Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Completist Guide to the Hellraiser series (1987-2011) part 2

Hellraiser IV: Bloodline (1996)

In a lot of ways Bloodline feels like the conclusion of the Hellraiser series. Whereas the first three films all leave endings that hint the plot of the next sequel, every film after Bloodline is basically a stand alone entry that requires no knowledge of any of the previous films. I guess that's to be expected as Bloodline is probably as "epic" as any Hellraiser film can hope to be. It's a massive sprawling storyline that's set over three time periods, from 18th century France to present day New York to a futuristic space station. And though it's far from a good movie, you've got to at least give the makers credit for thinking big... REALLY BIG!

The film begins in 2127 where Dr Merchant (Bruce Ramsey) is working on a space station using remote control robots to open the puzzle box in order to trap and destroy Pinhead once and for all. Before he can complete his work he's stopped a group of marines who take over the station. They question him about what he's doing and in order to try and get them on his side Merchant explains about what the box is and how his whole bloodline is connected to it. First, we flash back to Philip Lemarchard (also Ramsey), an 18th century toymaker who was commissioned, unknowingly, to make the original box for a twisted aristocrat. Then later we get the tale of John Merchant (again, Ramsey), a 20th century architect who tried to create a building which would trap Pinhead. All of them failed and now it's up to Dr Merchant, the last of his bloodline, to kill Pinhead for good.

Like I say I enjoyed the "scope" of this film. It kind of reminded me a little of Darren Aronofsky's vastly underrated The Fountain which similarly spanned past, present and future with a Hugh Jackman playing the protagonist in each segment. A more accurate comparison though, given that this is quite a cheesy movie, would probably be one of the time-hopping Highlander films. Given that the second and third Hellraiser films had drifted more and more away from the horror of the original, I was okay with seeing the franchise move into cheesy sci-fi/fantasy territory. Make no mistake though none of this is very scary. The space station scenes aren't anywhere near the creepy terrors of Alien, it's more like Critters 4.

The film is credited as being Alan Smithee (a notorious pseudonym that directors have used for years when they don't want to be associated with a film) but it was nominally directed by effects guru Kevin Yagher but Dimension insisted on reshoots and Joe Chapelle (Halloween 6) oversaw these bits. The film does show heavy signs of being tampered with. There's a very disjointed atmosphere to the whole thing - you can tell that some lines have obviously been redubbed, some scenes end abruptly, and the story doesn't quite flow as it should. Without seeing the original script or workprint it's tough to tell how much of a hatchet job it was. Still there's some pleasing bits and pieces along the way.

The idea of using robots as a "safe" way to opening the box was a cool little idea and (though it didn't need explaining) the creation of the puzzle box was quite interesting. There's a very cool scene in the 18th century bit where the evil French Aristocrat skins a prostitute and "fills" the body with a demon he's summoned. It was one of the few times that the film approached anything remotely creepy. The problem was that given its an 80 minute run time, there's not enough time devoted to any of the segments. I think the weakest bit was the John Merchant/present day section because it didn't really add anything to the story apart from explain what the Puzzle Box building (glimpsed at the end of Hellraiser III) was. Really the film should have been given a better budget and runtime to realise the director's full vision. As it stands it feels very compromised.

The acting wasn't great but I kind of enjoyed Ramsey's performance. You couldn't call it good but he had just enough charisma to carry the film. Valentina Vargas is pretty horrendous as Angelique, a rival Cenobite and Doug Bradley was just about okay. I found it quite humourous to see Adam Scott (Step Brothers, Party Down) in one of his first roles as a wealthy Frenchman - I guess everyone starts somewhere! Overall, Bloodline is such a bold crazy idea for a film I couldn't help but like it. I just wish it wasn't so dull and plodding.

GRADE: B-

Hellraiser V: Inferno (2000)

So Inferno was the first Hellraiser film that went direct to video and it came out without much fanfare six years after the box office failure of Bloodline. The film was directed by Scott Derrickson who would go on to do (shock, horror, actual films at the cinema!) The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the big budget Keanu Reeves-starring remake of The Day the Earth Stopped. This film and the next few had no involvement from Clive Barker on a storyline or producing level. Inferno also marked the beginning of Dimension's practice of using existing scripts and having a writer tack on Hellraiser elements. As a result, many of them feel very disconnected from the first four films.

Inferno sees Craig Sheffer (who starred in Barker's 1990 film Nightbreed) as Joseph Thorne, a corrupt police detective with a coke habit and penchant for picking up prostitutes (despite the fact he's married with a kid). The film begins with Thorne investigating some bizarre ritualistic murders. At one of the crime scene he finds the puzzle box lying near one of the victims and takes it home. He quickly solves the puzzle and opens the box but unlike the previous films Pinhead and the Cenobites don't appear. Thorne continues to investigate the murders, trying to uncover who the killer, nicknamed "The Engineer", is. His colleagues, informants and family all start to get killed off by the unseen killer and he begins to have vivid waking nightmares. What has happened to him and who is the killer?

Okay, I'm going to drop a ton of spoilers here because it's tough to talk about the Inferno's flaws without talking it's ending. So the twist is that "The Engineer" is really Pinhead and basically everything after Thorne opens the puzzle box was him living through his own inescapable personal version of hell, ostensibly for living such a cruel and sinful life. The thing with twist endings is you really need to keep the audience as "in the dark" as possible to pull them off successfully. Inferno flags up very early on that what's happening to Thorne might not be "reality". He thinks he sees Cenobites everywhere, his investigation leads him to weird locations and bizarre conclusions. I don't know about other viewers but for me, it was very obvious he was in some distorted nightmare. And as such it was frustrating waiting a whole 90 minutes for the lead character to cotton on.

I think if the film wasn't marketed as a Hellraiser film it might not have been so obvious but because it is you're primed - waiting for Pinhead to show up and knowing bad guys get their comeuppance in these films - so it quickly becomes very apparent what fate has befallen Thorne.* Also, I kind of felt like the fact that nothing is "real" in the film gave Scott Derrickson too much licence to just play around with some sub-David Lynch weirdness that goes nowhere rather than tell us a narrative. Some of the weird scenes were quite good like when Thorne keeps trying to see his elderly mother in the hospital but other times it was just lame like the kung fu cowboy cenobites he encounters at one point!

Craig Sheffer does a decent job with the lead role and he pretty much has to carry the whole film on his own. I've never rated him much as an actor but he does good work here conveying Thorne's spiralling mania. He does both shouty and angry really well. I don't know whether it was really necessary for him to narrate the film though but I guess they were looking to give it a hard boiled detective feel. The rest of the cast is pretty forgettable with the noted exception of James Remar who does a great cameo as Thorne's psychologist.

Script aside Derrickson does an... interesting job with the direction. It's a dramatic change in colour palette for the series which has always been rich and gothic. Here it's very high contrast and washed-out at times resembling a 90s music video. I guess I kind of liked that they tried something new with this film but overall it just didn't work for me. Like I said earlier twist endings usually make or break a film and in this case it broke it.

* Another thing that spoils the Engineer's identity for anyone who has read Barker's original book 'The Hellbound Heart' - is that the lead Cenobite was called The Engineer in that too!

GRADE: C+

Hellraiser VI: Hellseeker (2002)

Two years later Dimension released another DTV sequel which was the first of three Hellraiser sequels directed Rick Bota. On the one hand I was quite interested in watching this because it marked the return of Ashley's Lawrence's Kirsty Cotton to the franchise and I thought getting her and Doug Bradley back together might recapture some of greatness of the first film. Unfortunately, it didn't and Lawrence's role is actually very, very brief. I can't find the interview but somewhere Lawrence wrote that she managed to buy a new refrigerator with the money she got for her 5 minutes of screen time in this film!

Hellseeker sees Kirsty and Trevor (Dean Winters), her new fiancee, driving through the countryside when they swerve to avoid another car and crash into a river. Though Trevor manages to escape, Kirsty gets stuck in the car and presumably drowns. Trevor immediately calls the police and they dredge the river but they find no sign of Kirsty's body anywhere. At the same time Trevor begins getting huge holes in his memory and struggles to remember anything of his relationship with Kirsty. The police, of course, suspect Trevor of murdering Kirsty but without a body they are forced to let him go. Meanwhile, Trevor starts to have creepy hallucinations and weird things happen to him like throwing up a eel. Before long Trevor remembers that at some point he purchased the puzzle box but what exactly did he plan to do with it? And where has Kirsty gone?

Spoiling time again, I'm afraid. Okay, so it was pretty frustrating that the makers did a 'bait and switch' with Ashley Lawrence in this film but I can live with that. She's not that integral to the series. I'm even willing to go along with the ludicrous character change they give her. What's really frustrating with Hellseeker is that it's got another lame twist ending and worst of all it's almost exactly the same as Inferno's. Once again, everything that happened in the film wasn't "real", it was all Trevor's dying thoughts! What actually happened was Kirsty deliberately crashed the car and she was the one who survived not Trevor. She did it on purpose because he was trying to bump her off to claim her inheritance. He wanted to use the puzzle box to kill her but Kirsty made a deal with Pinhead to spare her soul in return for Trevor's soul and four other people who he was connected with (such as a colleague he was cheating on her with).

Despite the fact I should hate this more than Inferno I... didn't. I can't really explain it but I guess I was swayed by Lawrence's brief reappearance (still looking hot) and the fact that Dean Winters did a marginally better job than Sheffer in the lead. Once again, the whole film really rests on the lead character's shoulders but unlike Thorne, Trevor isn't a conflicted character - because he'd lost his memory he couldn't remember doing evil things - which made him a more interesting character to follow. Also there wasn't some empty 'red herring' detective plot to get frustrated about. I guess I also preferred this to the previous film because my expectations were at an all time low.

Rick Bota's direction was okay. Certainly nothing spectacular. It was far more subdued and less stylised than the previous film, which I actually liked. That said Hellseeker's look was pretty interchangeable from all the other horror films they make on the cheap in Eastern Europe. The only thing that annoyed me was some horribly cheap CGI in a couple of scenes. Doug Bradley gets some better dialogue than the previous film and at least he didn't assume the form of any human characters - which kind of annoyed me in the last film. Once again though he's used for literally 5 minutes in total which feels kind of stingy.

Overall, Hellseeker is very, very marginally better than Inferno but lets face it both are pretty dire movies that will have you looking at your watch every five seconds to see how much more "hell" you have to experience. I think Dimension really missed the boat with this one. They could have made a cool reunion movie by bringing back Kirsty but they blew it by rolling out another 'hatchet job'. Surely this is the lowest that the series can go?

GRADE: C+

NEXT TIME: Pinhead goes Meta and we reach the end of the line for this franchise.

7 comments:

  1. Excellent Hellraiser write-ups! Always enjoyed the series....Bloodlines is so bad it's good. Adam Scott stole the movie as the Frenchman...he put it a spirited performance.

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  2. I enjoy Bloodlines, I only wish the film retained the intended anthology movie approach. It would've been a real novel way to do a horror sequel, especially one with such a following as Pinhead. Maybe someday Dimension will release a Director's Cut, but I highly doubt it.

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  3. Thanks Ty. Yeah Scott was pretty cool in this. It's always really weird seeing comedy actors in serious movies. Sometimes it can complete ruin it. I remember watching Lord of Illusions where they had Daniel Von Bargen (Cpt Spengler from Malcolm in the Middle) play a cult leader. That casting definitely spoilt the film for me.

    Mitch - I totally agree. This film was blast, even in its hacked up form. Man, Dimension really know how to screw up horror flicks. They did the same thing with Mimic and The Crow 2. F***in' Harvey Scissorhands!

    Don't know if you've seen this but someone's tried to cut the workprint, deleted footage and theatrical cut together.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p50_xLQF3y0

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  4. I really enjoyed this wrote-up even though I'll probably never see these. I agree that the concept of the IV sounds interesting with the different time periods and as thevideovacuum said it would've be interesting it it was a Hellraiser anthology film. I'm kinda surprised it got a theatrical release but not surprised that the rest went DTV.

    I'm also not surprised that they started taking original scripts and turning them into Hellraiser flicks.

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  5. Hey Chris, yeah Bloodlines is probably one of the few sequels that I'll give another watch in the future. It's easy to make fun of its 'Pinhead in space' plot line but I liked that it was thinking big. All the rest of the film are very small and forgettable.

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  6. I have a bunch of Hellraiser figurines for sale all are new in the box. Bdetailer@gmail.com or call or text 954-279-0077

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  7. I will send pics if interested

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