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Layers of Fear review: An unsettling subversion of expectations

Hayden Dingman | Feb. 22, 2016
Layers of Fear masterfully toys with your sense of reality, when it's not throwing cheesy jump scares in your face.

When Layers of Fear isn’t trying to appeal to your baser instincts, it’s more along the lines of Antichamber or the virtual reality experiment Sightline: The Chair.

You’ll find yourself in a room. Four walls, four doors. Behind you, the door you came in from. You open the door directly ahead. Bricks. There’s a brick wall behind this door and nothing else. The door to the left, also bricks. To the right, more bricks.

Dead end. You open the door you came in from. Surprise! Bricks. You spin around and the other three doors have disappeared while your back was turned. And now the fourth door too. You’re in a featureless white room. Trapped.

Layers of Fear

Or you walk through a door and find yourself walking back into the same room from a different doorway. Again, you leave. Again, the same room—except this time the furniture’s a bit more decrepit. You leave a third time, and now the room is in shambles...and all the objects are floating.

Enter a room and you realize all the furniture is on the ceiling. You switch on the light, turn back around, and it’s been relocated to the floor.

You can’t trust the space you’re in. It’s an unsettling idea, and I think doubly so to those who play a lot of games. We’re used to constructing mental maps, to remembering “This door leads back to the kitchen, which leads to the front hall, which leads to…” Now imagine the mansion in Resident Evil constantly rearranged itself, shuffling rooms like a deck of cards, creating impossible hallways and staircases that go two floors down but somehow leave you in an attic and rooms that change shape when you turn your back.

Layers of Fear

The idea’s not exactly unique. Aside from the two games I already listed above, we can draw obvious parallels to both Lovecraft’s descriptions of non-Euclidean architecture and Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves.

But it’s expertly done here. Layers of Fear is a bit one-note, insofar as you start to understand and expect its tricks long before its three or four hour running time is up. In a perfect world where people didn’t complain about short games, it could’ve been edited down to probably half the length. Still, some scenes (particularly one involving a record player) are among the best the horror genre has to offer—in terms of artistry at least, if not raw terror.

Bottom line

Suspense is an important tool, in horror. Suspense is what makes scares work. Five, ten, fifteen minutes of excruciating emptiness makes the eventual jump scare effective because we’re lulled into complacency. The pacing in Layers of Fear is numbing, with “scares” coming at you so often they quickly lose their potency.

 

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