Imagine that the horror movie landscape is a big onion. At the outer layer sit the classic horror films. These ones always end up on “So-and-so’s favorite horror movies of all time” lists; even your Mom and Dad have seen them, or are at least aware of them: Psycho. The Exorcist. The Bride of Frankenstein. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Rosemary’s Baby. Jaws. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. (Well, maybe not that one, but it should be.)
To go a level deeper, talk to a horror fan, and you’ll discover an entirely new strata of greats. These are the movies that might not be as universally well-loved as something like Night of the Living Dead, but are held up as equals by the people who know their stuff. Argento’s Deep Red. Fulci’s The Beyond. Stage fright. Kiyoshi Kurasawa’s Kairo. Lamberto Bava’s Demons. Layer 2 is a massive sea of movies, with your average horror buff willing to pull dozens out for recommendation and approval.
Now drop five layers to the core. Down there are a handful of late night surprises, the ones horror fans trade like baseball cards. They’re probably imperfect and cheaply made, but for the right person, they can be very special experiences. Ask a horror fan about these movies, and they’ll need to think about it for a while. Each one will almost always come up with a unique list. Here are some recent favorites of mine, in no particular order:
1. Noroi: The Curse
Noroi: The Curse has the dubious distinction of technically being both a J-Horror and a Found Footage movie, although it subverts the conventions of both. The usual suspects are all there: the raven-haired girl who may have connections to the beyond, an ancient curse with terrifying implications, and supernatural entities that manifest themselves via electronic devices. If you’re rolling your eyes right now, that’s fine. J-Horror isn’t for everyone. Noroi is more unsettling than almost any J-Horror or Found Footage movie in recent memory, and is worth the gamble.
Instead of relying on the tired premise of a found video cassette, Noroi’s framework weaves together multiple threads as a faux-documentary television show, drawing the viewer in by building tension in unconventional ways. The fauxumentary follows ‘paranormal journalist’ Kobayashi as he investigates a series of strange, seemingly unrelated events in towns across Japan. A woman hears the crying of babies in an unoccupied apartment nearby. Piles of eviscerated birds appear at random. A schoolgirl rumored to have ESP vanishes without a trace. Kobayashi and crew pull the threads together and uncover the truth, but not before the truth has some sinister fun with them. (Heed the film’s ominous tagline: All Have Died.) If this synopsis sounds dull, I don’t blame you; on the surface, Noroi is a stone’s throw from a ‘The Ring meets Blair Witch’ pull quote. Please believe me when I say that Noroi is a scarier movie than either of those. It’s a horror film that affects not only through gore or gimmickry, but through tone and structure.
There are a number of unsettling moments in this film – the ending is too great to spoil – but my favorite sequence is a well-lit, televised ESP test featuring children drawing shapes to prove their paranormal abilities, a-la the opening scene from Ghostbusters. In it, a young girl with a proven psychic talent is asked to draw a specific, hidden shape. Instead of revealing that shape, she lifts her paper to reveal… something else. It’s not clear in the moment why the image is so unsettling, but it is – and it becomes retroactively more so as the meaning of the drawing emerges.
If you only see one move on this list, please make it Noroi.
2. Storm Warning
I have a particular fear of being lost at sea, which is odd considering I grew up in South Florida in and around sailboats for most of my childhood. The ocean may be beautiful from a bayside lounge chair, but it is not your friend. Humans are not built to survive in it for very long.
Storm Warning’s first act is especially harrowing for me, because it’s one of my worst fears come true – a day trip in a dinghy turns into a lost-at-sea nightmare when a married couple can’t find their way back to port during an unexpected storm. Things get worse when they stumble across a pair of deranged, pot-growing hillbillies. It’s a well-made riff on The Hills Have Eyes, and well worth a rental if you like your redneck exploitation on the soggy side.
Absentia’s strength is a clever idea wrapped around a very simple premise: After her husband goes missing for seven years, a grieving wife, with the help of her younger sister, tries to settle her accounts and declare the man ‘Dead In Absentia’. They soon discover that people have been mysteriously disappearing for years in the same neighborhood, all seemingly centered around a tunnel at the end of the street.
It’s a great movie because of, not despite, its sub-$100,000 microbudget. Absentia understands that some things are better left to the imagination, and it uses darkness – complete, ink-black darkness – to shroud its core mystery. It knows that a strange sound in the dark is far more traumatizing than a well lit boogeyman.
Not quite a ghost story, and not quite a ‘tunnel that eats people’ story, Absentia turns into something very surprising in the third act. There are two scenes in particular that left me stunned. Oh, and the amazing Doug Jones shows up, just to make things extra-icky.
4. Lake Mungo
Another faux-documentary, Lake Mungo follows the grieving family of a drowned teenage girl as sightings of her ‘ghost’ appear in and around their home. It’s the most non-traditional horror film on the list, weaving to and from the supernatural to build a portrait of a family coping with loss that’s equal parts moving and disturbing.
It’s one of the several movies on this list to elicit real dread from the blending of the supernatural and technology, which surely isn’t new. Here, though, the distorted image in the background isn’t always something as mundane as a ghost or a demon.
5. The Reef
Remember Open Water, that true-life shark movie from 2003 about the couple who gets stranded in the water during a scuba diving trip? The Reef makes a chump out of it.
Loosely based on the tragic events of a 1983 boat trip near Australia, The Reef – from Director/Writer Andrew Trauki, who also made the very decent Black Water – follows a doomed crew of pleasure boaters after their vessel capsizes in Great White-infested waters. A quartet of them decide to swim the long twelve miles to shore, and are soon joined by a 20-foot companion with rows of serrated teeth. Luckily, one of the swimmers is armed with a mask, so he can give his companions a visual play-by-play on just how incredibly fucked they are.
The Reef is an intense enough movie on its own, but if you’re like me and have a deep fear of floating helplessly in the open ocean, it will absolutely ruin your evening in the best possible way. The underwater shots of the barely perceptible shark, swimming far out in the distance around the swimmers, are among the scariest images I’ve ever seen in a movie.
6. The Rapture
Sharon (Mimi Rogers), a devout member of a sect of fundamentalists who believe that the rapture is imminent, is tired of just waiting around for the apocalypse. What to do? This film follows Sharon as she turns from vice-ridden swinger to a hardcore Christian who’s utterly consumed with the idea of the Rapture.
Of all the ones on the list, it’s The Rapture that stayed with me the longest. Like another one of my favorites, Kairo (Pulse), it’s not so much patently scary as it is deeply disturbing. Where Kairo poses questions about the nature of the afterlife and depression, The Rapture muses on God, faith, and family, to an equally dire conclusion. Most wouldn’t classify this as a horror movie, but the final frames are shatteringly horrific.
7. End of the Line
A doomsday cult is convinced that demons are rising up to reclaim the Earth, and that the only recourse is to MURDER ALL HUMANS before the demons can get to them.
I’m a bit surprised that The End of the Line isn’t already a cult classic. Without spoiling too much, it’s got a killer cult, gooey monsters, a subway tunnel standoff, and an apocalypse scenario. It’s the John Carpenter movie that never was.
Okay, so it doesn’t quite have the budget or pedigree of a Carpenter movie, but if you’re a fan of Prince of Darkness, you’ll want to give this one a try.
8. The Collingswood Story
Told entirely through webcam video chat, The Collingswood Story is what other Found Footage movies should aim to be: creative, scary, and short. Filmed in 2002, its use of now-antiquated tech somehow adds to its creepiness – Oh my god, is that Windows 95? – and its ghost story about a woman investigating a curse with the help of her boyfriend and a medium predates Paranormal Activity by quite a while. It’s more novel than the Activity movies, and elicits a sense of real danger that the nanny cam club can’t touch. In this movie, our hero is always home alone, and is armed only with a webcam.
9. Eden Lake
Like the also great horror movie Ils (Them), Eden Lake knows you’re afraid of getting older, afraid that you’ll be forcibly replaced by something young. It also knows you’re afraid of being trapped and helpless at the mercy of teenagers. It follows a familiar trope: A couple runs afoul of a group of angry children in the woods, and fights for survival to escape. Unlike the Ils killers, the kids in Ede Lake are real characters, rather than monsters. There’s an actual context here for both the hunters and the victims, which makes the last half more than just 20 miles of rough road.
Have you seen any of these? Do chime in below. More importantly, keep your favorite, lesser known movies alive by sharing them with strangers. Write your own list!
As the daily updates pour in, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that Episode VII will be Star Wars By Committee. The story probably won’t be one crafted from a singular vision with character arcs and themes working in concert to present a fully-formed idea, but will instead be a grabbag of audience-approved tropes culminating in a simultaneous lightsaber duel/space battle. And really, a bad Star Wars movie pretty much writes itself. If we just resign ourselves to that, we might be able to have some fun with it.
Let’s wager now, and compare notes in 2014. Which lazy tropes do you expect to see in Episode VII, and why?
Thrust into close quarters by fate, this band of unlikely heroes is out to save the galaxy from ultimate evil… if they don’t kill each other first. Hyuck hyuck! Episode VII’s A-Team will include at least two jedis, a pair of droids, and possibly a female smuggler. Bonus points if the team finally learns to work together during the last fifteen minutes.
Jar Jar notwithstanding, the stillborn prequels largely managed to avoid this trope, but a return to post-Old-Republic politics means more scrappy underdogs.
This trope isn’t necessarily Bad News. Some of the best films in history, and nearly every single Role Playing Game ever made, lean on the Band of Ragtag Misfits as their story center. But there are more interesting ways to craft an adventure than this. Even odds on this one.
“Hidden deep within a cave on Nar Shaddaa lies a crystal/holocron/ ambiguous plot trinket so devastating that it would give our antagonist all the power he needs to fulfill his destiny.” Star Wars has avoided this, the ultimate MacGuffin, so far, but that will only strengthen the writers’ temptation to use it. And it will be used poorly and inelegantly, a limp motivator that exists purely as a plot conveyor belt.
If your movie uses this trope and isn’t Raiders of the Lost Ark, you should probably give up now. I expect it to make a big splash in the new Star Wars movie, though!
3) An Ancient Sith Evil Awakens
For ages, he’s been watching… and waiting. Biding his time until his plans are ripe. His only weakness is heroic teamwork, with the amount of weakness being directly proportional to the amount of struggling the team had to do before the final confrontation.
This one dovetails nicely with #2. It sorta cropped up in in the prequels, which means that this time the ultimate evil be an amorphous ‘thingy’ like Sauron, or maybe a Sith ghost who finds a way to midichlorianize his holocron (or whatever).
4) The turncoat redemption
Someone in the ragtag band of rebels is really a spy for the Empire, or the Czerka corporation, or is a Sith Henchman, and it’s usually the one with a bad attitude and lots to learn about teamwork. In this kind of movie, they learn the error of their ways and perform a final selfless act at the end. “Holding the line” at a critical point, for example. There’s only 5:1 odds that this character, likely a smuggler, will die, because they need him in at least three movies to give him extra outfits for the toys.
5) Lightsaber innovations
If there’s anything the prequels taught us, it’s that there are a million different ways to use a lightsaber. Expect to see people with lightsabers for hands, spears with lightsabers on the end of them, and maybe a Russian-doll style lightsaber that contains lots of mini-lightsabers.
6) The protagonist will be an orphan
Writers like orphans because they’re the ultimate clean slate, and they’re usually introverts, so you don’t have to think up too much dialogue. It also gives the character a pain template to work from, so when he gets to killing bad guys, it makes total sense. This trope is EXTRA lazy if one of the orphan’s parents are still alive and are meaningful to the plot in some way, because… well, you know. And I say “he” here because the writers will probably view a female protagonist as a risk, unfortunately.
There are too many tropes to choose from, so I omitted a few, like the Reluctant Hero, who is 100% sure to make an appearance here. That’s just not an interesting wager.
A final word: Let it be known that I don’t relish this list. It would delight me if Star Wars: Episode VII was about a pair of gay rebel detectives investigating jedi ghost sightings, or something equally surprising. But new ideas are risky. While the next Star Wars will certainly be full of warfare and swordplay, it’ll play it safe on story to keep kids hooked on the franchise.
And while most tropes are lazy, they’re not always bad. The Avengers was lots of fun, and it includes nearly every trope on this list.
Looper Crime Syndicate: Monthly Project Meeting Minutes, 4/2/37
- Meeting Attendees: Abe, Mickey, Joe, Seth, Mark, Frankie, Mack, Moses, Jimmy
- Meeting Apologies: Kid Blue, Jesse
- Guests: Freddie (New Hire)
Agenda Item 1: The “Loopers Not Killing Themselves” Issue
Discussion: Abe began the discussion by summarizing the problem. “Listen, people: I just looked at the tallies. Every month, we lose five to six loopers when they refuse to kill their future selves.
They just don’t like doing it.
It’s our number one problem, and it’s killing our margins because we spend half of our time trying to round people up. We are in the crime business, not the ’rounding up our own employees night after night’ business, are we not?”
[GENERAL MURMURS OF AGREEMENT]
“So I’m looking for suggestions. Anything. No topic is taboo. How about you, Seth?”
Seth: “I’m thinking the future guys could send back future Loopers along with an alligator or a bear of some sort. That way, even if the present Looper doesn’t kill the future Looper, the alligator might.”
Abe: “That’s good thinking! But the time machines are way too small for large reptiles or mammals.”
Mickey: “What if they gave ‘em really heavy shoes, like those wooden dutch ones? Then they wouldn’t be able to run so fast.”
Abe: “I like your effort, but I think it would be hard to find so many wooden shoes on short order, and besides, future Holland is run by Malaysia.”
[Freddie, the new hire, raises his hand]
Abe: “Yes, new guy.”
Freddie: “Maybe this is a dumb question, but why do Loopers have to kill themselves in the first place? Wouldn’t it make more sense if the people from the future just sent back the loopers to, uh, anybody BUT that looper’s past self?”
Abe: “No, new guy. Everybody knows that a Looper has to close his own loop.”
Freddie: “Not to talk out of turn, but why? It seems like this whole mess could be avoided just by having Loopers close each other’s loops.”
[Audible groans from around the room. Unidentified person yells "Close each other's loop? That's like tyin' someone else's shoes!"]
Abe: “No, you guys are Loopers. Loopers close loops.”
Freddie: “I’m not sure I fully understand you. We just want these guys dead, right?”
[Seth stands up and yells]: “No! Everything comes full circle! It’s the whole point!”
Freddie: “Fine, ok. At the very least, why not have someone supervise the loops? Surely an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure in this case.”
Joe: “Aw, Jeez! Would you want someone watching over you while you were taking a dump? Looping is private business.”
Freddie: “Huh? What does taking a dump have to do with anything?”
Seth: “You just don’t get it, do you, new guy?”
Freddie: “I just think that if we had a third party with a blunderbuss waiting with each Looper while they’re about to close their loop, we could save a lot o-”
[Abe smashes his hammer against the table]: “ENOUGH! Get this guy OUT!”
[Two men burst in and carry Freddie out of the room. He is heard yelling "I just don't think you guys have put a lot of thought into this whole process".]
Abe [collecting himself]: Okay. I’m putting in an order for wooden shoes this week. In the meanwhile, please, please remember to kill your future selves – and most importantly, have fun.”
From 1987 to 1991, I volunteered at a crisis call center in Alachua County, Florida. In five hour shifts, the ACCC team would answer calls from anyone who needed a non-judgmental person to talk to, and if they needed immediate help, we’d provide it if we could. As someone who struggled with depression, the death of my Dad a few years prior, and various other family problems, working the phones at the ACCC was just as cathartic for me as it was for the callers. It didn’t look too bad on my grad school applications, either.
Most of the callers suffered from real clinical disorders, but some of them were just sad and lonely castaways with nobody to talk to. Each caller was treated with dignity, because there are obvious suicide risks that come along with this type of work – unfortunately, this meant that perverts and pranksters that frequented the hotline during the graveyard shift were also handled with kid gloves. I can honestly say that I’ve heard every type of obscene call, including breathers, moaners, wheezers, smooth-talkers, and even the occasional knock-knock joke. I remember listening to this one guy spend five minutes on the line munching on what sounded like potato chips. No talking. Just crunch, crunch, crunch.
The Crisis Center wasn’t well funded; it was the only full-time inhabitant of an otherwise vacant strip mall on the edge of town, and at night, it was the only lit storefront for miles. Across the street was a notoriously seedy trailer park, and behind it was an expanse of swamps and cheap ranchland populated by misguided gator farmers and the “intensely rural.” The graveyard shift wasn’t too bad when there were two or three volunteers, but working solo was unnerving, even for us guys. It was during one of these solo nights that I first met Etaoin Shrdlu.
Now this was in August of 1990. I’d been putting in extra hours at night because we’d always lose volunteers at the start of the University semester. At around 3:00 AM, I got my first call, which went something like this:
Me: “Alachua County Crisis Center, how can I help?”
Voice [Sounds like a mechanical larynx, so I originally thought I was speaking to a throat cancer survivor]: “E-T-A-O-I-N S-H-R-D-L-U”
Me: “Excuse me?”
Voice: “E-T-A-O-I-N S-H-R-D-L-U” [I can hear what sounds like a Radio or Television playing in the background, and the whirring of some sort of machinery]
[I'm thinking that this is another prank call. I go through my script: "We're here to listen, this is a safe place, everything's going to be fine." I'm greeted with a full minute of silence. We're allowed to hang up after two. I can still hear the whine of what sounds like an old Ham radio squawking and warbling somewhere in the background. Then:]
Voice: “ARE YOU AFRAID TO DIE”
Me: “No. Are you?”
Voice: “IT DOESN’T HURT” [Cuts to some sort of garbled, electronic shriek, and then disconnects.]
Etaoin would call during every graveyard shift, but only when I was working, and only when I was alone. The letters sounded vaguely familiar to me, but I couldn’t remember where I’d heard them before. He would always ask these morbid interview questions, like what my biggest fears were, or if I thought hell was a real place, and would always disconnect shortly thereafter. I didn’t think much of it at first, as Etaoin was just as harmless as the other prank callers, and definitely more interesting. As the weeks went by, there was an epidemic of “weirdness” at the Crisis Center: Office supplies went missing from the storage room, the power would routinely go out at night, and people kept finding the door to the mini-fridge wide open. The worst thing, though, was finding what looked like crowbar scuffs around the back door leading to the parking lot. On top of all this, Etaoin kept calling, and his calls were getting more disturbing and personal.
Me: “Alachua County Crisis Center, how can I help?”
Voice: “E-T-A-O-I-N S-H-R-D-L-U”
Me: “Hi, Etaoin.”
Voice: “DO YOU MISS YOUR DAD”
Me: “Where are you calling from?”
[At this point, I'm getting a little tired of Etaoin, so I decide to have a little fun by playing 20 questions]
Me: “Are you animal, Vegetable, or Mineral?”
Voice: [Hissing] “ANIMAL.”
Me: “Do you walk on two legs or four legs?”
Voice, now sounding aggravated and full of what sounds like static hiss: “I WALK ON NO LEGSSS.” [Disconnect]
I remember the power cutting out right after the disconnect, and nearly pissing my pants as a result.
After that, everything about the Crisis Center, and maybe even the whole city, fell under a black cloud for me. It might have been depression, but there was this palpable sense that something bad was going to happen. If I had to describe the feeling in a word, I’d use “unclean.” One early Fall evening, I got a call from the ACCC coordinator to run the graveyard shift after the scheduled volunteer landed herself in the hospital with alcohol poisoning. I started the solo shift at midnight. It didn’t go well. Amidst a spate of unusually aggressive perverts, one caller threatened to kill himself, followed by another guy who threatened to kill his wife. I kept hearing knocking sounds coming from the storage room, and the power flickered on and off every fifteen minutes. Three hours later, faithful as ever, Etaoin called:
Voice: “E-T-A-O-I-N S-H-R-D-L-U”
Voice: “GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT GET OU-[Disconnect]“
The lights cut out. A thump came from the rear hallway near the storage room. Flashlight in hand, I made my to the back of the office. The storage room was empty. I heard another loud thump from the back room. I lit up the brass doorknob, and my heart froze when I saw it turn slowly back and forth. I spun around and bolted for the front door as the pounding grew louder behind me. I heard the whoosh of the back door swinging open as I sprinted out into the parking lot. As I fumbled for the keys to my Pontiac, I saw a dark figure prowling the office, pausing to look at me through the front window. I nearly hit a lamppost as I jumped the curb and raced back to my apartment.
I called the police, but they didn’t find anything but a busted back door. Nothing was stolen, and Etaoin never called back after that.
In the weeks that followed:
September 12, 1990 – THE GAINESVILLE SUN
University of Florida students and Gainesville residents continue to fear for their lives after the discovery of two college students slain in their apartments, the fourth and fifth victims of a single serial murderer over the course of three weeks. Authorities declined to release detailed information about the murders, but have commented on the brutal nature of of the slayings. The police have not made any arrests, but have collected a list of persons of interest. “We’re confident that we’ll find him. He’s a deranged man, probably a drifter, so we’ve screened shelters and hospitals in the region and collected good leads,” said Police Chief Wayland Clifton.
Over the next week or so, I’m going to post a new short horror story a day, without introduction or setup. Here’s the first:
The Roberts Mortuary Playground
It happened way back in the fall of 1971 when I was 10 and my brother Andy was 6. We were renting an old house east of Ocala Florida between Mud Lake and the Ocklawaha prairie. Me and Andy went to the same grade school, so since we didn’t have buses and Mom didn’t have a car yet, I had to walk him home at two o’clock every afternoon. Mom was afraid Andy would run away or get grabbed up by some pervert, so she made me hold his hand. That was okay, ’cause most kids lived in town and nobody ever saw us walking together.
We were supposed to stick to the roads, but most times we cut through the trails around edge of town. We’d always pass right behind Roberts mortuary, which was the best part ’cause I’d get to scare the boots off of Andy, who believed in ghosts and monsters and everything he ever saw on the channel 6 late movie show. Way out at the butt-edge of town, Roberts mortuary had a plywood fence that ran around the far back side of the property, enclosing a big pond that sat back some forty yards away from the building. That’s a lot of fence, but I figure they didn’t want any schoolkids drowning, so they just closed in the pond to be safe. Me and Andy would use a piece of re-bar to peel back part of the fence and sneak inside.
The thing about Roberts funeral home was that the storefront looked all proper and white glove, with tall marble pillars and stain glass windows, but the backyard was all rusted out machinery and puddles of oil and big, blue drums. That was true about most folks in Ocala, too, ‘specially the rich folks. The outsides always looked pretty, but once you pried up the skin and had a good look inside, it was nothing but rotten ugly. Around the corner was a metal ramp leading up to a pair of scuffed-up wooden doors that were all smeared with brown, like someone real dirty had been pawing at it.
Some times we would creep up on the building and look in the basement windows, but we couldn’t see nothing but a few long tables and a bunch of boxes. We did hear a funny humming noise, though, like a bee swarm. I used to tell Andy that before every funeral, the morticians would swap out the dead people for mannequins and grind up the bodies for pig slop, and that the ghosts of all those people lived down there in that basement. I told him that the humming sound was the ghosts crying, and if he was ever bad, he’d have to go live in that basement with all of ‘em. Then he’d start crying and hollering and I’d have to figure out somewhere else to play.
Anyhow, Me and Andy got to playing around behind the funeral home because of all the junk – they had a broken fridge full of crusted-up paint brushes and spray cans, and a big barrel of yellow rubber hoses that we’d use to wrap around sticks to make slingshots. We’d carry ‘em to the pond out back to shoot cans and empty glass jars. The yard was big enough to play hide and seek, too – Andy loved to hide in this big brass jug with two marble-sized holes that let him peek out on me. The jug had these phony-looking Egyptian symbols on it, which I thought was funny.
In the year or so we walked that way, we never saw anybody come out that back door. Nowadays, there would be cameras and security robots and god knows what else to keep kids from messin’ around back there. They shoulda never let us play near that pond.
Now this was just before Nixon put in all those rules for the environment, so some folks would just dump their septic tanks right into the canal behind their house, or even right into Lake Weir. But even for back then, that pond was foul. There was a shiny oil sick all over the water, and a pink, foamy ring all around the banks. That pond was dead nasty, for sure, but the worst part was the smell. One summer, a raccoon ate up a bunch of rat poison underneath our house, and it sat there dead for two weeks before we got around to fishing it out. When I scooted down there with a Piggly Wiggly bag and got one whiff of that critter, thick with ants amongst all that rat poison, I had to crawl right back out and wrap a dirty shirt around my face.
That’s what the pond smelled like, except it also had a smell like Biology class on top of it.
Funny thing is, as nasty as that pond was, we couldn’t stay away from it. Every day for a month we visited that place. We were always throwing sticks and rocks and all kind of junk in that pond just to see what we could rustle up, always daring each other to get closer and closer. One time I told Andy that if he stuck his hand in the pond, he might get super strong like Spider Man. Being a dumb kid, Andy mustered up some guts and walked to the edge, squat down, and started looking deep into the pond, his hands all folded together like he was some kind of guru. Then he stretched out his hand, pulled out a finger, and plunked it right into that water. He held it there for a minute, like he was waiting for the magic to sink in or something, and then he started squinting and wobbling and crying out for me to come over. He pulled out his finger and pointed at something in the pond. I thought he might have seen a turtle, but he was pointing to a dark shape lying there at the bottom. There was something big, shaped like a football but fifteen foot wide, lying in a pit. It was caked with pink scum, but parts of it had a shine like some sort of metal. Maybe it was a car, I said. We both knew it wasn’t a car. Something came over me and I came to know that we shouldn’t play here any more, not ever. I told Andy that we had to leave, but he started hemming and hawing, saying that he wanted to see what was at the bottom of the lake. I told him to nevermind that, and so we left.
The bad stuff happened that night. Andy seemed ok – he quit moping by the time we got home, but he went to bed early, which was something peculiar since this kid fought to stay up and watch movies with Mom every night. I woke up around three A.M., just like always, but this time I couldn’t see Andy crumpled up underneath his blanket on the other side of our room. I sprang out of bed, ran to the window, and saw Andy’s tiny Ranger Rick lantern bobbing far out on the edge of the forest. He looked like he was carrying Dad’s old tackle box. I put on my jeans and sneakers and headed out after him, knowing right where that little shit was headed.
When I got closer to Roberts, that pond smell got worse and worse, way worse than ever, and I could already hear that basement humming sound. When I finally rounded the bend from the park at the edge of town, I could see a red glow coming from the yard, and I got this sense that something really sick and dirty was happening just beyond that fence. I saw that the rebar was already propped up on the back corner of the yard, so I knew Andy was inside. I pried the corner apart with my hands and saw what I’ll never forget.
There were these two spotlights set up on either side of the pond, shining down into the water, but instead of white lights, they were beet red, which made it harder to see. There were two figures standing close together at the edge of the pond, dressed up like frog men, except they had gas masks on and heavy rubber boots instead of flippers. One of them wore a white belt filled with some kind of shiny tools. Lying in between them on a tarp was an old man with pearl white hair, all dressed up in a fine suit like he was going out to dinner. That man was stiff and still, with his arms folded across his chest like he was waiting for communion. He was a corpse ready for burial. One of those big blue drums sat off to the side, but this one looked new. I peeped around the yard looking for Andy, but didn’t see him – I thought that maybe he caught one look at this scene and ran back home somehow, but then I remembered the big Egyptian jug he liked to hide in, and sure enough, I could see two little eyes sparkling from inside the holes. He was watching everything. That buzzing sound got louder and louder, and started wavering and pulsing like a dump truck in neutral. These tiny ripples started up on the surface of the pond, and those ripples turned into waves.
Writing about this next part feels like poking open a spider egg with a stick. It’s unclean, and I don’t know if any good can come of it.
What came out of this pond wasn’t like any beast or man I’ve ever seen since. I saw the back of a white-pink head, if you could call it a head, all gummed-up with stringy afterbirth, rise up from the water a few feet out from the lip of the pond. It was as big as a man’s head, but longer, like a swollen eggplant. The two men moved up on either side of the open blue drum and began pouring out black liquid chum onto the shore and into the pond. Chunks of yellow and black floated out to the middle of the water, and bigger pieces of some kind of meat rolled into the mud. This thing starts moving toward the drum like it hears dinner bells, and it rises up, foisted by these two pink, fleshy arms connected to bony shoulder plates that look ready to burst out of its skin. It heaved out toward the mess on the shore, pulling itself up and collapsing down on the meat stew below. It had a long spine, like two men patched together, but it had gills and a thick, clear fin running down the neck like some kind of mudfish. I couldn’t see its face, but I could hear it slurping and gorging on whatever foul buffet these men had laid out for it.
After that thing got its fill, it craned its neck up at the men, like it was noticing them for the first time, and crawled sideways in the filth toward the corpse on the tarp. Sensitive folks might want to skip this part. It pulled a slick, pale, three-fingered hand out of the mud and dragged the body down toward it, like it was arranging him for something. Then it lay down on top of the body, cracked open the old man’s mouth, and started heaving like a cat with a hairball. Sick, black porridge started pouring out from its maw down into the gullet of the dead man. I can see big tadpoles flopping around the mud all around the corpse. The thing pulls itself up and looks at the dead man below, focusing hard, face to face. It’s frozen like that for a minute. Then the corpse starts kicking and flopping like a fish, and it starts moaning and grabbing at the tie around his neck, and I can see his eyes, and they’re open and scared. It doesn’t want to be alive.
Then I look over at Andy – he’s fidgeting around, trying to get out of that jug to run away. I wanted to yell at him to stay put and shut up. That jug starts wobbling and tips over, and Andy tumbles out, tears streaming down his face. The two men spin around and see him. Even worse, this thing in the pond notices him. The corpse keeps wailing away and thrashing in the mud. Andy backs up toward the funeral home, and one of the men pulls out what looks like some kind of syringe from his belt, with the other one closing in around the other side. I cracked open the fence and pushed my way inside, screaming at the top of my lungs to try and save my little brother, and when I did, the thing in the pond spun around and looked at me. I saw rows of eyes that looked like scabbed-over wounds. Its mouth was a thin, white flap of skin covering a hole the size of a grapefruit. I yelled that the police were coming, and that they’d better let us go, or else. The two men came running at me full speed, and the pond thing lurches out of the water and tumbles toward me in a blur of limbs and slop. I saw Andy pulling an old drum up against the fence so he could craw over and escape, so I turned quick for the exit, but I had a tough time squeezing through the crack in the fence. As I’m pulling myself through, I feel a hot wetness against my leg, and a firm grip on my shoe. I kicked back, leaving that thing my shoe as a prize, and squeezed through the hole. I sprinted off toward town, hearing grunts and footsteps behind me, hoping that Andy would make home before me.
By the time the sun rose, I’d sprinted out of town and nearly four miles north on the interstate. I flagged down the first truck I saw and told them to take me to the Ocala police station. Mom was already there, crying. We were supposed to leave for school an hour earlier, so when she couldn’t find us, she called the cops. I told everyone the story, and we took a squad car over to Roberts mortuary, but we didn’t find any lights or living-dead men or sick things lurking in the water. We found Andy floating face down in the middle of the pond just a few feet away from Dad’s old tackle box and a Ranger Rick lantern.
Nobody ever believed me about what I swear I saw. They thought Andy just got curious about the pond and fell in. The police saw it for that, and didn’t even bother investigating Roberts, even for how nasty that property was. On their account, we were in the wrong for trespassing. Mom died of cancer two years later, but she never forgave me for losing Andy.
The Roberts Funeral Home people swore up and down that they’d never seen us that night or ever before. They put up a bigger fence with barbed wire, and eventually moved to a location closer to town. They are still in business.
Mass Effect 3 gets so many things right. As a third person shooter, its mechanics make it a top-tier game. The multiplayer is fun and addictive. The dialogue is as witty as ever, and there are touching moments shared between these familiar characters that rival anything BioWare has done in the past. But as I played through the missions for the first time, a persistent voice in my head kept nagging me: “Why is this not clicking? Why is each mission somehow… flat? It seems like the stakes should be higher, so why does this feel like my character is just hopping from battle to battle?”
Forget the day-one DLC scandal. Cram the weak ending. Stifle your complaints about the make-work Citadel fetch quests. Using Mass Effect 2 as a benchmark, here are the real reasons ME3 was a disappointment.
In Mass Effect 2, every mission is a story, with a beginning, middle and end; they begin with a mystery, which leads to a reveal, which culminates in a fight and a final denouement. They immerse your character in the unknown. In nearly every quest, including the Collector setpieces, there’s no telling what (or when) you’ll be fighting. Take, for example, the Prison ship mission, where Shepard boards Purgatory with seemingly mundane orders to pick up a prisoner. Five minutes in, the mission context is completely inverted; Shepard is now the prisoner, and must fight her way out of the facility. More importantly, she has two great, implied motivations for fighting her way out of the prison: freedom, and claiming revenge on the warden. Here’s the key: You’re never explicitly told to care about either of these things. You care about these motivations because the story unfolded in a way that made you care about them. We get both surprise and mission-specific motivation, to say nothing of the building tension as Shepard finally reaches her adversary… who is NOT a faceless Power Armor goon, but an actual character. This may not be drama on par with Fitzcarraldo, but it offers genuinely engaging story conflict.
Or, take Jacob’s loyalty mission. It begins with a compelling mystery and motivation: “What happened to Jacob’s Dad? Let’s find out.” The story makes a near-brilliant transformation from a rescue mission into a revenge mission, culminating in one of the game’s shocking choices. When Jacob realizes why his father is still planetside, his character actually changes. The missions have acts. The missions even have mini-character-arcs!
I can make an example of nearly every mission. Samara’s dossier quest features not only a character antagonist, but one of the funniest interactions with a Volus in the entire series. Archangel’s dossier quest lets you play the role of infiltrator; by the time the pitched battle to save Garrus is over, you’ll have faced down several familiar characters from the Merc squad, with the clear motivation to protect your friend from certain death. Even Miranda’s loyalty quest, which is arguably the worst and blandest mission in the game, features distinguishable antagonist characters who create conflict. These are all mini-stories. Even the N7 Assignments offer mystery and surprise, if not all of them deliver on the same scale as the missions.
Better yet, most of these stories all dovetail into the main plot in satisfying ways. The point of ME2 wasn’t the Collectors, the Illusive man’s plans, or even Shepard – the point was the building of the team itself, which is actually a clever inversion RPG storytelling.
Now let’s take a look at what’s going on in ME3. How many of the off-ship missions offer real story conflict with actual characters? Does Shepard encounter any combat adversaries with proper names besides Kai Leng? (The answer, as it turns out, is “No,” unless you ended the game with three certain squadmates disloyal.) The missions nearly all thrust Shepard into an epic firefight where she’s commanded to protect an asset or find a console. While there’s always the meta-story of “Defeat the Reapers!” to fall back on, the off-ship missions in this game, with rare exception, are all extended firefights against floods of indistinguishable enemies without a story to call their own. They do not offer mystery, surprise, or compelling mission-specific motivation. You’re typically sent off-ship to collect a plot coupon, like “diffuse the bomb” or “collect the artifact,” and these bland plot coupons represent the collective cores of the missions. This is shockingly lazy writing, especially for BioWare.
Take, for example, the Palaven mission, which is an example of “And then this happened” storytelling. After being told by her commander that she needs to recruit the Turian Primarch to fight the Reapers, Shepard lands on the moon, fights some husks, and then talks to Lieutenant Corinthus. Next, Shepard repairs some comm towers, and defeats several waves of Reapers. Then, Shepard is assigned the task of guarding the base using turrets. Then, Shepard meets Garrus, who takes him to a crash site to fight more Reapers. Finally, Shepard collects Corinthus and Garrus.
Try composing a story around this mission. What’s it about? Does anything important happen to any of the characters? If this were a chapter in a book, would you enjoy it? Probably not. It’s a series of loosely-connected events linked by a series of shooting galleries. I have no mission-specific motivation here, other than the most basic one of all: because the game told me to. And it’s one of the better missions in the game, because at least it offers encounters with new enemies.
Or take the Geth Dreadnought quest, which tasks Shep to march down the length of a ship to find and terminate the Reaper signal within. How does it end? You march down the length of a ship to find and terminate the Reaper signal within. I did exactly what it told me to do, and even predicted the ME2 squadmate I’d meet along the way! No surprises, no story, and no mission-specific motivation. Again, this is a key setpiece in the game, and represents the best it has to offer.
“But Mass Effect 3 is a game-long climax! It doesn’t need to have missions with stories or side characters. It’s a war to save the galaxy, so it makes sense that the missions are frenetic and unfocused.”
Assuming that there’s no way to create story-based missions in the context of a war, then the writers shouldn’t have written themselves into that corner. But that’s a clearly false assumption, given that most action games take place in some sort of war. Hell, the lack of a war in the first two games set Mass Effect apart from the pack!
ME3′s missions also sustain a very high pitch. By the end of each one, you’ll have fought waves upon waves of either Cerberus fighters or Reapers, literally without exception. The Reaper horde eventually becomes background noise. I’ll borrow a phrase that’s widely used to condemn bad action movies: When every mission is a climactic firefight to save the galaxy, then no mission is a climactic firefight to save the galaxy. The ones that do stand out in my mind, like the Rachni Gears of War tunnels or the Giant Enemy Robot on Rannoch, are too loaded with lazy game tropes for me to fully enjoy. One mission that manages to bring together surprise, conflict, and character in a satisfying way is the Grissom Academy fight, but that’s the exception to prove the rule – and even that one has you fighting a faceless team of non-characters. The Mordin mission provides excellent resolution to his character, and is a bright spot, too, but that resolution is only a coda to the mission itself. This leads me to yet another problem: ME3′s off-ship mission content is as po-faced and humorless as it gets. Gone are the prequel’s spectacularly funny Renegade options, like the Biotic God Volus interaction or the Batarian mechanic sabotage on Omega. The missions are as solemn as a church service.
“But you don’t get it! This is Mass Effect’s Deathly Hallows! It’s intentionally epic, dark, and po-faced.”
Well, for one thing, Deathly Hallows wasn’t 25 hours long. For another, it ignores the BioWare writers’ playful sense of humor as a key writing strength. Moments like the Biotic God and the Rooftop Merc have stayed with me over the years, but I can’t recall a single Renegade story interrupt from ME3, and I’ve only finished it a day ago.
Finally, not only did Mass Effect 2 have universally better missions than its sequel, but there were twice as many of them. Not counting the DLC, Shepard took her crew on 60 total off-ship excursions, while ME3 stands at a stunted 26.
The sad truth is this: compared to its contemporaries, Mass Effect 3 isn’t a bad game in the least. But that’s because its contemporaries don’t bother weaving their stories into gameplay the way BioWare did so masterfully with ME2. The combat mechanics and weapons systems may have improved, but that’s not what made Mass Effect so special. The core components of Mass Effect are the missions themselves, and they were a big disappointment.