Finding Nirvana – A Trip to The Lobby

Hello again, dear readers. I know it’s been a week longer than I’d like it to have been, and I’d like to blame that on the birthday weekend I just had, but truthfully, I’ve been struggling a bit with the proper words to use. That, and a crippling addiction to Sonic Screwdrivers (Blue Curacao, Vanilla vodka and Lemon-lime soda, because I’ll always be a Tennant man). I know, I know, I should really be using my summer hours more efficiently, but we all need time off, right? Right. Let’s ignore the number of hours I spend playing games for this blog and the spin-off YouTube series I’m writing. That’s… that’s work ( >.>). Since I couldn’t think of a way to properly boil all this down to something pithy and worthy of a forgotten 200-word column in a newspaper bin somewhere, we’re going to try something new but stay within the boundaries of my trademark undisciplined style.

Last week, I stepped a little out of my comfort zone. I decided that, if I wanted to provide you guys with interesting content, I was going to have to try out some new things. From there, I got it in my head that it would be a good idea to try some interviews. Let’s keep in mind that I have no background in journalism whatsoever, besides a bout of my childhood that I spent training for the job should it be a requirement to become Spider-man, and dive right in to how this started.

As you may know, this was a blog I started to explore, criticise and deconstruct horror video games on narrative and mechanical levels. However, after a while, I realized that I was becoming a bit of a broken record. There were issues with the games that I was reviewing that couldn’t be explained by bad design alone. No, these were systemic. These issues were going to stem from convention. “But what conventions?” I would fret, “They were already in place in the earliest games I’ve played.” I thought on this and came to a conclusion. Unless there was a long-forgotten ColecoVision game from the Clocktower series, many of the conventions of horror games were going to come from horror movies (and books). A poor choice? Probably, games require their own style of thinking to craft. They’re primarily interactive experiences, after all.

However! You’ve got to start somewhere, right? Besides, there have been some decent games that use well-established television tropes. The Clocktower series is as close as you can get to Scooby-doo, while still having an 8 year old boy murdering people with 4-foot-long scissors involved. There was a Playstation 2 spin-off from John Carpenter’s The Thing that was pretty decent. There’s that Walking Dead game that only excludes itself from counting here because it involves zombies, and the day that zombies become scary again is the day they’re pounding on my door, demanding my tastier bits be highlighted in permanent marker. Oh, yeah, and that other Walking Dead game we’re just not going to talk about, because it sparks all kinds of silly debates. Why yes, I am going to skip over the terrible movie/show games and game-based movies, because we’d be here all day otherwise. The real point here was that I decided it was time to dive back to my roots and re-discover the horror movie.

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Luckily, there was a cult-horror-movie shop right down from where I was living when I made the decision. Unfortunately, there was also a giant library of movies in my home that manifested from the collector instincts of a group of middle-class pop-culture scholars (Read: gamers). So, I coasted along on Silence of the Lambs and Silent Hill. Little did I know what awaited me down the block.

Now, I can be a bit jaded at times. Between my Steam library, physical console copies and retro games, I own hundreds of different game titles and I’ve rented far more than that. I’ve also had the pleasure of playing and finishing 90% of them, so cracking a new game is often an exercise in comparison. Since the industry tends to focus on certain practices, and because the limitless void space that gaming’s potential hints towards is kind of scary, I can usually figure out what’s going to go down before the first Bargle-wargle monster shows up to try to catch me unawares. Of course, it doesn’t take a degree from Free Time University to figure that out. Only so many games get put out each year, and they’re all exercises in massive risk-taking on the part of the company that puts them out, so we get a bit jacked on the variation end of the art-form. Movies, though… they’ve got a long, varied history, especially indie-cult classics. That brings us to the moment I decided to hit The Lobby.

I want you to imagine this with me. You’re walking down the street. On your left is a shoe store, then a daycare… and, attached to the daycare, recessed in the wall, is a little push door with a hand-made paper sign. There’s a small standee outside and a window wall-papered with print-outs of movie covers. Pushing open the door leads you to a staircase going down to another standee and a door going off to the left. Hesitantly, you trudge down the stairs. The door at the bottom gives off a subtle red ambience, almost as if its contents are eager to bleed into the outside world. Stepping across the threshold brings you to a concrete-floored room full of wonder. Pinhead stands to your right, shelves full-to-bursting with movies struggle to support their payload to your left. Another step in reveals the rest of the shop, bathed in the same red ambience, which you now realize is the light reflected off the shiny shelves, walls and couch. To your right is an alcove with a couch and a television playing a piece of horror movie history. A coffin shelf holds memorabilia, as do the walls, ceiling and floors. You are inundated. Saturated.  Every one of these movies is a new-favourite waiting to be played. “They’re all horror,” you realize with a grin.

At least, that was my reaction. It’s a veritable playground of new experiences waiting to be had. Sitting right at the back, past the shelves and wonder, is Kevin Martin. Believe me, if the store is open, he’s there. Kevin is the owner-operator of The Lobby. At first, I’d wondered how many of the movies in the store he’d watched, but, after a brief conversation, it became clear that the answer was all of them. He’s friendly as all hell, too, so I walked out of that first visit with an armful of recommendations. I couldn’t have enjoyed the visit more, unless I’d also been offered a job designing the new Silent Hill game, but that’s hardly Kevin’s fault. Several months and plenty more movies later, brings us to last week.

I knew that, if I was going to try interviews, then The Lobby was where I wanted to start. So, on the way to return the key to my old house (I’d just moved), I dropped off my latest cache of films. While I was there, I decided to ambush Kevin with the idea of doing an interview. I was trying to sound casual, but I was nervous. Then, he said yes and time slowed down. My brain screamed, “What the HELL are you doing?! You aren’t the least bit prepared! You’ve got a recording device, some paper and a prayer, what are you going to do if you screw this up? You’ll never get to come back here again. What if there are SPIDERS in your BAG, NOW? Wouldn’t THAT be fitting punishment?!” Still, I also knew there was another voice quietly whispering, “You know enough about how this works. You’ve got questions you’ve always wanted to ask. You guys have shot the shit before, just think of it like that.” Thus, we sat down on the couch, and I did my first interview.

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Kevin, on the other hand, is an interview veteran. Besides owning one of the last video rental shops in the city, he also helps to organize and promote DEDfest, a cult-movie horror film-festival. It’s a time, let me tell you. His store is also being featured in a series of movies. You can check that out under The Last Video Store on CineCoup, or, if you just want to keep up on the news in general, you can join The Lobby’s Facebook group. So, he’s been asked a question or two.

Because I’m hopelessly predictable, I asked him about the fate of the movie rental industry. If you haven’t been suspended in cryogenics for the past couple years, you probably already know that many of the bigger movie rental businesses have shut their doors or switched to being whatever Rogers is now… some kind of amorphous mass of wires and connection issues. However, businesses like The Lobby have survived. When I asked Kevin about it, he said that it was thanks to his loyal customer base and serving a niche market. It makes good sense, after all, to not try and compete with the larger stores or Netflix. But, it also helps that he’s a devoted fan of the genre. I told you earlier that Kevin has -probably- watched all of the films in his shop and I meant it. This means that, if you’re looking for a particular type of scare, then he should be able to help you find it. There’s something to be said for coming in, looking at the titles on the shelf and having a conversation with someone who loves the movies you’re looking at. He doesn’t do late fees; his primary concern is that you get to watch the film. In short, ladies and gentles, this is someone who deserves our ear; he bleeds horror.

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We covered a lot in the hour and some long interview, which you can find recorded here, but a lot of it came back to originality. Originality is at a premium in the AAA industry today. As Kevin put it, despite his love for big-name movies, this summer’s line-up… “Sequel, sequel, based on a book, based on a book, remake, reboot, re-imagining…” He’s pretty right. There’s nothing wrong with that, really. However, when he went to see The Hills Have Eyes and Evil Dead remakes, he admits to feeling like he’s been there before. The friends he went with loved them and he enjoyed them, which speaks to their quality, but I feel like there’s something fundamentally wrong there. The very foundation of horror lies in the imagination. Reboots are nice, because we shouldn’t be afraid to update old properties with the benefit of our future hyper-tech and they’re new experiences for some people, but what about people like Kevin? He’s a die-hard supporter of the genre, so he’s seen these stories before. Doesn’t the industry owe him the opportunity to experience that feeling of omen, that sticks with you for days afterwards, that comes from being truly affected by something new? Yes, I understand that they’re interested in up-dating and snagging new fans, and that it’s hard to do something truly original in an industry that pumps out ideas faster than a fire-hose spews kittens, but, if a large portion of horror is socially contextual, then old properties aren’t going to cut it, even for newcomers. It seems silly to think that copying something, instead of producing something, is a preferable risk in a genre that runs on sparking dreadful wonder.

Still, if you’re going to do a remake, then how do you do it right? I asked Kevin that very same thing. He seems to think that it rides the line between being respectful to the original idea and making it your own. I don’t want to spoil the plots, but Kevin provided a few examples of good remakes: “John Carpenter’s The Thing” (1982) and” The Thing from Another World” (1951), “The Fly” (1958) and “The Fly” (1986), as well as, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978). In these movies, especially “The Fly,” what you already know going into the movie may work against you. If part of horror is about subverting expectations in the spine-tingling-est way possible, then a remake should use what you think you know to scare the crap out of you. It’s like what SpecOps: The Line did by making you think you were stepping into another brown-desert-shooter and taking you on a psychological-thrill-ride. Maybe what we’re really crying out for is a Sims-style Silent Hill game where you play a white, middle-class office worker that grows old and dies in obscurity. That would be true horror in a world cello-taped together by social media. Still, up-dating new franchises is only one of the ways to extend the life of intellectual property. What about sequels?

Kevin says he has a soft-spot for sequels, “but only if the sequel continues the story-arc of the first one…” and isn’t just a sequel in name only. That’s something I can kind of get behind for movies, but many of my favourite games were evolutions of the original formula and mechanics in sequel form (Silent Hill 2, Far Cry 3). I guess a gaming-equivalent would be expansion packs tarted up to look like sequels (Crysis 3). We’ll hit up that particular topic another time, though. Movies are singular narrative experiences, after all. The story is our core engagement. That’s what you’re supposed to be getting. Unfortunately, as Kevin mentioned, a lot of the time, what you’re buying with bigger-name  franchises is the brand. That doesn’t mean that all sequels are like that, but when you consider things like Freddy’s Nightmares, House 2 (not about the cynical, fun-loving doctor) or Friday the 13th: The Series, that’s all you were getting of the original IPs. They traded off the names of the original series’ to attract an audience (See BioShock 2 for that particular sin in a gaming context). You can make a good movie that way, but it’s a bit misleading. This is where sequels and remakes diverge. Yes, they’re both using the same idea, but a sequel is a continuation. It shouldn’t just use the original as a spring-board to do something totally different. That’s what reboots are for.  Good sequels? Kevin gave props to the Saw guys for their winding, unified story.

Then again, he says, the big franchise he watched growing up was the Friday the 13th series (not to be confused with the Friday the 13th television show mentioned above), “the more, the merrier.” He equates his love of horror to a drug. I can definitely relate. Even though you know going into a theatre that you’re not going to totally enjoy something, you still go. You have to. It’s the same driving force that got me through Cthulhu and made me instantly want to rent Dagon, even though it was unrelated to it, simply to see what they had done.

As a horror movie junkie, it can be hard to elucidate why you love a movie, or even the genre itself. After years of watching horror movies, you can get a bit desensitized to the same old business. It’s a problem that I’ve run into, even as I’m sucking back B horror movies and indie games like a voracious frat-boy with a tray jager-bombs. I could only imagine what it was like for Kevin. So, I asked him what he wanted to get out of a horror movie now, years after he fell in love, “When it comes to horror movies, I want to be entertained, or [watch] a movie that resonates with me. If it scares me, [that’s] even better…” That was something I really needed to hear someone else say. One of the scariest things for me has been losing my ability to be fully immersed in a horror experience, because I’m too busy studying the movie (fear of losing fear, how meta is that? >.< ). Kevin himself says that the edge started to dull a bit when he got into Fangoria magazines and the how-tos of special effects. Still, he finds the odd flick that still gets him. That, if nothing else, gives me hope that I’ll find movies that will once again rake my nerves over a smattering of red-hot razors and Lego bricks.

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I’d recommend listening to the original interview, which I’ll link again for convenience, because I didn’t cover everything or do Kevin’s quotes justice. You really have to hear this guy talk about his genre; it’s awesome. So, track down your local cult movie shops, if you can. It’s not because it’s cool to buy indie or, even, local, although you’ll find arguments for both. No, for me, it’s because if you’re still running a business like that now, you love what you do. You love your subject-matter and you show it in your business practices. Kevin, and people like him, are more concerned with giving you a great experience than making a buck, so you can trust their word on the things they enjoyed. That’s where you’re going to find your next truly fantastic experience… It’s like Reddit in real life. Except that it costs money. Money that will go to fueling the industry making the things you also love. See? One big, happy, terrifying community.

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