Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Nitrates & Nasties

From Dread Albion to the Balkans, the 'Backlot Gothic' stretches across a timeless region of Europe reached only by train, but which can only be crossed on foot or by horse and carriage. It is home to a backwards people, many superstitious, others ignorant, who live under the shadow of the vampire, the werewolf, and the man of visionary, but misguided science. Cousin to the Backlot Gothic is the Backlot Jungle, which stretches from the Amazon to Asia via Africa, and although its creatures change from lion to tiger to jaguar as the continent dictates, the frogs will always sound like those found in Southern California.

For Hollywood is the inspiration for the Backlot Jungle and the Backlot Gothic both, the two being the setting for Shadows Over Filmland, an anthology for Trail of Cthulhu. Penned by Ken Hite and Robin D Laws, the anthology draws from the horror movies of the Desperate Decade. The authors have taken films such as Dracula, Frankenstein, King Kong, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, White Zombie, and others, and used them to give the Cthulhu Mythos of stories like ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’ and ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’, a Silver Nitrate wash. Or indeed, infuse the classic creations of the Universal Monsters films with the sanity debilitating effect that is the Cthulhu Mythos. The result is an otherworldly, gothic conceit that the Keeper will use to draw his investigators into the twelve eerie, sometimes grotesque reels presented on the screen in Shadows Over Filmland.

The supplement is essentially three sections. The first is Hite’s essay exploring the parallels between Lovecraft’s fiction and the horror films of Universal Studios and RKO. Despite Lovecraft’s own dismissal of these films, Hite finds more than enough to support the core conceit behind Shadows Over Filmland, looking in turn at the vampire, the werewolf, the mummy and so on. Thus, both The Mummy and the stories ‘He’, ‘The Terrible Old Man’, ‘The Picture in the House’, ‘The High House in the Mist’,’ ‘Dreams in the Witch-House’, and ‘The Thing on the Doorstep’ all make use of the concept of the immortal monster-magus as much as The Mummy and ‘Cool Air’ and ‘The Horror at Red Hook’ all possess a certain fascination with the Oriental and the exotic. Having established the parallels, Hite goes on to explain the differences between the Cthulhu Mythos and the Silver Nitrate Mythos, primarily the emphasis upon sexuality, its obsession with psychology, fascination with corpses and their mutilation, the sublimation of the Desperate Decade’s economic fears into supernatural ones, the mocking of God’s good order, and so on…

The second section explores the more mundane elements that make up the Backlot Gothic. Whether the blackest of forests or catacombs and castles most sinister, hermits or gypsies, butlers or laboratory assistants, these elements emulate the stock characters and locations where the movies of Shadows Over Filmland are shot. Complete with numerous examples and advice on handling both the motifs and the accents to found in the Backlot Gothic, their inclusion highlights both an issue with Shadows Over Filmland and its intent. The issue is that the regular use of this stock footage can easily become a cliché, but the intent is that is Shadows Over Filmland not meant to be used as a campaign. That is, the Backlot Gothic is somewhere to visit on an irregular basis, a fact further supported by the absence of any advice on running the dozen scenarios herein as a campaign. Rounding out this section is a number of story hooks that the Keeper can develop into full scenarios in addition to those in the book’s third section.

Shadows Over Filmland’s third section is its longest and is devoted to the investigators’ individual trips to the Backlot Gothic in the form of a dozen scenarios. Of these twelve, Ken Hite pens five – ‘Death Across the Nile’, ‘Dreams of Dracula’, ‘Lord of the Jungle’, ‘The Black Chateau’, and ‘White Bokor’; Robin D Laws pens six – ‘Dr Grave Dust’, ‘The Green Ape’, ‘The Night I Died’, ‘The Preserve’, ‘The Non-Euclidean Man’, and ‘Under a Werewolf Moon’; and together, they co-author ‘The Final Reel’. The degree to which the Mythos is employed in these dozen varies from one scenario to the next, so that one scenario might be a more Universal Studio feature than a Lovecraftian submission to Weird Tales. That said, those of the scenarios that are more Lovecraftian would work well in a standard Trail of Cthulhu campaign with little or no modification.

The dozen opens in classic fashion not in the Backlot Gothic per se, but Backlot Egypt with ‘Death Across the Nile’ and a tale of possession down the ages. This scenario will be familiar to most gamers, right down to taking place at an archaeological dig, but this does not mean that it is not well done and that it is anything other than engaging. There is a twist or two to the tale, but it is otherwise a straight forward affair. ‘White Bokor’ is written as a sequel to White Zombie, the 1932 film starring Bela Lugosi and is intentionally straight forward, if not linear in nature. In it the investigators find themselves on the Backlot Island, either washed ashore or following up on earlier clues, where the only place to go is a castle on the Mountain of the Dead! The problem is that it is influenced by the films of George Romero and whilst the investigators are faced by a zombie herd, they are the ones being herded and it feels all too heavy handed. Given that its title is ‘Dr Grave Dust’, it is no surprise that the third scenario is inspired by Lovecraft’s ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’. An epidemic of grave robberies has struck the Backlot Gothic, and the investigators are asked to uncover those responsible. The culprit is quickly highlighted in what is otherwise a surprisingly combat orientated scenario. Again this is another straight forward scenario, but what is interesting is how the culprit’s motive has been taken a step further beyond an interest in reanimating the dead.

The conceit of the Backlot Gothic in ‘Dreams of Dracula’ is that no one has heard of Dracula and Bram Stoker never penned the eponymous novel, which of course flies in the face of player knowledge. Set in Backlot Albion, perhaps London, perhaps Whitby, the investigators are asked by a friend to help him with a queer situation – both his wife and her friend have been struck down by fever and anaemia, brought by nightmares! This is a languorous, atmospheric affair, one that apes the England-set sequences from Bram Stoker’s novel, almost as an act of misdirection. The author’s use of the Cthulhu Mythos, hidden as it is behind the apparent vampire Mythos, nicely and effectively underpins the scenario’s misdirection. As ‘The Green Ape’ opens, the investigators find themselves ready to go ashore and brave the Backlot Jungle on the remote island of Nambu in the South Pacific. This is a trip back into the prehistoric past, much like the movie that inspired it – King Kong, and much like any trek into the unknown, the scenario become something of a test of endurance, although this is balanced by a Pulp sensibility. The next adventure is again set in the Backlot Jungle and is again something of a test of endurance, but more intentionally so. ‘The Lord of the Jungle’, which draws from James Whale’s 1940 film, Green Hell, and Lovecraft’s ‘Facts Concerning The Late Arthur Jermyn And His Family’ also continues the previous scenario’s Pulp sensibility, but this slips away as the investigators penetrate further and further into Africa’s dark heart to locate a lost city and uncover its secrets. 

Val Lewton’s films for RKO from the 1940s – leaping a decade ahead than is the norm for Trail of Cthulhu – are the inspiration for ‘The Night I Died’. Once again a friend calls upon the investigators for their help. His fiancée has fallen into melancholia and appears to sleep walk, even going so far as claim that she is a ghost! Set in an Urban Backlot, ‘The Night I Died’ is another atmospheric piece, but one that comes with notes on how to make it more of a Mythos influenced experience than it is. Inspired by Lovecraft’s ‘From Beyond’ as much by The Invisible Man, ‘The Non-Euclidean Man’ brings the investigators to a scientific symposium hosted by the Pneumametric Society and face to death from beyond – though initially not their own. 

‘The Black Chateau’ has the most modern feel of the dozen scenarios in the anthology, at least artistically. It evokes a feeling of stark, nightmarish horror in entrapping the investigators within an imaginatively contemporary version of the haunted house to very pleasing effect. Much like the earlier ‘Dreams of Dracula’, a familiar monster appears in ‘Under a Werewolf Moon’. Its use is not as imaginative as that of Dracula in ‘Dreams of Dracula’, but this is nevertheless far from unplayable. The penultimate conceit in the anthology takes a concept from the Universal Horror films and sets it on the investigators. ‘The Preserve’ unites three of the antagonists from previous entries in Shadows Over Filmland and lets them take revenge on the investigators in what is a Pulp affair suitably located towards both the end of the book and the end of a Backlot Gothic campaign.

The conceit culminates in Backlot Hollywood – or is it the ‘real’ Hollywood? – with the appropriately named ‘The Final Reel’. The investigators are called in by the Hays Office to look into Capitol Pictures’ production of a new horror film entitled Call of Cthulhu! Can they find cause to have this threat to American morals shut down, let alone uncover who exactly is sponsoring the film? Fittingly, this plays louche and loose with the Shadows Over Filmland canon to draw on several of the previous scenarios in the anthology, though such elements are not central to the plot. It is almost as if the investigators have stepped out of the collection’s previous films and into the studio… The scenario comes with several detailed NPCs around which the Keeper involves the investigation, though this is primarily a player-led affair. Should the investigators want to do more than just shut the film down and uncover the cult or cultists behind its production, then the Keeper will have to improvise the details himself. Otherwise, this is an entertaining climax to Shadows Over Filmland.

Physically, Shadows Over Filmland is a beautiful book. The layout is clean and tidy, and Jérôme Huguenin provides some excellent art. It is missing an index, but that is probably less of a problem since the book is unlikely to serve as a reference work. Slightly more problematic is the lack of maps since their inclusion might have aided the Keeper in certain scenarios.

The best of the dozen Shadows Over Filmland work effectively when their combination of the horror of the Cthulhu Mythos and the horror of the Universal Monsters counterbalance each other. Samples of the twelve that achieve this include ‘Dreams of Dracula’, ‘The Black Chateau’, and to an extent, ‘Under a Werewolf Moon’. The least effective scenarios are those that wander away from the Backlot Gothic or the Backlot Albion, primarily because the investigative process plays less of a role and because there is less player agency involved in them. Those in between these two poles are solidly written scenarios, though ‘White Bokor’ is perhaps too linear and too heavily scripted. The tone for most of the twelve is also well handled, for the most part maintaining a steady median between the Pulp and the Purist, sometimes advice being given for the Keeper should he want to adjust to one tone or another. 

As with any anthology, the contents of Shadows Over Filmland can easily be used as a series of one-shots. All are relatively short, offering at most two sessions’ worth of play. There is no particular order to the twelve scenarios, but certainly ‘The Preserve’ and ‘The Final Reel’ should be played after the previous ten. Many of the twelve would also work as additions to an on-going Trail of Cthulhu campaign, though the ‘The Preserve’ and ‘The Final Reel’ might stretch the credulity and tone of certain Keepers’ campaigns. The intended use of the anthology though is as a supplement to an existing campaign, the Backlot Gothic not being somewhere that the investigators should visit regularly. Indeed, there is such a dream-like quality to the scenarios that these twelve would work as a series of visits to a version of the Dreamlands influenced by the cinema of the Desperate Decade. However Shadows Over Filmland is used, it presents a diverting dozen that take the investigators deep into the Arcadian idyll of the Backlot Gothic suffused with the sinister and the malevolent behind which lurks the Cthulhu Mythos.