These It Came from the DVR articles are going to be a little bit different. As an early Christmas present to myself, I picked up a festival pass to the Toronto After Dark film festival. So the first difference is that these are new movies, on the big screen, instead of old ones and niche programming on the small screen. The second difference is that these are going to be short. I’ve got eighteen films to see in seven days (as well as dressing up for the annual zombie walk), so I’m not going to have a whole lot of time to write, and I want post these while the blood is still fresh.
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration, but most of the films it showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid. I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.
This is a disturbing film with a bizarre premise. When a conservative, small-town family man encounters a cannibalistic feral woman in the woods, he decides to capture her and bring her home to his wife and three children so they can civilize her as a ‘family project’. Chained up in the barn, the presence of the dangerous feral woman exposes a darkness in the family that quickly erodes its whitewashed, seemingly ‘normal’, façade.
Dark Social Commentary
I should preface this review – I’ve never seen the film that precedes this one, The Offspring, but the two films are only loosely connected. The Offspring doesn’t contain any plot information critical to this film, and while the movies can be viewed as a series, The Woman also stands on its own.
The Woman cannot be easily classified. I wouldn’t call it a horror film, though there are moments when it is truly horrifying. There is humor in The Woman, but I’d hardly call it a comedy (even a black comedy). I can’t say that I enjoyed watching the film, but I also think it is a movie that is worth watching. Director Lucky McGee keeps the audience on their toes, playing with our expectations and throwing the audience a curve ball whenever you think you’ve got this strange tale sorted out.
Sean Bridgers’ portrayal of family patriarch Chris Cleek, as a sort of diabolical Ned Flanders who begins to lose control as his monolithic authority cracks, is so perfect for the film it was almost uncomfortable seeing him speak after the screening. In the Q&A, Bridgers had a very interesting view of his character when asked about the role. He said that although he was nothing like Chris Cleek, he was still able to draw on some dark, buried part of himself to fuel the role. It’s the kind of observation that I think applies to the whole film and its relationship with the audience. There is some pretty heavy violence in The Woman, including a few very uncomfortable scenes of domestic abuse and rape. Given the way that the ‘torture porn’ trend changed the landscape of horror films a decade ago, I think that McGee is confronting the audience with the ugliness of our dark psychological bits, rather than titillating them the way other horror traditions do. It’s a fine line between glorification and commentary, and everyone has a different sense of that boundary, but to me Lucky Mcgee accomplished his goals without crossing that line.
Even though her character has no real dialogue in the film, Pollyanna McIntosh gives an equally gripping performance as the titular feral woman. I was impressed with her ability to occupy the physicality of the role, and her glazed, sullen stare into the camera infuses the character with the aura of a caged animal. If Chris Cleek stands in for the controlled, oppressive violence that underlies modern society, then the feral woman reminds us of the uncontrolled brutality of the natural world. Even if the audience is cheering for the woman by the film’s climax, I’m not sure that McGee is presenting her as a viable alternative to the Chris Cleeks of the world. It’s a grim portrait of humanity that places us in a tug of war between these two poles, as savage hunters who have the choice of preying on our family units or of preying on everything not joined to us by family.
There was some controversy that came out of the Sundance festival regarding The Woman, including people walking out of screenings, which is understandable if the audience isn’t prepared for the content, but I think this has more to do with the context of Sundance than the film being too appalling to sit through. After a week of seeing decapitations, blood, and zombie cannibalism, the shock of The Woman was blunted, even if I was probably just as disturbed by it as the Sundance crowd (as far as I could tell, no one walked out of the screening at Toronto After Dark).
The Woman is recommended, but only if you’re prepared to be confronted by some alarming scenes. I can’t say that you’ll have fun watching it (and it’s about as far from being a date movie as you can possibly get), but The Woman is anything but boring and is sure to provoke a reaction.
Much like Father’s Day, the subject matter of The Woman makes incorporating material from it in an rpg difficult (unless you’re making use of a disconcerting amount of the ideas in The Book of Vile Darkness). Once its more controversial elements are removed though, I think the conflict in The Woman can be viewed in D&D terms that highlight the game’s alignment system (I’ll be using the nine-pointed alignment system, since that’s my favorite, not the three alignments of BX or the five alignments of 4e).
I think that the struggle between Chris Cleek and the feral woman is a great example of how the Lawful Evil and Chaotic Evil alignments interact with one another in D&D. It would be hard to argue one of the characters was more or less evil than the other, but it’s clear that each represents a very different kind of evil, as diametrically opposed to the other as good is to evil. For me, this is why the nine-pointed alignment system (that is, an alignment in two parts – the good vs. evil axis and the law vs. chaos axis) works so well – it handles the evil against evil conflict in a way that makes sense and provides clear motivations for NPCs (which makes it useful, the litmus test for any game mechanic). It also provides clear reasons why two good aligned characters might find themselves at odds with one another or why a good aligned party might make a temporary alliance with an evil creature against a common enemy.
Although many may disagree, I’ve never found the nine-pointed alignment system restrictive. Instead, I find its two-axis approach a simple and elegant tool to encourage roleplaying by providing clear motivations for the thinking creatures of the game world. Sure it isn’t foolproof and doesn’t cover every moral quandary a PC might find herself in, but working out the finer points of ambiguous situations is one of the exciting parts of a roleplaying game.
Taking inspiration from the film, here is a sample of practical alignment complications that can be inserted into any version of D&D:
The Enemy of my Enemy is my Friend… For Now
Both Vault of the Drow and the Temple of Elemental Evil (two of my favorite classic adventures) make extensive use of this complication. Warring factions of evil creatures will use any means they have at their disposal to eliminate one another, including a temporary alliance with good aligned adventurers. As distasteful as it is, it might be in the PCs best interest. The common enemy (the most powerful house of the drow, or an evil tyrant, secure in an impregnable fortress, for example) might be too tough for the PCs to tackle on their own, or the evil creatures might possess needed intelligence in order to proceed.
Chaotic Evil creatures will promise anything to obtain the cooperation of the PCs, and if they feel they can gain from it, will attack them as soon as the job is finished. Lawful Evil creatures can be trusted to keep a bargain, but will only agree to terms that benefit them, and will constantly try to subjugate the PCs to their will.
Thanks for the Rescue, Sucker!
Just because an NPC has been imprisoned by the ‘bad guys’ doesn’t make them a ‘good guy’. Obmi, the evil dwarf from the adventure Hall of the Fire Giant King (and reappearing throughout D&D’s history) is the quintessential example of this complication. Sometimes, creatures are imprisoned by evil societies because they are so deviant or destructive that even the morally corrupt can’t stomach them.
The temptation in this scenario is to have the prisoner rampage as soon as it is freed (which is entirely appropriate in certain circumstances), but the complication works much better when the evil NPC cooperates with the PCs against his captors. Later in the campaign, let the PCs discover the horrendous crimes the freed prisoner has committed – a great adventure hook since most players will feel at least a little responsible and will be driven to stop the former prisoner.
Try not to use this complication too often or the PCs will never want to free any captives again.
What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate
Sometimes different good aligned groups just don’t get along. The different worlds of D&D are filled with good aligned churches that are generally tolerant of one another, but still clash over major philosophical differences (which is fairly optimistic considering how well the sects of Christianity or Islam have gotten along together on Earth). If there is an established church or state religion in the area the PCs are adventuring in, they won’t appreciate the party’s cleric waltzing into their territory and performing miracles for a rival deity (or worse, actively trying to proselytize). While good aligned organizations don’t immediately resort to violence, they will definitely make things as uncomfortable as possible while they are in town. I used the church of St. Cuthbert in this manner in both the Temple of Elemental Evil adventure and its sequel. In both cases the party contained no representatives from the church and was filled with non-lawful types. Even though they wanted the same outcome (the destruction of an evil cult), the Cuthbertines viewed the adventurers as a bunch of rowdy troublemakers while the party viewed the church as a bunch of out of touch windbags trying to tell them what to do.
Old-school D&D often included groups of adventurers in the wandering monster tables – a concept that Ed Greenwood greatly expanded upon in his Forgotten Realms setting (especially during the 2e era) with its predilection for rival adventuring companies. This concept hasn’t been used all that much in modern D&D (with the exception of the excellent Shackled City adventure path by Paizo), but is a complication worth revisiting. A rival adventuring company need not be evil to oppose the PCs – good aligned NPCs might pursue the same goals as the PCs (stopping an encroaching hobgoblin army, overthrowing an evil cult, or slaying a terrible dragon for example). Rather than brining the two groups together, these similarities cause tension. The rival adventuring company wants what the PCs’ want, only they want to do it first and they have no intention of sharing the spotlight (or the glory and treasure).
Good aligned rivals won’t necessarily attack the PCs, but they aren’t above sabotaging their efforts. In fact, if they are less capable, their bumbling might make things much harder for the PCs (like a failed incursion into a dragon’s lair that makes the creature extra careful and paranoid).
The Long Arm of Justice
Adventuring often means transgressing laws and taboos (like breaking and entering, tomb-robbing, and murder). That means that at some point in a campaign a group of good aligned NPCs is going to want to redress one of these transgressions. There are many remedies these groups seek, but this complication works best if the NPCs aren’t immediately violent or threaten the PCs with imprisonment (they may seek compensation, ask for a favor, or challenge the PCs to complete a gruelling ritual of atonement).
If the PCs are strongly lawful aligned, then the reverse can happen. A group of xaositects, followers of Olidammara, or tricky fey target the PCs to discredit them and take them down a notch. They use pranks, rumours, and theft to spread chaos and vex the PCs.