Monday, 24 March 2014

Hellraiser: Revelations

Dir. Victor Garcia

While on a pleasure-seeking road trip to Mexico, teenagers Nico and Steven discover and open the Lament Configuration, unlocking the gateway to a hellish dimension presided over by sadomasochistic demons known as Cenobites, who abduct and torture Nico. When Steven finally returns home to his family, dark secrets are unveiled and souls are at stake as the Cenobites close in on their prey…

Based on a story and screenplay by Gary Tunnicliffe - who had provided the special effects and make-up for many of the Hellraiser sequels - Revelations was rushed into a three week production at the behest of Dimension, who were apparently at risk of losing the rights to the franchise. At this stage the studio was still struggling to get its long touted Hellraiser remake/reboot/reimagination off the ground. Seemingly stuck in development hell, the remake has had many recognisable genre names attached to it since it was announced several years ago, including Patrick Lussier (Wes Craven’s regular editor, director of My Bloody Valentine 3D) and Pascal Laugier (House of Voices, Martyrs). The searingly brutal Martyrs, with its graphic depictions of human flaying and strangely philosophical subtext, marks Laugier as an obvious and appropriate choice to helm a revision of Barker’s shocking classic. He backed out however, citing creative differences, as Dimension wanted a teen friendly, highly commercial (re. diluted) hit, whereas Laugier wanted extreme cinema with no mercy. In lieu of a remake, Revelations was hastily thrown together. At least it was actually written as a Hellraiser film, unlike its immediate predecessors. Don't get your hopes up though...

Incorporating elements of the found-footage and home invasion sub-genres, as well as some recognisable slasher movie troupes, Revelations emerges as an uneven and vacuous work. With its teen protagonists and their only slightly older parents, it has the look and feel of a really dark episode of The OC. Copious scenes involve the parents sitting around a plush hillside home, drinking fine wine and discussing their feelings, while flashbacks, and the boys’ recovered video footage, fill us in on what happened to them. None of it is remotely scary, suspenseful or disturbing. The wine looks nice though. When one of the boys returns home, it soon becomes obvious that all is not as it seems and the stage is set for a hellish showdown that never quite materialises. We’re in familiar slasher movie territory when someone realises that the phones are dead and all the cars are missing from the driveway, effectively stranding the group at their plush but isolated locale. Garcia attempts to inject something resembling tension into proceedings, but his efforts are thwarted by awful dialogue, overwrought performances and uneven pacing.

A sizable chunk of its thankfully brief running time basically reworks the plot of the first film, as the boys, eager to experience new sensations and extreme pleasures, find and open the puzzle box and summon inter-dimensional demons who want to do things with their flesh. When Nico eventually escapes their hellish clutches, revived by blood spilt on the mattress upon which he died, he sets about trying to obtain a new skin for himself. Whereas Clive Barker’s original chiller featured a discontent and lusty housewife committing whatever ghastly acts of murder and mutilation necessary to provide her resurrected lover with a new skin, Revelations throws in a spot of blackmail to explain the dreadful deeds Steven commits to help Nico. In one of many throwbacks to the original, they even encounter a sinister vagrant who offers them the box, and the unsettling suggestion of incest evident in Barker’s film (the moment when Frank makes ungainly advances towards Kirsty while wearing the skin of her father) is also briefly revisited, foreshadowing the 'big reveal.' The only remotely interesting element is a vague subtext pertaining to America’s bored, disenfranchised youth seeking extreme forms of escapism to help them feel alive, as the boys gradually reveal a dark, Columbine-esque nihilism.

Much controversy surrounded the fact that Doug Bradley declined to reprise his role as head Cenobite, Pinhead. Replacing him is Stephen Smith Collins, who exudes about as much menace as a wet flannel. Some of the make-up is quite impressive, particularly that of Nico in Cenobite form as ‘Pseudo-Pinhead’, but any power it could have imbued the film with is lost amidst the myriad scenes of people talking. The narrative, which cuts back and forward in time, could have helped create tension if proceedings hadn’t have been conveyed in such an anaemic manner. Oh, and apparently the most effective way to open the Lament Configuration is to do so sitting atop an expensive coffee table surrounded by candles, wearing a low-cut dress and pouting seductively. An eternity of mediocrity!

Wine of the Month

This month’s Hellraiser marathon was brought to you with (a lot) of Rioja Reserva Cepa Alegro, 2007. Not only is it currently on offer in Sainsbury’s, it’s been described as a good quality Rioja for a meaty dinner table. The perfect accompaniment then, to all those visceral, wet scenes of meat, flayed flesh, red-raw body-modification and blood in Hellraiser.

A medium bodied, spicy, and acidic wine, it boasts blood-red berry aromas, a smidgen of tobacco, woody tannins and a long, hint-of-vanilla finish. Tannin-tastic reds such as this go really well with rare meat. Meat is high in protein you see, especially the blood in rare meat, and protein softens tannins. A match made in bloody heaven. Or hell. It’s also great with meaty dishes such as roast lamb or game; its acidity cuts through the fat as efficiently as Pinhead skinning a doomed pleasure-seeker. A ‘modern’ Rioja, whatever that means, it proves complimentary with manchego cheese too, so it should complement the acrid, rubbery qualities of the later Hellraiser sequels...

Made from a delicately balanced blend of hand-harvested Tempranillo grapes from a sixty year old vineyard in the small, isolated town of Haro, and Graciano grapes from thirty year old vines, the wine is then aged in American oak barrels for twelve months. Just to make absolutely sure, it's then aged for a further six months in French oak barrels. The winery its produced in is family owned, and apparently the family has four generations worth of experience making wine, so you know you’re in good hands. Plus, I'm sure there's a great origin story in there, a la Bloodline.

Rioja to some, pish to others, Cepa Alegro Rioja would also go well with a nice vintage Hammer Horror, such as Taste the Blood of Dracula, or Frankenstein Created Woman. All that flesh and garish viscera on display could help soften its astringent flavour just as well as a decent Hellraiser flick. It might even help numb the pain if you drink enough of it…

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Hellraiser: Hellworld

Dir. Rick Bota

Two years after the death of their friend, who died while playing an online game based on the Hellraiser mythology, a group of teenagers find their own lives endangered. Accepting an invitation to an underground rave party at an isolated mansion, they’re told by their sinister host that the Cenobites and the puzzle box of Hellraiser infamy are actually real. Before long, the gamers are picked off one by one as nightmarish fantasies become entwined with disturbing reality...

The eighth instalment of the on-going Hellraiser series, Hellworld, like Deader before it, didn’t actually start out as a Hellraiser film. Based on a story by Joel Soisson (writer of Mimic 2, Hollow Man 2, and various Prophecy sequels) called The Dark Can’t Breathe, Hellworld unfolds as a strange and rather bland fusion of slasher flick and creaky haunted house yarn. The narrative essentially consists of teens partying at a spooky mansion, splitting up to explore said mansion, venturing into creepy, blue lit rooms, calling each other on complimentary mobile phones to say stuff like “There’s something really strange going on in this house”, and then getting themselves murderlised in a succession of tensionless and not very interesting ways. Like the plot, the cast is minimal, so there’s a lot of padding courtesy of sex scenes, inane dialogue and shots of the other revellers decked out in white masks and going hell for leather on a red-lit dance floor. Needless to say proceedings quickly become formulaic and very repetitive.

Hellworld could have been an insightful satire of the Hellraiser series and its predominant themes, as well as a critique of contemporary horror and the idea that it, along with violent computer games and the relentless advance of technology, has a negative influence on society. It isn’t. Nor does it have anything remotely interesting to say about myths, cyber-lore (The Tall Man, anyone?) and horror icons (re. Pinhead) being subsumed into popular culture. Despite setting the story in the ‘real world’ where people are aware of the Cenobites and the puzzle box but believe they are myths, Hellworld reneges on its initial promise of reflexivity. And anything even remotely resembling intelligence. This whole angle is completely wasted. The scenes in which the Hellraiser mythology, as well as its ‘franchise icon’, is discussed by the host (Lance Henriksen) and the teenagers come off as cheap and silly, when they could have been genuinely interesting. The puzzle box and Cenobites are referred to as myths, while Lemarchand, the creator of the box and subject of Bloodline, is described as a character from a scary story. They could have been discussing the mythology of any series. Oh, that’s right, they were. Like Deader before it, Hellworld’s references to Cenobites and puzzle boxes and Lemarchand were simply inserted – with all the finesse of a square peg in a round hole - into an already existing and completely unrelated script at the behest of lazy, greedy Dimension execs eager to keep milking the Hellraiser cash-cow. Oh, we’re also given a brief history of the mansion; it was, of course, a former psychiatric hospital, and rumoured to have been designed by Philip Lemarchand, and something about the ghost of a nun said to have been obsessed with the puzzle box. Again, all for naught.

The film obviously has an ultra-low budget, but Bota still attempts to inject some style into it with atmospheric lighting and a Gothic-tinged score courtesy of Lars Anderson. Bota’s penchant for blurring the lines between reality and nightmare are once more present and once more they feature two-dimensional characters (including a pre-Man of Steel Henry Cavill looking all fresh-faced and ready to take on the world) suddenly awakening from dire situations they find themselves in, only to realise it was just a dream. Or drug/alcohol induced hallucination. Or something. Oh look, it’s Henry Cavill.

The black and white morality that underscores the later Hellraiser sequels here reaches its rather conservative conclusion, and closely resembles the same kind of moral coda featured in slasher films. Sex equals death. The characters who emerge as the ‘heroes’ of the day are of course the ones who exhibit the most guilt over the death of their Hellworld game-obsessed friend. Indeed, with all its moments of mobile phones ringing and threatening and cryptic text messages, Hellworld comes off as a rip-off of a belated and shallow Scream rip-off. Pinhead (Doug Bradley) himself even resembles a rusty slasher villain of yore as he stalks the shadowy halls of the mansion, showing up at each murder/death scene to gloat and wax lyrical about pain and reality and stuff. Long gone is the demonically licentious Pinhead of Barker’s imagination, and in his place is a pun-spouting Freddy Krueger-alike with delusions of hellish grandeur. In a not-very-tense chase scene he even stalks someone through a forest and decapitates someone else with an axe. There’s even a Saw-esque moment complete with torture chair and advancing, whirring blades. Where are the sights you once promised to show us, Pinhead?!

Not even the presence of genre veteran Henriksen, who as the sinister host of the party proves he can still do menacing really well despite an idiotic script, or a nasty twist reveal in the third act, can help exhume Hellworld from the doldrums of tedium it wallows in. While there is an interesting premise here, it’s lost in a mediocre script and rudimentary direction that fails to generate any tension.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Hellraiser: Deader

Dir. Rick Bota

When a streetwise journalist begins investigating a bizarre underground cult, dabbling in necromancy and the resurrection of the dead, she becomes embroiled in a nightmarish world in which her very soul is at stake…

The seventh film in the franchise, Deader wasn’t actually written as a Hellraiser film. An existing spec script by Th13teen Ghosts co-scribe Neal Marshall Stevens had elements of the Hellraiser mythology added to it by Tim Daly (co-writer of the dreary Hellseeker). And it sort of shows. Much like Inferno and Hellseeker, it feels cobbled together in a lazy attempt to keep the franchise afloat; the overtly 'Hellraiser' moments a clunky afterthought. That said, it’s certainly a marked improvement on the prior instalment, and at the heart of proceedings twitches a genuinely interesting concept - an underground goth/punk/post-rock cult experimenting with suicide, necromancy and resurrection. These are themes that were dealt with in Barker’s original, albeit in a much more cohesive and sophisticated manner; as such, Deader has more in common with Barker’s vision than other sequels he wasn’t involved with. Like its immediate predecessors, Deader’s fragmented narrative is constructed around nightmares, flashbacks and creepily off-kilter scenes revealed to be dream sequences. Bota continues his knack for blurring the lines between reality and nightmare, and while he does it very well, every time it occurs, and our heroine is saved from macabre situations merely by waking up and realising she was dreaming, it robs the narrative of tension.

The opening scene depicting junkies strewn about a crack den suggests Deader is poised to include a vague social commentary about addictive natures, and individuals who just disappear into netherworlds of experimentation and hopelessness, when their attempts to alter a miserable reality only serve to ensnare them in hell. Sprinkled throughout are ruminations on freewill and human nature, and in its bleak denouement, Deader’s heroine Amy actually commits the darkest act of freewill to ensure her soul remains intact. A daring move for a straight to DVD sequel. Drawn into a world where the living resemble the dead, and the dead are, well, alive, Amy’s descent into hell seems to speak of contemporary society’s somnambulistic state; reality is too raw so we deaden our senses with drugs, sex and sundry forbidden pleasures. As headstrong reporter Amy Klein, Kari Wuhrer makes for a refreshing lead - especially when compared with the last few films and their unsympathetic/unreliable male protagonists. Wuhrer goes above and beyond what one would expect given that this is Part 7 in a series already criticised for its decline in quality. She evokes sympathy and, as a deeply flawed and somewhat relatable character, finds that her own nature is what draws her deeper into the shady abyss she finds herself in.

The Romanian setting helps imbue the film with an eerie atmosphere, and while it was obviously chosen because of its affordability and irresistible tax breaks, with its history of dark folktales concerning wraiths, the walking dead and vampires, it serves as a strangely fitting locale for a tale of the dead returning to life. The dead themselves possess an incredibly haunting look conveyed through striking make-up effects - all decomposing flesh and glassy eyes. The location also feeds into the depiction of disenfranchised people wandering through life preoccupied with death, and feeling dead inside, and could be a statement about communist repression and desperate people seeking a way out of dire circumstances. Then again, that could be the wine talking. The influence of J-Horror - so very popular at the time - is also pretty obvious. Shades of Ringu abound when Amy’s downward spiral begins after she views something sinister on a mysterious videotape…

Tenuous connections to earlier films come with the revelation that the enigmatic and dangerous Winter (Paul Rhys), the leader of the necromancers, is a descendent of the creator of the Lament Configuration. At one point he describes the puzzle box as a 'family heirloom', and a way to cheat death and discover infinite pleasure. Later, when he is confronted by a seething Pinhead (Doug Bradley), he is referred to as ‘toymaker.’ Continuity is weakened however, through expository dialogue that seems to ignore/contradict what we already know about the Lament Configuration and the Cenobites. Well, considering the screenplay for Deader wasn't even initially written as a Hellraiser film, inconsistencies pertaining to continuity are to be expected. Apparently only a select few can open the puzzle box, and those attempting to open it must possess an inherent darkness in their soul to allow them to solve the intricate puzzle. Flashbacks of Amy’s abusive childhood seem to scream at us ‘this is why she’s so self-destructive.’ Morality is as black and white as it was in Inferno and Hellseeker, and long gone is Barker’s disturbing grey area. Why can only some people open the box when before, anyone could? And why is it that Winter, as a descendent of John Merchant, cannot open the box when Angelique said in Bloodline that the very blood of Merchant’s descendents would remember? Why is it that I even care?

Deader actually emerges as one of the better made sequels, and despite the endless it-was-only-a-bad-dream moments, the narrative is tighter and the pace more brisk than prior titles such as Hellseeker. However, while the germ of a fantastically intriguing idea lurks in the shadows of this muddled yarn, one cannot help think it has been compromised by tacking everything together as yet another Hellraiser sequel. As it is, the series continues to move further and further away from Barker's initial hermetically sealed nightmare

Monday, 17 March 2014

Hellraiser: Hellseeker

Dir. Rick Bota

When she and her husband are involved in a horrifying car crash, Kirsty Cotton is declared missing and presumed dead. Her husband Trevor, a shady businessman, attempts to piece together the details of the crash in an attempt to find her. Suffering from severe head injuries, amnesia and horrifying dreams in which he is tortured by the demonic Pinhead, Trevor soon realises that all is not as it seems, as he spirals into a personal hell of his own making…

The sixth instalment of the Hellraiser series, and the second to go straight to DVD, Hellseeker was apparently an attempt to emulate Barker’s original film. Director Bota, and writers Carl V. Dupré and Tim Day, had actually wanted to involve Clive Barker in the production, but were allegedly advised against this by Dimension, who wanted to continue moving the series in a new, Barker-free direction. Bota and co set about fashioning a film that would remain faithful to the tone of Barker’s original, and once completed, they sought out Barker’s approval by letting him watch an early cut. According to Day "Clive said that he thinks Hellseeker is the best one since Hellraiser II. I believe he said something like, 'Thank God, somebody finally got it.'" Hmmm.

Hellseeker starts off strong with the reintroduction of Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) and hits the ground running with a shocking car crash. It’s all down hill from here on in though, as the initial intrigue becomes lost in a tedious plot increasingly bogged down by endless scenes revealed to be nightmares, flashbacks, hallucinations, whatever. While Bota displays an aptitude for creating and sustaining a densely nightmarish atmosphere, the script just plods along aimlessly, and repetitively, and he fails to generate much suspense. He effectively blurs the line between reality and nightmare, ensuring the audience is as disorientated as Trevor, but it’s all at a crawling pace. Bota also suggestively introduces the notion that something isn’t quite right, and as the story unfolds, everything takes on a strangely threatening veneer. The washed out colour palette – all greys, blacks and sickly lighting – enhances the unyieldingly grim nature of proceedings. Scenes unfold in dingy, ill-lit apartments, dank warehouses, beneath flickering florescent lights, and drab offices peopled by unfriendly corporate types in dark suits. Hell has never looked so overcast. The presence of CCTV cameras and hushed conversations behind closed doors in many scenes help create a sense of isolating paranoia, but it suffers under the stifling monotony of Trevor (Dean Winters) staggering about as various women attempt to seduce him, only for them to wind up dead. Or for him to wake up, revealing what just happened to be a nightmare. Or something. We’re constantly reminded of the medication he’s on and prodded into suspecting it could all be in his mind. Is Trevor imagining all this? Do we care? And where the heck is Kirsty?

Hellseeker forms an interesting companion piece to Inferno, with its depiction of an unsympathetic protagonist/unreliable narrator condemned to his own private hell because of his wicked ways. As with Inferno, it’s all about comeuppance. Hellseeker is also more psychological than the prior films, though it still contains some fiendishly disturbing imagery, including a graphic depiction of brain surgery and the moment when Trevor starts coughing up water and a slithery eel. Eurgh! That certain aspects of the script resemble Jacob’s Ladder and Ambrose Bierce’s influential short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, should suggest what you can expect from the 'twist' ending. One of the more promising aspects of the film is the reintroduction of the character of Kirsty Cotton from the first two films. Kirsty was the first person to defeat the Cenobites and emerge victorious, but not unscathed. Apparently Doug Bradley (Pinhead) called actress Ashley Laurence himself and asked her if she’d be interested in reprising her role, as her agent was none too keen on her getting involved. Alas, while Kirsty’s return could have been integral to the plot, the character only appears sporadically and, save for the pulse-racing opening and exposition-heavy denouement, isn’t given much to do. It doesn’t matter that it’s Kirsty – the character, and what she does, could have been anyone. Dean Winters does a decent job of conveying Trevor’s confusion and increasing horror, but he fails to generate any sympathy for the character.

Hellseeker conjures an overwhelmingly oppressive atmosphere but it suffers because of the convoluted, muddled and tedious script. It could have been an interesting instalment - particularly as it reintroduces Kirsty – but it merely comes off as a wasted opportunity. As with Inferno, the 'Hellraiser' moments just seem like more of an afterthought than an integral part of proceedings.

Hellraiser: Inferno

Dir. Scott Derrickson

When he discovers and opens the Lament Configuration at the scene of a gruesome crime, shady LA detective Joseph Thorne finds himself embroiled in a series of sinister occurrences and hellish encounters with the demonic Cenobites. Presiding over events is a seemingly omniscient figure known only as The Engineer…

After Hellbound, the rights to Clive Barker’s burgeoning series were acquired by Dimension, then a sub-division of Miramax, specialising in genre films. They produced and distributed Hell on Earth and Bloodline, but after the troubled production of the latter, Dimension wanted to reinvigorate the franchise and take it in a new direction. Enter Scott Derrickson and Paul Harris Boardman, whose somewhat daring script essentially ignores the previous films and establishes a whole new set of rules for the series. Inferno acts as a stand-alone instalment; set after the events involving the descendent of John Merchant in Bloodline, but way before Pinhead's eventual destruction in 2127, it features the Lament Configuration and various Cenobites, including Pinhead, but is not connected to previous storylines.

Stylishly directed by Derrickson, who aims for an LA neo-noir feel, including snippets of a world-weary voice-over narration, Inferno is less concerned with gory violence and the murky realms of pain and pleasure dominated by the sadistic Cenobites, than it is with delving into one man's personal hell. Utilising a much more psychological approach than the prior films, it unravels as a dark and moody thriller with elements of Jacob’s Ladder, Se7en and 8MM. When Joseph (Craig Sheffer) inadvertently conjures the Cenobites by opening the puzzle box at the scene of a crime, torture naturally follows, but here it is psychological torture, and not the mutilation of the flesh the series usually revels in. Derrickson’s approach to violence is also much more psychological, with much of it occurring off screen, and the use of unsettling and downright gruesome sound effects allowing the audience to use its imagination. That said, Inferno is still peppered with macabre imagery, including the off-kilter dream sequences, the discovery of a bloody mattress in a hospital room and Joseph’s encounters with several Cenobites; one of which is a mutilated torso…

A practising Christian, Derrickson imbues Inferno with an arguably simplistic moralistic slant that isn’t as prominent in the prior films. In an interview with Christianity Today he stated “To me, the horror genre is the genre of non-denial. It's about admitting that there is evil in the world […] The genre is not about making you feel good, it is about making you face your fears. And in my experience, that's something that a lot of Christians don't want to do.” Inferno, perhaps more than any other Hellraiser film (save for Hellseeker) is about comeuppance. Sheffer’s character has corrupted his own innocence and realises that the time for redemption has long since past. He is a character torn between spirit and flesh, and by ultimately opting for the latter, condemns himself to a very personal hell in which he is forced to relive a grotesque nightmare of his own making over and over for all eternity. It’s an interesting, if rather black and white concept.

The narrative, which to begin with follows Joseph as he attempts to solve a string of murders, the victims of which are all connected to him somehow, becomes increasingly nightmarish. The discovery of severed fingers belonging to a child found at each of the crime scenes fuels the mystery. Joseph eventually begins to wander through unfamiliar spaces, and various moments are revealed to be dreams, or hallucinations, which underpin the psychological approach and render the audience as disorientated as the protagonist. The amalgamation of sex and horror that was a prominent feature of the first two films, and manifest in Bloodline in the guise of Angelique, here comes in the form of a disturbing scene featuring two female Cenobites who seduce Joseph. In one shocking moment, they begin fondling and caressing him by slipping their hands under the skin of his chest. Other than this instance, little of Barker’s sexual themes are present.

If Hell on Earth and Bloodline were the films in which Barker took a back seat, Inferno is the film that prompted him to back away entirely from the on-going series. At times the 'Hellraiser' moments seem like they’ve just been dropped in. While the unmistakable countenance of Pinhead (Doug Bradley) graces the DVD cover, he only appears on screen for a few moments, waxing lyrical about suffering and just-desserts. This also feeds into Inferno’s reputation as an untypical Hellraiser film. While it isn’t always successful, at least Derrickson and co attempted something different and tried to move the series in a new direction. If nothing else, it makes for an interesting footnote in the career of a director who has since gone on to make the likes of The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the critically lauded Sinister.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Shocks to the System

"Obviously what's happening in the world creeps into any work, it just fits right in. Because that's where it comes from, where the idea comes from, where you get the idea in the first place." George A. Romero

Horror cinema flourishes in times of ideological crisis and national trauma - the Great Depression, the Cold War, the Vietnam era, post-9/11. Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present, a brand new book by Jon Towlson, argues that a succession of filmmakers working in horror - from James Whale to twisted twins Jen and Sylvia Soska - have used the genre, and the shock value it affords, to challenge the dominant ideologies of these times. Spanning the decades from the 1930s onwards, Subversive Horror Cinema is a critical examination of the work of producers and directors as varied as George A. Romero, Pete Walker, Michael Reeves, Herman Cohen, Wes Craven and Brian Yuzna - and the ways in which films like Frankenstein (1931), Cat People (1942), The Woman (2011) and American Mary (2012) can be considered "subversive."

Jon, a good friend of Behind the Couch, has written for Starburst Magazine, Paracinema, Exquisite Terror, The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies, Shadowland Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Digital FilmMaker.

Subversive Horror Cinema: Countercultural Messages of Films from Frankenstein to the Present will be published in July 2014 by McFarland & Co, and is now available to pre-order. If you can’t wait that long, worry not, it is available to download for Kindle, no waiting necessary. For a detailed look at what it has to offer, including the delicious foreword by Jeff Lieberman (who, as the writer-director of titles such as Squirm, Blue Sunshine and Just Before Dawn, knows a thing or two about subversive cinema) check out the preview on Amazon.

Visit the author’s blog here, and keep up to date with him on Twitter and Facebook.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Hellraiser: Bloodline

Dir. Alan Smithee

2127. A scientist onboard a space station attempts to complete the task began by his ancestor centuries ago; to destroy the puzzle box that, when solved and opened, allows the demonic entities known as Cenobites to enter our world and cause havoc and untold suffering in the name of pleasure.

Written by Peter Atkins, with Clive Barker serving as executive producer, Bloodline is the century-spanning origin story of the puzzle box that featured throughout all the Hellraiser films up until this point - and the sequels which followed. Acting as a doorway to hell itself, the box, an amalgamation of alchemy and science, grants demons access to our world. Director Kevin Yagher disowned the film when the studio began re-editing it, ordering re-writes and re-shoots, and generally preventing him from realising his grand vision. And what a vision this could have been. The tale of a family plagued for generations by demons who wish to create a permanent doorway into our world; beginning in 18th century Paris and culminating aboard a space station in 2127, via New York City in the 1990s, it’s an ambitious concept if nothing else. Sadly the budget, and aforementioned studio interference renders it a run of the mill, rather underwhelming slasher movie with but a few moments of surprising creativity.

Yagher had previously made a name for himself as a master of special effects, working on such titles as A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, Child’s Play and The Hidden. He was so aghast at the changes imposed on Bloodline, he removed his name from it and replaced it with the Directors Guild of America approved pseudonym, Alan Smithee. Directors can do this when they feel that their artistic vision or creative control has been severely compromised by the interference of pesky studio executives more interested in money than creativity. Apparently many of Yagher’s more elaborate designs and ideas never even made it to the screen, including Cenobites decked out in French period garb. When Yagher walked away from the project, just before it wrapped, Joe Chappelle was hired to film the remaining scenes, reshoot some material - including the narrative framing device onboard the space station - and tie everything up. Chappelle had previously directed the equally misguided-but-strangely-fascinating Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (that’s Halloween 6, the one with the druids!).

Lemarchand’s box, also called the Lament Configuration, was created in 1784 by renowned but financially destitute toymaker, Philip Lemarchand (Bruce Ramsay), mentioned in The Hellbound Heart as a maker of intricately designed mechanical singing birds, under the commission of the Duc de L'Isle, a debauched aristocrat with a penchant for dark magic. De L’Isle used the box to summon a demon, Angelique (Valentine Vargas), to carry out his every demand, and cater for his every twisted whim. Attempting to redeem himself by destroying the box, Lemarchand died realising he had cursed his entire bloodline. As the years passed, his future progeny forgot about the box, and the bloody history they share with it, but their ‘blood remembers’ and they see visions of the demon Angelique in their dreams.

Again, as with the prior films, there is a strong sense of continuity present in Bloodline, and kudos must go to writer Peter Atkins, a veteran of the series at this stage, who, with the character of Angelique, creates what actually feels like a bona fide Clive Barker character. Alluring, seductive and deadly, she is a demon inhabiting the skin of a beautiful prostitute offered in sacrifice to her. When she emerges at the finale, complete with full-on Cenobite make-over, her appearance harks back to earlier female Cenobites, and reeks of the same morbid sensuality; a sensuality that was markedly absent from the prior instalment. Bloodline gets one thing right at least; it feels like a Clive Barker film. Albeit a rather flawed one. The most interesting moments come courtesy of the early 18th century period scenes, with their bloody invocations of demons by bewigged and decadent aristocrats, and the later scenes aboard the space craft. The promise of untrodden territory is strong in these moments, but sadly never delved into and explored as much as it could be. The final scenes aboard the space station feel very rushed, as the security guards are picked off one by one in a brisk, tensionless manner. Apparently Yagher wanted a more fragmented narrative, one which leapt back and forth between the various years in which the story unfolds, interweaving events and enriching the series’ mythology. There’s a dank beauty to the earlier scenes which depict the creation of the box, and a beautifully orchestrated score courtesy of Daniel Licht underpins the sweeping nature of the story; during its best parts, it hints at the epic scale of proceedings.

Weaker moments mainly occur in the second act with the introduction of one of Merchant's ancestors (again portrayed by Bruce Ramsay) - the architect who designed the puzzle box-inspired building glimpsed at the climax of Hell on Earth. Events are frequently quite clunky, particularly the scenes involving the hapless security guard twins, and the moment when 90’s Merchant’s young son is kidnapped by Pinhead (Doug Bradley). If you can get past the daft notion that part of the story is set in space (!) and try to get on board with what Yagher and co were attempting to do, the current cut of Bloodline is an interesting but flawed film; and a highly lamentable one because of its wasted potential. That said, it is rarely dull, and there are enough ideas and revelations to satisfy admirers of the series. Unfortunately it isn’t quite the grand denouement the Hellraiser films to this point arguably deserved. Amongst the grandiose scope is a plethora of cheap horror troupes which render Bloodline a strangely perfunctory, rather mundane title. Shame, really. Still though, SPACE.

Hellraiser: Bloodline marked the last time Clive Barker would be involved with the series, and the last time any Hellraiser film would receive a cinematic release. From here on in, it's straight to DVD. I suggest you refill your glass now. We have such shite to show you...  

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth

Dir. Anthony Hickox

When the diabolical Pinhead is freed from his prison, a macabre statue purchased by a sleazy nightclub owner, he sets about creating a new army of Cenobites to aid him in his quest to establish hell on earth. What he doesn’t count on is feisty TV reporter Joey Summerskill, the only person with the courage and knowledge to defeat him and thwart his fiendish schemes. She is aided in her quest by the spirit of Pinhead’s former human self, WW1 British Army Captain, Elliott Spencer. There will be blood…

The first Hellraiser slow-burned its way through searing violence and morbidly sexualised imagery, while sequel Hellbound upped the scope and hammered home the depressing, downbeat tone with surrealistic depictions of a cold and private hell. Written by Peter Atkins and Tony Randel, the writers and director of Hellbound, and with Clive Barker in the role of executive producer, Hell on Earth unravels as a commercialised, diluted version of Barker’s original themes and bloody visions. Its comparative tameness is suggestive of the studio’s desire to repeat box office success while moving Hellraiser further into the mainstream. That said, it’s a solidly entertaining flick with a fairly brisk pace, again indicative of the studio’s desire to make it more commercially appealing. It also exhibits something of a sense of humour, particularly in comparison to the deadly serious tone of the prior instalments, with the inclusion of ridiculous, crowd-pleasing Cenobites (including DJ Cenobite, whose face is impaled by CDs, which he flings at people). Thanks to close attention to continuity, the narrative flows and there is a distinctive unity between this and the first two films. Even Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) reappears, albeit on a videotape from the Channard Institute, to divulge information/exposition relating to the Cenobites, the mysterious hell-gate opening puzzle box, and generally helping to expand the mythology of the burgeoning series.

Following in the courageous footsteps of Kirsty Cotton is Joey Summerskill (Terry Farrell), a sassy reporter who quietly despairs at the state of her career. To add to her woes, Joey has reoccurring dreams of her father’s death in Vietnam. These dreams speak of the fragility of human life, as we see countless soldiers shot down and blown up. Determined to find a decent story with which to catapult herself to success, she witnesses a gruesome scene in a local hospital in which a young man is torn apart by bloody chains; later revealed to be the result of him opening the now infamous puzzle-box. Joey teams up with Terri (Paula Marshall), a troubled rock-chick whose abusive ex has inadvertently released Pinhead from his earthly prison, and together they attempt to destroy the puzzle-box.

Doug Bradley moves to a much more central role as lead Cenobite, Pinhead; now firmly established as the antagonist of the series. While he doesn’t quite have Freddy Krueger’s knack for cheesy one-liners down pat (that dishonour goes to Camerahead Cenobite), he does exude a dark'n'devilish charisma. He also portrays Pinhead’s former human self, the softly spoken Captain Elliott Spencer. You see, when Kirsty reminds the Cenobites of their former humanity at the climax of Hellbound, it results in Pinhead splitting into two separate entities; his former human self, a WW1 British Army captain, and his ‘dark side’, his Cenobitical form, Pinhead. Spencer is relegated to limbo, while Pinhead is imprisoned in a corporeal statue - the Pillar of Souls. Spencer haunts TV reporter Joey’s dreams and attempts to communicate with her through TV and radio signals, acting as her guide and mentor in her attempts to stop the Cenobites once and for all. Usually when the background and humanity of horror villains is explored, it strips them of their power to terrify, making them more human and ‘relatable.’ Not so with the Hellraiser films. The dichotomies of good and evil are a main theme of the series as a whole, and by featuring the central antagonist’s former human self, Hell on Earth creates some dramatic tension and poses a few interesting questions about morality and human nature. You know, amidst all the explosions and modestly budgeted effects.

While the plot is slight, Hell on Earth, like its predecessors, features some interesting themes and concepts. The Hellraiser films have always utilised religious imagery and ideas, and the blasphemous insinuations continue here with a particularly striking scene in which Pinhead belittles the passion of Christ and subverts Christian doctrine when he pursues Joey into a church and parodies the crucifixion, rasping “I am the way.” He embodies the role of ‘tempter’, appealing to the darker side of mankind’s nature. While the film still features scenes of creepy sex, the unsettling sensuality of the first film is completely gone. One can only guess at panicked execs ordering it to be cut. In its place is a blasting rock soundtrack, and Cenobites resembling the cybernetic members of Star Trek’s Borg race, as opposed to the explorers of flesh and experience that stalked through the prior films.

Hell on Earth contains all the violence you’d expect from a Hellraiser film, but it isn’t the same kind of violence boasted by the prior films. Gone is the forensic and clinical examination of the vulnerability and malleability of flesh. There is a flaying, naturally, but it lacks the disturbing power of those seen previously. Hell on Earth even exhibits something resembling restraint in certain scenes. When the massacre in the club is in full swing, the doors slam shut on the panicked patrons and we cut to the outside, as blood begins to flow under the door and the sounds of agonised, terrified screaming begins to fade beneath the sounds of slashing, flogging and razoring, leaving the rest to our imagination. Homage is paid to various subcultures Barker made reference to in the design of his hellish entities; body-piercers, goths, heavy metal fans, etc.

While Hell on Earth lacks the grim fatality of the former films, it rounds off the original ‘trilogy’ rather fittingly, and even goes about establishing some intrigue in its set-up for further hellish instalments.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Hellbound: Hellraiser II

Dir. Tony Randel

Having survived the bloody events of the first film, in which her family was torn apart by the demonic Cenobites, inter-dimensional demons with a deprived definition of ‘pleasure’, Kirsty Cotton is taken to a psychiatric hospital. Unbeknownst to Miss Cotton, her creepy psychologist has been searching for the gateway to hell and plans to resurrect her step-mother Julia to help him in his diabolical plans to indulge in untold, hellish pleasures.

Hellbound reunites much of the cast and crew who worked on Hellraiser, ensuring a seamless segue into this instalment, which features a similarly grimy, bleak tone. It succeeds as a sequel because while it continues the story, picking up almost immediately after the events depicted in Hellraiser, it doesn’t just repeat itself, it opens up and explores the background of certain characters and, despite the rather modest budget, has a much more grandiose feel. Directed by Tony Randel, who served as an editor on the first film, Hellbound was still guided by Clive Barker who worked as a producer. The screenplay by Peter Atkins features dialogue that veers between clunky, rudimentary drivel, grandiose parlances about the immensity of suffering - “We have eternity to know your flesh” - and cheesy Freddy Krueger style one-liners - “The doctor is in.” That said, it never really feels uneven as a whole, and it brings the story into some very unexpected and dark places indeed.

Hellbound is not a safe film. It exhibits a mean ‘anything can happen’ format. Characters exist solely to die horribly. This is confirmed not only through the death of a character seemingly established as one of the main players early on, but through its unfettered, sickeningly nightmarish imagery and downbeat narrative. Randel’s positively misanthropic attitude is one of the most prominent and uneasy characteristics of this sequel; the director claimed the film is so dark and bleak in tone as it reflected his state of mind at the time, and his dour outlook on the world. He utilises the same coldly forensic and unyielding approach to violence and suffering as Barker did in the first film; only here it continues in a much more intensified manner. The film is rife with utterly repellent, depressing and morbidly fascinating imagery. Deplorable, brain-botheringly wretched imagery. Genuinely upsetting, avert-your-gaze-from-the-screen-in-disgust imagery. The kind of imagery that squirms and scuttles under your skin and writhes there indefinitely. A particularly nauseating scene depicts Dr Channard giving a switchblade to a distressed psychiatric patient who proceeds to cut and hack at himself, his pooling blood eventually resurrecting Julia. Recent examples of ‘torture porn’ have nothing on Hellbound, its amalgamation of cruelty and fantastical violence is overwhelming. The depravity is designed to instil base feelings of dread and repulsion, rendering the film something of an endurance. Therein lies its undeniable power as a horror film and its strength as a sequel.

Characterisation is as minimal as it was in Hellraiser, ditched in favour of graphic depictions of violence and pontifications on the depravity of human nature. Characters are either good or evil, and only exist so their flesh can be lacerated and mutilated. They have no depth, nor do they garner any sympathy - which leaves us with a basic story centring on pain for the sake of pain. Human life is presented as futile and powerless, humanity weakened by its own base wants and desires. The first thing a skinless Julia (Clare Higgins) does when she is resurrected from her grave - the bloody mattress she died on - is down a glass of wine and smoke a fag. Priorities. The only characters able to generate a modicum of sympathy are heroines Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) and Tiffany (Imogen Boorman), a young mute girl with a penchant for solving puzzles. They ellicit sympathy on a very basic, human level, and only because they are presented as 'good.' Kirsty is a decent heroine, and here she’s as proactive as she was in the first film, even going as far as bargaining with the Cenobites for her own soul. Venturing into hell to rescue her father whom she believes is trapped there, Kirsty soon discovers it’s all an elaborate trap set by her vengeful uncle. She is able to remind the Cenobites of their human origins, revealed in a later scene when they are massacred by a monstrously transformed Dr Channard (Kenneth Cranham).

Hell is depicted as a gigantic Escheresque labyrinth presided over by an obelisk-shaped god known as Leviathan, and Randel deploys some striking imagery (bodies writhing under blood-spattered sheets in a candle-strewn morgue, random flaying, aforementioned labyrinth), while exploring the concept of hell as a very personal space; each character experiences their own individual hell. The underlying fairytale motifs of the first film - including a basic plot structure that when condensed, features an individual who must overcome a seemingly impossible task or journey and be changed in some way by the experience - are also exhumed. At various stages characters actually compare the unholy situations they find themselves in to fairytales, such as when Julia rasps “Didn’t they tell you? They’ve changed the rules of the fairytale. I’m no longer just the wicked step-mother. Now I’m the Evil Queen. So come on, take your best shot, Snow White!” Kirsty tries to convince the detectives questioning her that something unnatural has occurred, saying that fairytales and demons actually exist, and “some of them come true. Even the bad ones.” In various fairytales characters are painfully transformed into beasts or inanimate objects. A number of transformation sequences are depicted throughout Hellbound as characters are transformed into Cenobites; their flesh corrupted and modified, twisted and reconfigured.

A true horror film, Hellbound wields the power to make the audience feel uneasy, wary and unsafe in its own skin. Skin is such an inconsequential thing when you’re in hell.

Head over to Plutonium Shores to read about the unfilmed surgical sequence. Are some things better left unfilmed...?