Review of Darling

Darling is a slow burning horror film reminiscent of the Shining and Witch. It is eerie and atmospheric, with sudden bursts of shrill, frightening music that reminded me of Insidious.

I think that it’s an okay film. It “felt” smarter than a lot of other films that I’ve seen recently, that’s for sure. But ambiguity doesn’t always mean greater intellectual merit. I was not left with any haunting moments stuck in my mind.

I won’t go over the plot much because I want others to see it and the less that you know, the better.

It is filmed in crisp, gorgeous black and white. The starting montage could have easily been part of the opening to Woody Allen’s Manhattan if it weren’t for the ominous low music and lack of narration. The shots were picked very carefully so as to omit anything that might take it out of its setting in the late 1960s / early 1970s.

I will say that this film is very beautiful. The director really knew how to get the best possible range of black and white. Some of the best that I’ve ever seen.

The film is ambiguous about whether or not the protagonist becomes unhinged due to a malignant spiritual or demonic presence in the house, or if she’s actually unhinged from the start and that she’s only imagining things. Perhaps she’s using the house’s reputation for being haunted as an excuse to indulge in her revenge fantasy (or homicidal tendencies in general).

Just like Pulp Fiction, I suppose that in the end it doesn’t matter what’s in the suitcase (or, in Darling’s case, just what she sees when she finally opens the locked door at the end of the hallway). The movie is about the situation and the atmosphere, not about plot.

When I first finished watching it, I wasn’t happy. I thought that it was pretentious and that it relied too heavily on visual trappings from Jacob’s Ladder and the Shining. The ending made me say “okay, so what?”.

In retrospect, I think that Darling was finely made and tightly directed. Lauren Ashley Carter was pretty good as the tormented (and demented) protagonist. Her huge, emotive eyes sure helped. There were times when her skinny face gave me flashbacks to Shelley Duvall panicking through the halls of the Overlook Hotel.

In terms of scares, Darling uses long, slow shots without any sound, sudden, loud bursts of orchestral noise, shaky heads and jump cuts to 2-3 frames of grotesque expressions, and some substantial gore during one sequence. There are one or two jump scares which mostly annoyed me.

I think that one scene in particular would have worked better if they had made the blood more “gooey” or “syrupy”. Not sure if Rigor Mortis kicks in so soon after a murder, but the watery splashy-ness of the gore felt too fake to me.

Some key mysteries:

Spoilers start here

  • When Darling finds her victim’s I.D. card, and realised that he wasn’t her intended target, was she freaking out because she killed an innocent man or because she didn’t get revenge after all?
  • Is the house deliberately attracting vulnerable, unhinged people as caretakers? Is it a malevolent force that likes to create tragic murders and suicides?
  • It is implied that Madam might know what’s going on with that house (and is probably in on it). If she was, why did she call the police when she found out that Darling had done something awful?
  • What was behind that locked door down the hall? My theory: nothing. It’s a broom closet. Darling realises that she’s nuts, and that she hadn’t been influenced by an outside, supernatural force that condoned her terrible deed.

Spoilers end here

Conclusion

If you want something different, and you like the slow, eerie qualities of the Shining and the Witch (VVitch?), give this one a shot. I found it interesting, but not hugely memorable.

Review of Blood in the Chocolate

Kiel Chenier’s 17th Century tongue-in-cheek horror adaptation of Road Dahl’s classic about a chocolate factory is a splendidly disturbing adventure for Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP).

Parodies of the subject matter have been done to death (ie, the Simpsons, Futurama, Family Guy etc…), but this one remains fresh to me because it subverts so many expectations:

  • yes, of course the stand-in “Oompah Loompahs” are essentially slaves, we’re over that, but exactly who (or what) they’re slaves TO is a departure from other satires.
  • yes, the proprietor of the factory is a disturbing, selfish creature, but here we have a completely non-whimsical sadist who’s truly selfish and greedy for regular human reasons.
  • yes, the food can transform people, punishing them for their selfish flaws. But here the transformations are full-on body horror: stuff that I’d be reluctant to throw at my players’ characters.

Look and Feel and Usability

It’s a pretty booklet with vivid cartoony artwork, which is entirely appropriate given the subject matter: innocence with a slightly twisted edge. The illustrations represent actual events, characters and places featured in the adventure, which is always appreciated.

Each chapter has a different coloured background which aids in flipping through the book to find something. None of the watermarks or imagery inhibited readability.

The PDF has a clickable index. Always glad to have it included.

My favourite feature was the high level summary of the contents of every room. This is incredibly useful and amazing. Great thought was put into this document.

Structure

We’re given a nice bit of background and historical context. To me, that’s important because it grounds the weirdness into the semblance of reality. After all, if everything’s weird, nothing really is. The charm of this module depends greatly on the players’ campaign setting. I would not use any LotFP modules in High Fantasy worlds. Well, maybe in a G-Rated world of pristine cleanliness. But otherwise, I’d use something more relate-able and “real”.

We’re given a nice backstory to the villain who is refreshingly evil for banal reasons: she’s not a misunderstood, tragic figure, nor possessed by otherworldly demons. She’s just an asshole.

The module has nice, simple keyed maps of every room and corridor. The room descriptions are vivid but not overburdened with fluff. Everything is easy to grasp and understand.

Themes

The introduction makes a note that there are plenty of psycho-sexual themes in this module. I agree, but they’re applicable to male and female characters. The twisted horror is gender neutral.

As mentioned earlier, there are lots of body horror themes. These are typically inflicted through many traps and weapons that inflict awful diseases. Many have permanent effects if they don’t outright kill someone.

This adventure is gross and bizarre, but clever and fun. Hard to imagine, right?

As with many adventures for LotFP, this one rewards player (or character) cleverness and ingenuity. Charging in pistols blazing is a bad, awful idea.

There are several explanations for different outcomes, based on what the players do. There’s even a direct hook to another popular LotFP module, if you want to go into that direction.

Unlike some other punishing horror adventures, this one has many possible riches and rewards for adventurers who survive and thrive. They might even take over the factory itself and retire (but only if they accept the ethical dilemma of inflicting terrible diseases upon humanity).

Conclusion

This is a very well-written adventure module. There are may different options and ways for the GM to handle it. It is efficiently and elegantly laid out and would be easy to run. A fun, but bizarre and revolting adventure that will surely be memorable for both players and for their characters.

I recommend it.

You can buy it here at DriveThruRPG

Review of Battle for the Purple Islands

Battle for the Purple Islands is an adventure module set in the same world as Venger’s previous adventure: Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence (review link). It’s a mix of the usual sword and sorcery, gonzo, horror and tongue-in-cheek pop culture references.

Basic info:

  • 24 pages
  • Colour exterior, black & white interior art
  • Two versions: print-friendly and regular (with coloured backgrounds and vein-y watermarks
  • Mostly system-neutral, although stat blocks seem to match VSD6, Venger’s game system  (used for Alpha Blue and Crimson Dragon Slayer)

Disclaimers:

  1. I received a review copy (PDF) from the writer. I’ve reviewed numerous works by Venger and even played a few. Here is a listing of all of my Venger-related reviews.
  2. Venger’s games have a reputation that is well established at this point.   It’s rated R for sure. I won’t go into  any further warnings about subject matter or maturity level.

Visual style

Once again Venger’s art direction and Glynn Seal (Monkey Bood Design) have done a very nice job.

The artwork is of fine quality and evocative of 70s and 80s Heavy Metal Magazine pop culture gonzo-ness. There are many nods to geek culture; some obvious, others not (consider those ones easter eggs).

Everything is crisp, tidy and clean. With every book that Korthatlis publishing puts out, the graphic design improves.

Usability

The typography is easy to read and the watermarks never got in the way. The tables are simple in construction and use alternating row shadings for better readability. Good stuff.

The headings add structure and the block-quotes add flavor: they don’t commit that annoying habit of repeating content already in the body text.

The artwork is usually contextual, but not always. They’re interesting and all well-drawn.

The PDF does not have an index but it does have well-structured bookmarks (so you wouldn’t need an index page anyway).

The adventure itself contains…

  • Basic info about the current state of the Purple Islands, establishing the general mood and setting. There isn’t a lot other than broad descriptions, so GMs will likely want to draw up some maps or basic geography themselves (there aren’t any in this book).
  • The Purple Destiny: each PC is generated a random “predestined” fate. The intent isn’t to railroad the adventure or to remove player agency. It’s to give the character a  new objective (of sorts) during their visit. Anytime that they perform an action that pushes that narrative forward, they get advantage to their roll. These destinies include things like “faithfully serving one or more demonic entities” or “to become an influential leader”. This is a neat idea and would theoretically make this module a memorable one for the players (it’s that time Jane Doe’s PC suddenly became obsessed with time travel!). Cool idea, Venger.
  • Reasons to travel to this setting, including entry points from other games, such as Alpha Blue or even as returning survivors of the previous Purple Islands adventure in the series. Of particular note is the idea that visitors from other planes of existence might lose their memory and “go native”. This can lead to some very interesting situations. Example: some orc invaders might now believe that they’re Anthropologists or Archaeologists.The entry points from other worlds (or pre-existing ones) each have a suggested starting point.
  • A name generator for NPCs on the island. They’re weird and full of apostrophes, but all easily pronounceable (and thus, easier to remember).
  • Outlines of some key personalities and factions such as a cannibal tribe and talking apes.
    • There’s a quirky NPC who borderline breaks the 4th wall. I found him funny: there’s potential for some subversive interactions. Won’t spoil it here.
    • Random curious customs for the cannibal tribes to make each one memorable or unique compared with others. These are usually grotesque, often horrifying and contain subtle geek culture references.
    • As an aside, the Cannibal tribe includes a twist on the usual captive damsel in distress trope. I found it pretty clever
  • Some key locations to visit (most of which are tied to some of those key personalities and factions).
  • A big random table for hexcrawl exploration (not all are combat-oriented, thankfully; many are just cool scenes or places to interact with)
  • A Reaction table for determining how NPCs (usually natives of the setting) react to witnessing the sudden appearance of Lovecraftian Horrors (a refreshing idea, actually: we always get rules on how PCs deal with Fear and Horror but rarely how bystanders handle it).
  • Weird random weather generator (custom-made to enhance the mood of the setting).

The “plot” itself

I admit that it took me a while to get this figured out. The Purple islands are being overcome with lovecraftian horrors. Lovecraft himself is a strange hermit in a mountain cave: he owns a MacGuffin that an evil Brotherhood needs to complete their evil apocalyptic plan. The PCs will likely meet a strange Courrier who’s mission is to find Lovecraft. Lots of different factions (the snake cult, the cannibal tribes, the evil brotherhood, the talking apes) are all in the way, interfering with the PCs’ progress (and with each others’ plans).

There are some moments that are very reminiscent of the film “in the Mouth of Madness” in which a creative writer of horror fiction confronts his own genius. The PCs might even witness a twisted movie that can have huge psychological effects on them. Again, neat ideas.

Out of all of Venger’s adventure modules, this one was the most surreal and weird to me: there’s definitely a sequence of events that will occur (or might not, if the PCs don’t do anything). There are consequences for inaction: mass radioactive apocalypse. It’s not a railroad, but there are some key NPCs and locations that need to be found/interacted with to further the timeline. I suppose that’s true of other modules as well, but it felt especially true here.

I think that this adventure would have benefited from a clearly laid out, bullet-by-bullet sequence of events (or flowchart) that will explain what will happen if the PCs fail or don’t interfere in time at different moments.

Conclusion

This module is brief but is densely packed and colourful. Lots of things to see and do and very high on the weirdness factor. I would have liked some maps or floorplans, but I suppose that it wouldn’t be hard to make some of your own (just pull up some floorplans of contemporary buildings: the setting is so gonzo that it would work).

If you’re a fan of Venger’s other works, or of weird, gonzo pulp adventures in general, I recommend this module. For 5$ USD, it’s not a bad purchase at all.

You can get it here on DriveThruRPG.