Cut Scenes is Josh Wise’s regular column on the intersection between films and video games. This week, Manhunt vs. Halloween.
Carcer City, USA: the rotting guts of the American carcass, a rust belt town of jammed machinery and abandoned stillness. Cracked slabs of concrete, run through with rebar, pile like cairns marking a million lost souls. Masked lunatics stalk the city like wraiths. Its name, a cross between ‘carve’ and ‘cancer’, signal its purpose and its state of decay. It feels like nowhere.
James Earl Cash, the game’s ‘hero’, is sent to a mock execution and put to sleep, revived at the whim of a crazed film director called Starkweather, and set to work in a Gonzo snuff film. As Cash moves down streets flanked with grey buildings, it carries the same eerie quiet as those impossibly wide suburban streets in Halloween.
Filmed in Pasadena, Halloween is set in fictional Haddonfield, Illinois – the tail end of the rust belt. The streets carried with them a strange false quality; Roger Ebert describes their “Drab daylights and impenetrable nighttimes.” Despite being real streets, their sweeping reach and manicured flatness gave them the plasterboard feel of sets. They didn’t feel like Illinois. They didn’t feel like Pasadena. They felt like nowhere.
In a sense, Carcer City was a set, a hollow place abandoned to the whims of its psychotic director. Manhunt captures what it feels like to be the slasher; it’s all a matter of perspective. The darkness in the game is the sort of gloom you’d find in a gulag, impenetrable to all but Cash. With strict adherence to line-of-sight stealth, as long as he remains in the dark he cannot be seen.
In her review of Halloween, Pauline Kael noted that the film’s tension is, “A matter of the camera tracking subjectively from the mad killer’s point of view, leading you to expect something awful to happen.” The scene below is one such example, the camera mounted behind the shoulder, giving us a view of the hunted:
The question running through Manhunt and Halloween both is why? Why are these depraved acts of violence, of murder, being carried out? Kael said of the film, “There’s no indication of why he selects any particular target; he’s the bogeyman – pure evil – and he wants to kill.” The film’s ‘bogeyman’ is in fact an escaped mental patient named Michael Myers, and his intent is made clear by his psychiatrist: he is motivated by unalloyed evil.
For Manhunt, something less simplistic drives us. Rockstar built a reflexive landscape with Carcer City, a thumbing to the press after the nuclear fallout around GTA III. The perceived will toward censorship and control, which around that time saw Hilary Clinton taking her Family Entertainment Protection Act to the senate, was seeded in Carcer’s landscape through the reoccurring motif of Starkweather’s CCTV cameras. Rockstar was tipping its hat toward the banned video nasties of the 1980s by having you enact murders on film, but so too was it having you engage in a theatre of derision.
These are more than just murders: these are death scenes. Skeins of static tracking lines rip and tear the image; bodies are displayed like hunks of meat, the lens blurred as if smeared in aspic; and splotches of blood spray the camera. It’s reminiscent of the climactic scene in Halloween in which Laurie is confronted with the arranged bodies of the slain. It’s completely orchestrated, a carnival of death, and the killer becomes the director of Laurie’s fear.
Manhunt’s eye is its most lethal weapon. The game’s power, and the power that games have, is not to put us in the shoes of the killer, or the victim, but in having us orchestrate entire scenes to our designs. As we see fear in our victims’ faces, tension rising thick in the air, we realise that Starkweather was never the director. It was us.