Friday, September 9, 2016

Retrospective: The Hellraiser Series, Part 2

So where things are gonna start getting icky.

Frankly, I was surprised at how poorly 2 held up in retrospect, and 3 has never been a good film by any metric (except maybe putting butts in seats, but given how much the (ugh) franchise vanished off the radar after 3, I wonder if it even performed well there), and the nature of sequels is such that invariably, at least where horror is concerned, there are going to be increasingly diminishing returns. So films 4, 5, and 6 are by all rights pretty much guaranteed to be disappointments.

That said, the experience wasn’ bad as I thought it was going to be. A couple of these films are actually not bad. I wouldn’t call them great, but much better than I expected. Unfortunately, what does start to show through at this point are the nakedly mercenary considerations that went into their production, which sort of cast a pall on whatever strengths they have, and one of them is just, by any measure, ass. Only 4 was even originally intended as a Hellraiser film, and the director felt enough pressure to make it more commercial that he ended up disavowing it. The other two are from (fairly similar) repurposed scripts that have the mythology of the first films inserted to wildly varying degrees of fit and effectiveness. So at this point, it’s really just about product now, and that’s a pretty dispiriting thing to realize when you’re trying to take these films seriously as creative works. A lot of things have been conspiring to keep me from working on this thing of mine for awhile now, but I’d be lying if I said that the prospect of having to grapple with such obvious cash grabs wasn’t part of it.

But here we are, with three more films out of nine to consider, so once more into the breach...

Hellraiser 4: Bloodline

So, for starters, we see from the opening credits that this is an Alan Smithee film. This surprises me, as I wouldn’t expect what is, at this point, intended to be basically serviceable genre filmmaking (and as awful as I find that, some folks are a-OK with it) to be so controversial as to prompt a director to remove their name from it. After a little digging (on IMDB and Wikipedia, I’m not a historian or anything) as it turns out, the director had his name taken off of the film because the studio wanted more of a focus on “Pinhead” than the film he was trying to make. He lobbied for something darker, less focused on the franchisable elements, more violent, and the studio pressed him for accessibility and relatability - to focus on their marketable bad guy and make it gory, but not, you know, too gory. Gotta bring in those teenagers. And so when all was said and done, the director didn’t want to be associated with the final product. A surprising display of integrity from someone who could have used the exposure (apparently most of their work before this film was as a makeup artist). I also thought this was the first direct-to-video film in the series (as subsequent releases would be), but this apparently got a theatrical release. It couldn’t have been much of one.

And this is all too bad, because this film really does have glimpses of what it could have been. Although not all of its failings can be chalked up to studio interference (its production budget does it no favors either), the basic direction of this film could have been a correction for the silliness of the third. Instead, we get something that feels direct-to-video, even if it wasn’t. And though I don’t think budget should be a primary consideration in evaluating the quality of the film, in this case the obvious cheapness contributes to robbing the film of some of the gravity it could have had.

Bloodline begins on a space station in the year 2127, where a man, feverishly intent, works on the puzzle box remotely via a robot proxy sealed with the box into a vault. The man works against time, as a squad of soldiers makes their way toward him. Some expository dialogue reveals that the man is the builder of the station, and he’s hijacked it for some as-yet unknown purpose.

This far-future setting - a group of soldiers confronting a man on a space station in the far future and asking him what he’s done - serves as a framing device, as the movie leaps back in time to tell the story of the box itself. The man’s story begins in pre-Revolution France as a poor toymaker receives a commission from a dissolute nobleman. The toymaker lives in poverty with a pregnant wife, so how could he say no? He has been approached by someone with the kind of wealth possible in France before the uprising, the freedom that wealth brings to indulge his hobbies, and the sort of hobbies often found among people of great power and little sense of constraint. The nobleman embodies decadence gone to rot, with numerous sores visible under his powdered wig and heavy makeup. It’s nice shorthand for the sort of desire-turned-strange that invariably drives people in this series. The toymaker, having completed and delivered his commission - a puzzle box of unsurpassed complexity and sophistication - follows his curiosity to the nobleman’s estate. Here, he finds horrors. A table of food and wine given over to maggots. Chains hanging from a gilded ceiling. A poor unchristened woman sacrificed to something that inhabits her flesh, in a ritual driven by the puzzle box, which has, unknown to the toymaker, been constructed to arcane and forbidden specification. The toymaker witnesses it all, horrified, and flees, his new purpose creating something that can undo what he’s done.

And so this is how we are introduced to Angelique - the demon called forth from hell, who inhabits the flesh of the sacrificed woman.  She is largely the prime mover here, and embodies the idea of seducer that Frank served in the first film, that Julia served in the second, and “Pinhead,” after a fashion, served in the third. Upon her entrance into the world, the nobleman’s assistant murders the nobleman so that he may possess Angelique for himself, both metaphorically and literally, as she is to some degree bound to his will by the nature of the summoning. Together, they live agelessly, he only interested in pleasure, she in finding her way out of the summoning contract and back to hell, bringing it into the world at the behest of her infernal masters. You know, like you do.

The main players established, we flash forward to 1996, where a descendant of the toymaker’s son is an award-winning architect in New York City. He is tormented nightly by dreams of Angelique and puzzle boxes and doors to hell. He’s obsessed, driven. And Angelique goes to visit him, in the guise of a potential client. He has built a building in the middle of NYC that is essentially a giant puzzle box, without realizing it. His inspiration is haunted by ancestral memory, as across the centuries he attempts to complete the work his ancestor left unfinished. As a result, his building has come out…strange. There are doors that aren’t on the blueprints, doors that open to spaces impossible in the building. Doors that are admitting Cenobites. He’s trying to build an engine to destroy the portals to hell without realizing it, and the forces of hell are trying to stop him. The rest of the film is basically a chase between the toymaker’s descendant, Angelique, the Cenobites (who do eventually show up, and they are every bit as goofy as they were in 3), and the nobleman’s assistant. Each is pursuing their own agenda, and ultimately the resolution to their story is found back in 2127 on the space station, ending where we began.

Here, the basic idea of the film is good. First, it focuses on the box, and not the Cenobites. I’ve been saying all along that this is how you create a series of films - it’s established early on that the box is eternal and supernatural and functionally indestructible. Given this, it becomes a matter of telling the stories of its passage through multiple lives and multiple ages. That frees you up to tell all kinds of different stories, in different styles, and in different settings. The box remains ineffable throughout, so you can go wherever you want with it. You’re not tied down to canon or increasingly detailed and convoluted reveals (looking at you yet again, Saw series), which are exactly the sort of things that make multiple horror movies in the same “universe” an exercise in diminishing returns. That’s how the Hellraiser series should have gone. This film also reiterates the themes of seduction and sacrifice from the other films, as Angelique tries to tempt the architect both sexually and with the possibility of increasingly more ambitious architectural projects. This is what has always driven people when these movies are at their best - the ways in which people can be seduced. It could be sex, or power, or knowledge, or ambition. It’s just a matter of finding what drives someone, what fuels their appetites, and then - literally and metaphorically - getting your hooks in them. Honestly, one of the things that surprises me most about this series of films up to this point is how strong the basic thematic through-line is, even when sometimes it feels like it’s in spite of the filmmakers’ best attempts to just quash it in favor of fan pandering and gore.

All that said, this film still has problems that keep it from being genuinely good. First, it’s obviously made on the cheap, both in terms of its effects and the quality of dialogue and acting. It’s not awful, it’s just…mediocre, like a made-for-TV movie. It lacks the sort of substance or gravity that can sell the scary bits as being actually scary. It’s still not as silly as part 3, but doesn’t have the power of the first film, and when it starts to focus more on “Pinhead”, it comes pretty close. I mean, for fuck’s sake, they give him a dog. A DOG. The attempt to make him Freddy Krueger continues. There’s also a gimmicky creation of a new Cenobite, that’s in line with some of the stuff in 3 as well in terms of how goofy it is. Really, the behind-the-scenes story of the film feels pretty supported by the final product. It starts off as strong as it possibly could, given its limitations, and then about halfway through, the introduction of the Cenobites is where it really starts to go off the rails. You can almost feel an invisible hand sort of shoving the story in a different direction, Ultimately, it really feels like there’s a good movie in here somewhere, but it’s completely buried by commercial considerations. The director wanted to tell a story about the things that make the Hellraiser films good, and the producers wanted another Hellraiser film, if that makes sense.

Of course, given that the next couple of films weren’t even originally intended to be Hellraiser films, the different between these two things is going to become even more starkly observed.

Hellraiser 5: Inferno

This...this...oh dear.

This film was apparently made from an unrelated script that was repurposed into a Hellraiser film, and it really, really shows. Keep in mind, this didn’t have to be a bad thing necessarily. Even though the idea of taking some other story and shoehorning signifying elements of a (ugh) franchise into it is just incredibly cynical and crass, it also opens up the possibility of taking a new look at or angle on the universe, of doing an end-run around the sort of stuff that makes movies in a series increasingly formulaic.

But that’s not what happened.

Instead, we get a chaotic mess about a detective who stumbles on the box in the course of a crime investigation, plays with it, and then things get increasingly weirder as people around him start dying and he becomes obsessed with finding a missing child. And then “Pinhead” shows up. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and the seams where Hellraiser-type stuff was shoved in are glaringly apparent and just make a confusing story borderline-nonsensical.

To its credit, the focus is definitely off of the Cenobites much more and there’s something to the idea of someone whose brief, almost-tangential exposure to the box basically drags them into ruin, and that’s what I mean when I say that coming at it as a story that isn’t really a Hellraiser story is a potentially good idea. Or it would be if it weren’t really incoherent and uneven in how it handles the story. It starts as a bad-cop drama, moves to a stock serial-killer story, then to weirdness that is still grounded in the real world (the sequence at a rural poker club feels like it could have been lifted wholesale from Twin Peaks-era David Lynch) and finally to the kind of supernatural weirdness we’ve come to expect from a Hellraiser film. There’s no real sense of progression from one to the other - it’s less a journey into darkness than a bunch of setpieces that lurch from mood to mood, dragging the plot along with it. Peripheral characters suddenly become central to the story out of nowhere, and the third act just sort of dribbles out information and plot twists until it sort of…ends.  Even if it weren’t a Hellraiser story, it’d be a fiasco, like a hastily-rewritten term paper that you wrote for one class and then tried to pass off for another by sticking some unrelated ideas from the current course in at the end.

On top of being utterly slapdash, the characters and dialogue are just as cartoonish as 3. Our protagonist, Detective Joe Thorne (really?), is very much the textbook rogue cop, with a healthy dose of macho self-insert fantasy laid on top. We meet him playing speed chess (at a basketball court for some reason) and beating someone he refers to as “Professor.” So this is shorthand for him being a brilliant mastermind when it comes to puzzles. He snorts coke, he drinks on the job, and he fucks hookers (who say things like “whatever you want for as long as you want it” in hilarious defiance of everything we know about actual prostitution) and he has a wife and daughter. So he’s ultra-smart and women can’t keep their hands off him and he doesn’t play by the rules. He is some hack-ass writer’s idea of an antihero. For fuck’s sake, he provides a gravelly voice-over narration for chunks of the movie like this is some noir exercise instead of the sub-Special Victims Unit dreck it really is.

And it really is - nobody in this film talks like actual people talk. Everyone makes speeches and pronouncements at each other, and everyone lives up to the cop show clichés. You’ve got the rogue cop, the decent partner with integrity, the wise-ass lab techs, the concerned captain, the creepy snitch, and the sympathetic counselor. I mean, it’d be one thing if they went full-blown pulp crime drama with it like L.A. Confidential - it’d be weird and maybe not a good movie but at least they would have fully committed to the aesthetic. This is just clichéd enough that it’s off-putting, but not enough to add anything texturally interesting to the film.

Essentially, Thorne (again, really?) discovers the box at a crime scene as gruesome as you’d expect, and decides, after an evening of coke-snorting and hooker-fucking, to mess around with it. Remember, he’s brilliant with puzzles (and we know this because he tells us), and…actually, that doesn’t figure into the rest of the film at all, which is essentially just him running from lead to lead, from crime scene to crime scene, trying to find a child whose fingers are being left at each crime scene. Thorne’s attempt to figure out the box’s importance at the crime scene leads him to a mythical, shadowy underworld figure known as “The Engineer,” who is some kind of police boogeyman, a criminal mastermind who cannot be caught. The longer Thorne pursues the Engineer, the more the Engineer seems damn near omnipotent and supernatural, and all the while people keep dying mysteriously around Thorne. In terms of pace, mood, and continuity, it’s an increasingly more disjointed film as it goes on. My guess is that it’s supposed to be either Thorne’s grasp on reality slipping or the illusion of reality beginning to collapse, but there’s no subtlety to it, no gradually escalating feeling of wrongness. It just feels like a bunch of scenes - some from other movies in entire other genres - stitched together.

Really, the intrusion of the Hellraiser mythos into this movie is minimal - the box could easily be any artifact, and the Cenobites could be generic demons for all this really has to do with the themes of the first three films. This film marks the point where the intersection between pain and desire in the flesh officially takes the background and the idea of the Cenobites - well, let’s be honest, “Pinhead” since he’s the only one that matters - as moralistic administrators of punishment takes the foreground. Apart from one brief, surprisingly effective interaction between Thorne and two female Cenobites where their barbed investigations of his flesh don’t really seem to bother him (quite to the contrary, they seem to be turning him on), all of the lip service to the idea of the flesh and the Cenobites’ relationship to it is saved for one final act speech by “Pinhead.” This is all about Thorne being consigned to his own private hell and how and why he deserves it, and that’s handled through astonishingly literal visual representations of his flesh and his spirit.

And really, Thorne deserves it. Apart from being smug and arrogant in the first scene, he’s morally bankrupt, we only know he’s a good detective because he keeps going out of his way to tell us directly that he is, he even sets up his partner for no goddamned reason after he discovers that the hooker he was with has ended up dead the next morning. He plants evidence incriminating his partner at the scene of the crime when it would have actually been easier to just wipe down the scene of the crime and not tell anyone about it. People do irrational things when they’re scared, I get that. But this makes no fucking sense and just seems to be there to reinforce how much of a bad guy Thorne is. He’s the central character and he’s utterly unsympathetic, mostly because he doesn’t actually have any motivations. He just does stuff because that’s how he’s written. He’s bad, and there’s no insight into why he’s bad or how he got that way. He just is, and now this is happening.

The whole film sort of feels like Jacob’s Ladder by way of Brian DePalma, but not in a good way. It’s lacking any internal logic, which, if you’re going to make a film in which the last act reveals that everything that came before was not what it appeared to be, you need to have. There needs to be a breadcrumb trail for the audience to follow, so in that last moment we can say “a-ha!” and put it together. No such thing exists here - when exactly does Thorne become trapped in his private hell? When he opens the box? If it’s all just a purgatory to which he is damned, did everyone who died actually die, or just him? The counselor he sees exactly twice is really the Engineer who is really “Pinhead”? Except the Engineer might also be Thorne himself? Why? Why is it important to note that Thorne’s wife and child died of exposure (in the middle of their living room, no less)? I mean, I am generally in favor of ambiguity in horror films, and working too hard to slot everything into place does make things feel artificial, but this is just really, really sloppy - ideas and setpieces strung together and justified with a “he was in hell the whole time!” ending that seems intended to excuse the fact that little to none of it makes any sense. There’s not really a lot here - the people aren’t people, the main thematic elements of prior films are more or less tossed out the window, and the details that persist from film to film are afterthoughts. An utterly forgettable film.

Hellraiser 6: Hellseeker

This is another film made from a repurposed script, and it’s a script which is, on the surface, not dissimilar to what 5 basically tried to do, but it ends up doing a much better job of it. It’s not great cinema and isn't a patch on the first film for thematic depth, but by the standards set by every Hellraiser film since the first one, it’s...actually pretty damn good.

We open on Trevor and his wife, Kirsty (yep, the very same Kirsty). They are on their way somewhere, and they’re talking about working something out, which is generally cinematic shorthand for a couple having problems. They seem to be resolved, though, and a moment of affection turns into a car accident, with them flying off the road and into the river. Trevor tries to save Kirsty, but he cannot, and she drowns.

He wakes up suddenly in the hospital, where nurses are attending to him. He’s blacked out, lost time. An attempt to sedate him turns into some kind of hallucination where doctors operate on his exposed brain, pithing parts of it while talking about the small difference between the areas associated with pain and pleasure (the use of pins in his head is a nice, subtle allusion). Then he wakes up again.

And this, then, is Trevor’s life - nested hallucinations and nightmares inside of nightmares as he returns to waking life, fragments of the time before the accident reasserting themselves in an oddly inappropriate boss and coworker, a mysterious business card, on which is written only “All Problems Solved," tacked to his bulletin board, a really frisky neighbor - it’s very disjointed and disorienting, and the horrific often reasserts itself out of nowhere. As if this isn’t complicated enough, the police are continuing to investigate the accident - he swears his wife is dead, he saw her drown, but the body is missing, and since he’s the only one asserting her death, it looks highly suspicious. It’s like he’s woken up in medias res, everyone else knows what’s going on, but his amnesia and blackouts make his attempts to understand it fitful and prone to failure.

This is pretty much the structure of the film - Trevor staggers from moment to moment, trying to find some relief and make sense of it all, as fragments of what might be the past or might be hallucination intrude on the present. Mysterious figures, even more mysterious deaths (a sequence involving a camera filming what appears to be an empty chair is especially effective) and it all points back to Trevor. It takes awhile for the pieces to assemble themselves, but the glimpses we get throughout are plenty evocative. It appears as though Trevor was not exactly a good person, and may have done something very, very bad involving the purchase of a particular puzzle box, one which would promise him all problems solved. And now shadowy figures pursue him, misshapen creatures murder the people around him while he watches, and he cannot walk the street without turning a corner into nightmares.

On the surface, then, it’s a lot like 5 - a man watches his life fall apart around him, and the Cenobites lurk at the edge of the picture - but it’s much more thoughtfully constructed and possesses more of the internal structure and logic that was so desperately needed in that film. The people in it aren’t quite so caricatured (though the dialogue is still nothing to write home about by any means - the cops especially are prone to cliché), and to the extent that they aren’t believable it’s much easier to frame it in terms of how bizarre and off-kilter everything seems. Like Trevor, we’re constantly two steps behind and trying to figure out what’s happening alongside him, and nothing seems quite right. The elements of the story that make it a Hellraiser film - the box, the Cenobites (yes, including “Pinhead,” though you can tell what the budget on these films must be that they were only able to show him - played by the original actor - for a little at a time. They were probably budgeted for one day or so to do his parts) are more artfully integrated throughout, and there are some nice allusions to puzzles and pain and pleasure and release, some of which are maybe a little too on-the-nose, but most of which work as nods to what is going on without being too ham-fisted. It’s too bad that this film follows more from the previous one in terms of recasting the Cenobites as judge and jury instead of the explorers they were in the first film, and I know that horse got out of the barn a long time ago, but it still irritates me just how much of an opportunity has been squandered. That said, the way the truth of the situation is revealed is much more organic than it was in 5, and there’s more of a sense of degeneration instead of moving from setpiece to setpiece.

All that said, it DOES turn up the volume on the weirdness too much and too quickly - it would have been better, I think, to have the hallucinations creep in a little more subtly and give us more of a sense of normalcy to have disrupted than to have Trevor basically start glimpsing hell from the get-go. When so much of the film is either flashback or nightmare or hallucination or blackout, it’s easy for those moments to lose their punch. They aren’t so disruptive or jarring when they’re practically the norm. There are occasional moments that land well, but this film’s biggest weakness, outside of thin characterization, is the quantity-over-quality approach to the scary moments. It needs room to breathe that it isn’t given.

In the end, everything converges (albeit a little sloppily), and the final twist - that Trevor is dead, and Kirsty basically struck yet another deal with the Cenobites in response to his attempt to kill her - feels both a little cheap (as it relies on a version of events we never saw because it was from Trevor’s perspective) and in some ways more disquieting than I expected - if Kirsty murdered Trevor’s co-worker and three women with whom he’d philandered, along with Trevor, in order to escape the Cenobites’ clutches yet again, that’s not something that should go unnoticed for that character. In her attempts to escape damnation - as “Pinhead” rightfully recalls from the first film, she opened the box, and they come to collect those who open the box, and she can’t run from that forever - she has only further damned herself. Her attempts to evade the inevitable are starting to rack up a body count. Whether that’s ever addressed again is doubtful (I have not as of this writing watched the last three films), but I think it’s important and a really nice bit of characterization in a film that for the most part manages to exceed my expectations for it.

And this is where things get especially disheartening, because now we're into films 7 through 9 - films that didn't even make much of a stir in terms of direct-to-video releases, and the last of which was reportedly intended entirely less as a film to be viewed than a means by which the rights to the intellectual property could be retained. It was a film made for legal reasons, as an exercise in property retention.

Let that sink in for a bit.

And oh yeah, I just found an IMDB entry for a 2017 release - written and directed by a makeup artist whose previous credentials are mostly for direct-to-video adaptations of children's stories. So that's what we've come to.

Hellraiser IV: Bloodlines IMDB entry
Hellraiser V: Inferno IMDB entry
Hellraiser VI: Hellseeker IMDB entry

1 comment:

  1. Cliff, would you agree that when Pauline Hickey was 17 in 1985 she was THE most incredibly gorgeous bird of all-time ! ?.