Turning on the Basement Light
I am often inspired by the shows and movies I watch when I sit down to work on my next rpg adventure publication. As a long-time fan of horror movies, I often as not end up watching something along those lines. When I was a kid, I watched even more. For some reason, horror movies are always the most fun. If they're scary, they're an emotional challenge to watch. If you're with friends, it's a competition. If they're bad, you can laugh. But even the bad ones can turn on a dime and give you a feeling of unease. And sometimes even bad movies can provide characters, plot hooks, and ideas that make great rpg games.
I was reminded of this recently when I bought one of those multi-movie horror packs from my local Walmart. For five bucks I got twenty movies. I thought, hey, if only one is ok I'm making out well. In fact, I knew from the get-go because I had seen many of them before, but just couldn't remember them with clarity because it was when I was child. That night, after I put my daughter to bed and kissed my wife as she graded papers on the couch, I trod downstairs to my basement. My cave.
I am lucky enough to have a HD projector and an Xbox through which I am currently stealing my brother's girlfriend's Netflix. I gave my own account up a few months ago, but when she came to visit and entered her account and password I didn't have the heart to delete them. From time to time, I'll get an exasperated email from my brother along the lines of, "What are you watching? She things it's ME watching these movies, cut it out!" He says these things as though Nude Nuns with Big Guns is a bad movie!
As if Rape of the Vampire and Strippers Versus Zombies not only have no value (i.e., are bad), but are somehow offensive. My point in this post is to assert that, aside from other possible areas of quality, movies that the majority of people deem "bad", as quantified through websites such as Rotten Tomatoes, can offer game masters inspiration and content for their game.
If you look into your crystal ball, make your roll to see back in time twenty-some years, you'd see a short, but athletic sandy-haired kid reading an issue of Fangoria. If it were another time it could equally be a copy of Femme Fatales or Playboy, but let's give him at least a little privacy.
The bookshelf by his bed and the other against the opposite wall are neatly filled with books. Mostly paperback fantasy and horror. If you adjust the resolution on your crystal ball, you'd likely make out titles such as Skeleton Crew, The Whisperer in the Darkness, The Haunting of Hill House, and Turn of the Screw. If you adjusted the time function, you'd see the book titles change, but the genres would remain the same.
If you activated the x-ray feature on your crystal ball, you'd see issues of Dragon, Penthouse, Playboy, and Mentzer's Player's Guide (read this first!) sandwiched carefully between the bed's box spring and mattress. Just as the same boy would later sandwich his choice comics between backer boards and plastic sleeves during his more intense collecting days. But for now, in a day of Satanism scares, D&D is just as taboo as Playboy for a young boy with religious parents.
What's that? You want to look around a bit? By all means. A single window frames seven acres of lawn (which is why he has mower handlebar calluses on his hands come summer) and, beyond that, grassy field, then a highway, then forest. One hundred acres of trees, creeks, and rope swings to be exact. If the boy wasn't reading or in school, he'd be in those woods.
The room is a third bedroom in a log cabin. It has a pitched ceiling and blue carpet. There is one bed, one desk, two shelves, and a small closet filled with clothes, boxes, and a slowly fermenting gallon of unpasteurized apple cider from the local orchard down the road. The cider was hidden under a pile of clean clothes and would later lead to the "Homemade Hard Cider Incident" (note the capital "I"), but that's a story to be scrubbed from all public record, not aired in a blog and is beyond the purpose of this post anyway.
Speaking of purpose, what is this post's purpose? Oh, yeah; bad horror movies. Those are in the room, too. They're stacked on shelves and arranged in boxes. I think there's even one in with the magazines that the bed and box springs kiss to sleep each night. They're all VHS with slip cardboard covers and gruesome art, glowing titles, and titillating abstracts.
Now that the duration of your crystal ball spell is up, let's return our thoughts to the present and ways we can use these horror movies such as Femalien, Puppet Master, and Bloodsucking Freaks in our games.
As I said earlier, I tromped downstairs and found, to my pleasant surprise, that many of the movies in my multi-pack were not only from the 80s, but many were also Full Moon Entertainment productions. Full Moon Entertainment is still making low budget horror movies today. But, just like my elders in the 80s and 90s would dismiss the movies I watched then, I dismiss their new titles now. I suppose that part of the value of these older movies I'm talking about is derived, not just if I watched them decades ago, but simply if they were made decades ago. Older movies can certainly be judged by the same criteria as I would a film currently showing in my local theatre, but it has the additional quality of age.
Some people call this nostalgia, but that's not what I'm talking about here. Nostalgia comes from a root compound meaning the pain of home. If I recall my high school history lesson correctly, it came into popular use to describe the mental anguish derived from thinking about home while soldiers were fighting far away. I am given to profound bouts of nostalgia, but that's not the quality described here because I often see value in older movies I had never seen before.
I'm talking about a sense of pleasure derived from perspective. In watching women in miniskirts explore castles and evade vampires gratis Jean Rollin I appreciate changes in clothing style. When I watch raven-haired seductive aristocratic vampires traipse through the woods to an atonal bombardment of 70s groove music courtesy of Jess Franco I gain a new sense of pacing and personal affect.
Nostalgia is saying "oh, I can see that David Gale's body is under the table; he isn't headless." Whereas I'm saying, "The effects are dated, but the lack of CGI gives the gore an added visceral revulsion in the viewer. This is a greater realism, in a way, from a true horror perspective.
Back to the basement.
I turned on the space heater (hey, there's still snow in my backyard, ok?), opened a fresh beer, and settled in to the couch with my feet warming from the heater's blasts. I watched Castle Freak and then Head of the Family. Both are Full Moon Entertaiment movies, both low budget horror, and both - by most film criteria - bad movies.
As much as I loved Jeffrey Combs in Re-animator, The Beyond, and Bride of Re-Animator, I can fully acknowledge that he was a bad fit for the role of a grief-stricken alcoholic father. His energetic delivery and general spasticity which made him such a compelling Dr. West was incongruous with his Castle Freak character.
The dialogue was especially bad; unrealistic, hurried, and lacking fluency. Aside from the blind daughter and freak, the characters were mostly uninteresting as well. It is the story and the setting that stand out as good sources for gaming. The setting is a run-down castle in modern Italy. The owner is found dead, but her deformed son still lives chained in the dungeon. How the freak gets out and what he does are beyond the scope of the ever-growing post you're currently reading (or more likely, skimming).
There are interesting and consistent themes through the entire movie which make it somewhat satisfying as a "film" despite significant breaks in logic. You know, the kind where you scream (or groan) at the television, "What? Oh COME on!"
Head of the Family
The budget of this 1996 movie shows. Some of the sets, most notably the protagonist's apartment, is porn-movie bad. Speaking of porn; given that Jacqueline Lovell is frequently naked is understandable given both her incredible beauty and history with Penthouse. Seriously, I hope all the budget went to her salary. She is absolutely stunning.
Head of the Family is one of those older movies that I never saw in my youth (dang, that's now the second time I've used that phrase) even though in watching it, I felt like I was fifteen and staying up late with Rhonda Shear.
Even though much of the acting is stiff, the sets are mostly cardboard horrible, and many sequences are too long, the dialogue and characters are witty and interesting. When I recovered from the rapturous aesthetics of Jacqueline Lovell and listened to the dialogue with greater scrutiny, I found clever phrases and structured format. While I couldn't bring much of the dialogue to bear on my role-playing games, I could easily bring the characters. They are unique and full of plot hooks. In fact, they were the primary inspiration for a section of my next self-published Labyrinth Lord adventure called Verloren.
I Bid You Goodnight
These two examples support the use of bad movies as good games. I have a slew of additional examples and, despite being tempted to continue my filibuster (I'm putting off getting a good night's sleep), respect for your ears and my looming exhaustion come morning compel me to bid you goodnight.
With an old-man like grunt, I heave myself up from the couch; turn off the space heater, projector, and Xbox. I ascend the stairs. The thump of cat paws echo my own footfalls. I check the front and back door locks. Upstairs my family slumbers restfully. I am the man of the house, after all, and besides, you never know what's lurking behind that tree in the backyard or what's waiting just around the garage. Waiting to jiggle the door handle and see if it's locked...
Thank you, Constant Reader, for committing yourself to a rambling post about bad horror movies and role-playing games. I hope the trip wasn't too painful and that, even if you don't concur with my thesis or discovered an interest to seek out a new movie here mentioned, I hope you found the time we spent together this evening somewhat pleasurable in itself. If you have read with attention and post a comment, I will award you three hundred points on my leader board (see tab above). The greater value of a post (and blog) like this one is far beyond that expressed in a number, but it does sweeten the pot a bit.