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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vine

Of Smurfs and Zombies

Updated: Nov 3, 2018

Not exactly two things you expect to see together in a headline. Or any kind of sentence, for that matter. Indulge me, it will all makes sense in a minute.

First, a quick question (that involves neither little blue men, nor the flesh-eating undead): Does your environment affect your mental health? I always considered that one a no-brainer, but a recent article that appeared on my Twitter feed supported the theory with research. At the heart of it was one simple conclusion: For those who live in urban spaces, those who live closest to green spaces – parks, gardens, etc – are less likely to suffer mental health issues.

I would extend the argument to include architecture. Modernism makes beauty subordinate to functionality, leaving us with an ugliness that saps the human spirit. It should not be the case. In the absence of beauty, our souls cannot soar. What is the functional value of that life?

I've worked many years of my life in the city, surrounding by and working inside giant blocks of steel, glass and concrete. To defy the ugliness, an escape route was necessary. When I worked at the south end of Sydney, Surry Hills became my go-to oasis. Its tree-lined boulevards and lovingly restored Victorian terraces were a mere 10-minute walk from the concrete-and-glass monstrosity I worked in, but another universe for the spirit. I work on the quay side now, and the cobblestone streets and settlement-era cottages of the Rocks bottle the same tonic.

Gaining traction in the western hemisphere are revivalist movements that aspire to reclaim the public space by restoring the aesthetics of yesterday. Imagine town squares isolated from unsightly highways and shadow-casting overpasses where citizens can socialise without dodging traffic or having their conversation interrupted by blaring horns and braking trucks. Sounds like a plan, but for those of us raised in cities where the motor car is god, I am not optimistic they will ever get it right.

"Wait! What? No one said we were filming in Manhattan!"

Feeling blue

How does all this relate to storytelling? If ugliness is everywhere you look, one must seek beauty elsewhere. In some cases, it is the atmosphere of the story that embeds itself in memory. As a child, I was a huge fan of the Smurfs. In Australia, at least, they first appeared as small figurines sold in gas stations (yes, really). It seems bizarre but that was the truth of it, and to this day I still think of Smurfs every time I’m filling up at the bowser. It wasn't long before the Smurfs graphic novels began to appear alongside Asterix and Tintin at The Children's Bookshop on Hannah Street Beecroft (amazingly, still there). The TV series debuted on the Saturday-morning cartoon networks. Life was Smurfy.

A great portion of my Smurf obsession I attribute to the village. You know the one – hidden deep in a secret forest, a collection of toadstool dwellings featuring gabled windows and crooked wooden doors. I recall a town square for the various festivities and a crystal-blue creek with a water wheel. The forest setting was as magical as it was exotic (Sydney bush is a world away from European woodland), and I couldn’t get enough.

Much better. This screen is from Smurfs: The Secret Village (2017).

Fast forward to adulthood. I recall the first time I heard they were making a CGI Smurfs movie. My immediate thought was how amazing the village about would look in eye-melting Pixar-style animation. And to be fair, they totally nailed it, but for only the briefest of screen time. I was heartbroken to discover the film was actually going to be set in New York City. Nothing against Neil Patrick Harris, but that was not the Smurfs I grew up on and loved. They took something that’s magic was defined by atmosphere, and excised it from the story.

It was not the first time.

Into the mansion

My first experience with the Resident Evil franchise was the game I remake released on Nintendo Gamecube in 2002. From the opening cut scene, I was hooked. In the deep of night, a squad of S.T.A.R.S. agents are investigating a helicopter crash in a creepy forest outside Raccoon City. Working their way through the mist, a young Jill Valentine interrupts a pack of dogs feasting. Spoiler Alert: these ain’t your regular Dobermans, and the soldiers are soon running for their lives through the forest night. The hellhounds chase the survivors to the front door of a nearby mansion. The fun begins.

Resident Evil Remake was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. In order to open up the mansion, one had to plot through the map, collecting various artefacts and then figure how to use them to unlock all the locked doors and secret areas. The game was not the zombie turkey shoot I had imagined, but a thoughtfully drafted puzzle adventure, in which the player’s cautious exploration is interrupted by jump-scare moments of underpants-threatening terror.

RE Remake copped a lot of criticism for its control system. The characters navigate pre-rendered backgrounds in three dimensions, but the camera angles were fixed, as if multiple cameras had been set up at intervals dividing the space within the mansion. In one scene you might be running away from the camera, you would move to the next and suddenly your character is moving toward you (joystick remaining in same position). Like switching the movement control on your laptop trackpad, it took some getting used to.

Moth to the flame

To this day, I consider it a worthy investment of my time. It was all about the mansion, and the gorgeous detail present in those pre-rendered backgrounds. Keep in mind this was 2002, when console graphics still had a blocky, cartoonish feel. I still have the game, and an old Nintendo Wii on which my original mini discs yet play. I put it in recently, expecting to be appalled by the clunky old graphics. Guess what – it still looks incredible!

Atmosphere, immersion, zombies, wonky controls. What's not to love?

A visual guy at heart, I still struggle with the idea that words can capture atmosphere as thoroughly as the human eye. In the mansion there were several scenes that stay with me. The first is the north-west staircase, just above the first save room (see above). It had everything one would expect from a gothic horror novel of the classic era: Victorian architecture, a creaky old staircase, peeling wallpaper, lightning flashing intermittingly through the window, illuminating it all in breathtaking detail. Did I mention the acid-spewing zombie waiting for you at the top landing?

When you finally made it outside the mansion, there was no relief from the terror. A shadowed path led one down past an old graveyard to a shack deep in the woods. Every cautious footstep was echoed by the noises of the forest night, and occasional howl of the zombie Dobermans just waiting to spring from places unseen.

So many more moments captured the spirit of the vintage horror: dusty studies, secret doors and hidden chambers, tombs, crypts, underground laboratories, a giant shark tank (or ‘giant-shark’ tank, if you prefer). And jump scares a plenty. What’s not to love?

Hangaboutasec! I’ve delved so deep into the Resident Evil mansion, I’ve almost forgot what brought me there in the first place (wonder if Jill Valentine had the same feeling). Oh yeah, that’s it – the movie!

Love Milla, but this is not the Resident Evil I was looking for.

Blue déjà vu

I don’t blame Milla Jovovich, or the mysterious Alice character they created for her to lead the movie franchise, but Resident Evil’s big-screen debut was another disappointment of Smurf-esque proportions. I was looking forward to the mansion coming to life in all its lamplight gothic glory. What I got was a high-tech laboratory that more resembled the set of a sci-fi blockbuster. And with it, the same feeling of deflation I felt when watching those Smurfs whirl through the magical portal to modern-day Manhattan. Cool monsters, but what happened to the mansion? What happened to the atmosphere?


I have been since heartened by the revival of the classic haunted house horror films – from The Conjuring (2013) and its sequels/spin-offs to the 2018 Netflix masterpiece The Haunting of Hill House. The genre is worth a blog post in its own right, so I want delve too deep here. This one is about atmosphere, and the way it enhances a story. I’ve spoken about pacing versus description before – the delicate balance required to keep the reader’s attention from swerving.

In every tale comes inevitably a slowdown, a period where the author takes their foot off the plot throttle. To hold interest, one must leverage action against interludes rich with tension and atmosphere. The two extremes are in fact complimentary.

The magic brush

A film or video-game maker has an army of helpers on hand to make sure the atmosphere is just right. An author relies on the power of the written word. It is never easy. Although I am reasonably happy with the balance of Books II and III, I yet agonise over whether I got the pacing right in Hopskotch and the Golden Cicada.

Debuting a fantasy series set in an entirely fictional world sets the author an intimidating challenge. A new stage demands new backdrops, and words are the only paintbrush. Book I begins slowly, and for good reason. In order to anchor the reader to its evolving reality, the world had to be painted in, and the characters introduced. The atmospheric detour of Chapters Two and Three was offset by the intrigue-filled prequel, followed by Hopskotch’s frantic dream sequence (Chapter One). The reader gets a well-earned breather immediately thereafter:

Crossing the Shallowfrond at Frog’s Leap felt like the morning had reversed itself, and dawn was turning back into night. The two Syltlings passed quietly into the shadow world of the east bank wilderness, following the River Way trail north through damp gullies, across narrow ledges, and over and around the blunt rocks that split the relentless groundcover here and there.

We move along. The hunt is one for Hopskotch and Dobbin, but a mockery of their original plan. Following a heart-stopping action sequence, we get to the second significant ‘crossing the threshold’ moment. The atmosphere is amplified by the arrival of a new and mysterious character. Despite their narrow escape from the dreaded Roaches, the tension remains.

He wasn’t sure how far below ground level they were, but it was enough to cool the air noticeably. Hopskotch began to amuse himself blowing puffs of steam from his mouth, then watching as they unravelled within the light of the globe lamp. The glow bathed the tunnel’s brickwork in warm caramel browns that sparkled as if alive.

A deliberate slowdown. Filling the gaps is atmosphere, dialogue and intrigue. As in every other story ever written. I recall Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes. The standalone novel paves the way for the greater clash of civilisations – Northmen Vs The Union in the follow-up The First Law trilogy. As in The Waking World, Abercrombie foregoes a disconnected narrator in favour of character-based storytelling, every scene unfolding from a specific character viewpoint (sound familiar?).

Abercrombie's title is a mislead. The Heroes refers to that ring of stones on the hill to the west of Osrung. ©Joe Abercrombie

The Heroes records a single three-day battle in the valley of Osrung – think siege warfare, frantic house-to-house skirmishes, wild charges, sword duels, arrow and artillery. And even Abercrombie knew the heat of battle must be occasionally cooled by interludes of reflection:

The buildings of Osrung crowded in on Craw, all looking like they’d bloody stories to tell, each corner turned opening up a new stretch of disaster. A good few were all burned out, charred rafters still smouldering, air sharp with the tang of destruction. Windows gaped empty, shutters bristled with broken shafts, axe-scarred doors hung from hinges. The stained cobbles were scattered with rubbish and twisting shadows and corpses too, cold flesh that once was men, dragged by bare heels to their places in the earth.

Not to shabby, eh? And fills in the gaps between the blood-and-gore battles quite nicely, thank you very much. Perhaps it's time I find something better to agonise over.

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