Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Bishop of Battle (Nightmares, 1983)

Parents in the early 1980s sure had a lot to worry about. Role-playing games were psychologically scarring children with their occult-based fantasy worlds (as depicted in the infamous Jack Chick tract Dark Dungeons and the TV adaptation of Rona Jaffe's Mazes and Monsters, teen suicide and devil worship was being encouraged by subliminal messages hidden in heavy metal music, and an increasingly popular phenomenon, the video arcade, was spreading across suburbia like an STD, threatening to infect once-safe mini-malls.

Yes, there was a time when video arcades held a reputation, in certain circles of worried parents and concerned citizens, as being unsavory dens of vice, where kids skipped school to engage in the antisocial and addictive hobby of gaming in an environment of unhealthy high-score one-upsmanship that was constantly threatening to escalate into violence.

And who knew what REALLY went on in those arcades where kids, once away from their parents' prying eyes, might be smoking, drinking, or gambling.

Video arcades, after all, are often dimly lit (like bars), are lined with noisy, coin-fed machines (like casinos) and sometimes even had a jukebox or a radio station piped loudly through a sound system (like night clubs). It's no wonder Electronic Games Magazine felt compelled to defend the video arcades' sullied reputation in an August 1982 article called "Exploding the Arcade Myths".

Written by "noted educator and social scientist" B. David Brooks, P.H.D., the article identifies and debunks many video arcade myths, among them:

Debunked or not, a lot of these arcade myths are on full display in The Bishop of Battle, the second vignette in the four-story anthology film Nightmares (1983). The Bishop of Battle is a fictional video game and the obsession of teenager J.J. Cooney (Emilio Estevez), a hot-shot gamer whose reputation as a high-scorer is well known in the arcades of Los Angeles.

But not so well known he can't still hustle a few bucks betting for high score on a game of Pleiades. MYTH: Arcades are nothing but gambling houses? Check.

It's customary to lay the pot on the machine in full view of onlookers to discourage any funny business.

J.J's mark is this hair-netted tough who's ready to throw down when he realizes he's been hustled. MYTH: Fighting over high scores? Check.

The sucker runs with a pretty tough crowd, too (you can tell they are tough by the bandannas). And one of them is even smoking a cigar. MYTH: Arcades are where kids go to smoke. Check.

After making a narrow escape (and twenty-five dollars richer) J.J. heads to the relatively safer environment of the Fox Hills Mall arcade to pursue his real passion, trying to reach the mythic 13th level of The Bishop of Battle.

Everyone gathers around to watch J.J.'s latest attempt to beat the Bishop, who beckons in a synthesized voice:
Greetings, Earthling. I am the Bishop of Battle, master of all I survey. I have 13 progressively harder levels. Try me if you dare. Insert coin.
The game itself consists of blasting spaceships and other enemies with a hand-held laser gun while trapped in a circular maze. The vector-based graphics may look primitive today, but with its 3-D rotating maze and free-floating camera, it was far more advanced than anything you'd find in actual arcades of the day.

The control scheme is even a step-up from reality: a light-gun aimed at the screen, combined with traditional joystick and buttons (there were real games with a light-gun as the sole controller, but not in combination with other controllers.)

Some say the Bishop's 13th level is a myth, invented by the manufacturer to part players from their quarters. But J.J. doesn't subscribe to this theory, even though he's never made it past Level 12. He obsessively plays game after game, until nearly getting in a fight with the manager when he is forced to leave the arcade at closing time. MYTH: Arcade games are addictive and encourage anti-social behavior. Check.

Unfortunately J.J.'s parents aren't any comfort. J.J's fixation on beating the Bishop has caused his grades to suffer. They have one of those "you-don't-understand-me-you-never-listen-to-me-I-hate-you" arguments that ends with J.J. being grounded from video games and sent to his room. MYTH: Video games separate kids from families. Check.

Determined to get to Level 13, J.J. sneaks out of his room and breaks into the arcade after hours for a private appointment with the Bishop.

You may be wondering at this point what a story about a teenager addicted to video games is doing in an anthology film titled Nightmares. But J.J.'s obsession is presented as a serious psychological problem, alienating him from friends and family. And the chilling score by Craig Safan lets you know something sinister lurks ahead.

Without any distractions in the empty arcade, J.J. is fully focused as he fights his way to Level 12. For the first time, the game play is presented in a first-person perspective, suggesting J.J. has reached some new stage of involvement with the game.

It's after J.J. has blasted the final enemy of Level 12 that the Bishop's cabinet suddenly starts to spark and smoke before collapsing entirely. J.J. thinks he's beaten the game.

But a moment later an electronic voice intones:
Very good, Earthling. You have just reached Level 13. Welcome. Let's begin.
And J.J.'s body is suddenly surrounded by a shocking electric field.

The mysterious Level 13 begins. Turning the premise of TRON on its head, elements from the video game world crossover into the real world. Each enemy from the game emerges out of the wrecked cabinet.

J.J., still clutching the gun controller, finds that it shoots real lasers.

But the newly materealized enemies can return fire as well... deadly fire.

After turning the arcade into a disaster area, J.J. flees into the mall parking lot...

...only to be confronted by the face of his obsession, which threatens to literally consume him.

Nightmares saw a DVD release by Anchor Bay, but it's out of print as of this writing and going for collector's prices. The Bishop of Battle chapter can be viewed on YouTube (while it lasts).

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Prelutsky's Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep back in print!

A few weeks ago my Sept 2008 post on Jack Prelutsky's scary poetry book Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep got picked up by weird-news aggregator (temporarily giving my StatCounter account a heart attack...), which got me to wondering what prices the long out of print gem was going for these days...

WELL it looks like the book is back in print in a library-binding (read: durable hardcover) edition for around $16. I haven't seen the reprint so can't tell you if the contents have changed at all or if there are any omissions, but if you've been hoping to pick up a copy, shoot on over to Amazon or Barnes & Noble and order one now!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Uncover the Secret of the Horrible Haunted Mansion

Technically speaking, Uncover the Secret of the Horrible Haunted Mansion (2005, Umbrella Publishing, written by Helen Otway, illustrated by Gary Andrews), a "Shine-A-Light" storybook about three youngsters that explore a spooky old neighborhood haunted house, isn't yet old enough to belong in this dusty old Haunted Closet, but I thought it was too neat to skip.

The reader is invited not only to join the midnight excursion through the dark mansion, but to lead the way, using the included "Shine-A-Light" flashlight. What does that mean, exactly?

Well, for starters, there is no electronic light-emitting device involved. Instead, you get this flat cardboard die-cut illustration of a flashlight and its beam. What good is that, you wonder?

Certain rooms in the mansion are illustrated on a sheet of transparent plastic (like an animation cel), but overlayed on a black background, making it too dark to see much of anything, like this darkened foyer.

But by slipping the "magic" flashlight into a slit on the edge of the page (inserting it between the cel and the background) you can slide it around to reveal portions of the room, as if illuminating it with a flashlight beam. Here it reveals a pair of suits of armor guarding the staircase. There is also a rat, a growling guard dog, and a broken candelabra waiting to be discovered elsewhere on the page.

Here's another room, a spooky basement. What's that in the darkened corner?

The magic flashlight reveals an occupied coffin and a ghostly, mourning woman.

This is a really short book (12 pages, and only 3 of those require the flashlight) but the illustrations are great, and the whole "shine-a-light" gimmick is unique. Uncover the Secret of the Horrible Haunted Mansion is already out of print but can be found on the second-hand market, here.