Outlast (2013) PC review

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Outlast is a game I am of mixed mind about. On one hand, it can be absolutely terrifying but on the other hand, the actual game part of this supposedly survival horror game is lacking.

Let us start with what I liked most about Outlast.  It has an impeccable presentation, with the grungy and dirty Mount Massive asylum with strewn viscera rendered in sickening detail sprinkled throughout. The texture work is superb with excellent attention to detail that persists throughout every section of the game. The overall visual quality is excellent and the night vision mode when using the camera, combined with the ever present noise filter give the game an appropriately dirty look that truly does look like a found footage urban exploration film. The game is also quite dark in the Doom 3 sense, so use of the night vision mode is frequently necessary.The only gripe I have with the way the game looks is that in the camera mode without night vision, there is quite a bit of what appears to be really serious chromatic abberation which just makes me think the developers are adopting a bad trend in modern video game graphics or the journalist protagonist deliberately bought a terrible camera for some bizarre reason.The performance at maximum settings is also flawless.

The sound work here is also quite strong, but the score lacks variety in mood, chiming in mostly during chase sections with the bombast of a slasher film. There are a few exceptions of quite tense and creepy ambient tracks during exploration, but these have less presence in the game.

The other aspect of the game I liked is that it manages to successfully build a creepy and disturbing atmosphere that is not totally reliant on jump scares or being too relentless with symbolism. And while there are some shocking moments, they aren’t presented in a way that straddles the line between proper horror and over the top death metal album cover art edginess that players of Outlast 2 might see. The denizens of mount massive are well voiced and have designs that are disturbing stapled faces that make them appear like crosses between Frankenstein and Leatherface. The whole feel of the game is as a whole, quite unsettling.

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Now for the stuff I did not like too much. The actual mechanics of the game are rather slim. Whilst there are times where there is genuine panic, rudimentary stealth or some very light platforming, the whole thing is basic. That said, it is a step above a walking simulator, but not quite as in depth as proper  recent survival horror titles, such as Alien: Isolation or Resident Evil 7which as far as I’m concerned are currently the gold standard of first person horror games. How Outlast works is that you are totally defenseless and armed only with a consumer grade handheld camera, which is used pretty much only for seeing in the dark.  So when you encounter an enemy, you are only able to piss your pants and either make a beeline to point B or hide in a locker or under a bed. This lack of combat, combined with the inability to do anything other than run and hide (no weapons, no ability to make distractions, etc.) and rather tight spaces with linear design mean that every enemy encounter will play out in almost exactly the same way. The rudimentary stealth also works best on the rare occasion when there is a bit more space in a given area. At least you have a decent movement speed and can sprint almost indefinitely if you want. You also have to manage your battery resources for the camera, but on normal difficulty, batteries are plentiful enough and battery life is enough. It is not really a resource management mechanic of any significance and feels superfluous as a whole. But because the game sticks so strictly to defenceless horror game protagonist ethos, there is no way for the game to progress. Because the mechanics are so simplistic and have very little variety, there’s not much else to say.

With the story, to be honest I didn’t pay too much attention to it. But from what I gathered it was something about uncovering supernatural scientific experiments gone wrong. It’s all pretty basic stuff and the plot takes a backseat to the core experience since most of the plot comes from notes and documents that you can read throughout.

2013’s Outlast then is a decent horror game whose strengths lie primarily in its incredible presentation and unsettling atmosphere, with some admittedly quite tense moments throughout like navigating the pitch black courtyard at night and having to shimmy tiny platforms along the walls in the dark. However, the basic mechanics are lacking the quality and depth of survival horror. Even in spite of my gripes with the game, it is still something worth experiencing, especially if you can get it for cheap. The lack of depth really prevents it from greatness as it sits a step above walking simulator but not quite survival horror.

6.7/10

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (2017) PC Review

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The Resident Evil series has had it rough after the fourth entry in the main line series. It’s sequel, Resident Evil 5 is routinely laughed at for the ridiculousness of Chris Redfield punching the shit out of a boulder. It is also routinely and rightfully criticised for it’s poor partner AI that is forced on you if you don’t have a friend to play with. Resident Evil 6, while it’s combat mechanics are surprisingly quite good, every other aspect of it’s overall design is questionable. With Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, I am pleased to say that Capcom has put the series back on it’s feet.

One of the first things you will notice about this latest entry in the 20+ year old franchise is that it does not utilise the fixed camera angles of the original 3 games, nor the tight third person camera of 4, 5 and 6 but rather opts for a first person perspective that has become ubiquitous with contemporary horror games. This change in perspective is very effective in RE7. For example, in cinematics, such the dinner table scene, where the Baker family tried to make protagonist Ethan Winters eat some rancid looking human organs, which made me wince and recoil in disgust. Likewise in early sequences when Ethan suffers horrific bodily mutilations.

The storyline is also surprisingly good and well told. The set up is that the wife of Ethan, Mia, has been missing for three years but then receives a message from her in Dulvey, Louisiana, setting Ethan off on a mission to rescue Mia from the Baker’s estate. It all sounds very Silent Hill 2 and I was concerned before the game came out that the plot of this would just be a SH2 rip off. Thankfully, it’s not. Whilst the general trajectory of the story will be of little surprise to veteran Resident Evil fans, it is still skillfully executed and shows a positive level of restraint that never lets the game veer into a level of campiness that would put the game at odds with itself. Skulking around the decrepit houses on this plantation also reveal an incredible attention to detail that provides background information on the Baker’s life, which despite them being the primary antagonists of the game, had me feeling pity for them.

In terms of the mechanics and design of the game, everything from the shooting to the inventory management and sneaking around work really well. The shooting is tight and responsive, with weapons such as the shotgun feeling and sounding powerful, to the SMG’s high recoil or the kick of the 44 Magnum, every weapon feels different and satisfying to use. Even the knife is satisfying to use and can be quite effective, at least in one on one encounters with standard enemy types. Enemies are also threatening and can take quite a few pistol rounds before they can die, which is especially terrifying in the early game where ammo is scarce, so it’s often better to run away. One time after I had picked up the shotgun, I was in the boiler room and quite a few of the molded, which look like a more earthy and grotesque crossbreed of Regenerators and BOWs, had spawned and were giving chase, so I managed to headshot a few and kit the rest until they were all dead. It was tense and exciting. Boss fights, at least the early ones, are especially terrifying and thrilling at the same time. Enemies also telegraph their attacks, which gives you enough time to get a shot off, run away, or crouch to dodge, but you must still be quick about it if you don’t want to be hit. One disappointment is that there are very few different standard enemies.

Stealth mechanics, meanwhile, are very rudimentary, so there’s no lockers or closets to hide in to remind yourself of your high school days,  but it works well enough to be tense yet never frustrating.

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Save rooms and item boxes return and general inventory management return through an interface that is dark and minimalist, but still easily readable and intuitive to use. The save rooms are comfortable spaces which play a melancholic but relaxing tune that is incredibly comfy.

While inventory spaces and item combinations are much more streamlined and forgiving, you will still be making regular trips backtracking to item boxes. But since your movement speed is decent and the levels are designed quite tightly, the backtracking never becomes tedious. There is also a slight bit of handholding in that the map screen tells you what your objective is, but there’s no objective markers that trivialise the game and insult the player, but nor are you under threat of being regularly confused or forgetting what you had to do in case you returned to your game save after not playing for quite some time.

The game is also expertly paced and shows a lot of variety and influence from a variety of different horror titles. One minute you’ll be skulking through the guest house with nothing, the next you’ll be defending yourself against a crazed enemy and then skulking around the main Baker house, finding items and solving puzzles and playing a cat and mouse game with the patrolling Jack who functions much like the Xenomorph from Alien: Isolation, although thankfully frustration is avoided since he can’t one shot you, at least on normal. The best puzzle is a later game escape room, whereas the rest of the puzzles are things like rotating an abstract object in front of a light to match the silhouette of a painting. These puzzles are largely simple and while not entirely brain dead, they aren’t exactly head scratchers of old Resident Evil or the Silent Hill series. Speaking of Silent Hill, the overall progression is more like that than the first Resident Evil where instead of being singular location with shortcuts,loops, different pathways and so one, each area in RE7 is more like a discrete area and it works well here.

The campaign as a whole is quite lean, as I beat it in 7 hours and 42 minutes. Some online have complained about this length, but this length, for a decent player on a first  time playthrough is quite standard for games in the horror genre. The original 3 Silent Hill  games took me about this long, or a bit less to beat.Horror games as long as Alien: Isolation are quite an anomaly. Here is a good balance between quality and quantity. There is also replay value in the Madhouse difficulty mode, which is unlocked upon completing the game, which I will probably play on when I eventually revisit the campaign some day. But what it does is not only makes the enemies tougher or Jack faster, but item placement is changed, checkpoints are removed and saves are limited like how they were in classic Resident Evil.

In terms of the presentation, the game is near impeccable. Sound effects are all excellent and so is the voice acting and overall performances with the Baker’s Southern intonations that are both menacing and highly entertaining that deftly walks a fine line between serious horror and camp. The graphics too, as well as the attention to detail, with deep black shadows, excellent animation, texture work and extremely detailed character model. While there is occassionally a low res texture or two, the visuals as a whole are quite great. Enemy designs are creative and often highly grotesque.

The only downside to the visuals is that they can look blurry at times. When I first started playing I thought my eyes were going to shit since the game looked like a layer of vaseline had been smeared on the camera, but it turned out this was due to the anti aliasing setting it was on, which I promptly changed down to FXAA and all was well. Additionally, the motion blur effect here is quite good and I usually don’t like using it in games, but I recommend turning it on. It’s actually quite nice in this game at high framerates.

On a technical level, there is a high level of polish. On a GTX 970, running at 1440p on settings that were a mix of High and Very High, I had a mostly smooth experience running at 60fps or higher for the vast majority of the game. Although sometimes I would experience inexplicable and massive drops in areas that I shouldn’t have, these were few and far between. It also has a suitable amount of graphics options that allow you the game to be scalable on a variety of systems and tweak the visuals to your liking, such as turning off chromatic abberation or motion blur if you dislike those effects. It’s an excellent PC port all round.

Resident Evil 7Biohazard is a game that as you can see, I enjoyed very much. It has a well told story, excellent presentation and will spook you good, especially if you play with headphones on and lights off; the way horror is meant to be played. This is a Resident Evil game that should be enjoyable for anyone of varying levels of familiarity with the series. A great horror game and great Resident Evil game. This is the best the series has been since Resident Evil 4 and is well worth picking up.

9.5/10

 

Silent Hill 4: The Room (2004) Review

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Silent Hill 4 is perhaps the low point of the original part of the series. But in saying that, it was originally supposed to be a different game altogether.

The concept behind this entry to the series is this: you play as Henry Townsend, an average joe who finds himself trapped in his apartment, Room 302 and can’t get out and enters the nightmare world of Walter Sullivan through dreams. In the apartment, these sections play out in first person with you interacting with various objects, your item boxes and so on. The controls in these sections are simple but occassionally fiddly, having to wrestle with them at times to make it behave the way you want. But your time in the nightmare world is played very similarly to the rest of the series, with a few catches. The first is that you have a dodge move, which is welcome. But what is removed are the flashlight and the radio and now your inventory is limited. This last aspect is quite frustrating as it requires constant backtracking to the apartment to deposit and remove items from the item box, especially since items cannot be dropped in the nightmare world where you stand. So if you have a golf club and you need to pick up that key but you have no space, you have to backtrack to the nearest hole, deposit it in your apartment, come back and pick it up then do the puzzle. It’s tedious and annoying, but somewhat mitigated by the small level size and frequency of holes.Some weapons also break, but most don’t so you’ll want to stick with those that don’t , such as the pipe or axe. Other than these changes, the game plays mostly the same as previous entries.

Visually, the game has not aged as well as it’s predecessors, especially the first person apartment section, with some very very shoddy textures.The nightmare worlds fare better, which comprise of a subway world, forest world, water prison, building world and apartment world and they don’t have the same level of quality as the previous games in texture work and light.The noise effect seems to be of lower quality too. Character models are still of good quality, however.  The designs of the monsters seem uninspired and while the game has some creepy moments and disturbing imagery and sounds, such as Eileen’s HUGE head in the hospital or the footsteps in the cells in the water prison, they again do not match up to the previous entries. The soundtrack is nothing to write home about either and neither is the voice acting.

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Some of the more annoying things include some unkillable enemies and most egregiously, the game pulls a Devil May Cry 4 and has you go through the same levels again through the second half of the game and even worse, you have to do it as an escort mission which can at times be very frustrating. While Eileen cannot die, she runs very slowly and you have to wait because she does not go through doors with you unless she’s very close to you. This can get you quite damaged. Thankfully she cannot actually dies otherwise this part of the game would go from frustrating to hellish. This second half of the game is quite the difficulty spike as well.

All said, Silent Hill 4 isn’t a terrible game, but it just doesn’t live up to it’s predecessors and has many frustrations of it’s own along the way. But I would say it is a skippable entry of the series despite being the last one made in japan.

5.5/10

 

Silent Hill 3 (2003) Review

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Silent Hill 3 is a direct sequel to the original 1999 game, where you play as a teenage girl, Heather Mason who is drawn to the town of Silent Hill, creepy through industrial looking otherworlds,the frightening Lakeside Amusement Park which are all appropriately disgusting, bloody dirty and grimy, like a higher fidelity rendering of the original’s aesthetic.  The game also took me 6 hours to complete.

The story of Silent Hill 3 follows up 17 years after the original and the plot is more or less a repetition of the original (like our good friend George Lucas says, “it’s like poetry, it rhymes”) but in a good way. The cult is trying to birth their god again The first at least third of the game doesn’t even have you in Silent Hill at all, which is a nice change of pace as it avoids too much familiarity and thus keeps the tension higher. With the creature design, which is fantastic and importantly, different from the previous two games in behaviour and aesthetic (with some nurses being able to shoot you), the game continues the series tradition of using symbolism through these monsters to provide extra depth to the story, although their meanings might not be immediately obvious in the heat of play. The lore of the series is also nicely expanded upon in this game.

But there are nice moments when you do revisit locations from previous entries. For example, you can go into the Heaven’s Night bar for some items and to look around and reminisce of your experience playing Silent Hill 2. Brookhaven Hospital is back and the design of the objectives manages to keep the area feeling both familiar and fresh. At some parts in the game, I saw notepads that looked exactly like the save points in the original game and interacting them let me read the notes of Harry Mason, which were nice moments. The scares here are often ones of tension, with a few unexpected jumpscares here and there, or the fright experienced when entering trap rooms or the discomfort of hearing the moans of Closers.

Visually, the game holds up very well when emulated and the noise filter is improved from the original game (although in stills it looks the same but it’s great in motion I promise), a depth of field effect is occassionally used. The lighting and shadows are also excellent as always. Akira Yamaoka’s sound design and music is on point as per usual, creating a perfectly dreadful atmosphere. The voice acting also feels much like normal people instead of Hollywood voice actors, whilst still mostly avoiding the cheese of the Resident Evil games, with the exception of the detective Douglas, who walks a fine line between a grizzled gruff voice that can be taken seriously and one that can’t. Most of the characters also sound a bit off in a way that works out very well for this series as it does in David Lynch films.

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In terms of the mechanics of the game, there is not much deviation from the previous two. However, there are some welcome improvements. First, the inventory has been streamlined so that instead of scrolling through every item just to get some specific item for a puzzle or to reload your gun, items have been divided into Items (for puzzles, flashlight, radio, etc), weapons and supplies. Another welcome improvement is that more guns allow movement while shooting and that most melee weapons also allow movement while attacking. There are also equippable items, such as the bulletproof vest which reduce damage taken whilst also reducing movement speed, an obvious tradeoff. However, while for me it did elevate the tension when trying to get out the way of monsters, it still allowed me to move fast enough to avoid hits so I kept it on pretty much the whole game. There was one superfluous addition to the game, which was the use of distraction items through beef jerky, in which the game showers on you early on. It stops giving them to you once you reach Silent Hill proper as if the game is self aware that they’re pretty much useless.

Whilst not as original or emotionally involving as the narrative of Silent Hill 2, Silent Hill 3 is a worthy addition to the series that maintains a high level of quality, some fresh ideas even within the repetitious plot and welcome mechanical improvements that make it a worthwhile experience for any survival horror fans. Just play the previous two first and don’t let your first experience with the game be the HD Collection version because it’s fucked.

8/10

Outlast 2 Demo (PC) impressions

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After some inexplicable helicopter crash, you, a camera guy are found seperated from your journalist wife. You put on your glasses and wander through the bright moonlit night through somewhere in  Southern, rural America and find yourself stumbling into the village of a crazy redneck cult, in which something seemingly supernatural or otherwise is occurring. This is the set up for developer Red Barrels latest game, Outlast 2.

Anyone that has any familiarity with indie horror games from the last half decade will find Outlast 2 familiar, even more obviously if you’ve played any of the original. For those not in the know, Outlast 2 is part of that trend in survival horror games in which you are totally disarmed, with no hope of fighting back, so you must either run or hide or run and hide. Maybe you can walk past slowly sometimes instead. You also have a camcorder with a green night vision filter in order to help you see in the more dimly lit surroundings, like in the original and is a cool effect that adds to the tension. But gone are the classic mechanics of survival horror. While this demo is 15 minutes long and is perhaps only the introduction of the game or some kind of vertical slice, there are not even any puzzles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent which started this whole sub genre. In addition to no combat or a seeming lack of puzzles, there does not seem like there will be any further development to stealth mechanics ala Alien: Isolation with it’s flares, noisemakers, molotovs and so forth. Maybe this game will surprise us and have parts where you can actually fight back, I won’t hold my breath. The key problem with being unable to fight back means the game has a much more difficult job in trying to be more than a one note and dynamic experience, as the hyperlinked video above discusses in more detail.

While the mechanics of the game seem underdeveloped, there are a few things I do like about this game is that the visuals are amazing, being finely detailed and having a nice and not too aggressive noise filter, with excellent performance and overall polish. I also liked the really confronting rooms. For example, there is one room you pass by that is lit by one crucifix shaped hole, with the pale moonlight shining right through onto a pile of charred baby corpses that crunch under your feet as you walk past. It’s not exactly subtle, but it was effective. However, it would be wise for the full release to pace these sorts of things out properly because otherwise it would be exhausting. I do appreciate from this demo that the game won’t shy away from disturbing imagery that would also work as a Deicide album cover.

Check out the demo for some spookiness and if you liked the previous Outlast or this type of horror in general, you’ll probably like this. The full game doesn’t have a release date apart from 2017, so it will have some pretty stiff competition from Resident Evil 7, which is also set in the rural American south.

Silent Hill 2: Directors Cut (2003) Review

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Recently, I finished my second play through of Silent Hill 2 this time based on a proper PS2 version instead of the sub par HD collection version. How is Silent Hill 2 in 2016?  Still one of the best horror titles around.

Emulating this at a high resolution, one of the things I immediately noticed was how good the visuals look, considering the actual assets of the game are about a decade and a half old from a system two console generations ago. Everything looks highly detailed, grimy and dirty with an aggressive noise filter on top adding to the grittiness. It doesn’t look perfect in all areas of course with some textures being low res, but the overall detail remains incredibly high and so does the series signature fog effects. Shadows are stark and expressive and so is the lighting. At one point in the game, I was backtracking through the apartments and got back to the second or third floor, with my flashlight off, forgetting that I hadn’t killed the mannequins up there and I got one hell of a fright.

In this Silent Hill venture, which is mostly stand alone, with the cult aspects of the broader series lore lurking in the background at best, has you play as James Sunderland, a man drawn to the town by a mysterious letter from his wife, Mary. Even though the game is 15 years old I won’t go too much into the story since it is something to experience oneself, but it remains one of the best stories in video games. It is a highly personal and tragic tale filled with grief and despair. The imagery is stark and disturbing and also full of symbolism that I will leave to the rest for you to uncover and interpret (or read one of many interpretations on the internet if you still don’t understand).There are also four possible endings on the first playthrough that can occur not through the push button receive endings of modern AAA RPGs, but rather through the way in which you play the game and certain specific actions. I implore you if to go in blind to the game in this regard.

It is also a brilliantly atmospheric game, with the gritty visual design previous described and Akira Yamaoka’s soundtrack and overall sound design which makes for a creepy, unnerving experience, such as the dogs barking and the crunching of dirt and leaves under your feet as you take the long walk towards Silent Hill, giving you the feeling of no turning back (a technique the game uses often to great effect.) The familiar sounds of radio static return and the sounds of smacking and enemy with a 2×4 or shooting them with the pistol are loud and satisfying. The music is top notch as well, with moody ambience, loud drum work in certain sections and the theme that plays in the Heavens Night quoting the bass lines from Twin Peaks and extensive piano playing in the more sombre moments make for a soundtrack that is varied in style but forming a coherent whole.Voice acting is also quite good. It doesn’t sound like the familiar Tara Strong’s or Nolan North’s that we are used to today, nor does it sound campy and ridiculous like the original Resident Evil, which is here helped by strong dialogue and performances that are consistent and believable.

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In terms of how the game plays, it’s very much like the first game, which is perfectly fine because it’s a working formula and these days the classic survival horror pillars aren’t terribly common so unless you’ve played the series to death over the past decade or so, it will feel refreshing or at the very least not stagnant. Boss fights are still mostly the same, with them being in a rather small room and you having to shoot at it until it dies. But it still works because of the tank-ish controls, camera angles and cramped space that generally require you to pick and time your shots just right.  However, while the game still unnerved me consistently as I played with headphones on and in the dark for maximum immersion, ammo feels too plentiful on normal difficulty, although this might be because I tended to play quite conservatively and generally only used ammo for boss fights or when there were enemies in a cramped room. Healing items,managed properly are just enough. In terms of game length, this playthrough took me just over 7 hours total according to the game stats, which score you at the end. If you want to earn all the endings or just get the highest ranking, there is replay value or if you just want to enjoy the story again. Although unless you’re a completionist, the replay value won’t be immediate but might be one of those every x amount of years sort of deal.

Since this is the Directors Cut version, I need to address the sub scenario, Born From a Wish which you unlock after completing the main game. I have not played this, but it is there if you want a little extra Silent Hill 2.

Silent Hill 2 is a game that in all areas holds up quite well (apart from a couple tiny issues from emulation but that’s not the game’s fault) and remains a classic that is a must play. If you’ve played it before, it’s definitely worth playing again at some stage and if you haven’t played it, get a hold of a copy (except the HD collection version) and play this masterpiece as soon as possible.

10/10

The Neon Demon (2016) Review

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The neon soaked, synth heavy The Neon Demon is a true return to form for Nicholas Winding Refn after the confusing misstep and excuse to buy toys in Thailand that was Only God Forgives. This so far one of the best films of the year.

The Neon Demon follows the beautiful and aspiring model, Jessie (Elle Fanning) as she makes new friends (and enemies) in this hyper-competitive industry, coming face to face with the superficiality and bitchiness of other models. As far as basic narrative goes, it’s one that is a straightforward premise, with characters that are well realised, even if they play a small role, like the creepy, rude and aggressive motel manager (Keanu Reeves) or the modelling agency interviewer (Christina Hendricks). The film was intelligent and while perhaps open to multiple interpretations, never confusing

As always, the lighting and cinematography here are impeccable. Neon reds and blues, greens, spotlights, shadow, everything looks perfect and Cliff Martinez’s synth heavy score complements this perfectly.

Dialogue in the film is in true NWR fashion as being fairly sparse, but wasn’t as sparse as I expected, which allowed the characters to be fleshed out well. There are moments of the film, particularly in the first half that are very funny, such as Jessie innocently deflating the bragging of one model with her plastic surgery, a fashion designer whose fiddling with some fabric while assessing potential models for his show or the way in which a signature is forged. I’m not sure how intentional the humour in these moments are, but intentional or not, they add, rather than detract from the film, which contrast sharply from the depraved, thrilling madness of the second act going into the third; a structure which reminded me a little of Mulholland Drive.

One criticism I have with the film is that the motion of the film seems inconsistent, with most of the film seeming like normal 24fps but a few moments, which are not slow motion, here and there appearing as though they’re a much higher frame rate, which felt somewhat jarring. I’m not sure if it was actual high fps or the motion blur was done differently to most films, but it was something I noticed which was a bit odd. Regardless, it still looks good and such things aren’t a deal breaker here.

This film, with it’s hyper stylised depictions and of beauty, jealousy and the modelling industry shows what women really think of each other and how they treat each other because of it. The film was intelligent and while perhaps open to multiple interpretations, never confusing, but sometimes shocking, sometimes creepy, sometimes funny and thrilling and consistently absorbing. This film has been getting mixed reviews and has been called “reppellantly  misogynistic” by one reviewer. But don’t listen to them. Listen to me. The Neon Demon is great and you should go see it.

8/10