Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Retrospective: The Hellraiser Series, Part 1

I’ve made no secret over the course of this thing I’m writing that I don’t like the franchising of horror film. I mean, generally turning films into franchises is a bad idea when they aren’t really built for it, because it seems like over the course of any given series, you run the risk of taking what was interesting about the initial film and diluting it into a series of fanservicey gestures that end up not so much being films as allusions to previous films (“remember when this one character said that one thing two movies back?”), or the most superficial aspects of the initial film being reiterated until subsequent films are just expressions of some very basic narrative hooks (“what Rube Goldbergian demises await the hapless teens in this installment of Final Destination?”) instead of coherent stories. 

That sucks regardless. However, I think when it comes to horror it’s even worse, because part of what lends horror film power is the element of mystery, of the unknown, the unexplained, the unresolved. The best, most powerful horror is the horror that denies you the safety or comfort of understanding it. The best horror leaves us stranded in the dark when all is said and done. And franchises do not operate on that principle. Every subsequent film begins with us knowing a little more about the antagonist at its core, every subsequent film fleshes out the world that contains it a little more, every subsequent film leans more and more heavily on a gimmick or hook. Franchises explain, explore, and exploit. And so in horror, what begins as a story about a monstrous unknown invariably turns into crummy fantasy (e.g., the Nightmare on Elm Street films) or soap opera (e.g., the Saw films).

So yeah, fuck a franchise. But so far, I’ve based this argument on partial evidence. I confess to having crapped out of the Saw series halfway through the fourth one out of boredom, and there were...what, three or four more after that? Same with the Nightmare on Elm Street films - I’ve seen the first three and New Nightmare, but I know I’m missing a couple. So I’m going to try to work my way through a franchise, start to finish, by examining one that at least grabbed me the first time around.

I’m going to look at the nine films (to date) made in the Hellraiser franchise. I’ve seen the first four already just as a casual viewer, and the early ones were much more important to me as a young filmgoer and horror enthusiast than the Elm Street or Friday the 13th films ever were, so there’s a sense of commitment for me that I just don’t feel with those others. These films definitely trace an arc from successful to bargain-bin, and I want to know how that happened and if there’s anything to be gleaned from them in this day and age.

Because there’s nine of them, I’m going to do three posts, each covering three films. Just as fair warning, they’re going to get pretty spoilery. So, without further adieu, let’s tackle the first three...