October Nightmares II #29: Phantasmagoria (1995) - Came For the Side Boob


Later today I’m off to Manchester to watch John Carpenter perform his synth classics live, so I'm wanting to keep this one brief. I believe I only spent two hours writing this.

Released in 1995 for the Sega Saturn and Windows, Phantasmagoria is a time capsule of Nineties horror and video game design. It’s a point-and-click adventure game (it’s the bloody Nineties, of course it fucking is) of the FMV game variety. For those of you too young to remember life before the hazy, stupefying days of the smart phone, the FMV game was essentially an interactive movie. FMV games utilised motion-capture and blue screens to project real actors onto pre-rendered backgrounds and create the illusion of realism. Much in the manner of those seaside cardboard cut outs with a space for your head, and you’re supposed to look like a gorilla or beach babe with a killer rack.

Phantasmagoria, most notably, represents the folly of a games industry at its most bloated. This game came on 8-discs, had a script five times as long as the average movie, and had a Hollywood special effects team working on it as well as its own choir. I believe Sierra spent somewhere in the region of $4 million developing this piece of shit. It looks and plays out like it was shot for a tenner exclusively for the Horror Channel.

I’m not even sure how it could have had a 500 page script; the game’s basically The Shining meets Hausu. From the starting point of a newly-wed couple, Adrienne and Don, moving into a mansion previously owned by an evil magician (isn't this just Rocky Horror minus the fish nets?), we’re led through a story of elaborate traps, séances, possession, and a giant demon.  Don inevitably falls under the influence of the magician and abuses, tortures, and kills everyone from the unnecessarily large cast. Including a scene in which he rapes Adrienne, which was pretty controversial at the time in that horribly faux way. Like how The Walking Dead fans complain when a character dies, not because he had his face ripped off in fetishistic graphic detail, but because he was black.

I’d recommend Phantasmagoria, not because it’s a scary game (let’s face it, there are episodes of The Magic School Bus that are scarier than this) but because it reveals in recreating the b-movie.
The developers naturally used this realism offered by the FMV to cram in the worst excesses of low-budget cinema; so there’s violence, gore, nobbing, and nudity, like the banquet of chestnuts. To the game’s credit, the death scenes are far gorier than anything even that era’s most controversial games – Doom and Mortal Kombat - offered. Using real actors ramps up the horrifying brutality of the kills, especially when the practical effects are grungy in that old school way. One scene sees a woman repeatedly stabbed in the face with a trowel and then fed mulch until she dies. Another has someone choked to death after being force fed on entrails. 

And it's the cheese that makes Phantasmagoria worth playing. There's a reason why films like The Room and Army of Darkness are popular. But the difference is Phantasmagoria was an earnest effort at making a truly horrifying game, and that's what makes the fact it's terrible all the more wonderful. Like reading the Tumblr of a gender-queer, inter-sectional alphabetti spaghetti dog-kin. From the awkward animation as Adrienne stops and starts, waiting for the player to tell her what to do next, but in reality makes her look like she's shit herself and only just realised. To the ridiculous The Abominable Dr. Phibes style deaths, complete with overbearing orchestral music; Phantasmagoria is the film you help your film student friend make in college. The one film you make which doesn't end up on PornHub at least.