Tuesday, 25 October 2016

October Nightmares II #25: Hotline Miami (2012) - A Bit of the Old Ultraviolence



A great philosopher of our time once said: “When you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women.” Scarface with its greed, graphic violence, gratuitous discussions of balls, and Paul Engemann soundtrack, epitomised the corrupting excess of the 1980’s. A period of modern history possessing an undefinable, yet distinct, sense of insatiability – that nothing was ever enough. A shame for anyone who wasn’t rich enough to comfortably live under the destructive neoliberal administrations of Regan and Thatcher, but a great period for fans of cinema made up of novelty deaths, explosions, pointed one-liners, and renegade mavericks. And of cource, horror was certainly not exempt from the cultural excess of the Eighties; this is the decade in which the genre became truly creative with its concepts and special effects.

Hotline Miami might not be a horror game
strictly speaking, but it’s dripping with the same savage excess which made Eighties horror so great. Under the illusory haze of neon lighting, pastel suits, cars with gullwing doors, and a thumping synth soundtrack, Hotline Miami is caked in the filthy decadence of grindhouse. It’s the sort of game which can only adequately be described as a ‘Kill ‘em Up’ due to the sheer insanity of the violence. Taking the form of a top-down action game akin to Loaded off the PS1, Hotline ‘we’re going to’ Miami tasks the player with one single task: reach the level exit and kill every scumbag in your way. A sort of Tarantino style take on Taxi Driver’s story. What seems like an incredibly simple objective, however, is actually deceptively difficult. The enemies come at you with the ferocity of the British tabloids on one of their annual pedo hunts, and you’re always one hit away from exploding into a gory mess as though you’re recreating the final scene of Videodrome.

You play as an unnamed mask-wearing vigilante/hitman (for the purposes of this review we’ll call him The Mask) as he’s directed by a series of mysterious phone calls to clean up the sleazy streets of 1980’s Miami. And by clean up the streets I of course mean that he repeatedly throws himself at entire rooms of gun-toting thugs like he’s trying to save the Lady President from a drive-by bukkake. The combat in Hotline is almost an elegant dance, as you power around the corner hoping to get the enemies before they get you - and learn to prioritise your targets with your brutal death only a split second away. The Mask is certainly no Arnie or Stallone: he's a glass cannon who hits like a recession but breaks as easily as a politician's promise.

Hotline Miami’s violence may be over-baked, but its story certainly isn't. Despite taking notes from Drive, Hobo With a Shotgun, Maniac, and Sin City, Hotline's story takes the backseat of the DeLorean. Kept rather minimal and irritatingly vague, the source of the phone calls coercing The Mask into action is left deliberately ambiguous. It is implied, however, that the protagonist’s hearing the voices. Events take a decidedly Lynchian tone as the game progresses and the surreal imagery kicks into gear. The Mask’s between mission routine (pizza place, shop, home, then back to murdering, oh God it’s almost like Prime Cuts) becomes bleaker and stranger as time passes, until he even begins to imagine his victims showing up at his apartment. And I bet they didn’t even bring beer.

As is usually the case for these sort of games, the story's merely a conduit for the many atrocities you’ll commit. In that respect it’s like one of those torture porn films that serve only to appease gorehounds and to give Eli Roth something to rub one out over. But underneath the visceral veneer of torn guts and smashed skulls, Hotline has a lot to say about the desensitising effect of violent media. Which, as was the case with Videodrome’s social commentary, struck me as more than a little hypocritical considering it was keeping score as I blew a guy’s chest open with my shotgun; beat another to death with a lead pipe, and gouged out a few throats with broken glass bottles. If you’ve seen Hard Target, picture the climactic scene in the Mardi Gras float warehouse, where Van Damme’s character annihilates Lance Henriksen’s men one by one. By the end of it my character resembled a stand-in for Carrie on prom night.

Like I mentioned previously, Hotline Miami isn’t a traditional horror experience but its warped violence and psychologically driven narrative evoke a style of horror that’s more primordial in sensibility. Especially if you can look past the deliberately retro style (it’s the bastard offspring of Mission Impossible for the NES and the isometric GTA games). The soundtrack’s even done in the low-res style of the 16-bit era; with that Eighties synth essence but gloomier – the type of thing Cyber Goths would have listened to if they had been around back then. Hotline is the bad older brother of the Eighties action movie, the one who’s been in jail and shived a guy for a Twix. Most action movies in the Eighties made violence fun – the deaths were exaggerated, ironic, and always followed by puns. In Hotline it’s a nihilistic experience. Fun, yes. But gruesome to the point of parody, and in the end it’s utterly meaningless. Basically, Hotline Miami’s the Vietnam vet who always shows up in Eighties action movies. And it’s seen some shit man.