Sunday, October 2, 2016

Retrospective: The Hellraiser Series, Part 3

I have got to be honest, I didn’t have very high hopes for these last three films at all going into them, especially considering that the last one was made expressly as a stopgap effort to prevent Dimension Film’s option for the rights to the brand from expiring. I can’t think of anything more insulting that a film made purely for legal or business purposes. It’s fucking gross and, given that we’re now firmly in the territory of direct-to-video budgets, direction, and writing, the outcome looked grim. But, once I finished watching them, I realized that all of my low expectations were completely justified. None of these three films are good at all. Largely, they recapitulate problems with earlier films in the (ugh) franchise - two of them are repurposed from scripts that were not originally intended to be Hellraiser films and boy, does it show, and the third, though expressly intended as a Hellraiser story, manages to hit a bunch of the thematic signifiers from the first film without really understanding what they mean or why they’re important. The squandering of the original’s power and vision is made complete. So, one last time, let's do this.

Hellraiser 7: Deader

Here we have the absolute essence of a series treading water. This film shares a lot of story and characterization (such at is) DNA with 5. It’s not quite as egregiously awful as 5, but shares a lot of the same problems, and like 5, it was originally written as a non-Hellraiser story. In this particular instance, the shoehorning in of Hellraiser-related content apparently required, according to IMDB, a drastic rewrite of the third act. And boy howdy, you can certainly tell. It’s an incoherent mess that, in its efforts to reshape the original story to the demands of the Hellraiser mythos, ends up being no story at all.

We open on a drug den - there’s lots of paraphernalia lying around, people on the nod, one of whom - looking entirely too healthy for her environs - rouses herself from a drug-induced stupor. This introduction in the depths of narcotic depravity (such as it is) kind of nods to Frank’s dissolution in the first film, but it’s an approximation, some filmmaker’s idea of what the end of decadence’s line looks like. So, initially, the impression is “oh, this is a cheesy film’s idea of drug addiction where the long-time junkies still have clean hair, good skin, and perfect teeth,” but then our improbably healthy and attractive drug addict pulls out a camera, snaps some pictures of the surroundings and the people, and then leaves, gathering her oversized leather jacket around her. So she isn’t someone who has committed to exploring the depths of sensation like Frank, she’s a tourist. Specifically, she is Amy Klein, and Amy Klein is the gonzo reporter equivalent of Joe Thorne in 5 - badass, too cool for school, and super-awesome at what they do, as everyone else goes out of their way to tell us, even though there’s no evidence of it in their actions. 

We are filled in on how badass and edgy and brilliant Amy Klein is during a sequence where she returns to the paper where she works (it’s called “London Undergound” - oooooh, edgy) by her coworkers as she moves through the office. A couple complain about her looseness with deadlines, another couple point out how she goes to dangerous places to get the story, others point out how she always manages to turn in amazing work. Klein’s most recent feature for the paper - the one that necessitated hanging out with junkies and pretending to be them - is titled “How To Be A Crack Whore” (even edgier) and inspires one of the worst dialogue exchanges I’ve ever heard in a movie:

AMY’S COWORKER: “Hey, why don’t you show me some of those things you learned?” 

AMY (seductively): “You want me to show you what I learned...right here, right now?” 

COWORKER (nervous at her forwardness): “Um...maybe later?” 

AMY: “Maybe NOT.”

So this is Amy Klein. She’s attracted to danger, she has some kind of self-destructive streak, but she’s also amazing and brilliant. Again, none of this is communicated through how she acts or the choices she makes, it’s all told to us and treated as self-evident, and like Joe Thorne in 5, she is a caricature of the antihero, albeit not as scorchingly unsympathetic as Thorne.

So Amy is called into her editor’s office and there’s several minutes of insufferable banter about their shared past and how they both made bad choices and here they are back working together again. Her editor’s kind of a pretentious dick who seems to have mistaken his little entertainment paper for the hammer that smashes people’s preconceived notions about the world. He is not a dude with whom you want to get stuck in conversation at a party, is what I’m saying. 

Basically, Amy’s editor has received a mysterious videotape in the mail, in which a young woman improbably returns to life immediately after committing suicide in some kind of cult setting. It’s evidence of a weird subculture of people who call themselves “Deaders,” and the group’s leader, known only as “Winter” (sure, why not) apparently has the power to bring people back to life. Amy’s editor wants her to go to Bucharest, where the cult is located, and use her badass reporter skills and flair for the sleazy to find out what’s going on. Because who better to send to investigate a bizarre death cult in a foreign country than someone who plays fast and loose with the rules and has a penchant for self-destructive behavior, right?

Once Amy gets to Bucharest, her one lead is a return address for the videotape sent to her editor, and as is customary in such instances, she arrives at the address to discover an apartment reeking of decay, spoiled food everywhere, and a dead (...or is she?) young woman in the bathroom. Amy makes a big show of gagging and coughing and choking, which to me sort of undercuts her whole hardened-journalist thing. The movie opens with her in a crack den, I’d imagine anyone who investigates the darker corners of humanity for a living would have a little more aplomb at dealing with corpses by this point. There’s a journal, another package, a mysterious puzzle box (!!!) in the hands of the corpse, and then a thoroughly-telegraphed jump scare as the dead woman comes back to life briefly. It is so by-the-numbers as to not have any real impact at all.

Amy finds a second videotape inside the package retrieved from the apartment, and watches it. It’s the dead woman - named Marla - who mostly just mutters a bunch of non-sequiturs about life and death and how if you are watching this you were chosen or something, before specifically saying that the person watching this should not “open the box,” that opening the box would be a very bad idea.

So of course Amy opens the box.

Amy opens the box, and then, of course, things start getting weird immediately. Chains fly out of the box and snag her face and start to drag her down into the box, and then “Pinhead” is there and he says some stuff that doesn’t really make sense, and then Amy wakes up like it was all a dream. And this is pretty much how the rest of the movie is going to go - Amy goes from place to place, people say words of a vaguely portentous shape at her, usually a lot of mumbo-jumbo about life and death or fear or how much danger she’s in, or maybe about pleasure and pain, and periodically there will be flashbacks or reveals that what we saw was a dream (...or was it?) and none of it really makes a whole lot of sense. She follows clues on the tape and in the journal to some weird dude who basically has a traveling orgy going on in a train on the Bucharest subway and he points her in the direction of Winter and the cult and then, well more weird stuff just kind of happens as Amy inevitably gets involved with the cult and she gets stabbed but doesn’t die and then Marla shows up again even though she’s dead and she keeps having flashbacks to something that happened to her as a kid and everyone keeps talking about fear and the darkness and how our bodies aren’t real and how Amy has been “chosen” and every now and then Cenobites show up for a second or two.

The biggest problem with this film is that it takes a bunch of ideas, throws them all against the wall, and none of them really stick. The Deaders are people who have more or less shed being alive without actually dying, and that’s kind of interesting on its own as some potential kick beyond drugs for the persistently decadent, which would definitely be one way to hook into (ha!) the larger ideas that the Hellraiser films usually deal with, but the Deaders barely figure into the story except as what gets Amy to Bucharest, and are ultimately tangential even to the box and the Cenobites. Some of them seem to realize that they’re kind of doomed to live like this - robbed of the joy of living without being granted the relief of dying, but again, it’s briefly touched upon and then never mentioned again. Which is fucking weird for a movie in a series that has historically had a lot to say about the price we pay for seeking new realms of sensation, for casting off the limitations of the flesh. Nope, just a moment in a scene that doesn’t really connect to any other scenes, and then it’s over.

Even Winter, the putative antagonist, isn’t really much of anything as far as the film is concerned. He is apparently a descendant of the toymaker LeMarchand, from 4, and has a copy of the puzzle box as a family heirloom, but it’s never really explained why or how this enables him to sort of suspend people in a state of half-life or throw himself in front of trains and then mysteriously vanish. He’s kind of whatever boogeyman the moment needs without any sort of logic behind it. Oh sure, there’s some half-baked stuff about him being unable to solve the box and so he’s searching for someone who can both solve the box and is willing to surrender their life to him, and “Pinhead” kind of explains that Winter is dodging his damnation at the hands of the Cenobites, but none of it really gels. 

And Amy, as the protagonist, is kind of a mess too. She’s the badass reporter, sure, but there’s also a series of flashbacks to what is eventually revealed to be Amy as a child (and it’s confusing at first because the man in the flashbacks looks a lot like the superintendent who lets her into Marla’s apartment) and that Amy has a terrible secret, which...is why she was...chosen? Whatever being chosen means?  Maybe she was damned all along? The continual flashbacks and the recurring appearance of a particular knife in the present day and flashbacks alike, and the disjointed way Amy sort of wakes up in different places all suggest another variation on “she was in hell the whole time” like the last two films, but it’s never really articulated. The metaphysics in this movie are as much of a mess as the mood and narrative were in 5. It really feels like the people who made it just sort of thought that if they made everything sound important that it’d find some meaning on its own, but it doesn’t.  Even moments that are supposed to be harrowing - as when Amy wakes up to find a knife driven into her back - end up playing as slapstick because there’s no grounding in reality, no investment in the characters, and the stakes are never made clear.

As I said at the beginning, this film has more in common with 5 than any other films in the series, and that’s bad. You have the same poorly-drawn protagonist, story (or even plot) is sacrificed for a series of scenes which sort of loosely connect to one another, but there’s not a lot of logic to tie events together, the box kicks everything into motion, and then “Pinhead” shows up at the end to drag people back to hell. Some of the basic premise could, if tweaked even more heavily, make for an interesting film, but as it stands it is as blatantly obvious here as it was in 5 that this was never meant to be a Hellraiser film. It’s a film about a strange cult and how one reporter has to face her terrible dark secret as a result of investigating them, and that’s kind of a blah premise on its own. Slap the barest amount of Hellraiser-related content on top in order to sell it as another sequel, hoping to squeeze a little more blood out of the brand-recognition stone, and you have a film that is not only shoddy, pedestrian, and incoherent, but also deeply cynical. It’s obvious at this point they aren’t even trying.

Hellraiser 8: Hellworld

Okay, so this was apparently filmed simultaneously with 7, and once again, it’s based on a treatment that was not originally a Hellraiser story. I know it’s not unusual for people in the business of entertainment to refer to creative works as “product,” but rarely has it been so nakedly, unapologetically the case. This was literally “hey as long as we’re over here and we have a film crew, let’s crank out another one of these.” It’s almost actively contemptuous of film-going audiences. The film itself hearkens back to the cartoonish, pop-culture silliness of 3, very much a teens-in-trouble movie in which everyone is a two-dimensional cartoon of different archetypes and exist only long enough to get killed. It is a film utterly devoid of tension, emotional investment, or anything but the dull inevitability of bloody demise. Well, no, that’s not entirely true, there’s a moderately interesting twist to it, but it’s not at all enough to rescue it.

There’s some contextless stuff at the beginning with a young man digging a pit in a basement for some reason, and then after the credits, we come in on five teens at the funeral of a sixth. They’re there to mourn the death of their friend Adam - the pit-digging fellow from the open - who died because he got too involved in an online game, confused it with the real world, and killed himself in an effort to progress. The idea of impressionable kids getting too wrapped up in a fantasy world and coming to a bad end because of it is one that stretches as far back as the 1981 novel and TV film Mazes & Monsters and as recently as the 2014 novel Wolf in White Van, and it can be handled as “our youth are in peril” hysterics (as in the case of the former) or as a thoughtful meditation on the desire to escape bad real-world circumstances (as in the case of the latter). Here, it’s sort of a little bit of both, but really that’s because it doesn’t matter in terms of the story except as premise. It’s the event that brings everyone together, that sort of justifies the movie’s existence, but the movie isn’t really about the event, either. Honestly, the movie isn’t about much of anything. But anyway, the teens are sad because Adam is dead, and they sort of blame themselves, because they all were pretty wrapped up in the game and maybe they encouraged Adam’s unhealthy obsession. But they don’t dwell on it for very long.

Or maybe they do, it’s hard to tell, because then the movie flashes-forward two years. The intervening time doesn’t serve to do much except maybe create character traits for a couple of them, which is necessary because the five protagonists are really, really interchangeable. There’s Steve and Derrick, who are basically variations on the theme of bro (except Derrick is black), and Chelsea and Allison (and we can tell them apart because Chelsea has long blonde hair and Allison has short black hair). Derrick and Allison are a couple, Steve wants Chelsea in that macho entitled bro way but she’s still sad about Adam and is over the whole game thing now. Which makes sense given that someone to whom she was close killed himself because of it, but that...doesn’t seem to bother the others so much. So that’s Chelsea’s character trait: She is the skeptical one. Then there’s Jake, who was sort of a sad-sack at the funeral and the others didn’t seem to like him much, and that’s been exacerbated over time as now he’s pretty much openly contemptuous of the other four and they of him. So that’s Jake’s character trait. He’s the outsider.

So this is them, two years after the suicide of their close friend, and three of them are still cheerfully playing the game that drove their friend to suicide. The game? Oh yeah, I should probably mention that. The game is called Hellworld, and it’s ostensibly an online role-playing game set in the world of the Hellraiser mythos. Yep, it’s one of those self-referential movies set in a world where the source of horror and danger is something embedded in popular culture. We get don’t get much of a look at the game itself, but what’s there looks as poorly-realized and goofy as any game in any movie whatsoever. Attempts to describe specific subcultures (and pop culture in general) in film and television generally go really, really wrong, and this is no exception. There was maybe an opportunity here to tell a story of slow psychological disintegration and obsession, with the game being revealed to be an alternate expression of the puzzle box (or even better, a meta-puzzle, a configuration of configurations being solved by hundreds of thousands of people), but no, that’s not the point at all. We see Steve, Derrick, and Allison playing and solving an on-screen puzzle box, which reveals an invitation to an exclusive invitation-only Hellworld-themed party. They immediately call Chelsea and pressure her into doing the same, and despite pointing out that hey, she hasn’t touched the damn game in two years because their really good friend killed himself over it, she relents, plays, and gets the invitation too.

So now four of our protagonists show up at a huge old house in the middle of a forest, where the party is in full swing. In a movie like this, that means lots of people dancing in slow motion to generic raucous dance music. They present their invitation, and surprise surprise, run into Jake, who has his own invitation and came to meet his date - a girl he met on the Internet. I sort of get the feeling we’re meant to dislike Jake as sort of an uncool, nerdy wet blanket, but his dislike of the other four sort of makes sense given how shitty and self-absorbed they seem to be, to the extent that they’re allowed to have a personality at all. There’s even another attempt at self-reflexivity as a young bare-breasted woman comes walking down the stairs and Derrick exclaims “gratuitous tit shot!” and it might almost be sort clever maybe, but then Steve chimes in with “necessary tit shot” and it just makes me hate the entire idea of watching films ever. But this, apart from Chelsea’s continued insistence that Hellworld isn’t real, that the Cenobites and “Pinhead” are just figures from pop culture, is the last time the film will show any indication of self-awareness. Like so much else in these later films, it’s half-assed.

So the host of the party invites them into his private study, shares some booze with them, and gives them a tour of the house, which is basically a fucking space-time anomaly given that it’s a mansion on the outside and has about six floors on the inside. There’s lots of creepy set dressing - replicas of the puzzle box, fetuses in glass jars, old medical equipment, and he tells them a story about how it was originally owned by the LeMarchand family and then became an asylum for the criminally insane, all the usual boilerplate This House Has A Bad History stuff. The host is suitably creepy and menacing, with Chelsea being the only one who is even remotely aware of it. She acts unimpressed, ever the “it’s just a game, LeMarchand wasn’t real, the Cenobites aren’t real” skeptic, right up to the point at which the host jams a pin into her arm and she suddenly flashes to “Pinhead” pulling the pin out, looking at her, and saying “Adam was right.”

At which point everything goes back to normal, as if the host hadn’t just assaulted Chelsea.

And this is where one of the big problems with this film being as formulaic as it is really shows up. There’s a twist to this film, and though it’s not an especially brilliant one, it’s not an especially bad one, either. The problem is that pretty much all of the stuff that lines up with the twist and might give us a trail of clues that the end would contextualize is explained equally well by it just being a shitty film. There’s a reason within the story why nobody else seems to react to the host’s attack on Chelsea, but it’s equally plausible that it’s because these people are caricatures who literally don’t care about anything but themselves as they are written. The twist is also sort of dismissive of what made Hellraiser (and even a few of the sequels) special and different from other horror movies of their time, but I suspect that it’s also an artifact of the original script before it was repurposed to be a Hellraiser film, just like the last three films before it.

But I’ll get to the twist eventually. Before we get there as an audience, basically we’re treated to interminable sequences of Jake wandering around the mansion looking for his elusive date while Chelsea, Derrick, Steve and Allison get into various types of trouble. One of this party’s gimmicks - only infrequently and conveniently observed - is that in the service of pleasures of the flesh (a definite nod to the original themes of the Hellraiser films and probably the only one), everyone gets to wear a mask with a four-digit code on it. Anyone can call that code from a supplied cell phone and the two parties can if they desire engage in some no-strings-attached, literally faceless debauchery. Derrick and Steve immediately start hunting down strange women with which to have consequence-free sex, even though Derrick is ostensibly partnered with Allison, because they are literal cartoons. Chelsea and Allison don’t, and the distinction feels pretty sexist. Allison even calls Derrick’s code and catches him, and the moment’s played for laughs. Shortly after this, Allison wanders in to a room marked “Keep Out” and is murdered when she sits down in a literal murder chair.

See, this is kind of movie this is: People who don’t really have personalities do things no sensible person would (forget not acting like you’re in a horror film, because of course nobody does that, they don’t even have the basic sense of safety that you’d have if you went to a party with a bunch of strangers in the middle of nowhere), and then they die perfunctorily gory deaths as a result. Their deaths aren’t even the kind we expect in a Hellraiser film. They aren’t sacrifices to bring someone through into the world of the living, nor are they they result of Cenobites having their way with someone’s flesh. They are bog-standard slasher-movie killings, another sign that the only thing that separates this film from any dull, routine direct-to-video slasher film is the inclusion of a puzzle box and a few Cenobites. There’s no thematic attempt to address ideas of desire and transcendence or the subjective lines between pleasure and pain, or the many ways people can be tempted. These are just a bunch of stupid kids behaving in stupid ways and being punished for it with hooks and cleavers and saw blades and spikes. This could have literally been any movie at all for all it matters.

And then we get to the twist, forecasted by periodic flashes of the protagonists trapped screaming in a small space, or the host digging graves, or the protagonists suddenly finding themselves alone or utterly ignored in the middle of the party: None of this is actually happening. At the beginning, when the host plies them with whiskey, he’s drugging them and making them highly sedated and susceptible to hypnotic suggestion. He then buries them alive and feeds them hypnotic suggestion via cellphones buried with them.  The Cenobites aren’t real, the gory deaths aren’t real, the visions of Adam aren’t real, none of it is real. And their host? The man responsible for drugging and torturing them?

Adam’s father.

Because of course. What more time-honored slasher film clichĂ© than the parent seeking revenge for the death of their child by murdering the friends they perceive as responsible? The original killer in Friday The 13th was Jason’s mother, after all. And so this is why this Hellraiser film is so un-Hellraiser-like. It exists in a world where the Cenobites aren’t real, the puzzle box isn’t real, where none of it is real...or IS IT? We’re treated to a couple of false-ending twists as the surviving protagonists (as it turns out, three of them really did die as a result of their confinement) escape, along with Adam’s father. He runs afoul of actual Cenobites when he discovers a working puzzle box among his son’s effects (for...reasons?) and dies messily. Jake and Chelsea then appeared to be haunted by his ghost as they travel to warmer climes. Why? Why not? Who cares? Why should it make sense? Why should any of it make sense? Just slap “Pinhead” and one of those puzzle box props in there and put “Hellraiser” in the title and let’s keep this franchise going. It’s all the silliness of 3 combined with the incoherence of 5 and 7 and the cynicism of every single fucking film made with this name on it since maybe the second one. It’s mere ciphers in place of people, being placed in situations that end in violence, and everything else is beside the point. There’s no trace whatsoever of what made the first film good or special here. This is as empty and unnecessary a film as I’ve seen.

And there’s still one more to go.

Hellraiser 9: Revelations

So I guess the good news is that this is the first film in the franchise since the fourth to be a script written expressly as a Hellraiser film, so hooray for the literal bare minimum of expectation. On the other hand, the bad news is that this film was shot solely to maintain the production company’s rights to the Hellraiser brand. It was made to fulfill a contractual obligation. That is literally the reason it exists. It was shot in eleven days, and its entire production schedule was three weeks long.

So before we get started, on this, the nadir of the series, let’s let that sink in. This film exists not as a creative work, not as entertainment, not even as a revenue stream. This film exists to fulfill a technicality. The script was apparently never given a second draft. The budget was so small they could not afford the actor who’d played “Pinhead” in literally every other Hellraiser film. From the best to the worst, no matter how briefly, the one selling point every crass piece of garbage in this series has had was the same dude playing the single character that remains constant. Because that’s the franchise linchpin - the story doesn’t matter, theme doesn’t matter, just wave something familiar in front of the audience and they’ll go apeshit. It never fails, except this film could not even afford that. The actor read the script, said it felt unfinished, and then saw the pittance they were offering him, and passed, for the first time after eight films.

(It’s sort of an interesting consideration though, that this film wasn’t even made with the idea of an audience in mind. It’s like making food with no concern for edibility. It’s simultaneously as gross and contemptuous as possible and really, really avant-garde. Is a film a film if nobody is watching it? Do not get me wrong - this isn’t a good film. But the utter disregard for the idea of audience, of this being a thing not really intended to be seen, is closer to some art shit than not.)

We begin with a videotape of two spoiled white boys - Steven and Nico - making their way to the Mexican border with the express purpose of “getting (their) dick wet.” They keep talking about how they’re going to get laid, despite one of them being the boyfriend of the other’s sister. It’s appalling any way you look at it. One second they’re talking about all the drinking and fucking they’re going to do, the next they’re freaking out over the theft of their car (why they’re videotaping it is never made clear, and the car theft itself is never mentioned again), and then even the next, they’re alone in a room, one of them hunched sweaty, shirtless, over the puzzle box. Pinhead appears, and introduces himself.  All of this in a matter of minutes at the open. My initial fear was that this was going to be a found-footage film, which would be both expected as a calculated budgetary move and cynical appeal to trends in horror, but no, the videotape is just used as sort of a narrative framing device. Not as bad as it could be, but it’s still really, really abrupt.

This cuts to an older woman - the mother of one of the boys - watching the videotape on the camera on which it was recorded. The two boys have mysteriously disappeared, but it’s never really explained how the camera got retrieved or why it isn’t in a police evidence locker somewhere. The mother is tearful, probably because she’s realized what a vile pig of a son she’d raised, never mind the strange circumstances around his disappearance. No explanation, it’s just there, and for some reason she’s watching the footage, and then suddenly the other boys’ parents are coming over for dinner. It’s never clear how long they’ve been missing - they talk like it’s been quite awhile, but then react as if they’re just hearing something for the first time -  and everyone acts less like families who have lost their children and more like a dinner party where someone’s just said something faintly rude. There’s no sense of time passing or of loss. Just people walking into a house and talking to each other.

There’s another cut to the videotape, the boys in Mexico, trying to pick up women, furtive fucking in a bathroom stall that ends with the woman dead. Nico says it’s an accident, but given that he’d just discovered she was a prostitute, it’s entirely possible that he murdered her in a fit of humiliated rage. Steven, too drunk to function, only realizes what has happened after the fact. Then there’s a cut back to “Pinhead” and Nico, tightened by hooks. The film cuts back and forth between the families sort of standing around and “Pinhead” in some other dimension listening to their conversation, to no apparent purpose. Then we see that Emma, Steven’s sister (and Nico’s girlfriend) is watching the videotape (and most likely Nico fucking the woman), which is for some reason not only not in a police evidence locker, but just sort of sitting in a gym bag in Steven’s room, along with some pornography and the puzzle box. Why? It’s never explained. It’s just there.

This is the rhythm of the film - it cuts between the families at Steven’s home engaged in dull, aimless, wooden conversation, the boys in Mexico on an express train to depravity, and “Pinhead” in the other dimension, each of which appears to have been shot at a single location each. The idea is that we’re supposed to be finding out bit by bit how the boys ended up disappearing (hence, “Revelations”), but it’s all so cursory that none of it matters. The boys are utterly unsympathetic (Nico goes from asshole to full-blown psychopath in a single scene, and Steven is mostly spineless and passive), the families are ciphers, hitting an emotional pitch somewhere around “slightly puzzled,” which suddenly shifts to “yelling and hysterics.” Steven’s sister Emma decides to try the puzzle box, even though she’s seen the weirdest shit happen after Nico messes with it on the tape. Why? Just because.

Then more stuff happens. Steven suddenly reappears at his house, acting distant and strange, and now apparently Nico is a Cenobite, and as we flash back to Mexico, everything just gets darker and more degrading as Steven murders young women to try and bring Nico back from whatever hell dimension he got sucked into when he tried the box, interspersed with Nico’s transformation into a Cenobite and Steven’s torture at their hands. It’s sort of a recapitulation of the first film, with Steven playing the role of Julia and Nico the role of Frank, but part of why that worked so well in the original film was that there was a palpable tension at work - we believe that Julia would want to bring Frank back because she felt stifled and unhappy, and Frank represented a release from all of that, and we could see how human frailty and desire could drive someone to do terrible things. Here, it’s just a teenage boy throwing a temper tantrum. Nico wanted to get his kicks, he tried the box, the inevitable happens and he doesn’t want it to. He’s less a seducer using the seduced to pull him out of hell and more a shitty little boy who doesn’t want to deal with the consequences of his actions and is guilt-tripping his friend into bailing him out. In Hellraiser, Julia was an attractive woman luring in men by taking advantage of their sexism and turning the tables on men who were used to exercising power. Here, Steven is just a white boy murdering half-naked Latina women and it’s...on the surface the same sort of thing as the first film, but the particulars just make it deeply distasteful.

But wait...there’s a twist. As it transpires, Steven is just Nico wearing Steven’s skin (much like Frank in the first film), and the intercutting between the past and present sort of grinds to a halt so Nico-as-Steven can terrorize everyone with a gun (Steven’s dad spends a good chunk of the second half of the film gut-shot and this seems to be at most a minor inconvenience) and make interminable speeches about how unhappy he was with a future of suburban mediocrity in front of him. Nico is a shitty, spoiled kid throwing a tantrum, that’s it. Nico escaped hell wearing Steven’s skin, it was Steven who became a Cenobite for...reasons? Emma opens the box at gunpoint, the Cenobites sort of say “fuck all y’all” and everyone except Emma dies, and the Cenobites have basically called dibs on her once she’s dead. Because, after all, she opened the box. Roll credits.

Everything about this film is shoddy. It was obviously shot on maybe three sets, including someone’s actual house, there are points where the sound is obviously taken from camera mics instead of professional sound recording equipment, and the majority of the budget appears to have gone into effects, which are largely respectable, or at least competent (nevertheless, at points it looks as though Nico is wearing a luchador mask that’s supposed to be exposed muscle). The dialogue ranges from wooden to expository, nobody has anything resembling a genuine human emotion, and there’s probably no good reason for the sexual violence and implied incest that makes up a chunk of Emma’s second-act character. It doesn’t earn any of its gestures toward decadence, and in its incoherence just comes across as gratuitous and sordid.

I will give it credit for having more of a structure than I expected - the “revelations” of the title extend beyond what happened in Mexico so there’s at least a bit of a through-line, but none of the revelations are anything shocking or really revelatory. We don’t really get much of a sense of moral descent during the Mexico trip because it all happens so fast and to cartoonish extremes. Nico isn’t just an entitled asshole, he is immediately perfectly okay with being responsible for the death of a woman, without panic or remorse or desperation. There’s no journey, no rationalization, just him going from zero to villain. We don’t really see the boys seeking out more and more rarefied pleasures of the flesh - they start at a woman dying and then sort of hang out in a bar drinking until some dude comes along to sell them the box, and then shit goes south, just like that. There is the revelation that Steven’s dad slept with Nico’s mother, which...okay? There’s no freight to it, because we have nothing invested in any of these people. And then there’s the revelation that it wasn’t Steven who escaped or Nico who became a Cenobite, but the reverse. But this isn’t revelatory because it’s never entirely clear what happened in the first place. It’s hard for something to be a twist when the events it was supposed to reverse were never well-established, so the whole thing feels more confusing than anything else.

Ultimately, this feels like someone’s deeply amateurish fan-film - shot on a shoestring, focusing on the “cool parts” of the film by which it is inspired, instead of the underlying ideas of desire, transcendence, and sensation. It pays heavy lip service to these ideas, clumsily so, but doesn’t really understand any of them, thinking that long speeches about the flesh will substitute for meaningful characterization. It replicates plot beats - dissolution, damnation, escape through blood sacrifice, and the appropriation of another’s flesh - but doesn’t put any thought into what those things mean in the context of telling this story. They’re just there because that’s what the first film did. That it’s all being done by a couple of fratboys gives it an entirely different spin that nobody stopped to consider might be really unpleasant. The narrative framing device of the videotape of the ill-fated trip is abandoned halfway through, as if the filmmakers lost interest. Emma’s gradual corruption by the puzzle box lasts for a couple of scenes where she acts really inappropriately toward her boyfriend’s father, and then is also dropped so Nico-as-Steven can suddenly grab a shotgun and start ranting about the hollowness of his life as an upper-middle-class white boy. The creepy guy who sells them the box shows up and peels Nico’s father’s face off and then disappears again, and it’s this that gets people upset, though this reaction is largely limited to yelling “get some towels!”

There’s no mood, no atmosphere, no dramatic arc. Some things happen, some more things happen, everyone’s either seriously unpleasant or barely there, and all of the right signifiers - the puzzle box, “Pinhead,” a creepy vagrant, flaying, and bloody death by hooked chains - are there, but they don’t really tell a recognizable story about people with anything resembling human characteristics. And it’s too damn bad because on paper this could have worked as a modern retelling of the original film. Hostel did a pretty damn good job of telling the story of clueless fratboys who go looking for hedonism and end up in over their head, so that’s definitely possible. The sudden-cut storytelling style of found-footage could have time-lapsed their descent in dramatic fashion. Centering it around someone who vanished under mysterious circumstances suddenly reappearing could have also worked well. But it tried to do all of it at once, failing in every way to compel or evoke any feelings other than tired resignation. This is every inch the bare-bones claim-squatting effort that it was bankrolled to be, gross, dull, aimless, and formulaic to the point of near-parody.

The original film was something new and exciting - a visionary take on horror that looked like nothing that had come before and grappled with real human ideas that went beyond gore and special effects, that set it apart from the deep conservatism of the Friday the 13th films or the gimmickry of the Nightmare on Elm Street films. It didn’t have the clinical, dispassionate inquisitiveness about the malleability of flesh and human experience that David Cronenberg’s films did, but there was a visceral energy to it that made anything seem possible. And it captured people’s attention. But, as in the case of those other films, the lesson some people took away from that was that more films like it - or at least using the same characters - would be a good idea, regardless of quality or attention to what actually made the original film successful. Just throw “Pinhead” in there, throw the puzzle box in there, slap “Hellraiser” on it, and there you go. And nine films later, maybe one or two of them are worthwhile stand-alone films, another couple have some potential, and five are pretty much worthless, empty, cynical exercises in branding. And the director of the ninth film is making a TENTH, to be released next year. I’m not going to watch it. I’m done. Honestly, I wonder who will watch it, or if these are just being cranked out in a void. There was, at some point, talk of Martyrs director Pascal Laugier remaking the first film, and if there’s anyone I think could do the film justice, it’s him. Who else better to take a fearless look at the transcendence born of suffering? But, no, instead we got empty, joyless, uninspired shoehorning of the barest minimum into repurposed scripts, hollow exercises intended to profit from undiscerning audiences. What a fucking shame.

Hellraiser VII: Deader IMDB entry
Hellraiser VIII: Hellworld IMDB entry
Hellraiser IX: Revelations IMDB entry

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