as men expect women to treat Supes and company as aspirational, as a dude, it’s fully possible to see characters like Wednesday or Rey or She-Hulk as aspirational, too. Even if those aspirations aren’t designed for us first and foremost (Superman’s are often designed for male audiences), it’s not a stretch to still see what’s admirable about those characters.
Is Wednesday a Mary Sue? If she is, she’s a well written and acted one. If she isn’t, she’s a well written and acted whatever we’re deciding she is instead. Wow, you can really see how much value the term “Mary Sue” brings to the conversation.
Since Wednesday is so good at so many things, the fun isn’t necessarily about whether she’ll make it out of a scrape all right. It’s about the mystery, the joy of the macabre, and the send-up of Wednesday constantly rejecting teen supernatural tropes because they sound like a lot of unneeded hassle.
In fact, the most fun parts of the series are seeing how ruthlessly efficient Wednesday is at getting out of talking to this or that idiot, and – oh wait, I just realized how truly aspirational a character she is for women.
In fact, the show “Wednesday” reminds me of most is another from this year: “Spy x Family”. The anime thrusts together a spy husband and assassin wife in a fake marriage each needs to deflect suspicion. Neither one knows the other one’s secret, and they take care of a telepath child he adopted days before who knows everyone’s secrets but hides her own. You’d think the comedy would come from everyone being weird with each other and hiding what’s unexpected, but the comedy arises from the exact opposite – how normal everyone is about what should seem strange. Loid isn’t surprised by his wife Yor’s strength or ability to handle dangerous situations – he’s usually surrounded by people for whom this is normal. He goes on and on about how perceptive children are, completely ignoring incidents like daughter Anya knowing someone is drowning from the opposite end of a building. Throw a dog who can see the future into the mix and you’ve got a heart-achingly sweet show about what would break any other family working perfectly for this one.
“Wednesday” isn’t sweet, it’s acidic, but the approach of being in on the joke, of seeing from the perspective of the joke itself until it becomes something serious and meaningful, and what this reveals about the people involved – that’s what makes both of these shows rare and special. Wednesday being endlessly skilled isn’t some weakness of the series, it’s the norm for it. It asks us to see from the perspective of someone who does know more but is constantly roadblocked by structures and systems that are built to safeguard power rather than protect people.
In “Addams Family Values”, Wednesday sets fire to a summer camp play about how great the pilgrims are. Pilgrims return here, and being able to see the world from Wednesday’s perspective is to wonder why people with power, charged with protecting others, are whitewashing history in a way that teaches them to ignore present danger. There’s a term that means most of the same things “Mary Sue” does, but disguises its meaning far less: power fantasy. Many power fantasies are about exerting violence, and Wednesday certainly gets to practice some of hers now and then. But through and through, “Wednesday” is a power fantasy about being so skilled and undeniable of will that both injustice and complicity aren’t allowed to hide, grow in shadows, persist, and resurrect. It’s a very timely power fantasy then.
Call her a ‘Mary Sue’ and “Oh no, we shouldn’t have characters like that, it’s unrealistic,” and we’re not even talking about the show or what it’s doing. Misogynist groups have latched onto the term because it inherently judges women for doing the same thing men do. Whether the term should be taken back and repurposed or junked altogether isn’t my call; that’s for women critics and storytellers to decide. My point is that Gary Stu never caught on for a reason. When it has to do with a man we just call them power fantasies. Call Wednesday a power fantasy and the question is, about what? Suddenly we’re talking about the show and what it does. The conversation’s about how power is presented, why it’s written in and what it’s doing.
Is Wednesday Addams a Mary Sue? I’ll answer like I started. Who cares? Is Wednesday Addams a power fantasy? A brilliant one.
I love janky video games, especially from the late 90s/early 00s era before the open world boom. Level design reigned. It encouraged a host of clever mechanics, and maps that gradually unlocked like a gigantic puzzle. Realism wasn’t as important as giving the player the unexpected. It didn’t matter if the experience felt authentic; it mattered if the world and mechanics surprised you. The 2002 vampire actioner “BloodRayne” is both an average and a problematic game. Why delve into it? It sits at the intersection of various approaches to game development. These different influences are a big part of the reason it’s so muddled in the first place.
Level Design in the 2000’s
Intricate, self-contained puzzle levels were the hallmark of great action games in the 90s. The “Doom” and “Quake” series would often feature levels that opened up like a Rube Goldberg machine. Keys and switches opened doors, raised gates and bridges, and revealed whole new sections of a map, changing how a player viewed and engaged parts of a level they’d only been seeing from one perspective.
This would be chipped away over the 2000s, first by the popularity of linear military shooters like the “Call of Duty” series. The on-rails storytelling abandoned winding, puzzle-box levels and replaced them with a cinematic experience. This relied on frenetic, triggered scenes that featured on-the-ground perspective for chaotic battles, chases, and disasters. It gave developers a much stronger director’s hand when it came to shaping story and building momentum. The trade-off was that players lost agency to explore and engage a level at their own pace. In these games, there was less to figure out; you essentially continued forward until a new event triggered.
Neither is a better approach; they both have their strengths. Each can be done well, or badly. The big difference centered on player agency. Puzzle-box levels meant two different players might have very different stories about how they discovered those puzzles or pathed through the level. Yet the puzzles themselves often boiled down to repeating hunts for keys to the next door. There simply wasn’t enough quality level design to go around. Developers wrestled technology to even implement new mechanics in the first place. That bottlenecked the breadth of puzzle design a game could incorporate.
Linear level design meant that the story happened at the developer’s pace. This allowed for more character-heavy work, better-managed pacing, and more natural dialogue scenes. With more tightly-directed scenes, the silent, cypher protagonists who dominated 90s action games were replaced with voice-acted ones full of opinions and backstory. The more direction and timing developers could implement, however, the more agency was removed from player exploration and experimentation. The more linear, the more every player experiences the game exactly the same. There were fewer instances in these games where players would have different stories (this experience would instead arise from the increasing accessibility of multiplayer).
The ongoing open world boom followed. Technology finally allowed developers to realize full cities and open, varied landscapes. This wasn’t anything new – the “Elder Scrolls” and “Zelda” franchises had exemplified this approach for well over a decade, the limitations of technology be damned. As that technology caught up, it wasn’t just a few developers pushing the limits. Open worlds became the norm. There was more demand for them and there were fewer unknown pitfalls to making them.
Yet with near-yearly “Assassin’s Creed”, and “Far Cry” entries, the creativity which technological limitations had once demanded now gave way to standardized design. Icon-strewn maps distracted you with empty time-fillers that were sometimes indistinguishable from meaningful side quests. Collect every feather in “Assassin’s Creed 2”, shame on me. Go on every hunting quest in “Far Cry 4” for the promise of a wacky fashion show, only to be awarded a letter telling you there was no reward of any kind, shame on the developers.
Of course, the era of closed-level design wasn’t without its flaws, as I was about to be reminded by playing the original “BloodRayne”. The story is pretty straightforward – a dhampir (half vampire, half human) named Rayne travels around the world in the 1930s and 40s preventing Nazis from unearthing powerful ancient artifacts. Think Indiana Jones if he wore a corset, drank blood, and spoke every line like Mae West telling you to, “Come up and see me sometime”.
OK, this “BloodRayne” isn’t the original original. The game got a 2020 remaster in “BloodRayne: Terminal Cut”. The old version had a lot of hang-ups on modern systems – such as most lines of dialogue being cut off mid-sentence. These are fixed, and a range of modern graphical upgrades are included. It still wears the low-polygon bones of the 2002 original, but it’s upscaled, has wide-screen support, some basic 4x anti-aliasing, and now features reflections, enhanced fog and shadows, and nicer water. Some of these are integrated better than others. The interaction of water and certain other effects can produce some strange artifacting, for instance, though it’s nothing game-breaking.
Why Do This to Myself?
Why would I want to play something as sophomoric and proto-edgelord as “BloodRayne”? It didn’t interest me back in the day. I remember seeing a friend play it and thinking it was an incredibly thin, repetitive game. Its major selling point was the look of the hero in all her early 2000s, corseted goth glory. What it distracted from was any talk of the gameplay itself. If you were a nerd coming of age in that era, a Shirley Manson-inspired vampire killing Nazis in a BDSM-punk world – that caught your eye, sure…but other options included a strange, antagonistic political world to explore in “Morrowind”. The storytelling of “Final Fantasy” was in its heyday. The “Silent Hill” franchise was changing the face of horror games. They weren’t my thing, but you had “Max Payne”, “Metroid Prime”, a “Grand Theft Auto” release a year. “Spider-Man” and “Jedi Knight 2” had both come out that year. “Super Mario Sunshine” was a uniquely challenging platformer that I would argue is the best Mario game, and Nintendo’s party games were entering a Golden Age. “BloodRayne” offered the appeal of a poster, while each of these offered new and deep gameplay that could entertain, puzzle, and thrill for dozens of hours.
If anything, “BloodRayne” is most interesting now as an artifact of its time. It holds a specific place in the ‘archaeology’ of game design, and specifically level design. Back then, who could’ve known that linear military shooters and open worlds would supplant the more traditional level design in 90s big hitters like the “Quake”, “Unreal”, and “Thief” franchises?
The standout of these was the original “Half-Life”, which strung levels together more naturally. A cluster of levels might loop back on itself, but it was still a progression of linked levels. Instead of a self-contained single level, it often presented a hub-and-spokes model. The effect was ultimately similar to traditional design in that you hit switches or recruited scientists (essentially walking keycards) to unlock another section of that hub. This allowed you to progress to the next closed hub of linked levels. This hinted at variations of the hub-and-spokes model that later stealth games and immersive sims would shift toward, such as “System Shock 2”, the third “Thief” entry, the “Bioshock” franchise, and elements of the “Dishonored” franchise.
“Half-Life” also matured the triggered event beyond monster closets and ambushes. Story events would erupt around the player in a way that hadn’t really been mastered before. Even as “Half-Life” evolved the intricate self-contained level into hub-and-spokes levels, its evolution of triggered events would outpace this in enabling the linear, cinematic level.
How does this inform “BloodRayne” in a way that makes it such an example of its time? “BloodRayne” features a mix of self-contained levels, as well as a handful of hub-and-spokes models that see you returning to a prior level in order to open up a new area. The latter can feel pretty pointless, stressing a game with already repetitive gameplay, but let’s hold off and back up a minute:
The Game Itself
As I mentioned, Rayne is half-human and half-vampire. She has a lot of the same rules as “Blade” in that she has vampiric strength, skills, and drinks blood to regenerate, but with only a few of the drawbacks. For instance, true to Bram Stoker-era lore, crossing a body of water hurts her – and the game loves to throw flooded areas at you.
Rayne is recruited in the 1930s by a secret agency called the Brimstone Society – it protects humans from things that go bump in the night. Nazis are obsessed with procuring any kind of supernatural power for themselves, so after an opening prologue/tutorial in Louisiana, we skip ahead by several years to Rayne’s infiltration of a Nazi base in Argentina.
The first thing to know about “BloodRayne” is that fights can be fun but meaningless. As a dhampir, every Nazi in sight is a walking health kit. While “BloodRayne” doesn’t utilize the regenerating health mechanic that became the standard in shooters a few years later, virtually any human enemy who isn’t a boss can be fed upon to recover health. This makes most shootouts feel like they’re wasting your time. Leave one or two enemies for the end, and you can regenerate all your health regardless of how well you played.
It also hurts that the game doesn’t feel very skill-oriented. Guns lock on automatically, but rely on them and you run out of ammo pretty quickly – despite being able to pick up nearly every enemy’s firearm. The melee itself plays as woefully unspecific, but it doesn’t really matter. If an enemy’s close to Rayne, they’ll get hit. The combos feel oriented to show off Rayne’s gymnastics instead of communicate interaction or impact. While the monsters are creative, fighting against them is rarely as fun as fights against humans. It’s all just a melee mash, with Rayne’s own combos and dodging not mattering much and boiling down to button mashing.
Playing with a controller, I can see why the mechanics are set up this way. Playing on PC with a mouse and keyboard, I’d have preferred if these mechanics were reversed: melee that hard-locked onto enemies so that you could just focus on moves and combos, and shooting mechanics that required precision aiming from the player.
The game was never a struggle in these moments. It just felt annoyingly drawn out. The action was solid, but endlessly repetitive. The gameplay felt more natural and rewarding by switching on the invulnerability cheat and toying around with the slow-motion bullet-time. It was more fun to create my own action scenes than to play the game as it was designed.
When given multi-level arenas with countless fools shooting at you, “BloodRayne” feels great even today as you leap from enemy to enemy and systematically take them out. It feels good to leap up three stories because you’re a dhampir, and see the once-confident Nazi you’re about to eat start panicking. That is a rewarding feeling. There just aren’t many opportunities for it.
Too often, the game devolves into long corridors or a series of similar-looking rooms where half a dozen enemies will spill out in one of two predictable variations: monsters or humans. It gets redundant and the warren-like early level design doesn’t do the game any favors. The hub-and-spokes design used here stresses the repetition even more, without making the levels puzzle-like enough to reward the amount of backtracking that has to be done between switches, batteries, and explosives that open up new areas.
Mid-game platforming sections also fail the game. It’s not built around precision-platforming. That makes the platforming sound difficult, but it really isn’t. You’ll fall off a few times because you won’t be able to tell what’s invisibly walled and what isn’t, but that’s a common fault of level design from that era, so not something I can really hold against the game. The bigger problem is that platforming is neither challenging nor interesting. When you’re playing a character who can jump three stories or across vast chasms, uninteresting platforming feels like a massive failing. Thankfully, these sections are generally brief.
“BloodRayne” does have some redeeming features. Later levels are much better, especially after they dump the hub-and-spokes design for a progression of self-contained, outdoor, castle levels. Developers in the late 90s and early 00s really knew how to make castle levels, and “BloodRayne” delivers. A balance of outdoor and indoor paths through ruined German castles offer enemies ambush points with overlapping fields of fire. It’s here the game features the verticality that’s missing in its earlier and endless closed bunkers. This forces you into some light strategy like flanking, taking out one position before another, or shielding your approach by using those vertical elements. I’m not going to say it really matters because you’re still surrounded by walking health kits, but it’s a lot easier to pretend it matters, and in a vampire power fantasy that’s just as fun.
Where I will say the game excels is in its boss battles. These are unexpected, tense, and varied. You’ll fight a giant Cthulhian monster across a swamp of half-sunk boats that forces you to rely on your leaping ability just to stay alive. It’s a tough fight that’s made unfair by how little ammo you can scrounge up, but it is incredibly memorable.
Another moment has you fighting supernaturally fast twins. One will distract you while the other attacks. There are puzzle elements to many boss fights, and the last boss fight is a three-sided affair where the gameplay becomes more challenging in different ways depending on which of the bosses you kill first.
You’ll fight a butchering Nazi performing human experiments who’s dressed like a fetish nurse who – you know what, let’s skip that one. In all honesty, it’s a quality fight that sees you spamming your slow motion ability to leap off trap doors as they swing open, but yeah, there are some deeply problematic characterizations here. The game’s entire treatment of women is godawful, and we’ve seen how the 2000’s incorporation of Nazi imagery into niche fetishization has gone – I’d say haywire, but I think it was really pretty predictable in the end.
It still feels good and even cathartic to play a game that can unequivocally recognize that yes, Nazis are the bad guys, yet there’s still a “yes, but” element when a game says, “but we can still fetishize them”. It’s only presented this way in this one character, but in so doing it poses women Nazis as desirable if they present themselves ‘attractively’, which is a weirdly fucked up message.
(I do appreciate that it’s not just “Looney Tunes” or something from 60+ years ago where we can look at it and contextualize its problematic elements. It feels good to look at something from 20 years ago and be able to do the same, because it suggests our ability to change those things – or at least highlight them for change – has become a bigger part of the conversation with a much faster speed of social recognition.)
As for the boss battles, while they are well designed, they encourage ammo rationing. Since those boss battles aren’t usually signposted ahead of time, it can lead to a mentality of rationing your ammo all the time. That means relying on the unwieldy melee even when it’s not necessary.
What does that all mean? I enjoyed large sections of the game. The monster design is good, as is the early and late art design. The boss battles are unique and clever – they generally outshine the rest of the game. The vampire power fantasy works in streaks, and “Matrix”-style bullet-time effects in games never really get old.
On the other hand, the platforming is neither difficult nor fun. The early level design isn’t as tight as it is later. Some mid-game level design is really discouraging in its repetition, backtracking, and bland, dreary design.
“BloodRayne” refines as it goes, meaning that most of its worst parts are presented first and foremost. Outside of boss battles, it’s only in later levels that it starts fully realizing how to bring its design and gameplay elements together in a cohesive way that feels fun. What works here is the leaping, closing distance on groups, causing chaos, and acting as we imagine a vampire would to utilize their otherworldly powers. There isn’t anywhere near enough of that until the level design allows it in the final third of the game.
“BloodRayne” as Historical Artifact
All of this is understandable when you look at developer Terminal Reality’s original intention for the game. “BloodRayne” was once planned as a sequel to 1999 action-adventure “Nocturne”, in which a detective investigated stories alongside supernatural allies as part of a secret agency called Spookhouse. “Nocturne 2” was never greenlit before Terminal Reality’s publisher Gathering of Developers went defunct. Gathering of Developers didn’t want to share the “Nocturne” license with another publisher, so Terminal Reality created a spiritual sequel in “BloodRayne” that was legally distinct. Gone were the adventure elements and the fixed-camera, survival horror aspects Terminal Reality had made so atmospheric, now replaced by a trendier third-person shooter and a lead character made for posters more than story.
Good boss battles and some interesting level design show flashes of saving a messy and otherwise average game. But I didn’t really play “BloodRayne” to play a great game – I more or less knew what I was getting into. I played it because it’s a fairly standard example of that era’s action design, and it represents one of the closing moments for when self-contained, puzzle-box levels were still the bread-and-butter of the industry.
It really highlights why that intricate hub design didn’t capture the mainstream the way linear levels did. The weakness of “BloodRayne” is its sheer repetition, and the hub-and-spoke set of Argentina bunker levels in “BloodRayne” are easily the game’s worst moment. If both the hub and spokes all play the same, then it doesn’t matter that they’re organized that way.
There was a three-headed tentacle boss in “Half-Life” because of course there was. Stuck beneath a test rocket chamber, you sneak past it into various wings of the facility. One spoke level turns on oxygen, another fuel, the next power to the test rocket. The monster is blind, but can sense sound and vibration. Each passage through the hub sees the monster increasingly destroy it, which means there’s less cover, fewer means of distraction, and your crossing becomes riskier. At the time it came out in 1998, it was so new that it was easy to misplay and waste resources, which also meant that you had less to distract the tentacles with as you got closer to enabling the rocket test firing that defeated them. There was a sense of escalating tension and increasing risk here, all in an approach that was relatively new.
In “Half-Life”, the spoke levels impacted the hub. Each one got you closer to your goal while increasing the tension and risk in the hub itself. It stands as one of the tensest sequences I’ve played.
Yet due to the popularity of “Half-Life”, many other developers copied the newness of the hub-and-spokes model of level design without always having the time, budget, or design focus to inject it with something meaningful. If the spokes don’t impact the hub aside from opening a new door, then all you’ve done is add an extra step to hunting down a keycard or lever. It just wastes time and there’s no need for levels to be organized that way. A spoke level has to change the circumstances in a hub level so that the hub is different in substance and experience when you go through it again.
Failing that, why not just progress through each of the levels without having to backtrack across a hub that remains unchanged? “BloodRayne” feels a lot better in later levels that simply progress one standalone level to the next – although that’s also helped by the more open and vertical design in them.
This is one reason that hub-and-spokes level design only seems to survive in immersive sim franchises – “Thief”, “Prey”, “Deus Ex”, “Bioshock”, “Mirror’s Edge”, the current iteration of “Tomb Raider”. These have enough other gameplay mechanics and tools that we’re often able to go through a familiar area in whole new ways as we return. How we move through an area and what we can access in a place that’s familiar changes from early- to mid- to late-game. We might see a whole new path in a hub and realize we don’t have the tool to get to it yet; we’ll come back to it later when we do. This adds depth not only to environments, but also to gameplay mechanics. When we do come back, experimenting with our new tools in an already-familiar and safer environment encourages us as players to utilize them in new areas and riskier situations.
“BloodRayne” shows why the hub-and-spokes design often works against more traditional action games that don’t introduce many new mechanics or tools. It’s an example of why that model didn’t gain popularity when it potentially had more to offer than the linear-level design it was competing against. While it may be a fairly average game, “BloodRayne” exists right at this point where action game design was splitting between self-contained puzzle-box levels, hub-and-spokes levels, and linear levels. There are few games that so obviously struggle between each of these elements because few games tried to incorporate each of them. That makes it a unique intersection in level design history – it represents an element of each level design philosophy that was fighting for popularity at the time. All three are captured in this one place, certainly not successfully, but in a way that freezes in amber the very different approaches level designers were weighing at that time.
Ultimately, I think “BloodRayne” is engrossing now if you’re interested in the ‘archaeology’ of video games. Mechanically, the franchise is emblematic of third-person action games of the time, but its level design captures a struggle over the soul of what action games would look and feel like going forward. Even when I was bored by its repetition, I was engrossed by why I was bored. What wasn’t working that was later fixed, abandoned, or only proved useful to a different genre? What did work that we may’ve lost when we dismissed certain approaches as niche? “BloodRayne” is a very average game, but an amazing museum piece to explore.
A masterpiece that shaped the industry can tell you a lot about how game design evolved. An average game with an equal measure of success and failure can tell you just as much about how gaming was shaped. What didn’t work and hasn’t been solved tells you as much as what did work.
I don’t want to beat up on “BloodRayne”. The game’s a product of its time, but I think it’s more fascinating now than it ever was in 2002. The shortcomings of “BloodRayne” fill in a missing link in the evolution of level design, and the successes in it communicate alternate paths that mainstream development didn’t follow. We remember the masterpieces, but the flawed games that didn’t work also have stories to tell about how an entire medium has evolved.
You can buy “BloodRayne: Terminal Cut” on most major PC gaming platforms including Steam and GOG, and on major consoles as “BloodRayne: ReVamped”.
“Watcher” sucks the air from the room. It’s the kind of horror film that only makes you jump once or twice because that’s all it needs. It’s ratcheted up the tension so much by the time you would jump that it doesn’t even need to shock you. It doesn’t need to make you catch your breath when it’s already taken it. It just needs to keep on coming step by step to where you know it’s already going.
(This is for the new movie “Watcher” starring Maika Monroe on AMC/Shudder and VOD. It is not the new series “The Watcher” starring Naomi Watts on Netflix.)
Julia has moved with her husband Francis to Bucharest, Romania. He has a new job there, and their apartment is a dream. Before long, she spies a man watching out his window. It’s hard to tell if he’s looking at her, or just out at the world. Soon, she’s followed by a man – the same one or someone new? The premise shares some similarities with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and writer-director Chloe Okuno uses our expectations for that format smartly, but “Watcher” more closely mirrors some of the best of 70s horror, particularly giallo like “Deep Red” and “Don’t Look Now”.
Still learning Romanian, Julia has very few people in whom to confide. Francis sides with her at first, but invariably all the men in the film are useless in the ways we’re best trained to be – to dismiss a woman’s concerns for her own safety, to turn them into a joke, to take one instance of her saying, “I think” and exploit it to doubt her entire recollection. Even though there’s a serial murderer of women taking lives, it’s more reasonable for them to doubt Julia than take sustained interest. None of this feels unreal – here is a horror where a woman is stared at and stalked and takes the right actions to document it, and the world around her dismisses her as hysterical.
It must be because she’s unable to deal with the stress of moving, with the loneliness of her husband being away so much at work. What is she to do alone all day except to let her imagination run wild. She saw the news reports of the murderer and descends into paranoia. Poor, troublesome thing.
So many films before this have created suspense from the idea that their main character is imagining things, that they aren’t reliable and thus what the film tells us must be questioned. Suspense in horror arises not just from the main character being under threat, but also being wrong about something key. Not so here. We see what Julia does and, even if it’s circumstantial, it’s enough for us to believe her. We’re the only ones who do. Her entire support system either refuses to help or makes things worse.
As her only friend in Bucharest tells her, the best case scenario is she protects herself and lives with the uncertainty – better than dying with the words “I told you so” on her lips. The horror in “Watcher” isn’t about whether Julia is interpreting reality correctly, or who her stalker is. The horror is that no one else is interpreting reality correctly, or believes her when she tells them who her stalker is.
Similarly, we’re not given a woman-on-a-mission style of horror or vengeance movie. Those can be great, but “Watcher” dials down the movie horror in favor of a realism that feels cinematic in a very different way. Its consequences feel more identifiable than aspirational. They don’t feel removed by the abstraction we usually see in horror. They feel grounded in the everyday.
Okuno delivers such an array of visual suggestion, red herrings, and Chekhov’s guns, but because they all feel so normal, so real-world, presented patiently and without fuss, we can get lost in identifying which are telling us something. It mirrors Julia’s own inability to focus in decisively when her real understanding of the situation is so isolated from everyone else’s.
We can foresee what will happen as the audience, but because there are so many different pieces our mind can put together and foresee as horror, we’re unable to truly guess at what the outcome will be. This is how Okuno achieves horror without the need to question what we know as viewers, and thus avoid our questioning Julia. The mystery’s solved enough early on; the horror rests in Julia trying to make this mean anything. We see too many possibilities for what can happen. Like Julia, we aren’t able to narrow down what we know into a solution, into a step-by-step process for resolution. We’re not guessing at an answer, but rather frozen in Julia’s place with the answer in hand at a branch of choices that each go nowhere. That’s how Okuno creates implicit systemic horror, a tension based not on whether the mystery will be solved, but on whether anyone will put a woman first enough to help.
We’re not the audience for the “Watcher”. The ensemble is the audience, supporting characters each guessing, dismissing, gossiping, entertained. Okuno maneuvers us as the audience into Julia’s shoes – knowledgeable, accurate, wary and tense because of it, frustrated because this could all be addressed if anyone listened.
Okuno’s created a masterful inversion, made possible by Maika Monroe giving one of the best performances of the year as Julia. She’s now starred in two of the most important horror films of the last decade, “Watcher” joining “It Follows”. Her performance here deserves to be talked about at the end of the year, but horror films are largely forgotten when awards ceremonies roll around.
“Watcher” also boasts some of the most effective sound design I’ve heard. The use of white noise and room noise – always organic to the location – achieves a soundscape that’s profoundly unsettling. Across the board, it’s rare that a movie is so efficient, so streamlined, yet infuses every moment with an unmistakable artistic tone.
“Watcher” truly rattled me because so much of it is identifiable. The plot is suspense horror, but the elements that go into it are real. I stopped watching horror for about two years after a death threat I received. It coincided with also having two ongoing stalkers. Horror is my favorite genre and I just couldn’t touch it anymore. I couldn’t go to it for fun. I’ve since returned to it, but I was worried “Watcher” would send me back down that path to some extent.
Its points are largely about what women face; I can’t speak to that and I don’t mean to compare my experiences to that. From my standpoint, I can say that “Watcher” made that point in my life feel visible and recognized. I was able to enjoy “Watcher” as an incredibly tense horror movie in part because it speaks to the mechanisms and systems that allow versions of that horror to exist in the real world. It doesn’t pretend or emulate, it doesn’t use a trigger for a cheap shock. It understands the horror stalkers impel by creating isolation and loneliness in their targets. Even if the movie that follows is incredibly tense, I felt like the part of me that went through that could feel less compartmentalized, less isolated, more understood.
Those are major, unique experiences in my life, however. I can point to the period in my life when they happened because I’ve been able to leave them behind. They weren’t the everyday fear that women often have to live with, and that women can’t leave behind, so I can’t say whether “Watcher” would evoke the same reaction for you. If you’ve gone through that and horror on film is something you still seek out, I think there’s something here that recognizes and legitimizes the experience of what you went through in a way few films do. If you haven’t gone through that, you’ve still got an impeccably directed, brilliantly acted suspense horror to watch.
“Watcher” has brief gore, but it’s not something I’d describe as gory. Its horror really does arise from its profound sense of legitimized paranoia and understanding of what it is for a system around you to leave you helpless by implicit design. I wouldn’t describe it as slow-burn so much as steadily escalating just out of sight. It’s a remarkable horror movie, with an even better point, delivered organically. It’s not the kind of thing you watch and put down. It sticks to you because the horror it highlights is something that really needs to stick to us in a way we recognize as real.
The intro was long last week, so we’ll dive in quick today. There’s a good range including horror, drama, comedy, and coming-of-age. Being October, horror gets half the entries. New series by women arrive from Canada, Germany, the U.S., and new films by women from Spain, the U.K., and the U.S.
The Midnight Club (Netflix) co-showrunner Leah Fong
“The Midnight Club” is about eight terminally ill patients at a hospice. They gather at midnight to share scary stories, but it may lead to some of them surviving. I missed this one last week.
Leah Fong showruns with Mike Flanagan. She was also a writer and producer on “The Haunting of Bly Manor”, which Flanagan showran, so the pair have experience on successful Netflix horror series.
High School (Amazon Freevee) showrun by Clea DuVall and Laura Kittrell directed by Clea DuVall and Rebecca Asher
Based on the autobiography of indie pop duo (and identical twins) Tegan and Sara, “High School” tells their coming-of-age stories as a testing of their bond. The pair are played by identical twins Railey and Seazynn Gilliland.
Co-showrunner Clea DuVall is best known for her roles in off-kilter late 90s satire like “The Faculty” and “But I’m a Cheerleader”, as well as more recent work in “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Better Caul Saul”. She’s also directed Hulu’s holiday hit “Happiest Season” and “The Intervention”. Co-showrunner Laura Kittrell has written and produced on “Insecure” and “Black Monday”.
You can watch “High School” on Amazon Freevee. The service is included with Amazon, and includes ads. The four episode premiere is followed by an episode every Friday for a total of 8.
Oh Hell (HBO Max) co-directed by Lisa Miller
Helene’s life is a mess, but through her cello teacher Oskar, she might be able to start living in the Instagram-perfect world she thinks is out there. There’s no English translation for this I can embed, but HBO will have options for the series itself.
Lisa Miller and Simon Ostermann direct the German dramedy together.
You can watch “Oh Hell” on HBO Max. There are 8 episodes.
She Will (AMC+, Shudder) directed by Charlotte Colbert
Alice Krige plays Veronica, who goes to a Scottish retreat with her nurse after a double mastectomy. She begins playing out revenge against past traumas in her dreams.
This is the first film from co-writer and director Charlotte Colbert.
Previously featured for rent, you can now watch “She Will” on AMC+ or Shudder.
Rosaline (Hulu) directed by Karen Maine
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is retold by Romeo’s jilted ex-girlfriend, Rosaline. The film is based on the novel “When You Were Mine” by Rebecca Serle.
Karen Maine wrote and directed “Yes, God, Yes” and wrote “Obvious Child”. All three may be comedies, but they’re each extremely different from the next.
One of my favorite genres is low-budget horror. That extends into gaming as well as film. I can’t wait to see what the next offer from Kitty Horrorshow or Connor Sherlock is, and collections of small team developers like DreadX or the yearly Haunted PS1 Demo Disc always contain gems. These are the short story collections to a AAA game’s novel. You’ll bounce off some, but others will be unique and enthralling experiences. When it comes to horror, a unique experience goes a long way, and these games usually only take an hour or two to complete. A developer founded by two Japanese brothers named Chilla’s Art is creating some of the most unique.
“The Convenience Store” is a $3 game on Steam that combines terror with the everyday, rote actions of working retail. Your character starts every night in their apartment, having to walk through an incredibly dark town to get to the shining light you can see out their window. It’s a glaringly lit convenience store. You’ll restock shelves and serve customers, but none of these take very long. Nonetheless, Chilla’s Art stacks these just enough to create the sensation of being rushed and understaffed.
Being rushed in horror is nothing new. Time constraints are a genre staple. That time constraint always has to do with survival. This evokes something escapist in nature. “The Convenience Store” goes for something more lowkey but intense: a creeping dread. Usually, that sense of dread is meant to be enjoyed more slowly. Here, it’s paired with something more identifiable than survival alone – the anxiety of rushing at work to meet too many goals. Paired with that dread, it makes for an exquisite commentary.
There’s a tension between wanting to leave because of the game’s severely creepy atmosphere vs. knowing you have to stay and work to figure out the next part of the game. It reflects the feeling of enduring a situation because it’s your job to do so, overcoming your fight-or-flight response in order to simply absorb the punishment.
Angry customers eventually give way to mysterious packages in the night and trying to chase off a ghost. There are so many core horror fundamentals that are done right. I know that every time I go in the office to peer at the security cameras, I’m exposing my unprotected back to the whole store. What’s stunning is the driving sensation that I shouldn’t run. To play the game, I have to do the job. Restocking the shelves is a frustration when a ghost keeps scattering them. Serving customers is hair-rending when you get locked in the cooler. Yet the overwhelming urge “The Convenience Store” evokes isn’t that I have to run, it’s that I have to overcome every reasonable urge to run in order to keep doing these mundane tasks.
Of course, my goal as a player is to see the game through, but it’s not to save the day or rescue anyone. That gameplay loop of progression is transformed into the experience I mentioned above: ignoring your fight-or-flight response so that you can absorb that punishment. You’re surviving to restock shelves. You’re risking your life to make sure everything’s crossed off on the manager’s checklist by the time your shift ends. Every walk through the dark town to the convenience store is filled with dread not just at the terror of the supernatural, but the idea that you’re risking your life for nothing.
“The Convenience Store” is rough in a lot of ways. With small development teams, you can often see them learning on the fly. Obtuse mechanics do aid the impression of working an inefficient retail job, but you’ll likely have seen each done more smoothly elsewhere. I often knew the solution to a puzzle, or simply what action needed to take place, but there were times when the game was less responsive or an action prompt was missing. This can create moments where you’re searching for the right angle to be able to get the game to accept an action. I did peek at a walkthrough once or twice, but I don’t feel it impacted what I came to Chilla’s Art for in the first place: atmosphere.
There are also inelegant development shortcuts. At one point, you need to get a customer five beers and a pack of cigarettes. This means going to the cooler section at the back of the store and selecting one beer – not from the cooler, but scattered on the floor in front of it. You bring them to the customer one at a time. You can pick up stacks of an items at other points, so why did I need to carry each beer one by one at this moment? Likely they didn’t have the model for more, and they didn’t have an animation for opening a cooler door.
It’s also easy to miss certain details, like a character dropping a small item. The store page on Steam says “The Convenience Store” takes about 40 minutes to play through. Mine took 100. I did go off-piste now and then, exploring extra corners and testing the game’s limits out of curiosity…but part of this was knowing a puzzle solution but needing to find the right angle to call up a prompt.
Given that the game has no save system, and if you exit out you’ll have to start over from the beginning, this means you’ll have to set aside an evening where you have a movie-length chunk of time to give it.
“The Convenience Store” is a product from a developer whose ambition outpaces their technical skill. Yet the artistic skill on show here is stellar. The mood is dark and foreboding. Every trek to the convenience store through that packed, cluttered, dark town was brimming with foreboding. I found myself regularly checking to the side and behind me, peering at the gloom to see if anything was coming out of it.
Yet the glowing oasis of the convenience store feels no safer. In the distance out your apartment window before you leave, and erupting with light the minute you cross the bridge out of your town and turn the corner, that store serves as an ebb and flow of relief and fright.
As low-budget horror movies sometimes ask us to be generous with our suspension of disbelief for choppy effects or questionable make-up, low-budget horror games can ask for us to volunteer greater patience with gameplay mechanics or a missing feature. When you’re spending $3 (closer to $2 on sale or bundled) and an hour or so to play, you’re not risking a whole lot.
I like games from lesser known developers, and those learning the ropes as they go, because these games often offer something that more established (and thus risk-averse) developers don’t. They try new ideas, or fuse disparate elements together in new ways. With fewer creative constrictions, they can find a way to bring an element of horror into another medium. They don’t know what they can’t do yet, and playing “The Convenience Store” there were moments where I thought, “They don’t know how to implement this”. It didn’t matter in the least because I was so successfully terrified in such a unique way that I can’t find anywhere else.
It’s rare that I actually get goosebumps playing a game, but this one drew me in expertly. You have to see what the next moment brings.
Chilla’s Art has 22 games on Steam and despite coming out in 2020, “The Convenience Store” is now one of their earlier entries. They’ve found modest success and you can see player reviews improving over time as they get better and more capable. I’m excited to try more, to see what it’s like when their technical abilities create more room for their considerable artistic talent. Hmm, “The Ghost Train” can’t be that scary…right?
When I research this feature every week, I end up seeing the scores every movie gets. I try not to look, but they’re just too prominent to ignore. One of this week’s new films is “Mayday”. The allegorical movie about women engaged in a war against men is getting tanked on IMDB. Why?
“Mayday” is getting hammered on its score for being “part white man bad”, a “childish game of misandry”, “misandrist fantasy” and my favorite: a “femalistic flop” because “theyve invented the new version of the atomic bomb, namely the #metoo threat that hangs over each and every man every hour, minute or second of the day”. But don’t worry, “the lead was pretty and on of the other brunets but that was it”. We got some real Eberts on our hands here.
The reason I bring this up is because sometimes a film that gets tanked like this on scoring sites is actually good. It’s not a guarantee, but when I see this kind of review brigading from other men, it’s often because it’s touched on a nerve in an accurate way. I covered this phenomenon in more detail on my review for Sophia Takal’s “Black Christmas” (which just returned to HBO Max in time for the holiday season).
A lot of hidden gems lose their audiences when they go to review sites, see a low score, and figure the movie must not be good. I haven’t seen “Mayday”. I can’t tell you how it is. This article is informational and a lot of the films come out the same day this feature does. What I can tell you is that I’ve been led to a lot of incisive, often-brilliant hidden gems when I see these kinds of reactions tanking a film’s score. Some are just OK, sure, but there are also a lot of very good films that get tanked and lose their audiences simply because they’re feminist. Seeing these kinds of reviews usually puts a movie at the top of my to-watch list.
Please don’t let review averages deter you from watching a film before you look more closely at the reason for their scores. Maybe “Mayday” isn’t your thing – hell, maybe it isn’t my thing – but a lot of films out there will be much better than the score belies.
Maid (Netflix) showrunner Molly Smith Metzler
“Maid” is based on Stephanie Land’s 2019 memoir. It recounts the story of a single mother who leaves an abusive relationship. Alex balances intermittent, underpaid work as a house cleaner with caring for her daughter Maddy.
Showrunner Molly Smith Metzler has written and produced on “Shameless” and written on “Orange is the New Black” and “Casual”.
Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (MUBI) directed by Lili Horvat
Marta is a neurosurgeon. She falls in love in a whirlwind romance. She even leaves her career behind in the U.S. to move to Hungary. The only problem is when she meets her partner there, he says he’s never seen her before.
This is the second feature from Hungarian writer-director Lili Horvat after the well-received “The Wednesday Child”.
You can watch “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time” on MUBI.
Stop and Go (VOD) co-directed by Mallory Everton
Two sisters set out on a road trip to rescue their grandmother from a nursing home where COVID has broken out.
Mallory Everton directs with Stephen Meek. This is her first feature.
Barbara Hershey plays Judith, just moved into a nursing home. She slowly becomes convinced that an inexplicable force is picking off the residents one by one. No one will believe an elderly stroke survivor, though.
Writer-director Axelle Carolyn once wrote on the history of horror movies, and she’s since moved onto directing in series like “American Horror Story”, “Creepshow”, and “The Haunting of Bly Manor”. This is her second feature.
What Breaks the Ice (VOD) directed by Rebecca Eskreis
Two girls form a friendship in 1998, as their vision of their place in the world is impacted by the country’s obsession with the Monica Lewinsky scandal. When they’re invited to a rave, things go wrong and they have to defend themselves. Will the culture they live in ever believe their side of the story?
This is the first feature from writer-director Rebecca Eskreis. She got her start in production design.
The day I watched “Nightbooks” was a terrible day. Work was taking longer because of internet issues that had spanned a week. I had a D&D session with friends scheduled online that night. It’s one of the few things that’s kept me grounded and de-stressed during the pandemic. Nothing worked; I couldn’t join. Try being on the phone with Comcast at 10:30 pm; it’s an awful way to end the day. I needed something exciting, uplifting, escapist, dark but…cheesy at the same time. I needed something like “Legend” or “The Goonies”, something that believes B-movies speak to our soul in ways awards contenders never can.
Well, there was that film where Krysten Ritter plays a witch. Wait, what? Yes, the movie where it looks like our goth queen chews every piece of scenery in sight. I mean, you can’t go too wrong with that, can you?
“Nightbooks” is exactly the kind of film I wanted. It’s a young adult (YA) horror movie that delivers a mix of cheese, earnest fairy tale, and horror homage to remind the kid in you that it’s not all pandemic and work delays and late-night Comcast rendezvous.
Winslow Fegley plays Alex, a child who runs away from his parents in a fit of anger and embarassment. He loves horror movies and writes scary stories, but now he wants to destroy them all. He gets off at the wrong floor and is lured into an apartment by a slice of pie and a TV playing his favorite movie: 80s horror classic “The Lost Boys”. When he wakes up, he’s confronted by a witch. How can he be useful to her? By doing the one thing he’s sworn to never do again: write scary stories. He’ll have to tell her one a night for eternity. If he misses one, he’ll be killed. It’s “One Thousand and One Nights” as YA horror.
The witch, her cat familiar, and the apartment itself all hold secrets to uncover, and secrets give Alex the hope of escape. There’s also Lidya Jewett’s Yasmin, a survivor who’s been trapped in the apartment for years. Will she help him, or has she already given up hope?
It’s all painted broadly, but as Krysten Ritter’s witch Natacha reminds Alex, every story must be based on some element of truth. So what is the truth at the core of “Nightbooks”? Why is it so successful at what it does?
The broad strokes of “Nightbooks” are familiar fairy tale territory. The details can remind you of other YA adaptations. There are notes of everything from “The Thief of Always” to “Harry Potter”. “Nightbooks” shares some DNA with those classics. Alex’s story is compelling because it’s the story of every kid who’s dealt with anxiety, self-hate, creative block, or impostor syndrome.
Natacha is a scary witch who can do terrifying things, and Ritter rides a Tim Curry-esque line of hamming it up while still nailing the point home. What truly makes her frightening isn’t her powers, though. It’s not the threat of a fate worse than death. The moments that cut most deeply are the ones where she picks apart Alex’s stories, tells him an idea is stupid or inaccurate, that he’s disappointing her.
None of us know what a scary witch can do. Few of us are familiar with fates worse than death. Yet so many know exactly what sitting in that chair can feel like as the things we care most deeply about, the futures we envision for ourselves, the passions that allow us to find value and meaning in our lives – we know what it’s like to sit there and watch them be torn down one by one. We know what it’s like when someone does that simply to remind us that they have so much power and control they can end with words our entire idea of who we want to be.
We also know what it’s like to fight back against that. We know what it’s like to decide not to believe it, to realize that they are just words spoken by someone desperate to frighten and control us. Sure, “Nightbooks” is a fairy tale about kids trying to escape a witch, tale as old as time. The truth on which it’s built is about kids realizing that who they want to be isn’t someone else’s decision.
“Nightbooks” couches this within a movie that genuinely embraces horror. There is a ceiling to the level of scary it becomes – it’s a movie for kids, too, after all. Yet it pushes the boundary and lovingly recalls a host of horror movies. It’s not just empty reference either. By repeating visual themes adults might already be familiar with, it deepens many of the emotional moments for the characters on-screen. This is absolutely a B-movie, but it’s a B-movie that fully understands how the genre disarms us. It doesn’t have to find a way around our guard when our guard’s already down. It has a deep understanding for horror, camp, and kitsch movie history.
The technical aspects are great across the board. There’s some exceptional sound editing in “Nightbooks”. That may not seem like the most exciting factor to point out, but it does so much to anchor us in its world. The cinematography and art direction also excel.
Fegley and Jewett are good as child actors go, especially in a project that asks a lot of them. I wouldn’t say they sell us on their situation in a dramatic way, but in a film like “Nightbooks”, that’s not their job. Their job is to be as much kids as they are actors, and they find that balance.
“Nightbooks” is also surprisingly funny. Alex’s stories-within-a-story are told as if they’re melodramatic, silent movies he’s narrating. They’re constantly interrupted by the witch’s criticisms, many of which make Alex change his stories on the fly. The presentation of these stories is genuinely endearing, and Ritter’s delivery has a way of both cutting deep from inside the story while making us laugh at her timing.
That may seem mean, but the way this type of B-movie communicates is to have us appreciate and love the references and performances even as we inhabit and feel its world. We can laugh at the comedy in Natacha’s delivery without laughing at Alex, and we can feel bad for what Alex is enduring while still wanting to hear more of Natacha. This is the magic B-movies can find, watching them from the outside as a performance and feeling them from the inside as a story at the same time. It’s not so different from what Charlie Kaufman’s done in films like “Being John Malkovich” or “Adaptation”, where we can feel bad for characters inside the story while still being amused at what an actor’s doing to elicit those emotions. He didn’t invent that meta-approach, he simply transported it. It’s existed in B-movies for decades.
That dual way of watching “Nightbooks” is its greatest strength. Ultimately, it’s not a perfect film. The CG elements are hit and miss. A mid-film action scene feels out of place. It could’ve cut an entire sequence out of its ending. Yet watching this kind of film, it’s hard to care about those things when it constantly recovers with another good sequence, unexpected laugh, or meaningful moment. What does work here is often a gorgeous re-purposing of the genre.
I think kids can get a lot out of the themes of “Nightbooks”. They don’t have enough stories that really deal with complex issues like impostor syndrome and anxiety. They need to see work like this because these are things that they’re already dealing with, but don’t have many stories to help them process it. It’s definitely a movie to watch alongside them, though. There are genuine scares here.
The awkward reality is that so much of “Nightbooks” speaks to horror fans who can identify and understand all the references and elements happening. These can really deepen the scenes’ themes beyond an initial sense of recognition or nostalgia. Yet the target audience for this is kids, who are pretty unlikely to have seen “Suspiria”, “Evil Dead”, or “The Lost Boys”.
For adults, I think “Nightbooks” is a lot better if you’re well-versed in horror and you’re content to put yourself in the mindset of a YA film. There’s a good amount of overlap in that Venn diagram, and you probably know if you’re in it or not. If you have any doubt, try having a terrible day first. “Nightbooks” can definitely help with that.
Every time I saw an ad for the “Nancy Drew” TV series, I thought its aesthetic looked superb. The ongoing CW adaptation of the children’s mystery series takes the concept sideways into horror with an adult Nancy Drew. After the death of her mother, Drew’s put off going to college and works at a diner. One night, a socialite is murdered in the parking lot. This makes her and her coworkers suspects in what starts as a smart distillation of late 90s teen horror. More importantly, it sparks a series of hauntings in their town.
The idea that it couldn’t be very good got stuck in my head before I’d seen it, I’m not sure why. “Supernatural” was a lot of fun, but it rarely delivered on the horror promise of its pilot episode. “Riverdale” and Netflix’s closely related “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” can have some clever episodes, but the horror backdrop of these is regularly sabotaged in favor of unwieldy, badly paced, season-long arcs. I do like those shows, but they all have a certain navel-gazing element that can wear a viewer down quickly.
Still, I’m a sucker for an intriguing aesthetic. At long last, I started watching “Nancy Drew” and it’s delivering in all the ways those other shows failed.
Let’s back up a second – what exactly am I looking for out of a show like this? When I talk about “Supernatural”, “Riverdale”, or “Sabrina”, I’m not saying I dislike them. I’m saying they all promised horror, showed a capability for it, and then chased something else. “Supernatural” initially promised a focus on horror and solving mysteries, but it very quickly became a meta action-comedy centered on world-saving heroes who moonlighted as pest control for ghosts and whatnot. Horror trappings were still there, but more as homages and scenery to recognize along the way. It was always interesting and often funny, but being frightening was a rare exception.
“Riverdale” and “Sabrina” showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has a rare talent for tapping into both the unsettling and reassuring elements within horror kitsch. He’s trailblazed a uniquely cinematic, unnervingly timeless style across both shows. There are standalone episodes in both series that belong among the best of the genre. Unfortunately, these are ultimately made to feel like diversions, trod under by larger plot arcs that feel uneven and unsupported. The superb world-building that establishes these universes is often undone by their larger arcs, where it turns out the hero knows everyone past and future already and the vast, mysterious, unpredictable world we were promised all turns out to be within walking distance.
I want one of these shows that plays with the kitsch and genre elements of horror to be frightening as well. I’d say “Evil” gets there, but as charming as the cast may be, it draws from a dire, harrowing, misanthropic side of horror that reflects a world decaying toward entropy. It’s an uncomfortable mirror that I highly recommend, but I’m not exactly going to describe it as a thrill ride.
That brings me back around to “Nancy Drew”, the show I’m disappointed “Supernatural” never became. There isn’t a shootout to be seen. Although both are filmed in British Columbia, gone is the Vancouver warehouse chic. Much like “Riverdale” and “Sabrina”, every location feels partly like an intentional set trapped in amber, but unlike those shows, they don’t feel like museum displays. It actually feels like people live here. There’s a distinct Stephen King vibe that’s appropriate for its coastal Maine setting, one that’s natural and precious, but also distinctly fragile.
“Nancy Drew” features very few murders for this type of show. Others are discovered along the way, but the first season of “Nancy Drew” focuses on the connection between only two murders. That’s even more focused of a season-long arc than any of the other shows I just criticized for their season-long arcs, but I don’t have a problem with that kind of storytelling. What I have a problem with is that kind of storytelling just being chucked into an A-plot/B-plot rotation. What I have a problem with is characters saying there’s no time to waste when the arc is an A-plot in one episode, and then wasting all their time when it’s a B-plot in the next. That rotation between standalone and arc cannot bleed into characters’ decision-making.
It’s a big part of why Kennedy McMann’s portrayal of Nancy Drew has become one of my favorite characters. If anything, the characters around her are regularly frustrated that she won’t let go of the plot arc. It needs to be solved, and she constantly excuses herself from life, work, expectations, and other cases in order to investigate. When a standalone element takes over, it’s because someone was kidnapped or there’s another impending murder to stop – delays that make sense.
One early sticking point is her boyfriend Nick wanting to prove a different murder case, but one that gets in the way of investigating the one she’s been after. There’s a right thing to do here, and she chooses wrongly. It’s intriguing and complex because there’s no easy out. Like any of these shows, the writing can occasionally deliver a revelation conveniently, but what’s unique to “Nancy Drew” is the interest in these no-win scenarios. It often becomes a show about not losing ground, mitigating damage, keeping an opportunity alive, or finding whatever the best trade-off is even if it isn’t fair. That can sound discouraging, but for all its affectations, that sense of getting through the moment so you can hit the ground running again feels very real and relevant.
It also clarifies Nancy’s laser focus not as a kind of exceptionalism, but rather as a survival mechanism. Her nose for mysteries led her to witnessing trauma as a child, she lost her mother, and she hasn’t trusted her father in a long time. Her character’s greatest strength as a tenacious investigator is never diminished or portrayed as a weakness, but there’s a surprising amount that underlies it and that the show seeks to understand.
The mystery writing here is also some of the best going. It’s difficult to stretch a mystery over the course of an entire season. Most shows end up forcing something to fit even if it’s obvious to an audience that it shouldn’t. Here, Nancy cycles through a different suspect each episode, gathering information until complications mount and the show can start unspooling more chaotic horror elements. There’s a sense of Nancy establishing a rhythm within the show that is repeatedly challenged and interrupted. As a storytelling pace, it serves as a perfect reflection of what her character is going through emotionally.
As the initially skeptical Nancy and her crew find out, hauntings usually arrive with a purpose. The ghost haunting Nancy is a murdered town parade queen from 20 years prior, Lucy Sable. The horror scenes often serve to isolate a moment when a clue is found or connected to another piece of information. This is a clever way to sear those clues into our heads and make us remember them as important, because these are the moments when we’re most attentive and our senses are heightened. That said, it would only work if the horror was done this well.
We’re not talking “The Ring” or “It Follows” level of feeling your blood suck into your core as if it’s trying to hide from your skin. Instead, it’s where I want this kind of series to land – an exciting chill of dread up your spine. Hitting that mark effectively and unexpectedly once or twice an episode and letting it sit there patiently is more than most horror shows seem to manage. Moreover, “Nancy Drew” isn’t about confronting these things aggressively; it’s about understanding why they’re there in the first place.
It’s great when you can shoot it and douse it in rock salt, but that makes ghosts about as scary as a henchman with sodium deficiency. What goes bump in the night is far more terrifying when you have to manage its escalation and risk your safety episode after episode, clawing your way slowly toward understanding why it’s acting out.
I mentioned Vancouver warehouse chic earlier and it wasn’t just a passing shot. I get it, TV in the 2000s had an unbridled passion for empty warehouses, but the reason I bring it up is because “Nancy Drew” doesn’t shift characters into “empty factory” or “abandoned hospital” or “the woods but with a blue filter” to represent other realms. Instead, it turns the sets we already know in on themselves, morphing a familiar house into a dream-horror web of stairs, or turning an apartment into a sinking ship. A lot of this is smoke and mirrors (sometimes literally), but there’s a real focus on ambitious and beautifully realized set design, practical effects, and those moments where a detail can speak volumes. Showrunner Melinda Hsu Taylor makes sure there’s nearly always something there for the actors to interact with in terms of being unsettled and displaced.
“Nancy Drew” also has some of the best staging and blocking in a series. It might seem inconsequential, but the most important hidden element in the direction of a show is good blocking. You could watch an entire episode on mute and still understand perfectly how the power dynamics between characters shift within each scene. Where characters stand in relation to each other, how they move through a scene, and how their relationship is visually depicted within a scene all feed into blocking. The shot choice in “Nancy Drew” feels built around how characters move through a space rather than that movement being built around the shot choice.
This lends a more organic feel for a show that balances layer upon layer of deceit and reveal, effective horror, a superbly written mystery, a character study, some well-implemented social commentary, and a healthy bit of kitsch and cheese. That’s too much to convey in a way that feels natural. The blocking and staging keeps the characters grounded in a way nothing else in the show does, and that gives each actor room to play off each other instead of just saying the lines on a mark.
This leads to characters moving a lot within scenes, which feels more cinematic and engaging, but also reflects the shifting power dynamics and the constant evolution of the mysteries themselves. Beyond that, every room and building seems to get an unnerving 12 hours a day of magic hour – seeing the characters move around as if they’re utterly familiar with these spaces makes them feel lived-in. That staves off the artificial, diorama effect certain other highly stylized shows in the same vein have suffered. This may all be happening in a small town with a lot of links, but it doesn’t feel as restrictive or suffocating to the viewer. Instead of worlds of possibility being limited to walking distance, the world of the small town they live in instead seems to constantly expand and encompass more possibility.
I won’t say it’s a perfect show – one or two brief ideas clunk – but it’s an intriguing, fun, and surprisingly complex one. “Nancy Drew” is the horror mystery I feel like I’ve been promised over and over again yet never turns up. It evokes that “just one more episode” feeling of needing to see what happens next and a love for how its characters react to it.
You can watch “Nancy Drew” on the CW app (which is free) or HBO Max.
The first half of “Shadow in the Cloud” is one of the most perfect pieces of cinema I’ve seen. It nails an atmosphere of mounting dread with the precision of early Spielberg and an assured retrowave aesthetic. Chloe Grace Moretz plays Maude Garrett, a pilot in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force who boards a B-17 Flying Fortress as last second crew. It’s the middle of World War II, and her mission is to ferry a satchel across the Pacific. What’s inside that satchel is confidential.
She’s soon parted from her charge and locked in the plane’s bottom turret. The bomber had a crew of 10 and several turrets. One was on the belly, guarding the plane’s exposed underside. It overlooked thousands of feet of empty air. This is where the first half of the movie takes place.
On her radio, Maude overhears how the crew of men speak about her. They talk about fucking her, dismiss her concerns, challenge her mission, and refuse to believe her sighting of an enemy plane. Worse yet, there’s something climbing across the plane, a lurking shape that’s tearing out key parts piece by piece. When they won’t even believe the ordinary when she says it, when they charge her with hysteria simply for reporting what she sees, how can she report what seems impossible?
Moretz realizes a spectacularly written screenplay in what becomes a riveting one-woman show. Writer-director Roseanne Liang puts on a clinic of horror cinema. The sky is dark, full of shadows and lightning. Unsettling details mount: hydraulics hanging out under the plane, a hole in the turret’s glass, a shorn screw as thick around as your finger. What she hears on the radio with the crew, Maude imagines visually for us in deep reds and blacks.
The first half of “Shadow in the Cloud” is one of the best horror experiences I’ve had in my life. Then the second half happens. The second half feels rushed. There’s a reason the most effective moments in “Jaws” are the ones where we can’t see the shark. The moment that one-woman show changes into a more traditional action movie, it loses something key.
That rhythm of Liang’s dialogue, Moretz’s performance, the atmosphere of being trapped and disbelieved, and the awesome texture of Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper’s synthwave musical score combine to create something genre-defining, but it loses its magic when the film has to move on to resolutions. It’s still a solid film, but when you go from all-time great to OK, you can feel that swing as a viewer.
The second half of “Shadow in the Cloud” does hold onto that magic for a while, largely through Moretz’s performance. There’s also an audacious sequence under the plane that’s so driven and ambitious, and shot so creatively that I couldn’t have cared less if the seams of a low budget peaked out here and there.
The problem is more that the first half is so patient, exact, and grounded, and the second half accelerates without paying off on that pace. What was a mastercraft becomes a solid action B-movie, albeit one without enough rhythm or time. Many of the beats of the second half are good ideas, though your mileage on one particular twist may vary. The ending is just shoved into too short a time that makes it feel checklisted and predictable when the first half was anything but.
That truly unique, assured aesthetic that fuses war movie, “Twilight Zone”, “Amazing Stories”, 80s horror, Hitchcock, and social commentary together feels sidelined. The script shifts from nearly all-dialogue, expertly written, to very little, most of which we’ve heard before. It goes from Moretz absolutely living and breathing the rhythm of the movie, to the scenes rushing her and the other actors. There are times that the last half hints at a punkier, more meta, even cartoonish attitude that could’ve taken over, but it doesn’t have the time to make this shift fully enough.
That first half is so good that none of this stops “Shadow in the Cloud” from being a movie I like and recommend. It’s just that first half is a cinematic holy grail. It is magic. It’s what you sit down and hope every movie is as a critic. Forty minutes in, the thought was forming that this goes up there with “It Follows”, “Alien”, “The Orphanage”, “Ravenous”, “John Carpenter’s The Thing”. Almost nothing achieves the tension this can. I mean, look what it can do in two minutes:
And the second half is a sillier, often rushed action movie. It keeps the thread on its social commentary, but even this can feel rushed at points. It may have been more effective in a film that was able to sustain that early energy. Moretz carries the first 40 minutes of the film through the dialogue, and Liang through patient, stylized directing. If they’d found a way to carry it this way through the last 40 minutes (or extended it to 60 or so minutes to allow that same textured approach), I think it also could have capitalized on what it set up in other ways. This could’ve made that social commentary even more effective. I also think if they’d managed that, I’d be calling “Shadow in the Cloud” one of the best films I’ve ever seen.
Do half a film that’s utterly perfect and half a film that’s uneven and rushed equal a good film? Yeah, no question. Some films don’t start well, but come together in the end and we’re perfectly fine with calling them good. A movie that starts perfectly, but doesn’t bring all those strengths through in the end will be enjoyable in different ways. It may challenge our concepts of what in the storytelling makes it satisfying, but I’m deeply glad I watched it and got to see something as spellbinding as that first half. A lot of good, more consistent films never even approach 5 minutes like that, let alone 40.
I’d also point out that a 40-minute first half and 40-minute second half equal an hour-and-20 minute movie. Take that, kids who don’t think they’ll use math as adults. You’re not sacrificing a whole evening to take a chance on “Shadow in the Cloud”. The film as a whole is so wild, opinions on how well it carries through that initial energy and tone are going to vary a lot.
This is something I know I’ll go back and watch, even if the viewing experience does feel inverted. It is so unique, knowledgeable about the genre foundations on which it stands, and deeply ambitious and creative. Those first 40 minutes are one of the most rewarding movie experiences I’ve had. As I sit with it longer and longer, I like “Shadow in the Cloud” more and more. It’s just so much of what I want to see on screen, even if the conclusion doesn’t pull through.
I’ll certainly keep an eye out for Roseanne Liang. Anyone who can write and direct that singular a stretch can make a great film.
For her part, Moretz is proving she wasn’t just a child actor with an off-kilter taste in projects. Few actors can carry a project alone on-screen for this long, few actors can haul a film ahead regardless of whether it loses its footing, and few actors embody the social commentary of a project this effectively through their character.
“Shadow in the Cloud” is available on Hulu, or see where to rent it here.
It may’ve slipped minds that there’s a “Suspiria” remake due to hit theaters on November 2. I’m not going to pretend I remembered. I had clicked to see just how bad the “Bumblebee” trailer for the Transformers spin-off is (hint: really, really bad) when I spied the new “Suspiria” trailer lurking at the edge of the screen.
A constant churn of directors and stars have been attached in the last decade to the remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic. This includes a long-gestated David Gordon Green salvo that thankfully didn’t come to pass. (Green is more fittingly directing the eleventh “Halloween” movie due out two weeks before “Suspiria” on October 19.)
The point is, I’d diligently trained myself to ignore news about a “Suspiria” remake for the past 10 years. There’s a lot of conjecture that “Suspiria” can’t be remade, that its essence can’t be recaptured. I don’t buy into that, and watching the first trailer…this is just about the best approach to “Suspiria” I could have hoped for.
The strength and weakness of giallo filmmaking is just how Freudian it is. It’s a murder mystery mixed with psychological horror, eroticism, and often supernatural elements. “Suspiria” is generally regarded as the exemplar film of the genre. Giallo films are often impressionistic because of how well they bridge basic, gut-level metaphor to complicated, dreamlike concepts of dread.
Freudianism is a double-edged, er, sword. Women are often enabled or empowered in these films only at the expense of other women succumbing to violence, or after paying fetishized visual dues to the director and audience. Yes, giallo can be violent toward men, but it’s never built value on trading or fetishizing us the way it has women.
(I’d argue there’s a reason the Dario Argento films with the strongest women leads involved Daria Nicolodi as a driving creative force in front of and behind the camera, but that’s an article for another day.)
Modern giallo needs to be able to escape some of its tendencies and comment on them, while still processing in violent, Freudian metaphor. It’s a fine line to walk. It’s going to be difficult to present a film about young women at a dance academy being murdered in surreal fashion without building plot value off of fridging women.
“Suspiria” is considered impossible to remake because of its visuals…but that’s never struck me as the problem. It’s this central theme that presents the greatest bar to the success of “Suspiria”…and maybe its greatest opportunity. We’ve seen films that are able to inhabit their genre while still stepping outside of it – art is one of the few places where you can have your cake and sometimes eat it, too.
In terms of visuals, a number of Grand Guignol films have met the visual bar “Suspiria” set, Guillermo Del Toro’s take on it in “Crimson Peak” being the most recent. Grand Guignol can be far more outlandish and winking than giallo can – it’s a more mischievous genre. The point is that there are plenty of art directors and costume designers capable of building a space that’s right for a “Suspiria” remake. “Suspiria” is essentially designed like a stage where a play or dance might take place, just three dimensionally. Take a look at a trailer for the 1977 version. It’s fan-made, since the 70s trailers don’t always do the film justice.
The dreamlike sensibility of giallo is in the editing, the writing, and in a place that’s far too overlooked: the performances. Actors need to be able to play giallo scenes with a broad non-specificity, in a kind of overstated, almost directionless performance that’s built for theatre, to be viewed at a distance. At the same time, those actors need to be playing to the understated detail, realism, and intentionality of close-ups and long takes. It’s that bridge between anchored reality and being flung untethered into an abstract dreamspace that makes giallo work and gives it its purpose.
(This was aided at the time by actors performing in their native languages – English, Italian, and German – and later adding English lines in additional dialogue recording sessions. During filming, they had to understand each other’s performances without always understanding each others’ lines with precision. This melding of languages added to the dreamlike quality of many of Argento’s films, in particular through broader performances in “Suspiria” and shifting language use in later edits of “Deep Red.”)
I have hope there’s a way to achieve this bridge between hard anchor and untethered space that doesn’t just move past, but addresses giallo’s past sins. Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me By Your Name”) is a director who may be able to tell a story on both sides of that coin. I don’t think you can find better opposing leads for a remake than Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton – who has a long history of projects that have their cake, eat it too, duplicate the cake into an alternate dimension, share the recipe with David Bowie….
My main hope is that this isn’t just a film that’s true to what giallo once was, because there’s a reason the genre is antiquated and more or less evaporated from production. My hope is that the “Suspiria” remake is a film that can finally drag giallo into modern times and give it a new, updated importance. The building blocks are there, often maintained and updated by films in other genres that border on the territory giallo calls its home, from the stylistic rearrangement of “Lost River” to the metaphorical bridging in “Mirrormask”…from the more mature contemplation on eroticism in “It Follows” to the horror of where Freudian sensibilities take us in “Ex Machina”…from the internal, personal psychologies in Lucrecia Martel’s “The Headless Woman” to Darren Aronofsky’s overt “Black Swan.”
There’s ample room and need for giallo not just to resurrect, but to catch up, to learn, to join the 40 years of sensibility it’s yet to figure out. We often think of giallo as needing to be anchored to the past because of the role women are made to play in it. That hasn’t been true of any other genre.
Given a trailer like the one above, I’m going to start hoping those involved understand giallo rests in its themes, performances, and storytelling, that its strength is in the connection between the immediate reaction in the pit of the stomach and the lingering anticipation creeping up the spine, and not just in a pursuit of visuals, victimization, and 40 year-old cliches.
The feature image of Dakota Johnson at a dinner that’s totally not creepy at all is from Scroll here.