07 May 2012
Like so many PC titles of its mid-nineties vintage, the Phantasmagoria series is neither game nor movie, but a hybrid of both. This feature will review each piece - game and movie - separately, followed by a holistic conclusion about the series.
Part One - Part Two - Part Three - Part Four - Part Five
Stop me if you've heard this one before - novelist and spouse move into a big, secluded building with a mysterious past. One of them goes crazy and targets the other in a murderous rampage.
Phantasmagoria isn't The Shining, but... well, it's pretty much The Shining, at least in terms of broad plot beats. The execution could hardly be compared to Kubrick on even his worst day. Frankly, it's bad, but when it comes to the horror genre, there are far worse condemnations than bad.
For three-quarters of the year, The Shining's Overlook Hotel is a swank and splendid place. Sure, evil spirits haunt its halls in wintertime, but it's easy to see why Jack Torrance and family, ignorant of such details, would agree to move in for a few months of privacy and easy money.
Newlyweds Adrienne and Don must have gotten a heck of a deal on rent at Phantasmagoria's Carnovasch Estate, because the joint is nothing but creepy. Eerie stone faces jut out of walls, torture equipment fills one room, and there's an inexplicable swirling vortex lingering over a dingy crib on the second-floor nursery. In one scene, Adrienne chews out her real estate agent for not telling her about the rumours that the house may be haunted, but she might as well complain because he didn't tell her that the house has walls. Some things don't need to be said.
Adrienne suffers vivid nightmares beginning the first night in her new home, but it's only once she begins snooping around the many locked and boarded-up rooms (pro tip: don't buy a house if you can't access every room without using a crowbar) that the true evil is unleashed. In this case, "true evil" is a bright green cloud that escapes from a wooden box and flies into Don.
You never get the sense that Don's a perfect man, but he's introduced as a loving, caring husband with artistic ambitions. His downfall starts with nothing more than a headache, but soon he seems tense, and he shouts at his wife. Absinthe is missing from an old bottle. Don locks himself in his darkroom all day, then comes out at night to sexually assault Adrienne. Soon, he's laughing maniacally while brutally slaughtering everyone who approaches the house.
Don's character arc should be intriguing, but it isn't.
Perhaps Phantasmagoria's biggest flaw - and, sister, it has some flaws - is its mishandling of suspense. We know the house seems off, we know Adrienne is seeing horrific visions, and we know Don isn't acting like himself. That should be enough, but any suspense is undercut by the fact that we see evil green stuff enter his body in the first chapter. The story would be derivative either way, but a little editing could probably make it work.
Building suspense is a careful balancing act. It's showing exactly enough, and no more. It's lulling the audience into a false sense of security. Phantasmagoria just can't manage, which is tragic because it comes incredibly close.
The maleficent nature of Carnovasch Estate may be immediately obvious, but nearby Nipawomsett is a quaint and charming seaside town. Perhaps if this had been our first introduction to the world of Phantasmagoria, tension would rise over the course of the story. Perhaps if there'd been some restraint in the presentation of Adrienne's first day here - a day that would seem mundane were it not for the hallucinations and artefacts of black magic strewn throughout her house - we'd feel something when her life goes awry. Instead, we know we're getting in horror land from the very start, which is a sure way to curtail scares at the end.
That isn't to say that Phantasmagoria is without its shocking moments. On the contrary, the clumsy set-up somehow makes the payoff even more surprising. From the offset, we know we're dealing with the supernatural and the occult, but it's all so silly and on-the-nose that when the first onscreen death occurs, some time after the halfway point, its graphic brutality comes as an immense surprise. After that, the barrage of outrageous, gory murders, shown head-on without cutting away from the grisly details, consistently goes beyond expectations. Just when you think you've seen the worst, Phantasmagoria proves you wrong.
If you go in expecting a good movie, you'll be disappointed. The acting ranges from mediocre to hilarious, the digital sets are distractingly wonky, the cinematography is amateurish, the plot is unoriginal, the characters are flat, and it's hard to imagine that even a single frame of film was left on the cutting room floor, but such criticism is beside the point. The makers of Phantasmagoria may not have had skills on par with Kubrick, but they did create a sleazy, trashy classic.
When it comes to B-horror, what more do you want?
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