Category Archives: Horror

Has strong elements to unsettle or frighten the audience.

Castlevania – Full Series Review

Related: Castlevania Season 1 review (old)

Castlevania Season 2 review (old)

Similar: Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust

Hellsing Ultimate

Berserk

 

Watched in: English & Japanese

Genre: Action Fantasy Horror

Length: 32 episodes (4 seasons)

 

Positives:

  • Vampire majesty
  • Faithful adaptation without getting bogged down by the source material
  • Brutally gothic in action and tone
  • Political intrigue amongst excellent villains
  • Great lore and magic

Negatives:

  • Give me more, please

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With the conclusion of the fourth season, Netflix’s Castlevania comes to a great end. Rather than do a review for the final season only, I thought I would go back and cover the full series in one place, give my overall thoughts on this triumph (no need to read the other reviews either).

My astonishment at the quality of a video game to film adaptation has been the greatest surprise throughout Castlevania’s run. I’m hoping this is the turning point where adaptations are things to look forward to rather than dread, similar to when comic books became good films more often than not. Superhero film fans are spoilt for choice these days. They don’t know of the Affleck Daredevil and Elektra days. Watching a good adaptation can sometimes make you forget the bad – the atrocious – such as Far Cry (anything by Uwe Boll, honestly), Dead or Alive, and the notorious Super Mario Bros. It’s hard to stress how weird it feels to see quality when the expectation is absolute ass.

For the newcomers, Castlevania is a long-running franchise of loosely connected games about a bloodline of vampire hunters from the Belmont family battling against creatures of the night, usually led by Dracula. The Netflix series roughly follows the third game, Dracula’s Curse, though pulls from several entries and brings much of its own material to the canvas. That last point is a key to Castlevania the animation’s success. Most adaptations fail because they don’t realise that gameplay comes first in [good] video games and trying to translate this to a cinematic only experience doesn’t work. There’s a reason the “princess is in another castle” trope is a common ailment of game stories (the recent God of War, for example), yet not often seen in film. Games use it to tack on another 5-hour gameplay world before, of course, the princess is again in another castle and you have another world to explore. It’s fine to want to be faithful to the source material, but there’s no point if it makes for a garbage film. Character, theme, tone, and style matter when adapting, not the gameplay mechanics or exact plot.

In terms of story, what makes Castlevania? Vampire hunters, vampires, monsters, magic, gothic, horror, religion, and labyrinthine castles. Your story isn’t a failure if your vampire hunter doesn’t jump and whip, jump and whip, jump and whip. It’s like those movies based on FPS games, where they think that because they have a scene in first person as a guy mows down fools with a gun, they’ve nailed it.

This series understands what makes for an engaging story in the world of Castlevania.

Enough preamble already, onto the review proper! This story opens on the meeting and courtship between the human Lisa and the vampire lord himself, Dracula. He teaches her science and medicine to help the local humans, which doesn’t please the Church, who see science as heathen magic and burn her at the stake. Dracula’s fury in response knows no equal and he unleashes a horde of demons upon the nation. Hell reigns.

Trevor Belmont, the last in his line of vampire hunters, drinks his way to the end of his days unmoved by the massacres nearby. A plea from some humans wakes him from his drunken haze and he finally does what he was born to do. He soon meets the magician Sypha.

Hearing this premise and knowing the video game origin, expectations are for little more than good guy fights series of bad guys to get to big bad guy in terms of story. However, Castlevania is so much more. In fact, there is enough material just amongst the villains to make a full series. Dracula’s court consists of vampires and humans, each with their own motivations and purpose in this story. Politics plays a larger part than action does in the conflict. They aren’t evil for the sake of evil. Dracula is the most powerful being on Earth, yet the death of his wife broke him. Isaac, one of Dracula’s Forgemasters (demon constructors), is waging a war against his own kind, whereas the other Forgemaster is a tad hesitant though no less involved. Some amongst the vampire “sisters” question their existence as vampires. Are they truly to rule for all eternity? Over everyone? The nuance to these villains (are they all villains?) particularly in later seasons had me glued to the screen.

A recurring problem in stories featuring secret societies of the supernatural is homogony within the society. The Underworld films (a guilty pleasure of mine), The Mortal Instruments, and Blade are but a few examples. How many stories have you seen where all the vampires (except maybe one) or werewolves or whatever supernatural race are the same? Where they have no lives saves for waiting around to drop from above in groups when someone walks down a back alley? They may as well be the clone troopers from Attack of the Clones for all the difference between them. This cliché stems from how people imagine other cultures. They see people in their own country are as varied as the plants and animals of the world, yet everyone in a distant country is one homogenous blob of whatever stereotype they know and not just as varied. Or the writers are just lazy. Of course, one story doesn’t have room for thousands of different personalities, but variety in what characters you do have goes a long way, even the villains.

On a hero front, Trevor’s “I’m so over this” attitude combined with his family duty makes for a fitting hero, a better choice than a typical “hero” in this gothic tale, and his chemistry with Sypha brings a touch of levity. Alucard is a more unusual character. Like his father, he’s powerful yet amongst the most mentally weak after having lived a sheltered life. I love the way he talks as well. His vocal mannerisms alone inform much of his experiences and mental state. And let’s not forget the charismatic has-been Saint Germain. What is he up to?

Even the minor characters are memorable, from the religious fanatics to the sentient demons. My only complaint with the characters is that we don’t get to see more of them. I could easily do with twice as many episodes of character interactions and vampire politics.

If action is more to your taste, Castlevania is excellent there as well. Apart from a few rough cuts, the animation is great and the action never feels generic. It’s always interesting to watch and improves with each season. Gory too, as it should be for a horror series. The massacre in episode one sets the tone perfectly.

Castlevania started as an animation to which I paid no attention. Now, I love it. It has a great start with four episodes as a proof of concept followed by a second season that brings the cast to strength, and then a third season elevates it to excellence with nuance before a final season delivers an explosive action finish. This is one of the best fantasy series I’ve seen in a long time. I can only hope future video game adaptations receive even half the care and effort as Castlevania has received.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: Watch it. Castlevania is a triumph of an adaptation and a fantasy series. I heartily recommend it.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Phenomenal VillainRiveting ActionStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None

Ghost Stories – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Gakkou no Kaidan

 

Similar: Ghost Hunt

Pop Team Epic

Cromartie High School

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: [Comedy] Horror Mystery

Length: 19 episodes

 

Positives:

  • The masterpiece dub

Negatives:

  • Everything else

(Request an anime for review here.)

Ghost Stories is a rubbish anime. The characters are forgettable, the horror is laughable, the mysteries put one to sleep, and the art is crap. Watch it in English, however, and Ghost Stories is a great anime. If you haven’t heard of this gem, Ghost Stories was a flop in Japan (shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone with eyes and ears) and the studio said that ADV, the dubbing company, could do whatever they wanted to the show as long as they followed three rules. Don’t change names, don’t change how the ghosts die (part of the Japanese folklore), and don’t change the meaning of each episode. Other than that, fair game. And they were merciless.

What resulted was one of the most hilarious anime ever made in the style of an “abridged” parody series, before abridged anime were all the rage. Almost all dialogue was improvised, and since they record dubs one actor at a time (to match the visual timing), whoever got in the booth first for a scene, set the improv direction and the rest played off it. They just had to follow the purpose of the scene.

When told they could change anything except for the above three rules, they took that to heart. None of the original feel or tone of Ghost Stories remains in the dub, much to everyone’s delight.

The most notable change is personalities. Gone are the clichéd and bland school kids. In are the most offensive twerps since South Park. The protagonist has a mouth to make a sailor blush, a true hatred for lesbians, and is obsessed with her body. Her younger brother is retarded (literally) mumbling gibberish that gets more incomprehensible as he grows upset. Only she can decipher his speech. The love interest is a degenerate perv, while the nerd is even more stereotyped and Jewish, thus the butt of Jew jokes (like South Park). My favourite is the prim and proper girl turned into a fanatical born again Christian, calling everything a sin and reminding you every second of every day that you must find Jesus. Each line out of her mouth cracks me up.

The humour is more than offensive jokes. There are pop culture references, social commentaries, mocking of anime clichés, and meta humour on the atrocious animation quality of Ghost Stories. The mockery of the lip flaps always gets me. The animation was clearly a rush job and is perfect fodder for the actors. Lip flap matching is far superior in the improvised dub than it is in the structured original.

Looking at the Japanese version, Ghost Stories is a total snooze fest. The structure is that of a “monster of the week” type, with a new haunting for the kids to investigate each episode and it couldn’t be more paint-by-numbers. This isn’t a case where the original is “so bad it’s good” and the dub parodies it. No, the original is mind numbing – certainly not helped by the art either. Character faces aren’t even consistent from scene to scene. I’m not convinced they had an art director on staff. What truly baffles me though is the ending theme song. I first thought it was part of the parody with lyrics like, “I miss you, I miss you. I need you, I need you. Sexy, sexy!” Lost my mind when I discovered it’s the original song. Whose idea was that!? Keeping it for the dub only makes it better.

Ghost Stories is a wild ride. Even if the humour isn’t to your taste, it’s still an interesting study for a few episodes in how it changed between versions. A few “best of” clip compilations are also available on YouTube if you don’t want to watch the full 19 episodes.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must watch in dub. Ghost Stories is legendary in anime circles for a reason.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: 

Hilarious

Negative: 

Ugly Artistic Design

The Promised Neverland – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Yakusoku no Neverland

 

Related: The Promised Neverland 2nd Season (2021)

Similar: Now and Then, Here and There

Made in Abyss

From the New World

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Horror Mystery Thriller

Length: 12 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Tense atmosphere
  • Good animation
  • Shows the workings

Negatives:

  • Gives away the mystery too early
  • Villains are comical

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The Promised Neverland should be an anime that you want to go in blind for, as I did, but its great mystery comes out within the first episode, so that magic is gone. Does make it easier to talk about in review.

This story takes place in an orphanage where children await adoption while under the loving gaze of Mother Isabella. The children live a peaceful life studying, helping around the house, and playing together within the safety of the walls. One day, they receive the bittersweet news that a family has selected one among them. Two of the oldest kids run after her to return her stuffed bunny, only to find horror instead as demons drop her lifeless body into a jar. She’ll keep for later.

The orphanage turns out to be nothing more than a child farm and Isabella is the shepherd. The three smartest, Emma, Norman, and Ray, begin to plot their escape. Can they take everyone?

As alluded to in my opener, I am disappointed that The Promised Neverland reveals the truth behind the orphanage in the first episode. It could have held onto that secret for another episode or two. This isn’t a case like Death Note, where seeing the story from both sides enhances the conflict and drama. See, a major problem – really, the core problem – of this anime is the bad villains. Improving this single area would alleviate several other problems, such as the too-brief mystery, which itself isn’t automatically a problem. As I said, Death Note gives it away and it works in favour of the story. Seeing the villains’ perspectives here adds little of value.

The Promised Neverland has three villains: Isabella, Sister Krone, and the demons. The demons are a shadowy entity in the background with scant minutes of airtime across the series and don’t matter beyond the catalyst for child farming. They don’t need explanation. The two women, however, are central to the plot. Isabella is the quiet, measured, plotting type who knows more than she lets on. With each passing episode, I expect some deeper revelation to her character that will explain who she is, why she is. All we get is a few seconds of backstory that barely explain anything. She is flat. Nor do we see her cunning actions enough to become a smart antagonist.

Worse is Sister Krone (subtle name, you got there). She comes in to assist Isabella, but harbours ambitions of becoming a Mother herself. She is comically bad. The performance, both in English and Japanese, is horrendous on a level up there with Jared Leto’s Joker. I don’t blame the actors for this. No performance could save her writing. It’s so over the top and manic, meant to be frightening (akin to the Joker pretending to be a loving nun) that it elicits only laughter. Her impact on the story is negligible as well. I image later seasons will bring he back for some ungodly reason.

Speaking of, I think this story would have worked better as a single season narrative. Despite remaining engaged from start to finish, I have no motivation to watch the next season unless I hear great things from a trusted source. I get the impression that future arcs will focus on the demons and the unresolved issues at the orphanage. The demons, I don’t need an explanation; the resolution of the orphanage, I expect to find repetitive.

If a single season of 12 episodes was it, complete story start to finish, I can’t imagine we would have wasted time on Krone or had Isabella remain puddle deep (one can see they are “saving her for later”). Restrictions often increase creativity and quality because there are only so many minutes on screen, so many words on the page that when the editing starts, the weak links hit the cutting room floor. If you have any familiarity with multi-season American TV shows, you will know what it’s like to see weak content added for the sake of extending the story to a fifth, sixth, seventh season when the studio renews.

So, I have vehement criticisms, yet I stay engaged to the end – why? Well, the main characters, primarily. Emma, Norman, and Ray work great. Upon first seeing their designs, I predicted their roles and arcs in the story (the energetic yet naïve one, the clever yet emotionless one, and the emo yet ruthless one, respectively). They surprise me though. Yes, they are the archetypes I predicted, but they aren’t the stereotypes I expected. Emma is naïve and idealistic, saying she would even take snitches when they escape (they suspect some kids feed information to Isabella), which is a truly dumb idea when many lives are on the line. However, she also displays moments of brilliance in both mind and heart. Remember, these three kids are supposed to be the smartest. Unlike most anime with “genius” characters that are actually dumb as bricks and only win because the author says so, these three show real brains (not in the way the demons would prefer, of course). It helps that they aren’t pitched as reality altering geniuses.

My favourite element of this story is seeing the kids figure it all out. How does Isabella know where they are at all times? Who is snitching on them? Is someone snitching? How can they escape with kids who still pick their noses and eat it? Why do the demons want them and what determines the next “adopted” child? How do they train for escape with Isabella surveying their every move? Seeing them work through this systematically is most engaging. It would have been that much better if the villains were equally engaging obstacles to the goal though.

The Promised Neverland, in the face my criticisms, receives my easy recommendation. The core of the story and its characters are sound, pulling you from one episode to the next with fast pacing and clever cliffhangers. You will want to watch just one more episode.

Art – High

The art is good, notably in animation. The demon designs are freaky, though the world itself could do with more creativity.

Sound – High

You can go with either language here. The music infuses a creepy atmosphere and I like the OP song – will probably add it to my playlist.

Story – High

A group of orphans realise that the promised land of a family is a one-way trip down a demon’s gullet in reality and the orphanage is a farm. Other than revealing the mystery too soon, The Promised Neverland delivers a tense thriller that captures your attention to the end.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Watch it. The Promised Neverland is an easy recommendation from me to anyone unless child abuse in any form is too much for you.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: None

Negative: None

Memories – Anime Review

Japanese Title: MEMORIES

 

Similar: Ghost in the Shell

Perfect Blue

Akira

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Psychological Horror Science Fiction

Length: 1 hr. 50 min. (3 short films)

 

Positives:

  • Magnetic Rose’s atmosphere and horror
  • Stink Bomb’s dark humour
  • Beautiful, grim art

Negatives:

  • Cannon Fodder has little to it

(Request an anime for review here.)

Memories is an anthology of three short films that brings together several big talents of the anime industry. All three are based on manga works from executive producer Katsuhiro Otomo (director of Akira), however are directed by three different directors.

Magnetic Rose, first of the three, comes from director Koji Morimoto (animator of Akira, Kiki’s Delivery Service) and writer Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue). This follows a pair of engineers working for a salvage company sent to investigate a distress call from an abandoned space station. Inside, they find a residence of such opulence that it would match European palaces of old. It isn’t abandoned either. The opera singer who once lived here seems alive in the very bolts that keep this place together. Hologram or hallucination, the two men can’t differentiate as she pulls them deeper into her tragic past.

Of the three, Magnetic Rose is easily the best in all regards. Whether talking story, art, music or atmosphere, this is a level above the rest. You immediately feel the styles of Morimoto and Kon. The measured pace, the emphasis on atmosphere and emotion over dialogue, the attention to detail in all of the art, and the psychological tension are telltale signatures. I get strong Dead Space vibes. The madder things get, the more it draws me in. I love it. The only area for improvement is in giving depth to the characters. There is enough here to work, but more wouldn’t have gone awry.

The second film is Stink Bomb under the direction of Tensai Okamura (creator of Darker Than Black). This one is more of a black comedy around a horror scenario. A lab tech tries his company’s experimental cold medicine and takes a nap at work. He awakens to find everyone dead. Turns out this wasn’t cold medicine at all. He has become a living gas bomb, only he doesn’t realise this as he makes his way back to Tokyo with the secret formula.

Stink Bomb feels like it would be a perfect fit as an episode to Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. It’s all about the ridiculous scenario – equal parts comedy and horror – without much to the characters or the story beyond that. The more the death toll rises, the funnier it gets. The visuals are great here, particularly in the animation.

Otomo himself directs the last of these films, Cannon Fodder. This is a simple story set in a steampunk city that revolves around firing cannons in an endless war. There are cannons everywhere. Instead of skylights, buildings simply have more cannons. We follow a cannon loader as he goes about a day on the job.

While the most unique visually, Cannon Fodder is the shallowest and least interesting of the three. It’s more of a presentation for a world concept than it is a complete story. I take this an allegory on Japan’s “salary man” work life, where one is slave to the company, no matter the abuse received from higher up, living each day to work so you can pay the bills to live, stuck in this endless “war”. We even have the contrast of the child who wants to become the cannon officer (orders when to fire cannons), as children often do when idolising what their parents do for work (parents haven’t the heart to tell them of reality). An interesting concept, but not the most memorable.

Overall, I highly recommend Magnetic Rose (the worst thing about this film is reminding me that Satoshi Kon isn’t around anymore to share more of his genius with us). Try Stink Bomb if you want to continue, and then you may as well finish Cannon Fodder to complete the anthology. You might want to end on Magnetic Rose to close with the best.

Art – Very High

All three films feature a different style – Cannon Fodder especially – under the guidance of different art directors, all of which succeed in augmenting the tone of their respective stories. The animation is beautiful too.

Sound – High

The voice work is good for the most part. Standouts of the audio department are the sound design of Cannon Fodder and everything audio in Magnetic Rose, which delivers a haunting atmosphere.

Story – High

Three short stories: engineers investigate a haunted space station in Magnetic Rose; a hapless chemist becomes walking death in Stink Bomb; a look at a day in the life of citizens living in a city all about firing cannons in Cannon Fodder. The order of appearance happens to be the descending order of quality.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Watch Magnetic Rose, try Stink Bomb, then finish with Cannon Fodder if you want to complete the set. Memories is also good for showing to those who aren’t usually interested in anime.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Fluid AnimationStunning Art Quality

Negative: None

Attack on Titan: Season 3 – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Shingeki no Kyojin Season 3

 

Related: Attack on Titan: Season 1

Attack on Titan: Season 2

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Fantasy Action Horror

Length: 22 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Finally some human drama
  • First half delivers good action
  • Less Eren

Negatives:

  • Stories from previous seasons don’t carry over well
  • CG titans
  • Baseball titan
  • Continued lack of thought to the details

(Request an anime for review here.)

Here we go, back for another season of Attack on Titan. After the poor showing of Attack on Titan: Season 2, I was done with this series, but a reader requested I return for the third season, as it had improved – or so the claim went. I go into this willing to give it a chance.

Attack on Titan: Season 3 starts well with beautiful animation and a focus on human versus human conflict. The titans became an uninteresting part of the series since it turned out every character and their mum is secretly a titan. Eren as a titan is still the greatest mistake this series made. You don’t think the author would do the same again, would he? Would he? It has also become evident which characters have plot armour, removing much of the tension that Attack on Titan executed well in the first season. These problems persist in season 3.

However, this season does improve in several ways. As I mentioned, the human conflict is good between the scouts – largely composed of the lower class – and the ruling class at the heart of civilisation. There should have been more such conflicts from the beginning of the anime. The most captivating element in any monster story is how characters react to each other, not the monster. Attack on Titan in general lacks complexity. Look no further than the one note cast of characters, especially Mikasa. I thought she would find relevance by now.

Ironically, the best action comes not against the titans but between humans, all of it in the first half of the season. The animation is great, the settings are creative and lend themselves well to the web swinging, and it’s different from earlier seasons. As for the titan action, it’s okay overall. The fight with the crawler titan has good atmosphere. A massive battle against a few special titans eats up most of the latter half of the season, which does drag from lack of story and two glaring flaws. First is the Bigfoot Titan and his baseball puns while pelting boulders. Just why? Imagine if Gollum started going on about fidget spinners in The Lord of the Rings. The second is the decision to have the Colossal Titan made entirely in CG – it never looks good (the crawler has the advantage of being in the dark).

In fact, we see a significant drop in visual quality during the second half. Static pans with only mouth movements become more common, highflying action is rare (characters hanging from walls or on roofs is popular), and we have less key frames throughout. The first half looks great, much better than season 2, only for the second half to slash the budget. One has to wonder either if a different team did the work or if they realised that fans would watch regardless. Attack on Titan is popular enough to draw a crowd on a shoestring production.

The “Part 1” and “Part 2” structure of this season brings another problem to mind: the disconnect in story between seasons. Think back to seasons 1 and 2 and how little most of their events matter to season 3. Even with this season, the two halves aren’t all that connected. There is no sense of planning for the overarching story, as though the author thought of it one season at a time. The internal conflict within the human city of Part 1? Irrelevant to Part 2. What happened in season 2 again? I’d say 10% matters from season to season. This simultaneously makes each season feel like filler and relevant content.

Every good story employs resonance to build and build the narrative, incorporating past elements with the new to reinforce themes and events. Attack on Titan lacks resonance. When an earlier setup does receive an answer, I imagine the editor had to remind the author the night before.

Lastly, we come to the details. In my season 2 review, I talked of how the author hadn’t grasped the size of the human territory within the walls and the travel time required. It gets worse. We have characters travelling vast distances in a fraction of the time it should take. People come to the rescue at the last second (see plot armour earlier) despite being on the other side of the battlefield a minute ago. You can get away with this to some extent, but repeat offences wear thin. On a scale of one to Game of Thrones season 7, Attack on Titan is an eight for poor travel logistics.

Then we have simple stupidity. The ruling class wants to disband the scouts, the one group able to slay titans. How moronic are they? While evading the police, the scouts have the idea of hiding Eren in a crowd of 100 scouts by pulling their hoods up while flying around. Hoods wouldn’t stay up – bet you the writer has never worn one. Not a big deal, but it’s one of many instance where no thought went into the idea. No one instance is atrocious, yet they add up over time. Another that comes to mind is the torture scene. The mad scientist woman is the interrogator, but because she is comedic relief, the scene is laughable rather than frightening.

Contrary to my plethora of criticisms, I am more positive than negative towards Attack on Titan: Season 3, mostly because of the first half and its visual plus audio quality (great new OPs). It’s easy for the action to sweep you up.

Still, season 3 has not increased the likelihood that I will watch the conclusion. There are no mysteries left for me to care about. Season 3 revealed the origins of the titans to lacklustre results (would have been better with no explanation and no attention drawn to the idea of a backstory whatsoever). The studio has announced the fourth and final season is to release in 2020.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For Attack on Titan fans only. While an improvement over season 2, Attack on Titan: Season 3 isn’t worth it for those that already quit.

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