Fantastic Fest 2016: Virtual Reality with Dark Corner

This year at Fantastic Fest, members of the Cinapse team converged upon three booths set up in the Alamo Drafthouse lobby. One featured a wheelchair and a volunteer dressed as a nurse, another was a stool with a burlap sack resting nearby, and the last a full sized coffin, complete with leather interior.

I have some general thoughts on all three experiences before delving into our individual segments. For context: I’m a fan of virtual reality (henceforth abbreviated as VR), and while I haven’t committed to building out an expensive rig for Oculus or Vive, I did preorder the PS-VR and am looking forward to the experiences it will provide. I’ve demoed all the rigs previously, but this is my first time with live-action narratives inside VR.

I found all the experiences compelling but ultimately limited by the confines of the technology used. The main issue I had was with the headsets – Samsung Gear VR, which are literally phones strapped to your face. Sure, very nice phones, but I’ve found that the best VR experiences are ones in the nicest headsets – in crystal clear high definition, with great frame rates, and with perfect head tracking. Without all three of those things combined, the illusion of being present in that space isn’t there, and the artificiality of everything comes forward (and, sometimes, you get headaches or eye strain).

The other technological limitation was on the production side. During many of the sequences you can see the seams where one camera recording the scene ended and another began. This was less of a problem than I had with the headsets, but it’s still another factor that breaks immersion – and immersion is literally the whole point of VR. These issues were less present in Mule, which was the newest of the segments, which might speak to how this technology is still in its infancy and is continuously evolving.

Overall, all three were fun, but aren’t fine tuned enough to really break out into the mainstream. For things like Fantastic Fest or horror conventions they’re fun, but I worry if this is what people first experience as VR they’ll write it off due to potentially headache-inducing standard definition screens or poor head tracking. Thankfully these issues aren’t the fault of the filmmakers, who pack in enough scares and frame the experiences well – we just need the technology to catch up to their talent.

Mule was the most narratively driven and overall most coherent experiences of the three options. The other ones packed in bigger scares, but Mule has more of a story and is the best example of where this medium is headed. The reasoning for the title doesn’t become apparent until the very end, and the experience is so short that I feel like providing any details could spoil the experience. One interesting aspect of this that I can share is that it is very adult. There’s graphic nudity and drug use among other things, making it unique in the VR world since it seems most companies are trying to appeal to the broadest market possible (since their install base is already small and niche enough). It also has two endings provided upfront that let you know the story doesn’t end well for you – do you want to be buried or cremated? This provides a little bit of choose your own adventure that will likely be popular within the genre as its roots are in gaming.
– David Delgado

The lobby of the Alamo South Lamar was a little more packed than usual this year with the appearance of three VR installations, courtesy of Dark Corner. Each delivered a different setting, and each highlighted a different use of the technology. In Burlap, you’re a severed head, watching a Frankenstein-inspired hick put the finishing touches to his work. Mule shows the buildup and aftermath of a drug overdose, while my personal favorite was Catatonic.

While lacking the narrative of Mule, Catatonic was a more immersive experience. Strapped into a wheelchair, you are pushed through a mental asylum as the newest inmate, being wheeled deeper into a twisted nightmare. Before the fitted motors on the chair started whirring, the forward momentum was already delivered as the scenario pushed forward. Patients strapped to tables, feral children trying to grab you while leashed to a cage, more unusual patients suggesting supernatural occurrences, and a mysterious Doctor, who appears throughout and is waiting to take you into his “care” at the end. As a proof of concept it was effective; the video quality was a little lacking, but the graininess did fit this particular experience well. A simple but effective rollercoaster through a hellish hospital.
– Jon Partridge

By far my favorite of the three Dark Corner VR experiences was Catatonic, the haunted hospital yarn that was scarier than almost every film I saw at this year’s Fantastic Fest. You play an unlucky patient strapped to a wheelchair and pushed through a hospital of horrors, ending up in some sort of appropriately ominous sacrificial chamber, and it’s a fairly relentless ride. There are jump scares a-plenty, but what’s most impressive is how filmmaker Guy Shelmerdine is able to build a genuinely dreadful atmosphere in just a few minutes. It helps that this is the rare horror experience that you can’t watch through your fingers, and there are plenty of frightening moments made all the more aggressive by that 360-degree first person perspective. While I appreciated how Mule and Burlap attempted to push the VR experience further than Catatonic, there’s a conceptual simplicity and shining execution to this experience that makes it stand out.
– Alex Williams

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the author

David works for a huge tech company at the moment, does freelance video editing on the side, tries to make films, and occasionally spends his time helping this website run. He lives in Austin, Texas, and is a co-founder of Cinapse. His film philosophy is that there is no difference between "high" art and "low" art, cerebral art house films and Fast Five both bring things to the table and have merit in their own right. Some favorite directors in no particular order: Paul Thomas Anderson, Kubrick, Spielberg, Tarantino, Edgar Wright, John Carpenter, Ridley Scott. Twitter: @daviddelgadoh