Any fans of the classic 80’s slasher aesthetic will appreciate Until Dawn, a complex yet simplistic mystery horror game with some very unique twists on the medium. A group of young friends are in for quite the weekend when they decide to reunite one year after two of their friends disappeared mysteriously on remote, snowy Mount Washington. Ringleader Joshua (Rami Malek before he blew up big time) has a family chalet lodge up there, which is in rough shape with no power, and as they settle in for the night, bicker, hook up and deal with the kind of petty drama you only get at that age, someone else on the mountain starts to stalk and murder them, someone connected to their friends disappearing a year ago. The cool thing here is you don’t play as just one single character, but all of them and there’s at least like six from what I recall. As you rotate through their ranks you make many psychological choices as each character that affect not only your relationship to others, but your shelf life as a member of the team and even how your immediate environment changes over the course of the night. There’s curious talismans to pick up, each associated with a quick audio visual ‘clue clip’ that can be accessed in the menu anytime to decipher the mystery and find out what’s going on. Elsewhere in dreamy vignettes you’re sitting POV style as a mystery character while a very odd psychiatrist (Peter Stormare in full on kooky Peter Stormare mode) probes you for answers, his methods becoming increasingly bizarre with each new cutscene until it becomes apparent he’s probably not anything close to a licensed professional. The game is written and created by horror veteran Larry Fessenden (Wendigo, The Last Winter) so the wintry atmosphere is excellently, eerily done, plus he also plays a character called Flamethrower Guy who factors into the story in ways you might not expect. The visuals are breathtakingly gorgeous, from a stunning, dead quiet gondola ride up the mountain that sets a mood of desolation nicely to almost photorealistic motion capture work on the actors that is impressively lifelike. The technique allows each character to look identical to their respective actors so aside from spitting image versions of Malek and Stormare we get scene stealer Hayden Panetierre too as the tomboy of the group. Evocative setting, strong horror elements in terms of both gore and suspense, intricate innovation in design and gameplay that allows you to play through the game nearly a hundred different ways based on choice and consequence, a haunting rendition of Ralph Stanley’s O Death by Amy Van Roekel over the opening credits, this has a lot going for it and is one of the coolest horror games you can find out there.
Larry Fessenden’s Wendigo is a film that has stuck with me since I saw it years ago, a glowing textbook example on how to create chilly, effective and engrossing horror on a minimal budget, to maximum creepy effect. Set in the snowy drifts of Upstate New York in the dead of winter, a stressed out family heads up to a remote cottage for a rest. Following an accident, a dead deer and the subsequent altercations with angry locals, things take a turn for the supernatural as some dark force takes up residence on the cottage grounds, shaking the family to their collective core. There’s an old legend out there about a spirit called Wendigo, a vengeful ghost that latches onto traumatic events, haunting those involved often right to their graves. These poor people awakened it, and it won’t go away. Jake Weber, Patricia Clarkson and Dewey from Malcolm In The Middle are great as these folks, compelling in their sense of confusion and dread. The creature is rarely seen, save for a single stark image that I haven’t forgotten since: after the car accident, the child looks a ways up the road and sees it standing there, a freaky spectre, all shadows, antlers and such. Spooky stuff.
Nature fights back in Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter, a vaguely supernatural cautionary tale of of environmentalists and oil workers besieged by some unseen forces in the great north. Fessenden also brought us Wendigo back in the day, another snowbound chiller, and a keen sense of the eerie corners of the natural world and it’s unexplored areas comes built in with his skill set. Ron Perlman doggedly plays Ed, the headstrong leader of a research party scouting arctic land for Big Oil to plant an ice road and pipeline. Connie Britton is his second in command and former flame, now shacking up with wildlife journalist James Legros. When the dead, naked body of a team member is found near their camp, natural gas emissions from the ground are suspected (so logical, guys). Yet, people continue to die, and some ominous presence gathers in the night just outside the perimeter of the station, inciting rising dread and distrust among the team and claiming victims with gathering speed. It’s fun to watch Perlman slowly come unraveled, his grim sense of control slipping away as quickly as his rational explanations for what is happening. We never get a good look at whatever is out there, which is the smart way to go about your horror. The snow boils, strange sounds are heard and the natural world itself almost seems to be taking on angry life of it’s own. It’s obviously meant as a metaphor, but works just as well as a literal creature feature thanks to the sleek direction and well placed moments of chilly terror. Shades of The Thing, infused with this theme of the earth lashing out at the arrogance of human industrialization is a delicious flavour indeed.