Monday, 12 March 2007

"Master, this is serious..."

Killer 7 and the psychedelic screen
A couple of years ago, my good and clever friend Antony Banks and myself went to Brighton’s much missed Cinemateque to see Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ‘The Holy Mountain’. The film, in case you haven’t seen it, and, if not, I urge you to, is one of those sprawling early 70s mind-flays that you would hope was being made on a weekly basis during the freaky period, but which research unfortunately reveals as being a bit of an oddity.

Pretty much plotless (and for a good period pretty much dialogue-less as well, until the staff at Cinemateque remembered to click the subtitles option on) it concerns the wanderings of a character (played by Jodorowsky himself) known simply as “The Alchemist”, who blunders from destitution and vagabondage to the quest for the titular holy mountain, in the company of a group of eccentric fellow travellers, sideshow freaks and mystics.

Along the way he encounters wisemen, lunatics, political leaders and exploding frogs (and, believe me, if there is a ‘No animals were hurt during the making of this film’ disclaimer during the credits then it is a barefaced lie) all of which are treated with an almost po-faced seriousness: Jodorowsky the visionary’s cold-as-flint stare in action, daring you to laugh.

The film is never going to be remembered as a masterpiece of tension, plotting, characterisation, or indeed anything that’s generally required for a satisfying night out at the Odeon with a honey. It’s wilfully obscure, piling on allusions to Buddhism, the tarot and esoteric christianity with all the the hey-hey-here-we-go carelessness emblematic of its period. It’s stuffed with ridiculous (and, in the case of the laughing beggar spraying milk from his jaguar’s head shaped man-breasts, hilarious) imagery: gasmasked soldiers parading with totems made of barbecued animals; a man being castrated with a four foot pair of scissors; the I-want-one-of-those Love-in gun. It is also incredibly beautiful: shot in rich, luxuriant technicolor which lingers over deserts and mountains, and with sets that look like the kaleidoscopic fever-dreams of whoever did the interiors for the Batman TV series.

Needless to say, I was impressed (and, as an aside, I still find myself wondering what would have happened had the director’s proposed filming of Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ occurred. The other day I started daydreaming about just that, only to rouse myself from my reverie and realise that I’d been fantasising about it for over an hour. Who says I’m a time waster?)

Suitably dazed, Antony and I walked from the cinema toward the pub, which, as we all know, is the only place to intelligently critique a bit of cinema, where, pints in our fists, we discussed the film in depth. Now we see eye-to-eye on many things, but this time the one thing we both agreed on wholeheartedly can be summed up in the following clichĂ©: they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

And they don’t, do they? Okay, strange (or worse arty. Was there ever a more needle-in-the-eyeball annoying way of describing something?) films get made all the time, but films with ‘The Holy Mountain’s verve, fearlessness and sheer fuck-the-torpedoes-for-a-toffee-apple attitude (which at times verges on the childishly-belligerent) are a dead breed. Films that are completely unafraid of what an audience thinks and, more importantly, don’t tell an audience what to think. Okay, there’s David Lynch, who I love whole, but he knows who his audience is by now and must have become somewhat used to the critical reception each of his films gets. David, I love you, but I wouldn’t necessarily describe you as a risk-taker.

Now, I was a bit depressed by this conclusion, as anyone I love and trust would be, until, months later, I found myself open-mouthed in front of a piece of work that ticked almost every box described above. Lavish sets: Yip; large budget: yip; dense religious and political allusions: yip; utter bloody-minded nonsense: hoo, yip.

The ‘piece’ in question was, however, not a film, but one of that most distrusted of breeds: a computer game. The game was Killer 7, on the PS2.

When it came out on the Gamecube in 2005, Killer 7 divided gaming audiences like few games before or since. This was mainly due to the control system, about which I won’t go into in too much depth as there are plenty of reviews online which do, which was radically simplified. Put plainly you simply hold down a control button and your chosen character moves in one direction. You do not have the power to decide at what rate or in what direction you move until you come to one of the games many junctions, at which point you simply indicate which one you wish to travel down and off you go again.

This annoyed quite a lot of experienced gamers, many of whom said that the gameplay felt like an afterthought: an adjunct to the games atmosphere and story. A point the games developers, Capcom, refused to deny. In doing so they threw out the first law of computer gaming, playability first, in favour of dazzling with a complex, violent and confusing storyline with an atmosphere straight from a psychedelic Japanese spy thriller.

It’s one of the best defences ever isn’t it?

“But…but you’ve broken the rules! It’s unplayable.. it’s like you didn’t even care about making it playable!”

“Exactly.”

“Oh…” (Fucks of back to Halo 2)

The story, such as it is, involves an alternative present day in which peace between nations has been achieved, but is threatened by the appearance of a terrorist group known as ‘Heaven Smile’ and their foot soldiers, the Heaven Smile themselves, a mutant breed of cackling human bombs who may or may not exist.

Into this odd premise strides, or rather wheels, Harman Smith, a paraplegic assassin, capable of physically manifesting each of the seven facets of his multiple personality into violent life and killing people with them. Killing lots and lots of people with them.

The story line has been picked over in ridiculous detail elsewhere on the internet. There are some exhaustive explanations of all the different political, religious and psychological resonances that are alluded to (or not, as the case seems to be) during the games course. This does not really concern me. People are welcome to try and explain these things, of course. I have always preferred to let my weirdness be just that: weird, without worrying about explaining it all away. And believe me, this game gets seriously weird.

Let’s have a gander at some of the characters you’ll meet.

One is the ghost known as Iwazaru. He pops up to offer helpful clues to the many puzzles you’ll come across. So far so normal, and pretty much a staple of any adventure game you care to play. But can anyone explain to me why he appears dangling from a harness in a red leather bondage suit and speaks in the kind of gibberish previously only heard in Twin Peaks’s Red Room?

What of Suzie? The decapitated head that keeps popping out of cupboards and washing machines to tell you a story about a murder she may or may not have committed. Does the murder have anything to do with the game? Does it Moses! It’s simply another level of bizarritude piled onto the fire.

And what of the player avatars themselves? Well, you play each of Harman’s seven personalities (known collectively as the Smiths). Who range from Dan Smith, the typically Japanese good looking gun man, to Kaede Smith, who in order to uncover secret messages in certain environments, slits her wrists and dances around in a shower of her own blood, to Mask De Smith, a giant Mexican wrestler. Yep, a giant Mexican wrestler. I’m enjoying imagining the production meeting when they bought him into the equation.

The game looks stunning. Beautifully cel-shaded graphics bringing the deserts, deserted hotel rooms and sun-dappled villas of the story to screaming comic book life. You’ll spend an awful lot of time simply staring at the many environments and wishing you could send postcards from them. That is before one of the Heaven Smile piles into you and blows you to smithereens.

Ah yes, the violence. The violence in Killer 7 is quite shockingly brutal on occasion. Innocent characters are slaughtered without a by-your-leave (not that I imagine a by-your-leave would do much good if someone wanted to slaughter you, but hey-ho), people jump off roofs, are blown up and are pulped by heavy machinery, occasionally leaving quite a nasty taste in the mouth. In one memorable scene a chap’s game of squash is interrupted by some wag throwing his daughter’s decapitated head at him. Zelda’s Ocarina of Politeness this is not.

Plot lines take in paedophilia, organ trafficking, terrorism and religious mania and are dusted with a heavy sprinkling of faux-philosophical musing (often framed by that most overused of profundity signifiers, the game of chess. No-one ever picks Pass the Pigs, do they? Or, in the case of the killer 7, perhaps Guess Who would’ve been more appropriate? Hmmm, deeeep). That these differing plot lines have about as much depth inferred to them as your average Bruce Dickinson novel is not, in me’ ‘umble, much of a problem. It’s not about whether it succeeds but about how it tries to get there.

Make no mistake, this game is a failure. It reaches ridiculously high at times, struggling to infer a sense of psychological and philosophical depth, before simply sinking into orgies of squalid, thoroughly enjoyable, bloodletting (and, in one scene in particular, which got the game into trouble with American censorship authorities, a bit of girl-on-paraplegic action. Quite why this was a problem I’m not sure. I would’ve thought it rather a good example to be setting. Memories of Alan Partridge interviewing the crippled golfer: “I can have sex, y’know!”). So why go on about it? Well, let me explain.

Before he made the Holy Mountain, Jodorowsky (ah, there he is again! You were wondering about him weren’t you?) made a fabulous film called ‘El Topo’. It concerned the spiritual quest of a cowboy-cum-seeker of enlightenment and was, again, loaded with bizarre imagery, faux-profound statements (“The desert is a circle”. Oh, is it?) and thunderous bloodletting. It is required watching and has been a cult film forever, although it is criminally unavailable on DVD at the moment. Anyway, what has all this to do with Killer 7? Simply this, my dear melodious reader, a film like ‘El Topo’ (or ‘The Holy Mountain’) could not be made now. It would cost too much money. It would be granted a limited release. It would baffle anyone it came into contact with. It would be, to put it bluntly, a bit too 60s counter-culture for many people to relate too.

Thing is, that was exactly the same bunch'a problems that, Jodorowsky’s films had then.

Back then funding could be got for films such as those. Mainstream studios simply didn’t know how to tap into the burgeoning youth market without coming across as patronising and horribly out of touch (seen ‘Psych Out’ recently? Don’t). As a result they dished out money to young mad ‘uns like Jodorowsky and looked the other way, hoping that some of this heathen’s shit would stick.

It didn’t. Jodorowsky’s films are glorious failures. Colourful, trippy failures that paint nightmares in all the shades of the Mexican rainbow, but failures none-the-less. Same as Killer 7. With both Jodorowsky and Suda 51 (the enigmatic creator and director of Killer 7 and the Resident Evil franchise) the beauty is in the aiming for the impossible, in simply saying “what happens if we try to do this” without any compromise other than their own limitations. Both products have similar feels and world views (indeed ‘El Topo’ would make a fantastic computer game), both are distinctly trippy and both are equally ham-fisted, gloriously so, leaving the viewer drowning in the distinctive smell of burnt brain. Once-in-a-mind-time experiences all.

So, could computer games take over from where the avant-psychedelic film makers of the 60s and 70s left off? You would hope so. Games have taken on pretty much every genre going and are firmly into their middle-youth period (y’know, the period where you stop leaving banana skins to dry on the radiator overnight, but start reading Baudelaire and carrying it about so the title peeks over the top of your jacket pocket). This should be the time of great experimentation, where game designers seek new ways of dishing out their thrills to a hungry public. They have the imaginations, the technology and, in some cases, the money to take a few chances and risk losing people along the way. I wouldn’t want to put too much pressure on it, but it felt like a lot was resting on Killer 7’s reception from the wider public as regards this type of game being made again any time soon.

Unfortunately Killer 7 sold about 6 copies.

They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

5 comments:

Kerry said...

Nice one. And a link from Kieron Gillen to boot!

Daniel said...

May 14th, my good friend, is the date Tartan plan to release the restored versions of El Topo and The Holy Mountain.

Lord Nuneaton Savage said...

Then I rejoice.

Huzzah! To the wyrd unbound!

David said...

Killer 7 is one of the two games I have ever bought for our Game Cube.

The other one was Animal Crossing.

SHUTTIT.

David said...

new interview with Jodorowsky:

http://film.guardian.co.uk/interview/interviewpages/0,,2050577,00.html