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by Bill Gibron

29 May 2008


The art of suspense is dead, or at the very least, dying. Few in post-modern filmmaking know how to establish dread without drowning it in gore or just boring us to death. Part of the reason lies in how cinematically complex the basic bloodless thriller must be. It has to work on the psychological, as well as the physiological and pragmatic levels. As Hitchcock accurately stated, the viewer must be invariably linked to the fate of characters they just met, and may know more than. It’s all a matter of timing and talent. Tossing grue at the screen is as easy as opening up a can of red paint. Getting audiences to grip the edge of their seats stands as a rare motion picture accomplishment.

It’s one that the new so-called shocker The Strangers strives for, over and over again. It’s so desperate to drag us through a tense little exercise in creepy cat and mouse that it all but misses the reason these movies succeed. After an especially hard night of romance and rejection, young couple James Hoyt and Kristen McKay retreat to his isolated family vacation home. As they regroup, they sense something is amiss. Suddenly, there’s a knock at the door. Even though it’s four o’clock in the morning, they answer the door. There, in the darkness, a young girl asks if ‘Tamara’ is home. Slightly belligerent, she barely takes “No” for an answer. Without warning, the house is suddenly besieged by a trio of masked assailants. Their purpose seems simply enough - torture and kill the panicked pair.

The Strangers is a deadly dull experience in boredom, strangled by two cinematic stumbling blocks - one external and one of its own unfortunate making. Outwardly, this movie can’t help but compare unfavorably to the brilliant French thriller from last year, Ils (otherwise known as Them to American audiences). So similar story-wise as to almost be exact, and utilizing a far more interesting set-up and payoff, filmmakers David Moreau and Xavier Palud really delivered the goods. We cared about the characters in that eerie little experiment in ambient noises and unseen threats. Even if the ending went a bit gonzo, we still enjoyed every spine tingling, bone chilling moment of the ride.

The second factor is completely within writer/director Bryan Bertino’s control. Instead of starting the movie off inauspiciously, allowing the tale of our crumbling couple to organically meld into the stark and subtle serial killer material to come, The Strangers shoots itself in the foot by following a lame-brained Texas Chainsaw Massacre style preamble. As our super serious voice over narrator drones on, we are told of the terror to come.  Even worse, Bertino then starts the narrative at the end, giving us horrific, hint filled glimpses of what will occur. A more successful conceit would have been to remove the first five minutes and give us nothing more than the effective shot of stars Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman in silent sadness, tears streaming down their faces. Advanced warning of their fate turns everything stale.

Not that there’s much to go on once the Manson Family by way of The Town That Dreaded Sundown shows up. Dressed in slightly unsettling costumes that conceal their identity, our mindless murderers are purposefully given no backstory or motive. The most we learn is that James and Kristen have been chosen because “they were home”. It’s a wonderfully evocative line, but Bertino does nothing with it. Similarly, the house in question is never established as a place of shelter, or safety, or scares. Ils at least let its brooding Romanian estate be as much a surprise of escape opportunities and fatalistic dead ends as a cinematic backdrop. In The Strangers, all we get is a barn, a backyard, and a ranch style design right out of the ‘70s.

In addition, Bertino completely misunderstands the use of sound as a way of securing shivers. Our couple has some of the oddest taste in music ever established in a horror film. They seem to enjoy a combination of Lester Roadhog Moran and His Cadillac Cowboys, The Shaggs, and a diseased Little Jimmy Dickens. The atonal drone of the cracked country music that plays during the fright sequences is so annoying as to cause outright anger - and nothing destroys suspense quicker than a rising urge to kill the record player. Also, Bertino misses a golden opportunity to add some ambience to his efforts. The wooded exterior should have provided some ample unexplained angst. Instead, even the aural cues are obvious.

As for the acting, Tyler and Speedman are given little to do, instantly moving from morose to victim mode in the span of a few seconds. They never provide a sense of individual urgency, capable of anything to make sure they survive. Instead, they huddle into corners and whine, whimper, and wince. We never develop any real sympathy for them, so as a result, we don’t care if they live or die. Our killers are another conundrum all together. Purposefully oblique, they come across as deadly dolls without a single sinister bone in their persistent hunter horror personas. Even when Bertino unmasks them and offers his downbeat denouement, the performances never play into genre ideals.

Of course, The Strangers is the kind of film that would welcome such unpredictability. You can just see some suit reading the script and thinking “Wow, this sure beats all that bloody torture porn being pushed right now.” Sadly, an alternative is not necessarily a salve, or in extremes, a salvation. Just because John Carpenter changed the movie macabre dynamic with his slasher homage to the Master of Suspense doesn’t mean that 2008 is looking for the same cinematic redeemer. Bryan Bertino may believe he is onto one Hell of a shouting-back-at-the-screen audience participation thrill ride. All easily frightened fans aside, The Strangers is destined to be mildly favored and then forgotten. It doesn’t have enough heft to warrant macabre staying power.   

 

by Chris Barsanti

29 May 2008


After all the rumors and innuendos about the various now-defunct shows of HBO’s Golden Age—you know, the ones that ruined us for the increasingly decrepit art of cinema—being turned into theatrical fare, the film of Sex and the City is finally upon us, and its success (or lack thereof) could well determine whether or not we will see the continuing multiplex adventures of Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, and Jimmy McNulty. Obviously there is no single template that HBO would have to follow for film versions of any of these shows, but if such a thing did in fact happen, there are worse models they could follow than Sex and the City. In his wrapup to the half-hour groundbreaker of a sitcom that began on HBO a full ten years ago, writer/director Michael Patrick King takes about two or three season finales’ worth of tears and OMG jawdroppers and whacks them together into a big, sloppy, gooey sundae of a film that is, for better or for worse, just like the show … only longer.

The magnifier of cinematic size does things to the new adventures of this quartet of middle-aged Manhattan ladies, mostly of an unfortunate variety. While it’s all well and good to catch up with them a few years after the show’s conclusion, the pratfalls and complications of a half-hour TV show can seem either trivial or downright crude in a film. The show’s penchant for the occasional bit of embarrassing physical humor is played up here (a protruding gut when one of the ladies overeats to quell her anxieties, rumblings when another has bowel issues) but not in a way that comments on women’s insecurities, simply as a way of playing gross-out for the back row.

It also doesn’t help that King has shot and edited Sex and the City just like the show, only with cruddier cinematography and lousier music cues; where there should be glitz and perfection is only bad lighting, hand-me-down sets, and the occasional visible boom microphone darting down from above. For a story so obsessed with style and glamour, the end result is depressingly downmarket in appearance, looking like the poor second cousin of The Devil Wears Prada (which updated the show’s considerations of women and work so well that it almost makes this film entirely redundant).

All that being said, the whole point of the Sex and the City film was not to make a lasting piece of art, but simply to squeeze more life out of some characters that its audience couldn’t quite let go of, being sick to death of watching the butchered episodes re-running endlessly on TBS. On that front, at least, the film succeeds for the most part, concentrating on running the ladies through an obstacle course of betrayal and dashed expectations, dangling the rose of a happy ending continually just out of their grasp.

For those who have been dragged to the theater by friends or spouses and have never seen the show, a recap of the characters’ basic traits is quickly (if not deftly) handled by clip montages during the opening credits. After that, it’s back to the basics of making love last in the big mean city. In short: Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is living in married bliss, Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is out in Hollywood managing her boyfriend’s career, Miranda’s (Cynthia Nixon) marriage to Steve (David Eigenberg) is struggling, and Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) is moving in with Mr. Big, aka John (Chris Noth).

After a rough opening section where things go just a little too smoothly for too long, the hammer gets dropped and three of the women fall into their own little puddles of discontent. About a half-hour in, King finds the right rhythmic mix of discord, romance, and humor, after which the remainder of this surprisingly long film (148 minutes?) zips along with due speed. There are rough patches where it feels as though the script is struggling to shift from one episode to the next, and a surprising number of the characters are given little to do. Charlotte and Samantha play essentially one note and plotline for the entire film, while Steve and Mr. Big (practically the only male characters from the show to have left much of any impression) are only given the minimum necessary lines to break Miranda and Carrie’s hearts, not enough to give people new to the story any idea why these women care for them.

We all know that Sex and the City is really all about Carrie—one of the only freelance writers in New York who apparently can afford to hire an assistant (Jennifer Hudson, flat)—and her search for romantic bliss but was it really necessary to make Miranda even more of a miserable, cynical shrew? There’s a real ugliness to King’s treatment of Miranda, one of the only women here who evinces any intellect, but that’s par for the course with the show, and since the film is nothing but a retread anyway (Sex and the City: The Further Adventures of Carrie) such mean-spiritedness shouldn’t come as any surprise.

As a well-calculated remix of an enduring television landmark, Sex and the City fits the bill, leaving naught but a quickly dissipating champagne buzz. The fact that it stands well above just about any romantic comedy that’s been popped out of the Hollywood jello-mold in the last year or so isn’t so much of a compliment as it is a sign of how devalued the genre is.

by Bill Gibron

22 May 2008


Quick - name the last really successful political satire? Was it Wag the Dog? Man of the Year? American Dreamz? Primary Colors? Perhaps you have to go back as far as the Watergate among nuns fun known as Nasty Habits. Whatever the case, the War in Iraq and the Bush Administration’s policies toward same should be rife for some rib-tickling ridicule. Of course, some of the decisions and resulting failures are sad/funny enough to be their own pragmatic parodies. Yet instead of taking on the Commander in Chief and his wayward conservatism, most films about the current situation in the Middle East have focused on the military, and how it turns dedicated voluntaries into outright, detestable villains.

Now comes John Cusack (himself the star of last year’s homeland drama Grace is Gone) and his self-scribed effort War, Inc. His focus isn’t the military machine or the misguided application of same by the government. Nor is he really interested in taking on the whole WMD/selling of the conflict to an easily brainwashed American people. Instead, this obvious lampoon has Halliburton, and one of its former officers, Vice President Dick Cheney, in its sites. Sometimes, the targets are so ripe and readily set up that the laughs come often and organically. At other instances, Cusack and his fellow screenwriters Mark Leyner and Jeremy Pikser miss the mark completely.

After a particularly tough assignment, professional hitman Brand Houser is mandated by the President’s Second in Command to travel to the fictional foreign country of Turagistan. There, he will hook up with a fellow female operative and together they will try to assassinate the CEO of an international competitor. Seems the evil Tamerlane conglomerate wants all the juicy defense/rebuilding contracts for themselves, and needs Omar Shariff out of the way. Houser will accomplish this via a combination trade show and wedding. The convention will showcase Tamerlane’s “Brand America” wares. The nuptials find foreign pop sensation Yonica Babyyeah getting hitched. All the while, the hired killer must avoid the demons from this past, as well as the probing questions of investigative reporter Natalie Hegalhuzen.

It is often said that the key to a really good send-up is an innate knowledge of the subject matter being spoofed, followed by an even keener insight into how to formally deconstruct it. Somewhere between its ambition and its actuality, War, Inc. forgot this formula. Instead of offering a Dr. Strangelove-like look at how Iraq has become a morass of misguided and laughable decisions, Cusack and clan go for the easy joke - the constipated VP, the oversexed pop ingénue, the tough as nails journalist, the slightly ditzy yet very effective personal assistant. That War, Inc. casts competent actors like Dan Aykroyd, Hilary Duff, Marisa Tomei, and the star’s sister Joan argues for its would-be success.

But then documentarian Joshua Seftel steps behind the lens and shows absolutely no gift for comedy. His idea of wit is to overwork a gag until we can no longer stand the sentiment. Cusack’s hitman uses hot sauce as kind of a calming curative. It helps him focus, as well as shut out the constant voices thrashing in his head. We are supposed to view these scenes as comically insightful. While they hint at horrors, the interaction in these flashbacks suggests humor. They’re not funny. Similarly, every time the Cusacks interact, there’s a spark of screwball goofiness to what they accomplish. Yet Seftel isn’t secure enough to explore all avenues of this idea. Instead, he makes do with little flashes of brilliance here and there.

The rest of the time, War, Inc. wades through ideas that are more than self-evident. Is it really surprising that foreign men mimic hip-hop and rap in their goofy ‘gansta’ attitudes, or that Turgistan’s so-called Emerald City (standing in for Baghdad’s Green Zone) is the site of more bombings and violence than in the rest of the nation? One moment, we see a terrifically tasteless chorus line featuring recent amputees. The next, a pro-Peace, Love and Understanding platform is being forced down our throats. The politics of War, Inc. are not problematic so much as pedestrian. There’s nothing new in embracing the anti-conservative screed to show how off kilter the country really is. Yet this is the narrative’s main selling point - and very few will be buying.

Still, there is stuff in War, Inc. that one can enjoy. It’s fun to see Popeye’s Chicken as the foreign franchise du jour, complete with orders for ‘extra spicy all white meat’, and Ms. Duff, a long way away from her own Hannah Montana moment in the sun, is superb as the ethnically unclear (and ambiguously accented) Yonica. Granted, her song parodies are as lame as the actual tunes that brought her into the limelight in the first place, but it’s a hoot to hear Lizzie McGuire swearing like a sailor. In fact, it seems like a great deal of this movie is a mere one or two steps away from being masterful. That those strides are occasionally a million mirth miles away is a sad commentary on all involved.

It seems that, somewhere along the line, John Cusack has gone from accomplished actor with a high degree of industry cred to a descending, desperate star trying anything to realign his passing power. Even with the success of last year’s 1408, his career arc has definitely taken a downturn. War, Inc. won’t help. Sure, it will sell to a chosen few audience members who don’t mind their humor ladled out in oversized doses of blatancy. The rest, however, will wonder if the situation in Iraq is all but entertainment-proof, incapable of sustaining any movie, be it drama or comedy. Of course, War, Inc. doesn’t give the humor side of the dispute a fighting chance. It’s a pretty one sided argument - just like the film itself. 

by Bill Gibron

22 May 2008


Uwe Boll is no longer just a filmmaker. He’s become a cultural icon of the whipping boy variety. Granted, he’s earned every inch of his horrid hack status. Anyone who has sat through Bloodrayne, Alone in the Dark, House of the Dead, or his recent In the Name of the King understands this. But to totally dismiss him as Ed Wood’s Teutonic twin does both men a massive disservice. After all, Mr. Glen or Glenda was working with a no budget handicap. Boll makes his cinematic affronts with the full faith and credit of his homeland’s moneysaving tax laws. Postal is his latest videogame based endeavor. As a motion picture, it’s garbage. But as a statement of the rest of the film loving world, it’s a gloriously tasteless middle finger.

In the tacky town of Paradise, the Dude lives an awful life. His obese wife spends her days spouting epithets, her nights cheating on him. At his job, his boss is a dick and all around him the world if falling apart. Unable to take it anymore, he decides to join up with his cult leader relative, the drug addled sex fiend Uncle Dave. Together, they plan on robbing a local amusement park. Meanwhile, Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda cohorts are plotting the very same thing. Their eventual confrontation will result in massive bloodshed, lots of freshly killed corpses, and more than a few ethnic and intellectual slurs, just to keep things politically and personally tense.

Any movie that starts off with an extended riff on the terrorist attacks on 9/11 is either bucking the pro-PC trend, or as misguided as a Bush Administration missive. Yet Postal does indeed offer a pair of Islamic hijackers arguing over the number of virgins they’ll each receive when they meet their maker, followed unceremoniously with a World Trade Center view of the impending crash. If that kind of ‘irreverent’ shock value gag gives you giggling goosebumps, you’ll adore Postal. It plays directly into the most toilet bowl basics of the biggest arrested adolescence, making Mad Magazine (or perhaps, its lesser knockoffs like Crazy) look like the Harvard Lampoon by comparison. This is the kind of film that believes random farts are funny, that sees racial and social insensitivity as a proud papa selling point.

Leave it to the man who still thinks minor console titles from 10 years ago make viable source material to suddenly discover Farrelly like gross out humor. Postal positions itself as a raging political satire, supposedly arguing against the War on Terror, America’s fundamentalist religious views, the ticking time bomb status of white trash, and any other obvious target you can point to. But instead of eviscerating each and every one with the sharp knife of satire, Boll brings a blunt piece of movie metal and simply stabs blindly. One minute, a stateside Osama is having a big time policy pow-wow with buddy George Bush, the next, little kids are being picked off one by one, squibs sprouting bloody bullet holes in their Garanimals.

Indeed, Postal is THAT kind of movie, one that substitutes rancor for real wit, that utilizes splatter when a few script rewrites would have worked much better. To call the film ballsy would be a slam at testicular fortitude. To call it crass would give insensitivity a stain it could never recover from. Yet there is a level of pot-smoke induced ludicrousness here, a ‘late night when there’s nothing else watchable on cable’ conceit that gives this film a sheen of semi-likability that’s hard to ignore. In the right frame of mind, this might actually seem - dare it be said - funny? All of us have guilty pleasures piled up in our inner movie warehouse, marginalized efforts like Ultraviolet, Brain Donors, or Lucky Stiff. It appears Postal is ‘gunning’ for acceptance into that often uncertain arena.

Typical of his current casting ideal, Boll overloads the frame with a number of recognizable, if not necessarily famous faces. Zack Ward, otherwise known as Scut Farkus from A Christmas Story, is our unnamed hero, the trailer trash everyman who ends up going the title temperament. He makes for an interesting lead, but not much else. On the other hand, confirmed funnyman Dave Foley is forced to rely on full frontal male nudity to earn his taboo-busting paycheck. His cult leader character is never, EVER funny….EVER! Various supporting players like J. K. Simmons, Verne Troyer, and Seymour Cassel wander aimlessly, their dialogue delivered in ‘hurry up and pay me’ spurts. Boll himself even shows up as the owner/operator of a German-themed concentration camp themed amusement park built with Nazi gold. Ha.

And speaking of the much maligned director, the good doctor is clearly having a blast belittling everything he can. Since he’s more or less capable of doing anything he wants (no studio controls his actions), he takes a haphazard Hellsapoppin’ approach to spoofing. Pacing is also a problem here, especially since Boll overloads the top half of the movie with mindless scatology. After a while, all the poo and pee jokes begin to sound (and stink) alike. The scattered violence will make gorehounds unhappy, since Postal appears to be dialing back the offal in favor of more idea-based grotesqueries. By the end, we’re desperate for some massive arterial spray. All we get is a minor vein draining allotment.

Still, Postal is bound to get messageboard tongues wagging. It will be the dividing line between Boll apologists and those who remain appalled by his oeuvre. It’s not the cinematic stool sampling of his previous creative canon, but it definitely doesn’t deserve the praise it’s been getting inside the online critical community. Somewhere between a cult conversation piece and an assault on one’s intelligence, Postal proves that some filmmakers are destined to remain forever locked in their already established reputations. To call this the best film Dr. Uwe Boll has ever made is faint praise indeed. Sadly, it may also be the truth. 

by Bill Gibron

21 May 2008


Icons earn their status by never changing. What they represented the moment they gained said mythos remains steadfast and sturdy, with only occasional minor alterations along the way. This is why it’s never wise to revisit a symbol, cinematic or otherwise. The moment you do, the carefully constructed barriers you built around the legend start to shatter. Unless you’re out to really revise (or even implode) the idol, what was once beloved is never quite the same. For many, this is exactly what happened when George Lucas decided to go back to his Star Wars universe. Well established - and beloved - characters like Darth Vader and Yoda were systematically reconfigured to fit a new, and not necessarily complimentary, ideal.

The good news is that everyone’s favorite action adventure archaeologist, Indiana Jones, manages to make it unscathed through this fourth installment of the long dormant franchise. Even with the massive passage of time - it’s been 19 years since Last Crusade saw our hero ride off into the desert sunset - Harrison Ford and his famed fedora are rock solid. Sadly, the rest of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not so secure. Swinging wildly between popcorn pomp and cornball circumstance, this mostly unnecessary sequel tries to update the character by bringing him into an ‘I Like Ike’/Red Scare timeframe. Yet for every element of obvious nostalgia - both internal and external - there’s an ancient astronaut plotline that gets in the way.

In the middle of the Nevada desert, Indiana Jones and his British spy sidekick George “Mac” McHale have been captured by Russian agents. Brought to Area 51, the baddies want the famed finder of antiquities to locate an object he retrieved as part of a mission for the government in Roswell. Under the steel-eyed guidance of psychic researcher, Irina Spalko, Jones locates the artifact. Soon, he’s back at the University of Chicago and under scrutiny by the FBI. When a young thug named Mutt Williams approaches him about his mother, Marion, and a mentor/friend named Professor Oxley, Jones finds himself headed to the Amazon. There, he hopes to locate one of the fabled Crystal Skulls, a relic with a link to the Lost City of Gold. Oddly, enough, Spalko and her crew are there as well, looking for the same thing. This won’t be the only surprise for the aging archaeologist, however.

Here’s the biggest problem facing Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - and it’s not Shia LeBeouf playing a ‘50s era juvenile delinquent with a boarding school education. No, the main problem facing our famed archaeologist is that this third sequel is, yet again, NOT Raiders of the Lost Ark. Of course, it never had a chance. It can’t be as fresh as when that 1981 gem first fired moviegoer’s action imagination. It can’t replicate the novelty of bringing the ‘30s/‘40s era serial into the post-modern film world. It doesn’t have the kind of cosmic import that drove the original narrative (Commies don’t make good Nazi substitutes) and it can no longer get away with being a really good romp. No, what Kingdom of the Crystal Skull‘s audience mandates is nothing short of a bigger, badder, broader, more ballistic and bombastic take on their favorite part-time grave robber, and not even the majesty of Steven Spielberg can fulfill those unreasonable requests.

Nor can the narrative’s inherent wistfulness satisfy said cinematic itch. Seeing Karen Allen back as Marion Ravenwood Williams is a treat, but her entrance is handled clumsily, given little chance to resonate. Similarly, the opening sequence at Area 51 (where we eventually learn the Ark of the Covenant was taken) recaptures the prior installments’ magic, but it quickly peters out the minute the FBI shows up and declares Indy a Red. In fact, a lot of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like an old jalopy, starting and stopping, racing and then stalling until it can get into a settled sense of story. Yet the script (by David Koepp, with direction from producer George Lucas) is too enamored with its genre-jumping tendencies to stay grounded. One moment we’re back in butt kicking territory. The next, it’s the X-Files circa 1959.

Still, Spielberg is not one of the greatest moviemakers of the post-modern era for nothing, and his undeniable brilliance brings Kingdom of the Crystal Skull back from the brink time and time again. The opening sequence shifts seamlessly from a familiar backdrop to an amazing moment with a mushroom cloud. It stands as one of the director’s most masterful stunts. Similarly, a motorcycle chase through a crowded university campus has the old fashioned zing we’ve come to expect from the series. Certainly there is very little the auteur can do with page after page of expositional muck, but thanks to the evocative cinematography of longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski, we love looking at the conversational backdrops. Even the finale, filled with enough CGI to choke a Jedi, gets by on the standard Spielberg shimmer.

Not everything works out as well. For all his UK bluster, Ray Winstone’s character is ill defined and rather pointless. He’s a conflict catalyst, that’s all. Equally problematic is John Hurt as Professor Oxley. While he’s always a welcome addition to any film, he’s stuck supplying the odd moment of forced insanity funny business. Perhaps the most disconcerting though is the wasted opportunities surrounding Cate Blanchett and her cool KGB dominatrix, Irina Spalko. One thing Indy villains never lack is a clear cut motivation, be it greed, god-like powers, or everlasting life. Here, the Russian’s plan seems unclear, and even worse, slightly ridiculous. We never see Spalko really use her supposed power, and the ending does little to confirm her ability of authority.

Yet none of this will really matter to an audience primed to revisit an old franchise and friend. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is clearly a movie geared toward anyone under the age of 30 who memorized every moment of their Raiders VHS. It’s not out to revamp the series of say something significant about the aging of an action icon (Ford’s ‘maturity’ is the butt of some jokes, nothing more). By harkening back to the first film, Spielberg spends its goodwill wisely. Even Lucas’ madcap story suggestions aren’t quite as lame as all that mindless midi-chlorian business. When it was first announced that Indiana Jones was coming back, the mix of anticipation and trepidation was understandable. To paraphrase Thomas Wolfe, it’s hard to go home again. Thankfully, this return leaves our hero unharmed. 

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Moving Pixels Podcast: Unearthing the 'Charnel House'

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"This week we discuss Owl Creek Games's follow up to Sepulchre, the triptych of tales called The Charnel House Trilogy.

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