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The Sandbox: That Old Creeping Feeling

The Sandbox: That Old Creeping Feeling (photo)

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Nearly a decade after “The Blair Witch Project” brought camcorder shakiness to the masses, first-person horror once again took center screen in 2008 courtesy of three releases, two of them zombified: January’s monster mash “Cloverfield,” February’s George A. Romero’s installment “Diary of the Dead” and October’s rabies-crazy “Quarantine.” Given our Youtubing, cell phone-vid culture, it’s an unsurprising cinematic trend, and one that seems particularly suited for horror films, where a fixed perspective can be easily manipulated for scares and is capable of creating a sense of immediate, frightened involvement for viewers. Well, that’s what it does in theory — these films didn’t all use their shared viewpoint in truly terrifying ways.

I suspect the reason for this common failure has less to do with a filmmaker’s skill than with the limitations of this approach within film in general. Despite their gripping, thematically astute you-are-there conceits, features like “Cloverfield” and “Quarantine” allow audiences to enter the fictional world only through side characters who, for uniformly contrived reasons, have chosen to confront life-or-death situations that demand action with voyeuristic passivity. As an audience member, you’re somewhat immersed in what’s going on, but the artifice doesn’t hold because it’s too weighed down by nagging questions about our on-screen surrogate’s background — Why is this dolt still filming? How is his camera always pointed in the right direction? Why doesn’t someone smash the twit’s recording device to smithereens? — that undermine the central illusion. We’re there, but far too often it feels like we’re not.

Many of these obstacles are absent in the gaming arena, where “survival horror,” a lucrative subgenre spawned by 1996’s PlayStation blockbuster “Resident Evil,” has regularly employed, to decidedly unsettling effect, first-person P.O.V. “Doom 3,” “Condemned: Criminal Origins” and “F.E.A.R.” are a few of the plentiful titles that have transposed action and horror movie tropes to a first-person-shooter realm where engagement with the proceedings is direct and active. This tactic has been further refined by Valve’s recent Xbox 360 and PC hit “Left 4 Dead.” In the bestseller (currently fifth on the domestic console sales charts), you’re presented with four straightforward, narrative-free cinematic zombie apocalypse campaigns, each one leaving the player, along with three human- or A.I.-controlled cohorts, to reach safety by navigating an environment (airport, city downtown, countryside or farm) overrun by flesh-eating undead whose fleetness recalls that of “28 Days Later”‘s hungry monsters.

03042009_leftfordead.jpgBetween “Left 4 Dead”‘s extended opening cut-scene, corny film posters that kick off each scenario — the airport level is dubbed “Dead Air,” and boasts the tagline: “Their flight just got delayed. Permanently.” — and the requirement that players assume the role of one of four bedrock genre stereotypes (biker, tough chick, old war vet or businessman), the game overtly attempts to put players in a familiar big-screen (un)reality. But unlike its fellow P.O.V. zombie brethren “Diary of the Dead” and “Quarantine,” there’s no impression of detachment in “Left 4 Dead,” which primarily relies on sporadically ambushing the player from all directions with massive swarms of the undead to create a heady blast of panic, fear and excitement.

The game’s visceral immersion is amplified considerably by its multiplayer design. “Left 4 Dead” is meant to be played cooperatively with friends (either online or at home) and triumphantly delivers an in-the-foxhole experience when sitting alongside living, breathing comrades you can verbally strategize with or scream at. Drawing on pistols, shotguns, machine guns and Molotov cocktails to blast your way through hordes of zombies while barking commands at, and requesting help from, fellow survivors — or, in the online Versus mode, assuming the role of a bloodthirsty reanimated ghoul — is as rousing an approximation of what it might actually be like to endure an outbreak of the undead as you’ll currently find. And, in terms of urgent, frantic kicks, “Left 4 Dead” significantly outpaces its cinematic counterparts, which can’t help but depict a disconnected view on mayhem that typically involves irrational idiots stumbling upon, and then (as repeatedly occurs in the three aforementioned films) hysterically fleeing from, supernatural incidents, bouncy cameras in tow.

So games are just creepier than films, especially when they feature first-person perspectives, right? Well, not exactly. “Left 4 Dead” provides an initial anxious high, yet — as with the cheap jolt tactics of “Doom 3” and the hallucinatory dread of “Condemned” and “F.E.A.R.” — it soon wears thin, due mostly to a problem shared by many of its celluloid equivalents: repetition. Modern horror games frequently generate greater terror than films simply because of players’ direct relationship to the action (and their power to dictate pace), they’re nonetheless plagued by the same brand of monotonous predictability born from preprogramming. Spend longer than an hour with “Left 4 Dead,” and you’ll likely turn numb to its gameplay rhythms and beats, which prove as telegraphed and homogeneous as an ’80s slasher flick’s fatal money shots. These P.O.V. adventures offer encompassing sensory/participatory thrill rides, but those thrills are still narrow and as dependent as they’ve always been on design and narrative ingenuity — much rarer qualities that have always been responsible for any horror show’s ability to scare and keep scaring.

The Sandbox, a column about the intersection a film and gaming, runs biweekly.

[Additional photo: “Left 4 Dead,” Valve, 2008]


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.