Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Completist Guide to Rob Zombie's Halloween series (2007-2009)

Rob Zombie's Halloween (2007)

Given that John Carpenter is one of my favourite filmmakers, the prospect of watching a remake of one of his movies should fill me with a mixture of dread and disgust. We've all heard the 'horror stories' of directors like Rupert Wainwright (The Fog, 2005) and Matthijs van Heijningen jr (The Thing, 2011) trying (and failing) to update Carpenter's movies with inappropriate cast teen stars and needless CGI. But the thing with Halloween is that, arguably, it's been remade countless times already. I mean when you think about it, all the Halloween films (bar number 3) were all pretty much the same basic story. On Halloween night, in a suburban neighbourhood, indestructible killer Michael Myers murders a bunch of people with a large kitchen knife. So the prospect of watching a fresh take on this particular movie made me more... curious than angry.

The plot is basically split into two separate parts. In the first part we see Myers as a 10 year old child (played by Daeg Faerch). His parents are dirt poor and he's constantly bullied at school. One day he finally snaps and kills not only the lead bully but also his abusive step father, his sister and her boyfriend. Myers ends up going into an asylum where a psychologist Dr Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) attempts to rehabilitate him. Myers spends his time making masks and though he initially shows signs of co-operation he ends up killing one of the nurses, which leads to his mother (Sheri Moon Zombie) to commit suicide. The second part of the film is set fifteen years later. Loomis has long since left and Myers has grown into a huge hulking man (played by Tyler Mane) and hasn't spoken a word to anyone for years. He manages to escape the asylum and heads back to his home town of Haddonfield. He kills several people and ends up fixating on a seemingly innocent teenager, Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton), and her friends.

A lot of people hated Rob Zombie's Halloween when it was released but I actually quite liked it. The film, like DePalma's Scarface and Carpenter's The Thing before it, did what every good remake should do; it took the basic elements and gave them an entirely different spin. Whereas Carpenter's Halloween feels like a ghost story you tell around the camp fire, Zombie's Halloween feels like something you'd read about in the newspaper. Everything feels realistic and grounded (except maybe the part about Myers growing up to be a 7ft tall man mountain). I particularly enjoyed the first part which examined, in detail, the aftermath of Myers murders as a child. It was riveting to see Loomis' psychology sessions with him. I sat there kind of wishing Myers would get cured! It's a dangerous thing to do in films; to examine the villain's back story (just look at the horrible job George Lucas did explaining why Anakin became Darth Vader) but I thought Zombie did a decent job that didn't shy away from difficult answers.

The key element that held it all together was undoubtedly Daeg Faerch who, particularly considering his age, does a really compelling performance as the young Myers. And he's ably supported by Malcolm McDowell's reinterpretation of Dr Loomis. Donald Pleasance's portrayal in the original is so iconic, again, I'm glad Zombie steered away from trying to repeat the exact same character. McDowell plays him, initially, as a cocky, upbeat, slightly quirky psychologist before shifting in the latter half to a weary, broken, desperate man. I also enjoyed Scout Taylor-Compton's updated Laurie Strode who rather than a demure everygirl is now a slightly goth-y outcast. The only problem is that with the film being broken into two halves it feels odd to suddenly have Laurie introduced as our protagonist halfway through.

In fact, if I had to point out a problem it's that, while the first half is great, the second half is nothing more than a truncated, 'Platinum Dunes'-esque remake of the original. But, then again, I guess Zombie had to fit the original film's storyline at some point otherwise it wouldn't be a remake. In the actual murder scenes Zombie goes for viciousness and brutality rather than creepiness and tension. Again, he's trying something new here with the character of Myers, and that's to be applauded, but for me it didn't really work. It made the film shocking but not very scary, which isn't a good thing for a horror film. In fact, I'd almost go as far as saying that Rob Zombie's Halloween can (or should) be viewed as more of a thriller than a traditional slasher/horror.

I've got to admit I first saw the film in it's leaked 'workprint' form (that was floating around youtube a while back). I actually prefer this version to the theatrical cut for a few reasons. Firstly, there's a brilliant opening credits sequence with the young Myers running in slow motion through the school hallways while the classic theme tune plays in the background. And secondly there's a very bold alternate ending where actually Myers goes down in a hail of gunfire from the police. Again, this was a brilliant change from the original Carpenter film where the suggestion was that Myers was some indestructible boogeyman. Here he's a violent killer but ultimately just as mortal as everyone else. I liked this change. It felt like Zombie was sticking two fingers up at the greedy producers who clearly hoping he'd deliver some safe, sequel-ready movie.

Ultimately, I think Rob Zombie's Halloween isn't a better film than Carpenter's. It's just different. I think a lot of people thought that because Carpenter's film defined the 'slasher' craze of the 80s, Zombie's film should be as important. To justify its existence it should do nothing less than redefine the horror genre again. But let's face it, it was never going to do that. Zombie's Halloween is a good film, with some great ideas and great acting, let's just leave it at that.


Rob Zombie's Halloween II (2009)

I think it's important to note that Zombie never planned to make a sequel. It's very apparent in the original workprint that the film was meant to end with Myers being definitely dead but, of course, the producers wanted some sequels so he changed the theatrical cut's ending to be more ambiguous. Despite this compromise Zombie's Halloween II doesn't feel like too much of a shameless cash-in. Again, the film characterised by a ballsy script that seems to revel in messing with the established characters and atmosphere of both the earlier films and, strangely, its own predecessor. Once, again it's a film of two halves with the first half dealing with the aftermath of the Myers rampage.

The film picks up directly on from the previous film with Laurie having a nervous breakdown after she thinks she's shot Michael Myers in the face. The ambulance drives away with his body but he manages to escape and disappear into the night. After a quick fake-out dream sequence set in a hospital (a nod to the original Halloween II) we fast forward to two year later. Laurie is still suffering badly from post traumatic stress disorder and lives a dysfunctional life with her adopted father Sheriff Brackett (Brad Dourif) and his daughter Annie. Meanwhile, Loomis has written a tell-all memoir and effectively sold out to become a celebrity. Before long Myers returns to Haddonfield, killing his everyone in his way to get to Laurie who it turns out is his long lost sister.

Zombie's Halloween II is a bit of difficult film to like but there's still a lot that I admired about it. The film feels quite loose and rushed (which I'm guessing it was given that Zombie only signed on to do it in 2008). One of the major points everyone criticises the film about is the 'visions'. In this film, we get introduced (in a rather hamfisted fashion) to the idea that Myers 'sees' visions of his dead mother and a white horse telling him what to do. I think I wouldn't have minded if this was shown (or hinted) at in Zombie's earlier film but it wasn't. Still it's a neat idea - the kind of thing you can imagine a serial killer admitting to - and something fresh for the series.

Another sticking point that I can kind of agree with Dr Loomis' sharp character shift in this film. In the remake he seems like a fairly decent man but in the sequel he's suddenly turned into a unrepentant asshole. I get the point that Zombie was trying to make - the viciousness of Myers' rampage has affected everyone involved in different ways - but I think he could have shown the shift more gradually or explained it to the audience a bit better. I feel that maybe both ideas were things that Zombie probably wanted to include in the original remake but got turned down by producers.

Despite these two points, I enjoyed most of the rest of the film. The idea of Laurie being permanently traumatised by her experiences felt in keeping with the realistic atmosphere of the previous film and Scout Taylor-Compton does a really good job portraying her depression. I also liked the idea of Myers becoming a creepy hobo with a long beard and torn up mask. Again, I think it was good for Zombie to make the film his own and show what Myers is really like behind the mask (both literally and figuratively) rather than make him some indestructible killer. Brad Dourif is an excellent addition too. Though he had a small role in the previous film, he gets a much larger one here playing Laurie's ersatz father figure Sheriff Brackett. His helplessness to protect his daughter is truly heartbreaking.

As the film winds towards its conclusion I was pleased to see Zombie give the film a really bold ending. The problem is that it felt far more contrived compared to the original. It didn't feel like the major characters had naturally gravitated towards each other throughout the story. More like they had been artificially put in the same place by the writer. All in all though, I enjoyed Rob Zombie's Halloween II despite its many, many flaws. By making so many bold choices and radically changing the characters Zombie delivered anything but a safe sequel. If only more remakes took this approach.


Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Completist Guide to the Hellraiser series (1987-2011) part 3

Hellraiser VII: Deader (2005)

As stated in the earlier batch of reviews, most of these later Hellraiser films were based on pre-existing unproduced horror scripts that were 'lightly' re-written to include appearances by Pinhead and the puzzle box. Hellraiser: Deader is the point where this practice becomes really obvious because it introduces a whole heap of new ideas to the established mythology. This would usually be considered a bad thing but given that the last two Hellraiser films were almost identical in plot and pretty lacklustre I welcomed the opportunity for some new ideas and fresh directions for the series.

Deader sees b-move stalwart Kari Wuhrer play Amy Klein, an American reporter who is sent to Bucharest to investigate an underground cult, called The Deaders, led by a descendant of Philip Lemarchand (the guy who created the box in Bloodlines). The leader of this cult, Winter, seems to have gained some supernatural power that gives him the ability to bring people back from the dead and he's using this to find the perfect person to open the puzzle box. In order to find out more Amy ends up infiltrating the group and she quickly discover that Winter's master plan seems to be not just to let the Cenobites into our world but also gain control over them. Something tells me Pinhead isn't going to be best pleased about this.

This film wasn't totally horrible but it wasn't great either. I'm going to be quite charitable and say that it actually had a few good scenes. Early on, there's a very tense bit in which Amy breaks into a squalid apartment where she finds a dead woman slumped in a chair and has to climb over her body in order to get the puzzle box. Director Rick Bota really draws out the suspense in this scene and it's a shame there's not more stuff of this quality in the film. In addition, there's a few quirky elements that made the storyline somewhat memorable. Amy's investigations lead her to guy who runs a nightclub inside a moving subway train! And the film really takes an interesting turn when Amy becomes a Deader herself.

I feel that the original Deader script might have actually been halfway decent. It's a shame that it's been butchered and forced to become a Hellraiser script. Once again there are loads of pointless freaky-stuff-happening-but-oh-wait-it's-just-a-dream scenes. In fact there's so many of these in Deader it becomes a tough time recognising what exactly has and hasn't happened.

Kari Wurher's performance was pretty good. She's never been a top notch actress but her, um... attractiveness makes her ideal for these types of b-movies. The scene in which she finds she's become a Deader and tries pulling a knife out of her back was actually really played. Paul Rhys was pretty forgettable as Winter though and the only other notable actor was Marc Warren who played the nightclub guy Joey. He was kind of cool but didn't get a whole lot of screen time. When Pinhead finally turns up at the end and wastes all the Deaders the gore effects really kick in but a lot of it was cheap looking CGI which diminished the effect. This was especially disappointing given that the film was produced by none other than effects maestro Stan Winston.

Ultimately, Deader is too disjointed a movie to fully enjoy. Compared to some of the other later Hellraiser films it's actually an okay watch but that's really down to the original elements that came from the Deader script and nothing to do with the appearance of Pinhead or the box. At the very least I was pleased that the ending didn't turn out to be the lead character having one big dream/nightmare.


Hellraiser VIII: Hellworld (2005)

You know, I got a bad feeling about Hellworld just from looking at the front cover. I mean look at it. It's got Pinhead's face drenched in a Matrix-green glow of numbers with the tagline "Evil Goes Online". Technology and horror have never really successful been put together. Sure, Brainscan and Stay Alive were slightly fun but they were never scary. I guess the closest we've come is Videodrome but that was more about TVs and stuff than computers. Anyway, Hellworld is the last of Rick Bota's run as director and he finishes his run with probably the bizarrest entry in the series. You see Hellworld isn't set in the same world as the rest of the franchise. It's set in "the real world" where someone has made a online multiplayer game based on Hellraiser franchise. Very meta.

So, the film is about five 20-somethings who are attending a funeral for a friend who committed suicide while playing Hellworld, a game based on the Hellraiser franchise that they were all obsessed with. Not long after they all receive mysterious invites to a Hellworld "party" at a country mansion called Leviathan House. When they arrive the party is in full swing and the host (Lance Henriksen) gives them a tour of the house. One by one they are killed in gruesome ways by Pinhead who seems to be using far less supernatural methods than previous films - hacking teens up with butcher's knives and torture chairs. Before long the remaining two teens realise that all may not be what it seems but can they escape the house in time?

Okay, so we're back to the silly twist endings so forgive me for spoiling again. Once again it turns out that the majority of the film didn't take place. What actually happened was the five friends were drugged not long after they arrived at the party and their gory deaths were actually (collective?) hallucinations that they experienced while being buried alive by the host. His identity turns out to be the father of their friend who committed suicide. But get this there's a second twist. At the end of the film the host escapes the police and holes up in a hotel room, where he finds a puzzle box which when he touches it, brings out the real Pinhead who rips him apart with chains. Um, yeah, it didn't make much sense to me either.

The whole meta aspect is really underwhelming. As shown with Wes Craven's New Nightmare and Bride of Chucky a bit of self awareness can actually be really entertaining for a horror film. Here though the Hellworld is purely set in "the real world" because the online game wouldn't make any sense in the movie universe. For me, it was a big missed opportunity. Another thing that didn't really fit is that the main characters are all supposed to be computer nerds who spend all their time online playing this game but they pretty much all looked like fashion models. I'm not absolute verisimilitude but, come on, this film makes Hackers look like a gritty documentary.

The cast is the absolute worst; and given that this franchise isn't known for great thespianism (I really cracked the thesaurus out for this review) that's saying a lot. Most notably Henry Cavill (soon to be seen as Superman in Man of Steel) puts in a truly cringe-worthy performance as one of the friends, Mike, who is kind of a arrogant jock character. I've seen him in stuff since like Showtime's The Tudors where he was great so I guess this film, which looks to be one of his first roles out of drama school, can be put down inexperience and a craptacular script. The one bright spot is Lance Henriksen who I'm always happy to see pop up in a flick. He brings a little class (and menace) to the preceedings. It's shame they didn't scrap the teens and cast him in the lead. But I guess no one wants to see a film about a 60 something guy playing online games.

Doug Bradley barely gets a word in edgeways and I'm sure his total screentime equals seconds rather than minutes. It's weird to think that a few films ago he was basically the central villain and now he's reduced to a mere 'blink and you miss it' cameo. I kind of get why fans are so upset about this aspect. Dimension sell these Hellraiser films by slapping Pinhead's horrific and iconic visage on the DVD cover but then proceed to give you a film that barely features him. I think sometimes repurposing existing stories and scripts for a franchise can be great. All four Die Hards didn't start as John McClane scripts but they are all great movies. The difference is that these last four Hellraiser films have been such lazy rewrites that they are painful to watch.


Hellraiser IX: Revelations (2011)

So here we are the end of our Hellraiser odyssey. It's been a bit of bumpy ride and unfortunately this last (?) film in the series is probably the worst of the lot. It's been well documented that Hellraiser: Revelations was made for a very low budget (approx $300,000) and shot in a very short amount of time. Though it's never been confirmed many assume that the reason it was made was so that Dimension could hold onto the rights to the series for a few more years to give them more time to get a big budget remake made. Another aspect that gets commented on a lot is that this is the film that Doug Bradley finally threw in the towel and refused to reprise the role of Pinhead. Not a great start really.

So Revelations starts off with some hand held camcorder footage. Two teens, Nico and Steve, are recording their road trip to Tijuana but before you think that the whole film is going to be just 'found footage' the film cuts back to Steve's mother who is watching the video on playback in her home in California. Basically, it's been two years since Nico and Steve disappeared and both their families have given up hope of seeing them again. When a camcorder full of footage mysteriously arrives on their doorstep, the two families get together to discuss it over dinner. The video shows that Nico and Steve's sleazy getaway went horribly wrong and somehow they wound up in possession of the puzzle box. Out of the blue, a bruised and battered Steve turns up but claims to have very little memory of what happened.

I'll say this. At least, the film wasn't another lazy rewrite of an existing horror script. Revelations was written as a Hellraiser film and it makes an attempt to incorporate a lot of elements from the original film. It also wasn't just a collection of sub-David Lynch weirdness (like Inferno and Hellseeker), it was a proper story, and one that attempted to have some mystery to it. The actual backbone of the storyline is quite interesting. Two runaway teens getting mixed up with the puzzle box, their families not knowing what happened to them, one of them surviving to tell the tale. All good stuff, it's just that the directing, acting, writing, cinematography and sets are all uniformly horrible.

I think if they'd stuck with doing all of it as 'found footage' it could have been reasonably creepy flick but instead they chose to show Nico and Steve's Tijuana trip as a mix of POV footage and traditional camerawork. I know 'found footage' is hard to do - as a writer you constantly have to give explanations why people don't put the camera down in moments of crisis - but mixing it with ordinary shots killed any sense of suspense and mystery. The great thing about 'found footage' is that you can turn the camera off at key moments and make the audience do the work of imagining what horrific thing happened next. Cutting back to a 3rd person camera ruins that effect. Also, I think they could have hidden the budget more by doing it as 'found footage'. By doing so much as traditional camerawork they really had to light their cheap sets very brightly. As a result, the bar in Tijuana looks like what it was; a two wall set with 3 bored looking extras in the background.

The acting again was pretty ropey. The two teens who play Nico and Steve (Jay Gillespie and Nick Eversman) are okay to begin with. But after Nico has his fateful encounter with puzzle box halfway through and the two have to do more than just play horribly narcissistic teens they really struggle. Steve Smith Collins wasn't terrible as Pinhead but his bulky figure put him in stark (and unfavourably) contrast to Doug Bradley's more measured performances as the character. Even the two sets of parents were terrible. Steve Brand, who played the bad guy in The Scorpion King, was probably the best of the bunch but that's not really saying much. Though I'm criticising the acting I think a lot of the blame has to lie with the script.

Though I didn't mind the fact that much of the story was basically a semi-remake of the first film, I thought the characters and dialogue were horribly written and left countless questions. Why exactly do the two families meet for a sit-down three course dinner together? I'd think given that their sons have both seemingly died, they wouldn't want to see each other any more? How did Nico get away with murdering a hooker in a toilets of a bar without anyone noticing or walking in? Why did Steve post his parents his camcorder rather than write a letter? Why does the daughter flirt with Nico's dad after touching the puzzle box? Why is the word 'Cenobite' in the household dictionary? Who thought it was a good idea to give the two families the surnames Craven (as in Wes? A filmmaker with connection to the series) and Bradley (the name of the actor who thought your script was horrendous)!

As always with Hellraiser, there's a twist which for once wasn't terrible. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't great either but after such a lacklustre movie I was grateful for what I could get. So there you have it - all 9 Hellraiser films - Done. My opinion hasn't really changed from when I was a teen. This has been a horribly mismanaged franchise through and through from a creative perspective. The original film is a really decent horror flick and probably never should have been sequelised but it was, over and over. This is what happens when you run a property into the ground... hard.


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.


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!


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?


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

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Completist Guide to the Hellraiser series (1987-2011) part 1

Hellraiser (1987)

I've got to confess I was never a huge fan of the Hellraiser films. I had a friend as a teenager who loved them and made me a copy of the first four (on one VHS tape!) in the hopes of making me a fan too. At the time, I was massively freaked out by horror films and I remember watching them in 10 minute installments to make sure I didn't get too scared (Note: I've since manned up significantly). Anyway, I remember thinking they were okay but alternated between being ridiculously over-the-top and ploddingly dull. Fast forward several years and it turns out they've made nine of these films! So I thought the time was ripe to give them another go and watch them all from the beginning. Surely, if they made nine entries there must have been something I missed? No?

So the first film sees Andrew Robinson and Clare Higgins play Larry and Julia, a middle aged couple who move into an old house with their daughter Kirsty. The house used to belong to Larry's brother Frank and everyone assumes that he has either died or gone missing. But the truth is far darker. You see Frank was a thrill seeker and picked up an ancient puzzle box while he was on his travels. He brought it back to his house and managed to solve the puzzle, however by solving the box it opened a portal to another dimension and a bunch of sado-masochistic beings called Cenobites tore his body (and soul) apart! After Larry accidentally cuts his hand and bleeds on the floor where this all happened Frank starts to be reanimated and he forces Julia, who he had an affair with long ago, to get him more blood so he can become whole again.

Hellraiser is actually adapted from Barker's own novella 'The Hellbound Heart' that he wrote in 1986. The storyline of the film is actually quite strong (far greater than any other entry in the series) and you can tell it's been adapted from a book. This isn't just a silly gore movie, there's some thought-provoking themes in the background. Barker's clearly trying to draw parallels between the sado-masochistic Cenobites and Julia's destructive (and submissive) affair with Frank. The part where a partially reanimated Frank forces Julia to lure several lonely businessmen back to her house and kill them is creepy not for the gory deaths but for how easily Julia agrees to do it. It's the lengths that she'll go for Frank (and the controlling influence that Frank has over her) that are most disturbing elements of the film.

Considering Hellraiser was Barker's first time directing a film he did a pretty solid job. I only really had two issues with the whole film. The first was that the violence and gore is quite frequent and brightly lit and I cant help but feel that if he implied instead of showing, the film might have achieved a truly terrifying atmosphere. The second was the finale where the Cenobites, having claimed Frank's soul, start inexplicably going after Kirsty (something which doesn't happen in the book), not only felt a contrived way to give the film an action-packed ending but it also contained some shoddy effects that really take you out of the film. The thing is Barker's writing is known for his long graphic descriptions but I don't think it works to always just translate them direct to screen. The mediums are very different and need handling in different ways.

The best part of the film is definitely Doug Bradley's portrayal of the lead Cenobite, Pinhead. He's a truly iconic cinematic monster. So weird, so bizarre, so creepy. Surprisingly, given that he's the only character on the film's poster, Pinhead is actually used very sparingly in the film and has only handful of lines. However each appearance and each line of dialogue is expertly delivered by Bradley. There's very few actors who could pull off a line like "We'll tear your soul apart." In fact all of the Cenobites are really well-realised. The lack of explanation of who they are and why they are linked to the box only add to the film's intrigue.

The acting by the human characters varies a bit. Clare Higgins does a great job of Julia. She's really the lynch pin of the film and succeeds in slowing shifting the character from innocent housewife to cold hearted murderer. Ashley Lawrence is okay as Kirsty. Her character, even in the book, seems to purely be there to solve the mystery so there's not a whole lot for Lawrence to do with the role but scream and act shocked. Andrew Robinson turns in a bit of a hammy performance as Larry. I think that's because Robinson is far better at playing villains (see: Dirty Harry) and he's hampered for the most part having to play Larry as such a nice guy. However when the final twist comes and Frank dons his skin to trick Kirsty we get a great 10 minutes.

All in all Hellraiser is still a very good film that deserves it's iconic status. It's a not a perfect film by any means but it's an important entry in the horror genre. The dated special effects have somewhat diminished it's power but some of the practical gore will never be topped. The shot of Frank reanimated was stunning and once you see that final shot of Larry/Frank getting pulled apart by hooks you'll never forget it!


Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)

Hellraiser was a smash hit at the box office and it was inevitable that sequel would happen but I'm surprised they turned one around so quickly. Barker stepped down from the directing chair and made way for Tony Randel, who would go on to do the live action anime Fist of the North Star in 1995. In a lot of ways the directing doesn't feel that different from the Barker's style, the only difference is the film seems even more stylised (and divorced from reality) than the previous entry - with an abundance of cheap set work that at times threatens to derail any sense of terror.

The story of Hellbound picks up directly from the previous film with Kirsty being questioned by police a few days later. She has been assigned to a mental asylum and though she tries to explain about the Cenobites and the puzzle box, no one believes her because the only evidence left behind was a bloody mattress. Unbeknownst to her, the head of the asylum, Dr Channard (a devilish Kenneth Cranham) actually does know about the box and he has been secretly been researching it for years. He ends up using a autistic patient, Tiffany, to open the box and, in doing so, resurrects Julia. Together they use the box to slip into the Cenobites realm (aka Hell) and Kirsty follows hoping to find her father.

As mentioned the film is much larger in scope than the previous film; we're no longer confined to a small house. The characters travel to Hell itself - which resembles... a large maze of corridors! It's kind of a let down and worked much better in the first film where the Cenobites just appeared out of nowhere. One of the problems with Hellbound (and the series as a whole) is that the makers consistently went out of there way to explain things too much. I don't think we really needed to know that Pinhead used to be a WWI soldier. I don't think we needed to see what Hell looked like. I don't think we needed to know that Hell was ruled over by a floating rhombus called Leviathan. The more we see and the more explanations we get the less scary something becomes.

The major character addition to the film is Dr Channard who is one of the best elements of the film. British actor Kenneth Cranham excels in the role and is very creepy both before and after he gets turned into a Cenobite. Like the first film, it's his obsession with the box (which admittedly is rather poorly introduced) that makes him a truly terrifying villain. I defy you not to get chills when he exclaims, just before being transformed, "I want to see. I want to know." Unfortunately, towards the end he has to try and pull off silly one liners like "The doctor is IN" which don't work out so well. And the less said about his final 'battle' with Pinhead the better. Having made Pinhead such a powerful character in the first film it was a shame to see him turn back to being human and help Kirsty!

It's always been a popular thing with horror sequels to pick up directly from the last installment (see: Friday the 13th, Halloween) but I can't help but feel that it wasn't necessary for Hellbound to bring Kirsty and everyone else back. It feels too much like a reunion for the sake of having a reunion. The Hellraiser series as a whole definitely hangs on the idea that death is far from permanent but bringing back characters again and again diminishes their impact. I think Clare Higgins had already done everything she could with the character of Julia in the first film, we didn't need to see her come back to torment Kirsty a second time (though interestingly, Barker actually thought Higgins should be the figure head for the series and tried to get her to come back for the third film).

Really, if you think about it, Hellbound is much more of a gothic fantasy adventure (with gore) rather than a straight-forward horror film and I think that's the way you've got to approach it to really enjoy it. Yes, it looks silly and will rarely scare you but everything moves at a fast pace and doesn't leave you much time to think about it. I guess I've got to offer the makers faint praise for not just rehashing the original film and trying to make a continuation but they really shouldn't have gone all the way to Hell. Overall, Hellbound is an okay-ish follow-up if viewed under these conditions.


Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992)

The third film is usually always a difficult and tricky one for any franchise and Hellraiser III is no exception. In the intervening years between the second and third film, the original producers, New World Pictures, had closed and the rights were sold to Bob Weinstein's Dimension Films. At the time Dimension weren't the huge label they are today but still they decided to use their "influence" as producers over the film in order to try and make alterations to make the film more commercially successful than the previous one. This meant not only shooting it very cheap again (this time in the US instead of Britain) but also twisting the film's formula to better fit a horror film mould.

Hellraiser III again picks up from the previous film, only this time it ditches Kirsty in favour of a new protagonist, Joey (Terry Farrell), a TV reporter who is investigating the mysterious death of man in a hospital who seemed to be ripped apart by invisible chains. Meanwhile, the mysterious pillar that was seen rising out of the mattress in the last film has been mistaken for a piece of art and gets sold to Monroe, a sleazy club owner who puts it in his apartment. Before long the pillar comes to life and after devouring Monroe's latest girlfriend Pinhead gets reborn from it, only this time something's different. He's no longer reserved and stony-faced. He's now spouting one liners and causing all kind of mayhem. Turns out when he died in the last film his personality got split into the good and noble Captain Spencer and the evil, sadistic Pinhead. Now it's up to Joey to send him back to hell.

Clearly, the change in Pinhead was designed to give audiences a villain more in keeping with other franchises like Freddy Kruger and the Leprechaun. A wise-cracking bad guy who kills people in novel ways while spouting some witty one liners. Unfortunately, however much the film's storyline tries to justify the change (split personality, really?), it just doesn't work. It's too much of a shift. What made Pinhead truly terrifying in the original film was how emotionless he was. Having him say corny lines and smile significantly diminishes his presence. The big change is that Hellraiser III is really the film that bumps Pinhead up to being the major antagonist. When you think about it, he wasn't really the villain in either of the first two films.

Once again (in what will become a running theme in these Hellraiser reviews), you've got to sit back and accept that the franchise has evolved into something far sillier than the original film was in order to enjoy it. And there are a few fun bits here and there such as the new Cenobites that Pinhead creates are kind of enjoyable in a trashy way. The best being a guy who fires CDs out of his body. And Pinhead walking into a church and freaking out a priest was kind of cool. Unfortunately there's quite a lot of dullness to wade through to get to these little bits. Much of it is spent on Joey investigating Monroe's club and the puzzle box. At the very least Hellbound had a sense of pace, this film has none and when the action finally does kick in it's very lifeless. It's a sad state of affairs that the major action set piece of the film is the Cenobites chasing Joey down an empty city street blowing up cars around her to scare her. Exploding cars aren't scary!

The acting is pretty bad across the board. Terry Farrell is thoroughly wooden as Joey as is Paula Marshall who plays her sidekick Terri. Bradley does his best with the lines he's given but his Captain Spencer personality is very boring and Pinhead's spoiled (not least by the fact that they don't alter his voice to make it sound deeper). You know you're watching a bad film when plot exposition comes in the form of the lead character... having a dream. And the final battle in which Spencer and Pinhead re-merge is just a horrible cheap looking CGI effect and serves one of the lamest final battles I've seen in any film.

Overall, Hellraiser III is a pretty poor entry in the series (but we've got much lower to go). Even as a trashy horror it consistently fails. It's doubly disappointing because director Anthony Hickox's early film Waxwork, a fun little b-movie, showed a lot of promise. I think if the film had had a better director, who could give it a faster pace, the film could have been a good guilty pleasure.


NEXT TIME: Pinhead goes to Space and Beyond!