What You’re About To See Is Not For Children
Indie developer Puppet Combo, the one man studio run by Ben Cocuzza, is by now properly infamous for his lovingly meticulous odes to 80’s-era VHS genre horror. While the entire Puppet Combo catalogue feels like an amalgam of tropes melded into one by an imperfect memory, 2019’s mini-game anthology Scary Tales Vol 1 is ripe with explicit references to both mainstream Hollywood horror and bargain bin VHS deep dives that make it the perfect entry point for new players – both Criterion subscribers and midnight channel surfers alike.
Coming Soon To Video Cassette
The anthology as a whole is balanced, toying with high tension nuance in some sections and chock a block with schlock in others. After, ahem, “adjusting your tracking” at boot up, you’re met with a bell jar story that frames the mini-games within the anthology; After a late night of too much partying, you awake in your dingy apartment to find a package stuffed with T-120 VHS tapes, each one with a cryptic title scrawled in pen. Popping them into your VCR loads up one of four games, each a heartfelt love song to a different retro horror cliché.
In “Night Shift”, the brutal clock-watching banality of working retail is neatly exploited to create an anxious jump scare waiting game. In “The Riverside Incident”, arguably the technically strongest and most haunting of the stories, Puppet Combo pays homage to found footage tropes that made The Blair Witch Project and, later, techno urban legends like Slenderman, skyrocket to cultural infamy. “Feed Me Billy” is a Freaky Friday switch from victim to killer, and an excuse to slyly poke at the tasteless but ever-present 80’s movie trope of the demented loner. Then finally “Spiders”, the blowout Tremors-esque shoot ’em up, which feels exactly like button mashing a battered game room cabinet of Area 51.
A gratifying reminder of bygone days of trawling Blockbuster’s horror section, each story in Scary Tales has enough individual character to make its references clear while still working cohesively within the overarching straight-to-video theme, and the aesthetics pump double time to do the remainder of the heavy lifting. Like other Puppet Combo games, you’re thankfully able to adjust the scan lines and color gels for readability and visual respite, shuffling between PSX, battery powered black & white, and other lomo filters.
View At Your Own Risk
The metacontextual story of an unnamed urban dweller wandering around his slowly degrading apartment is a little nonsensical and is the most unmoored from the rest of the on-point nostalgia, but depending on your tastes it can also read as the most explicitly disturbing. Returning from an already muscle knot-tense mini game leaves you in a dark apartment a little more devolved from when you left it last. Bloody creatures stalk around corners, flies swarm in dark clouds, and it’s best not to ask what happened to your pet cat.
Anyone who’s familiar with Silent Hill 4 will find this to be already charted territory, and the narrative explanation for the horrors within your apartment is unfortunately stodgy at best. The commitment to a narrative through line that comes up in two of the VHS tape games takes a solid stab at wrapping up the presence of the tapes and their contents, but the finely tuned heft of the mini games themselves, and their loving commitment to shot-on-video obsolescence, makes up for these fumbles in spades.
In an era where most 18 and under gamers have never spent a Saturday night digging through tapes with a dubious whiff of Troma-level quality, Scary Tales Vol 1 acts as both a time machine and a pass of the baton, giving a new generation – and format – the keys to the kingdom of sleaze.