The value of exploring religion in movies

The first thing I noticed when I was being raised in my Evangelical upbringing was how Hollywood always portrayed Christians as superstitious Catholics. This was used by some in my circle to prove the error of Catholicism by pointing out the “World” represented by Hollywood, only viewed Catholics as Christian thus proving Catholicism was born of the world, so to speak.

Recently I began watching The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. As a faithful Christian I have always struggled with TV shows and movies that glorify the occult. I have a strong ability to separate those things that are entertainment and those that are offensive with the intent to offend. I don’t enjoy politically biased documentaries for this reason. I prefer politically neutral documentaries that present the facts and allow the viewer to make up their own mind. For this reason when I see something like Sabrina I am torn. I enjoyed the original show tremendously and watched it regularly despite warnings from my ecclesiastically focused friends it was allegedly satanic. I dismissed many of their claims and went about watching the show.

This presents a problem for me. The new show is a whole lot more obvious in their devotion to “The Dark Lord” and makes claims that the Christian God is the “False God.” Even though it is a TV show, this does not sit well with me. Yet, I find myself going back and watching the show. Why?

This is where it gets complicated. I am not going to present this from a doctrinal or theological perspective, I will reserve that for the individual to make up their mind. Rather I am going to present what my view is on the role of religion within movies. I have come to accept the Hollywood portrayal of Catholics is as far from reality as their portrayal of Evangelicals. Thus I can conclude there is probably some similar exaggerations taking place in a show which features a clearly pagan religious perspective. For example, there are Wizards in Lord of the Rings. They are not pagan in the classical sense, meaning they don’t believe their power is sourced  by the pantheon of the gods. Rather, they believe their power comes directly from the energies of the universe. From the perspective of entertainment, that is the precepts contained in something like D&D or even Final Fantasy, there are distinctions between science, arcane magic and religious magic. There is tremendous overlap but from the context of the fantasy game set they are clearly distinct from one another.

This is where I stand on movies. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe I accept that the Asgardians are mortal beings in the material plane with access to and knowledge of manipulating the powers of the universe using what humans on Earth refer to as magic and thus they are worshiped as gods. They, the gods of Asgard, do not forbid or forsake the worship as gods they in fact welcome it despite knowing full well the reality is to the contrary. Still, I accept that within the context of the MCU the Asgardians are not gods, merely super heroes no different than the X-Men or Spider-Man. This is easy to accept.

From certain eschatological perspectives this is going to become a problem. I am not going to discuss those at this time. Rather I am going to preface this by saying I can accept that in the context of the MCU Thor is NOT a god, while in real-world Christianity he is akin to a false god, or even a demon depending on the Christian perspective.

This anything that is not Christian is pagan and anything that is pagan is satanic is often used to condemn basically anything a person could choose to do so.

Then why do I not give the same benefit of the doubt to Sabrina? For starters within the context of the show the Christian God is the villain. He is represented as a monster, a liar, and a false prophet. The Dark Lord, as they refer to him mostly, is glorified and in the context of the show, is the true god. This doesn’t sit well with me. But I can dig further.

In the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise the Christian mythology is evoked equally with heathen religion. There are multiple instances of the Christian God being supreme while the heathen gods having power, an example would be the cursed gold from the first film. The movies remain ambiguous on which power is at play. There is a balance but since the films are set in a parallel film universe based on but not set in our physical universe I can accept that.  Basically it comes down to reverence for the Christian God.

There are scores of horror movies that have evil represented by the devil, or some spiritual force that could be a stand in for the Devil. This is acceptable to me because we, as Christians, accept the Devil as evil. The forces of Good are combating the forces of evil thus any allegory to that structure is permissible. I liken it to referencing the Slasher films as morality tales. I don’t have an issue with that.

Why, then, do I draw the line with Sabrina? Or rather, should I?

It comes down to personal preference alone. I use this example. I can enjoy the Omen, the Exorcist and even The Shining as works of literature. No problem. I go a step further and often proclaim my favorite film of all time as the horror movie A Nightmare on Elm Street. This is clearly something I cannot shy away from. But even in those instances there is no reference to the origin or source of the powers, be them evil or good. This ambiguity allows me to place the art or literature into it’s own category, in my view a movie universe parallel to our own with similar, but slightly modified laws of physics. This is how I can accept a film with an extra-terrestrial Superman flying around powered by the solar rays that give cancer to ordinary inhabitants of our planet.

At first I was able to compartmentalize Sabrina and place it in the same box. In this universe thus is so. However something didn’t sit well with me. In this universe MY God was not being given the respect and devotion he deserves but rather being proclaimed a false god. I have seen horror movies that take this same approach but they present it as such, the divide between Protestantism and Catholicism, in other words they usually have a form of religion, a symbol of a church, but because it is the “false church” their proponents don’t have the power of God thus they are often portrayed as false. For example Dracula and other Vampire movies. They borrow heavily from European myths mingled with superstition and Christianity. There are often Christian symbols, holy water and the Cross or crucifix depending on the portrayal, being used to defeat the vampires, or forces of evil.

As I examine this I pull it back and let this be the deciding factor for me, not based on an intellectual argument or even a theological argument. I base it on what I am comfortable with personally.

As I watch Sabrina I hear them exhaling Satan and demonizing My Lord, I feel a twinge of disgust. It doesn’t sit well with me. I am not going to make the claim it *IS* Satanic and thus forbid or implore anyone to not watch it. Rather I am going to state why *I* have decided it is too much for me and invite others to either defend it, with in reason and not using personal attacks or logical fallacy, or I would ask that in this case my views be respected and I not be expected to defend my point other than it makes me uncomfortable to watch so I am recusing myself from it, for the time being.

This is not to say I will apply this analysis to other works of literature or artistic expression. After all, you have to draw the line somewhere of what is acceptable and what is not. For me, I can accept a movie about a pedophile being condemned to hell and sentenced to invade the dreams of the relatives of those who judged him using illegitimate means. The basis is on the fact that neither Mans law (Justice) nor God (Church law) judged him accordingly, thus despite him being evil in life, his death was unjust opening the door for the spiritual forces in the context of that franchise to provide a middle ground. He remains in hell tormented for all eternity, but he is permitted to get revenge upon those who were also unjust in slaying him. It’s acceptable to my perspective because it fits the real of what is to be expected. God demands, in the real of Christianity, to adhere to mans laws as placed in jurisdiction over us. The exception is when those laws prevent a person from expressing their obedience to God’s commands. Thus, it is my perspective, based on purely my own understanding, that disobeying God’s law does not justify disobeying mans law. In other words, the parents who murder Fred Krueger are as guilty of the sin of murder as the man they killed. Rather, if the courts, appointed by man respected by God, permitted him to trial and he was sentenced to death, he would not be justified in returning to this world, either in physical or metaphysical form, he would be firmly condemned to Hell.

This is how I can accept A Nightmare on Elm Street without a twinge of strong guilt but, currently, cannot do the same for The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Maybe upon further examination I will change my mind. At this point, and in the future, I will not ever condemn another for their choices. Watch the show if you find it acceptable, while I am going to currently refrain from such until further notice.

I didn’t want this to be entirely focused exclusively on Sabrina. After all there was a certain amount of nostalgia at play tugging me into the desire to see it. I also rather enjoyed the few episodes I did watch of it.

“You are all my children now.”

In the 1980’s there was a trifecta of different styles all blending together in a perfect storm of outrageous thematic elements that would soon dominate the entire fringe culture, and even cross into mainstream. Going a decade back the roots of this movement were beginning with the rise of the Dungeons and Dragons tabletop RPG game. The theme was medieval fantasy. It had firmly taken hold of video game culture by the middle of the decade with games such as Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, Ghosts N Goblins, Gauntlet, and even Castlevania taking the horror/fantasy genre to mainstream status. On the music side bands like Alice Cooper, Dio, KISS, and many others, were using D&D, horror, fantasy, and medieval art mixed with Gothic imagery. While Hollywood itself was slow to jump on the bandwagon, indie filmmakers like George Lucas, Stephan Spielberg, Jim Henson, and John Carpenter were all making variations of this theme. And best of all they blended together perfectly. Horror movies would reference D&D usually with a gamer depicted or borrow heavily from medieval mythologies, while having a strong heavy-metal soundtrack, which in turn contained lyrics that referenced D&D either directly or indirectly often as the horror movies would. So if you were a fan of medieval fantasy, Gothic imagery and music that told stories set in these thematic worlds, then the mid-to-late 80’s was your decade.

During this time nothing blended these three elements together better than Wes Craven’s Gothic horror masterpiece “A Nightmare o Elm Street.” While the first film itself doesn’t really contain too much in the way of medieval fantasy, it does have a very strong fantasy component, the music is very fitting for the mood, plus it also contains some of that D&D-esque metal rock sprinkled in to ensure it hit all of the notes. In some ways the movie is a murder mystery, you know almost  detective noir-style with Nancy trying to solve the mystery of the masked villain killing her friends one-by-one. It also has a little bit of Gothic horror with Freddy acting as a zombie, a vampire, and a serial killer all while tormenting his victims not with his own dastardly schemes, but using their own fears against them. In some ways it is also a psychological thriller.

The film opens with an abstract scene in the basement of some factory or plant with an unseen man crafting a glove containing sharp razors as extensions of the fingers. Immediately the tone of the film is set, the killer is unseen, hiding in the shadows, nobody knows who, or what, he is or why he is killing these seemingly random teenagers. During the course of the film there are references to Shakespeare, including a quote from Julius Cesar about nightmares, fitting as in the play he dreamed of his demise before it happened, much like the victims in the film.

I won’t spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it. I am not under the impression that just because it is old everyone knows what takes place, I will say anyone that has any interest in mythology, fantasy, horror, vampires, zombies, the undead, D&D, or heavy metal music should check out the entire franchise. Each film has it’s own strengths and weaknesses.

The sequel, often criticized but still worth watching, goes in a different direction. Instead of a murder mystery where the kids are trying to survive by figuring out who the killer is and how to defeat him, part two, subtitled as “Freddy’s Revenge,” takes on a more haunted house, possession story line. Again it has some moments fans cringe at but it also has a few of the iconic moments that the franchise is well known for. There is even scene that takes place inside of a Gothic night club, further tying the franchise into this whole theme.

Of course if you really want proof the Nightmare films are really D&D-inspired look no further than the third entry. Regarded by many, myself included, as the best in the franchise second only to the original to some, it’s a masterpiece in many ways and proof that a sequel can outdo the original. But there are so many more D&D elements and fantasy themes in this movie. For starters the subtitle is now “The Dream Warriors.” It centers on the survivors of the previous two films, the “Last of the Elm Street teenagers.” something you just have to watch the movies to understand. It also features a kid who prominently plays D&D in the movie, even going so far as having an actual scene depicting, fairly accurately unlike most movies, a portion of game play. In the dream world however things get weirder, this character becomes a wizard with super powers and another character takes on a Gothic/Punk look even meeting Freddy face to face in an alley. There is an Alice in Wonderland feel to the third installment, a D&D type maze/dungeon at the end where they come together as a team, a cleric type, a sage type, a fighter type, and even the silent stealthy bard/thief type, who all have to face the final boss, Freddy, at the end to win the treasure, their right to live, and go back to living normal lives at the end of their mythic quest. It truly is the one film in the series the most similar to an actual game of Dungeons and Dragons, from the very opening scene to the very end credits. It even brings in a fleshed out back story and mythology to the character and his origins are explored in a very medieval Catholic mythology sort of way.

Part four sort of keeps the notion of dream powers, introduces new concepts like the Dream Master, the films subtitle, and ends in a final battle with a new powered up girl in a church where at the end she ends up well I won’t spoil it but it’s very much in line with the theme I been repeating.

Part 5 and 6 are where the franchise takes a turn for the worse. Number 5, the Dream Child, is more of a comic book movie, Freddy is even depicted as a comic book villain and his nemesis is his own mother, resurrected to take him back to hell or something I guess. The movie has a more action movie, comic book vibe and style to it. In some ways that is refreshing, in other ways it can be off putting. Part six is, to put it bluntly, a parody of the franchise. It’s basically a Warner Bros. cartoon making fun of the whole concept, and yes it even features Bugs Bunny and Wizard of Oz references and heavily relies on the 3-D gimmick. It does flesh out the mythology quite well, and features a really great cameo by the dark master himself, Alice Cooper, again really mixing the themes in a way that ensures fans will find something to enjoy. It’s the worst of the films by most accounts but still worth watching for a few things, those cameos and back story plus a surprise I won’t spoil.

Part 7, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, gets back to the Gothic horror theme by basically putting Freddy into the Hansel and Gretel story. There isn’t much else to say it’s almost a remake/reboot of the original film with a twist but it’s one of the scarier films in the series, still worth checking out. I won’t go into either Freddy Vs. Jason or the 2010 Remake as they both stray so far from the original their best left in their own world. I enjoyed them each, in their own way, but neither of them live up to the source material. Freddy vs. Jason is made for the Playstation crowd and the remake was too dark and had no ties to the fantasy mythology that the original had. Worse of all, it wasn’t even about a child murderer freed on a technicality, it was a sick perverted child molester that had no motive for murdering his victims in their dream world, which also had no fantasy elements at all, instead it was trying too hard to be dark an edgy where it really just ended up being creepy and uncomfortable.

What can I say, I enjoy Gothic music and themes, I play Dungeons and Dragons extensively and I thoroughly enjoy the fantasy-themed horror series of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Netflix recently added the original film to its streaming service, Part 2 and New Nightmare had been there before but they are not the actual best movies, the first and 3rd films are really the two to watch. Part 4 is pretty good, 5 and 6 are laughable but somewhat entertaining and the rest are different degrees of bad or too dark for my taste.

I also really enjoyed the documentary on Netflix “Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy” that really delved deep into the behind the scenes of the movies.

My personal ranking, with scores, best to worst:

  1. A Nightmare On Elm Street 5/5
  2. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors 5/5
  3. A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master 4.5/5
  4. Freddy vs. Jason 4/5
  5. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child 3.5/5
  6. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge 3.5/5
  7. A Nightmare on Elm Street 6: Freddy’s Dead, The Final Nightmare 3.5/5
  8. A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) remake 3.5/5
  9. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare 3/5

Since I consider both New Nightmare and 2010 to be remakes, I prefer the full on reboot over the half-baked soft reboot. I know others will disagree but I just never cared for the breaking the fourth wall and taking Freddy into the “real” world making everything that came before just a movie, inside of a movie, too meta for my tastes.

There you have it, my general thoughts on the Freddy Krueger character and the films he appears in.

Retro vs. Modern gaming

The age old question, well maybe not age old but the question of the day is, what’s the better type of gamer the modern gamer or the retro gamer? For me personally I think they two both have merits, but as a primarily retro gamer I tend to lean towards retro as the better option. However there is a new way of thinking, the modern-retro gamer is also a thing now. Take into consideration the new, retro-styled games like Shovel Knight, or Retro City Rampage, to name two extremely popular titles. But that is not the type of retro gaming I am talking about so first let’s define retro, then lets define modern and compare the two to see which one offers the more robust gaming solution.

I have always identified four types of gaming platforms. The first is the arcade platform or the short, casual gaming  that dominated the 80’s and early 90’s. The second is the PC gamer, PC being short hand for computer which for me is all encompassing, the third type of gaming is the console game, the dedicated living room machine that offers a stripped down, bare-bones gaming experience or a completely streamlined all-in-one solution. The fourth type is the mobile gamer or the gamer on the go.

I define the divide between retro and modern differently for each of the four types of gaming. Arcade games are considered retro, to me at least, if they were created before the 3-D revolution. Retro arcade games range from the earliest video machines such as Pong or Space War, to the mid-90’s 2D fighting games. The divide is the Sega Model 2 hardware and the Midway Zues/Nintendo Ultra 64 hardware. Everything before those periods is retro and everything following is modern. Modern arcade gaming is mostly made up of dance and rhythm games, hunting games and simulations, mostly sports or horse racing, they aren’t really that many non-gambling games today that have any resemblance to the classic arcade quarter munchers of the yester-year we all long for.

PC gaming is a little more complex. For the most part, non-IBM PC or non-Windows based x86 gaming that ranges from the earliest microcomputers to the end of the Atari Falcon line and the Amiga brand are considered retro. For IBM-compatible or Windows PC, a.k.a “PC gaming” the divide is Windows 95. Everything before Windows 95, including DOS and all early Windows games are considered retro, including those from the PC CD-ROM era. Modern PC gaming basically starts with Windows 98 leaving Windows 95 as sort of a buffer between classic, or retro, and modern. I am talking strictly in game design and philosophy here, PC gaming became incredibly more complex with the start of Windows 95 and the introduction of Direct X, prior to that PC gaming was not at all unified nor easy to identify.

Handheld gaming is pretty much divided up into Game Boy and post-Game Boy. Meaning Everything from the Game Boy Advance (and variants) backwards is considered retro and everything from the Nintendo DS onwards (including mobile phones and PSP/Vita) is modern. Again this goes back to game design and philosophy. Prior to the GBA hand held games were basically seen as miniaturized versions or downgraded ports of existing games. With DS and PSP especially it was possible, and common, to have full blown console level dedicated games on the mobile platform that were basically comparable to the modern platform.

Console gaming the divide is much easier for the most part, but there are some overlaps. As with Windows 95, there is a clear-cut divide between classic game design philosophy and modern or even post-modern design philosophy, this is the Sony Playstation.

The Sony PS1 as it is sometimes called marks the buffer between retro or classic game design and the start of modern, cinematic story based gaming. PS1 is a transition console that includes a diverse library of classic and retro (modern at the time) games that played similar to the true retro games of the SNES, NES, ad Sega Genesis period, as well as the beginnings of the modern interactive movie games of today. The modern philosophy began mostly with Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid, Tony Hawks Pro Skater, Gran Turismo, Tomb Raider, and the infamous Grand Theft Auto, which all had their first bouts of success on the Sony Playstation. While FF7 was a benchmark for modern gaming, it was really based on the retro FF6 JRPG style but it deserves credit for bringing the RPG genre to the modern era. However, games like Castlevania Symphony of the Night, Crash Bandicoot, Mortal Kombat Trilogy, Tetris Plus, Mega Man 8, and many, many more, play just like their 16-bit SNES counterparts leaving them as a bridge between the retro and modern gaming machines.

There is a little overlap however, Saturn is more modern than Retro and the Dreamcast is very modern while the N64 is more retro than modern. That is why I place the Playstation as the bridge between the classic, or retro and the modern with N64 and Saturn, it’s contemporary competition, as sort of buffers. For me those two machines are clearly retro but they have some of the beginnings of modern gaming seeping through. The N64 especially with its major push into 3-D gaming.

With the Playstation as the divider then, where does a modern gamer looking to get into retro gaming start? And for that matter where does a retro gamer looking to ease into modern gaming go?

I will tackle these both one at a time. For the modern gamer it depends on your point of entry. I will focus on each category, arcade, console, PC and mobile, and tackle them one by one.

The modern PC gamer is most likely going to do what all PC gamers have done since the beginning of time, work their way back to the beginning via their favorite franchises. A modern Doom gamer is going to go back and play classic Doom, a modern Elder Scrolls gamer should check out the original D&D games like Eye of the Beholder or the Warcraft games to get a good bit of history. The modern PC gamer has the benefit of Windows being essentially backwards compatible with pretty much all previous operating systems so it’s much easier for the PC gamer to go back in time and try out older games. Here is a road map I recommend for the modern, millennial and younger PC gamer.

As Windows 95 is the divide I recommend starting with some of the classic PC CD-ROM titles from the early DirectX era. A few to get started are MechWarrior 2, Descent, Doom, Quake, Duke Nukem 3-D, Unreal, Star Wars Dark Forces, Myst, Tomb Raider, Alone in the Dark, Diablo, Warcraft, StarCraft, Sim City 2000, and Baldur’s Gate. These are all semi-retro but modern enough games for a PC gamer to get their feet wet looking to sample some classic PC gaming but without going too old school.

Then work your way backwards. Some good games to try from the VGA and 386 period would be the original DOS Duke Nukem side-scroller, Jazz Jackrabbit, Sim City, Eye of the Beholder and Eye of the Beholder 2 Legend of Darkmoon,  any of the early Bard’s Tale, Ultima and Might and Magic games. Then going further back why not give Commodore 64 a shot, either via emulation or scouring ebay for an actual working machine, they are pretty cheap by modern standards.

Arcade gamer I will just say this, either pick up MAME for your PC or get onto Xbox Live Arcade or PSN and look for retro arcade compilations like Mortal Kombat Komplete Kollection, Tower of Mystara Collection, Metal Slug Anthology, Namco Museum, Midways Arcade Treasures, etc, basically pick up any of these classic arcade compilations to get you started. The PS2 is the BEST retro arcade gaming machine outside of MAME.

Mobile gamer. I won’t get too into this one. Basically if you are into modern mobile games like iOS and Android games or 3DS and PS Vita games my advice is just dig back through the catalogs. The Nintendo Game Boy Advance is a very good place to start along with the original DS, there are tons of retro gaming goodies to be found on those as well as the PSP, a portable gaming treasure trove. Personally I recommend a GBA because it gives access to the Game Boy classic and Game Boy color line up of games as well and then pick up a DS or 3DS and work backwards through the catalog as they are backwards compatible then get into PSP when you are ready to upgrade into the meater portable games that are based on console gaming of the past.

Now for the console gamer. The roadmap here is more complicated. If your a modern Playstation gamer and want to get into retro gaming the first place to start is the PS1 classics. Then depending on if you are more into Japanese games or Western (US/European) games will determine which consoles to back track through. If you are more into Japanese games, Castlevania, Mega Man, Final Fantasy, etc, pick up a Super NES and dig into the classic games on there such as Super Castlevania 4, Street Fighter 2, Super Mario RPG, Donkey Kong Country, Final Fantasy 3, Chrono Trigger, Mega Man X, and maybe some Contra 3. IF you are more into western gaming, then I recommend starting with a Sega Genesis and picking up some games like Chakhan the Forever Man, Vector Man, Earthworm Jim, Toejam and Earl, Streets of Rage, Eternal Champions, X-Men, Maximum Carnage, Boogerman, Fatal Rewind, Haunting starring Poulterguy, or even some Comix Zone. SNES has its fair share of western games too as does the Genesis its share of Japanese games, but the split is in favor of each as described above, for the most part.

If you want to wade into retro gaming without diving in head first, I recommend picking up a PS3 for the PSN games, PS2 for the arcade compilations and backwards compatibility with the PS1 library, the Nintendo Wii (or Wii U) for the Virtual Console, and a Nintendo DS and GBA for the plethora of retro gaming titles accessible via those platforms. Unless you are really into PC gaming or PC style games I don’t recommend the Xbox for retro gaming as its really more of a modern games machine and the handful of retro games you can get on an Xbox are ALSO on Playstation whereas there are DOZENS of retro games on Playstation and Nintendo that aren’t available on Xbox. Xbox is fine for modern gaming but its a wasteland for retro gaming unless you mod it in which case just load up the emulators on your PC and be done with it.

That is my Retro vs. Modern PC gaming guide.