Oldskooler Ramblings

the unlikely child born of the home computer wars

October of Horror #13: Killer! (1989)

Posted by Trixter on October 13, 2018

(For an explanation of what these posts in October are, see the parent post.)

Synopsis

A psychopath works his way across the midwest killing nearly everyone he meets.  He claims he cannot be killed — if so, can he be stopped?

Opinion

Robert Rodriguez’s film El Mariachi is widely regarded as one of the most engaging and polished films ever made on a microbudget.  What is commonly overlooked is Tony Elwood’s Killer!, made three years earlier, on the same low budget.   While the story is nothing amazing — crazy person goes crazy and kills people — it is handled in about as professional a manner as possible for a total budget of $8500.  The film stock alone must have cost that much, so no idea how they got the film made, but they did, and it looks great for what it is.

Of course, nothing is perfect; there are night scenes where you can hear the film camera, the generator, or both in the background.  Some blood exits wounds at bizarre angles.  Not everyone can act.  But for $8500, it’s damn impressive.

Recommendation

It’s not for everyone, but if you want to see a psychopath dispatching everyone from his parents to a car mechanic, using guns, knives, fire, a crowbar, etc. then you could do a lot worse.

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October of Horror #12: Zombieland (2009)

Posted by Trixter on October 12, 2018

(For an explanation of what these posts in October are, see the parent post.)

Synopsis

(From IMDB) A shy student trying to reach his family in Ohio, a gun-toting tough guy trying to find the last Twinkie, and a pair of sisters trying to get to an amusement park join forces to travel across a zombie-filled America.

Opinion

I fully admit I’m taking a mulligan today because not many movies on my playlist for October are wife-friendly, and we wanted to spend time together tonight.

For those who haven’t seen Zombieland:  It’s not really horror, but a horror comedy with about 90% comedy and 10% horror.

Recommendation

It’s funny and entertaining.  It’s not horror, but it’s worth seeing.  For a much darker horror comedy, I recommend Return of the Living Dead.

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October of Horror #11: The Darkest Hour (2011)

Posted by Trixter on October 11, 2018

(For an explanation of what these posts in October are, see the parent post.)

Synopsis

Young adults vacationing in Moscow are attacked by invisible alien beings who attack via violent storms of electricity.  They can be also be detected using electricity, but is it enough to stop them?

Opinion

One of the better lower-budget ($30 million) international offerings from the last decade, with astonishingly good digital effects.  There is a reasonable amount of tension, and the deaths at the hands of the beings is well-animated and always stays shocking (pun intended).  While none of the actors particularly stand out (sorry Emile Hirsch), they deliver a good performance.

The film has a few sections that flesh out the story and relationships, but they feel like padding to stretch out the length.

Recommendation

I liked it.  If you can view this in 1080p, do so, since the digital effects are great for 2011.  And if you get bored, just skip forward 30 seconds and that should get things back on track.

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October of Horror #10: Pinocchio’s Revenge (1996)

Posted by Trixter on October 10, 2018

(For an explanation of what these posts in October are, see the parent post.)

Synopsis

Jennifer Garrick, a lawyer and single mother,  brings home a hand-carved Pinocchio puppet as part of evidence in a murder trial after the murderer is executed.  Her daughter Zoe takes a liking to the puppet after it is mistaken for a birthday present.  A few days later, accidents start happening to those who cross Zoe.  Worse, Zoe blames the puppet for the accidents.

Opinion

Ok, ok, I know what you’re thinking:  Obvious Child’s Play ripoff, right?  I thought the same thing, but the movie surprised the hell out of me as to how good it was!  Low budget, direct-to-video, obvious ripoff, etc. etc. — believe me, I was expecting a terrible film, but it did a surprisingly good job of telling a story, slowly evolving the puppet’s is-it-real-or-isn’t-it menace, and keeping my interest.  Best of all, it is very much not like Child’s Play in how it handles the final third of the film, and I wasn’t expecting that, and I respect the filmmakers for going down an alternate path and sticking to it.

Being low budget, there are some obvious corners cut, but if you can suspend disbelief you can get through them.  The only real trouble I had with the film was Rosalind Allen’s acting in the final third:  When she figures out what is going on, any sane person would be freaking the hell out, shocked beyond belief, etc. but she doesn’t really emote that at a time when the film really needs it.  Instead, she acts like an actress who knows exactly what is coming on the next few pages of the script, which is a shame since she’s great the first two third of the film.

Recommendation

I can’t believe I’m recommending this one, but I am!  If you were disappointed by every Child’s Play sequel (I know I was), give Pinocchio’s Revenge a shot — if you can find it.

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October of Horror #9: Infection (2004)

Posted by Trixter on October 9, 2018

(For an explanation of what these posts in October are, see the parent post.)

Synopsis

Doctors and nurses become infected with a terrifying disease after the death of a patient under their care.

Opinion

One of the six J-Horror Theater films, Infection (original title: Kansen) delivers everything you would expect from a Japanese horror film.  Until the end of the film, you are constantly guessing if what is going on is a zombie virus, mass psychosis, the work of spirits, and who knows what else.  It grows at a steady pace.

One description online likened the film to something like an X-Files episode, and I think that’s partially true.

Recommendation

If you like slowly foreboding horror, Japanese horror, slowly-evolving stories, etc. then you’ll enjoy the film.  If you require more jump scares and special effects in your horror, you may want to skip it.

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October of Horror #8: Evils of the Night (1985)

Posted by Trixter on October 8, 2018

(For an explanation of what these posts in October are, see the parent post.)

Synopsis

Vacationing teens are being captured and drained of all blood by aliens who want to use it to prolong their own lives.

Opinion

As a child in the 1970s, I watched a lot of re-runs on TV after school.  So when I heard there was a movie made in the 1980s starring John Carradine, Tina Louise (from Gilligan’s Island), and Julie Newmar (from Batman), I had to seek it out.  Better yet, there was a recent Blu-ray transfer of the film.

The Blu-ray was indeed a great transfer, but I kind-of wish it hadn’t been, since it just showed how small the budget was.  I also wish I could get those 90 minutes back.  The filmmakers were going for some sort of science fiction/horror/soft porn combination, but the end result is best described as embarrassing and inept.  A low budget is not an excuse when your story is ridiculous.

Bafflingly, the opening and closing scenes show an honestly good practical effect of a spaceship landing and then taking off.  How they built it and were able to rent what must have been a crane to animate it is beyond me.

Recommendation

Do not, under any circumstances, see this movie (unless you love terrible movies).  If you want a good combination of sci-fi/horror/soft porn that also came out in 1985, watch Lifeforce instead; it’s vastly superior.

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October of Horror #7: Return of the Living Dead III (1993)

Posted by Trixter on October 7, 2018

(For an explanation of what these posts in October are, see the parent post.)

Synopsis

A heartbroken teen decides to revive his recently deceased girlfriend with Trioxin, the same chemical that rose the dead in the previous two films.  But upon revival, his girlfriend suffers from an insatiable hunger for… something.  Can she keep the hunger at bay with constant pain, or will she give in?

Opinion

Unlike the previous two installments, Return of the Living Dead III makes no attempt at humor, but rather establishes a unique question any fan of the Living Dead movies eventually asks:  If you revive the deceased immediately after death, are they ok?  Can they function normally?  Can they communicate?  If so, what would they say about how it feels to be dead?  It’s easily the most introspective movie in the series.  One very positive selling point of the story is the main actress Melinda Clarke, who puts everything into every moment she can and delivers a harsh but authentic performance of what it must be like to go through something unfathomable like this.

Unfortunately, the movie is hobbled by its budget.  The effects are very good, but most are not believable.  This is no slight against the filmmakers — the effects are amazing given the budget they had to work with.  I just wish they had a bigger budget.  More money would have given us better effects and less filler.

An exception to the above are the amazing practical effects regarding Melinda’s character’s piercings in the last third of the film, as the character tries to keep the hunger at bay using pain.  They look great, and some are very creative.

Recommendation

It’s a solid B movie.  If you know what that means, you’ll either really want to see it, or really want to avoid it.  It delivers exactly what is promised.

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October of Horror #6: Warlock (1989)

Posted by Trixter on October 6, 2018

(For an explanation of what these posts in October are, see the parent post.)

Synopsis

A warlock flees the Puritan era to modern day, looking for the three halves of the Dark Grimoire:  The Devil’s Bible that can undo all of creation.  A witch hunter from the same era gets help from a young modern woman to track the warlock and try to stop him.

Opinion

15 minutes into the film, I got the sense that this wasn’t really a horror film, but more along the lines of medieval fantasy.  Turns out I was right:  If you’re expecting scares, revulsion, and dread, you won’t find it in Warlock.  But does that make it bad?  On the contrary, I found it very entertaining.  There is a surprisingly small amount of outright scenery chewing; everyone plays it straight, which works.

While I never got the feeling anyone was truly emoting (Julian Sands as the titular character looks the part but never really feels the part), what was entertaining was learning all of the witch lore:

  • You can cripple a witch’s foot by hammering their footprint
  • Witches hate salt, and are both hurt and bound by it
  • Witches can fly by making a potion primarily out of the fat of a young boy
  • Witches cannot set foot on hallowed ground

…and so on.  Everyone knows vampire lore, but not everyone knows witch lore, and I found that maintaining my interest throughout the film.

Bonus points for a played-straight appearance by reliable 70’s and 80’s B-movie staple Mary Wolonov, who delivers exactly what was necessary for the character.

Recommendation

For some fantasy fare that is sideways from science fiction and lighter than horror, you could do a lot worse (like the two Warlock sequels I’m dreading).

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October of Horror #5: The Night Stalker (1972)

Posted by Trixter on October 5, 2018

(For an explanation of what these posts in October are, see the parent post.)

Synopsis

News reporter Carl Kolchak covers a series of murders, and discovers a link between them that suggests the killer is imitating a vampire.  But when he witnesses the killer evading police, he sees things he cannot ignore, and comes to the conclusion that the killer might actually be a real vampire.  How do you convince the police department a real vampire is on the loose — and worse, how do you stop it?

Opinion

Originally a made-for-TV movie, The Night Stalker was something I’d hear about from time to time but never had a motivation for watching it until Dana Gould mentioned it on his podcast.  Based on that recommendation, I finally tracked down a pristine copy and watched it (sans commercials), which put it at a short movie length.

So how does it hold up today?  Very well!  The movie is populated completely with character actors (Darren McGavin, Claude Aikens, even Larry Linville before he was a staple on M.A.S.H.) and they all do a fine job.  The pacing is great; you’re never bored.  As an added bonus, the movie doesn’t shy away from an honest ending.

Recommendation

At only 1h15m, it’s definitely worth your time — and, if you ever have a need for such a thing, it’s appropriate for the family (no swearing, no nudity, and genuine tension without being disturbing).

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Vintage DOS MIDI Game Music Explained

Posted by Trixter on October 5, 2018

For people who are just getting started into vintage DOS gaming, MIDI music device support in games can be confusing:  What’s MIDI?  Why don’t MIDI devices play digital sound?  If all you have is MIDI, how do you hear sound effects?  This article will attempt to explain, as succinctly as possible, how MIDI devices became a part of DOS gaming music history, and how they were used for composing and playing back game music.  This article is not an extensive technical dive, but is meant to be an explanation for the novice DOS gamer who is new to the platform.

This information originally appeared as correspondence with Fabien Sanglard, who is working on the next book in his Game Engine Black Blook series.  His previous book, Game Engine Black Book: Wolfenstein 3D, is highly recommended.

What is MIDI?

MIDI is a synthesizer music control protocol, and stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. It was created in the 1980s as a way to connect keyboards, drum machines, other synthesizers, etc. together. Once connected, they could do things like have one instrument (like a keyboard) control another (like a drum machine), they could all refer to the same time sync signal, and also be connected to a computer using a computer MIDI interface. Once connected to a computer, the computer could record all of the notes passing along the MIDI protocol, effectively capturing the live performance.  Once captured, the computer allowed the user to edit the performance, make changes, and play it back out to all of the connected instruments.

MIDI instruments were connected to each other using cables employing a male 5-pin circular connector.

What was the Roland MT-32?
What was the Roland LAPC-I?

The Roland MT-32 was an external, standalone MIDI music synthesizer that you could connect with MIDI cables to a computer fitted with a MIDI adapter, such as the Roland MPU-401. This hardware allowed high-quality (for the time) music playback, better than the FM/OPL-based AdLib (and later Sound Blaster) cards. Sierra supported the MT-32 (and other sound and music devices) as early as 1987 and pushed for sound/music devices to be better-supported throughout the industry, leading with their own products first.  It is fair to credit Sierra with establishing higher-quality sound devices, and the MT-32 in particular, as a PC gaming “standard”.

The Roland LAPC-I combined the MPU-401 MIDI interface with an upgraded version of the MT-32 called the CM-32L into a single ISA card, so adding just that card would give you “MT-32” music playback, plus 33 additional sound effects.

The MT-32 was primarily a music synthesizer. Like any traditional musical keyboard synth, it had over 100 preset instruments, and some canned sound effects (gunshot, rain, explosion, wind, etc.). It also had the ability to change the parameters of those instruments and modify them to sound differently. Changing an instrument was done via SYSEX (SYStem EXclusive) MIDI commands. The MT-32 was not based on the Yamaha OPL series like the AdLib/Sound Blaster, but used a Roland-proprietary combination of prerecorded samples and subtractive synthesis.  You could not fundamentally create your own instrument or sound effect, but you could modify what already came with the MT-32.

The MT-32 only communicated via MIDI. MIDI does not have the ability to transmit PCM samples, so it had no ability to play custom digitized audio. The LAPC-I also lacked this capability:  While it was an add-in ISA card, it didn’t add digital sound playback to the existing CM-32L + MIDI interface combo it was designed to reproduce.  (A later card, the RAP-10, added this functionality.)

What was the Roland SC-55?
What was the Roland SCC-1?
Why were they a significant milestone of DOS gaming music?

The Roland SC-55 was the very first General MIDI standard device. The General MIDI standard was significant in that it defined 128 instruments that every device following the standard could adopt. Before General MIDI, there was no standardization: Instrument #4 could be “organ” or “flute” or “snare drum”, etc…  but in General MIDI, instrument #4 is always “Honky-Tonk Piano”. This standard was the real breakthrough for DOS gaming music, because it meant all MIDI music devices following the standard could reproduce the music nearly the same, as they would all be using the same instruments.  (That said, the SC-55 also had outstanding sound quality, which was also a breakthrough.)  Of the 128 instruments, 16 were sound effects.  An additional 46 percussive sounds (snare drum, hi-hat, etc.) were also available on a specific playback channel.

Like the MT-32, the SC-55 connected to the computer using MIDI cables and a MIDI interface installed in the computer. The Roland SCC-1 was like the LAPC-I: It combined an SC-55 and an MPU-401 onto a single ISA add-in card.

How was MIDI music for DOS games composed?

Standalone synthesizer modules like the MT-32 and the SC-55 can only be controlled via the MIDI protocol, sent over MIDI cables to the module. If you want to compose music to be played back on those modules, it is best practice to compose the music using the module itself. Because the module has no musical keyboard attached, it was common to use a synthesizer keyboard connected via MIDI to control the module. This was typically done by capturing a live performance on the keyboard into a MIDI note recording program called a MIDI sequencer, usually on a computer. Once captured on the computer, it could be edited like any media.

Why do I still need a Sound Blaster to hear sound in DOS games?

MIDI devices like the MT-32 and SC-55 were primarily designed as music synthesizer modules, and only contained a small number of sound effects.  The sound effects were so limited that most games didn’t bother trying to support them, so if one of those devices were all that you had, then you only heard music in a DOS game and no sound effects or speech. So, most DOS gamers also installed a card to play PCM sound, such as a Sound Blaster.  To hear both sound devices at the same time, users could run both to a mixer which output to a single set of speakers, but a cheaper option was to run the audio output of the MIDI module into the “line in” jack on a Sound Blaster, then connect the “line out” jack of the Sound Blaster to speakers.  Then the Sound Blaster internal mixer could be adjusted via software such that Line In was mixed into the output even while not recording.

While most games didn’t use MT-32 or SCC-1 canned sound effects, there were a few exceptions.  Sierra games using the SCI interpreter would occasionally use them (see Space Quest III for an example of MIDI sound effect use on the very first gameplay screen), and Another World (USA title “Out Of This World”) used the additional effects in the LAPC-I/CM-32L.

What music device should I pick when running a DOS game that has multiple options?

If you have an emulator configured for all possible DOS game sound standards — or, if you’re lucky and rich, a choice of sound hardware to put into a vintage DOS gaming system — then you should usually pick General MIDI with any sound extensions first, then General MIDI, then FM-based.  Here is a general list of sound options listed from best MIDI music quality to worst MIDI music quality; pick the highest option you have available:

  1. General MIDI (Yamaha XG or XG extensions)
  2. General MIDI (Roland SCC-1, Roland SC-55, Roland GS extensions)
  3. General MIDI
  4. Turtle Beach Multisound
  5. Roland LAPC-1 or CM-32L
  6. Roland MT-32
  7. Sound Blaster 16, Sound Blaster Pro 2 (Yamaha OPL-4 or OPL-3 FM compatible)
  8. Sound Blaster Pro (Yamaha OPL-2 stereo FM)
  9. AdLib or Sound Blaster (Yamaha OPL-2 FM)
  10. Creative Music System or Game Blaster
  11. Tandy/PCjr 3-voice audio
  12. PC speaker

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