Thursday, June 18, 2015

Raising Hell: Thoughts on the Hellraiser Films

Most people would probably say I live a lackluster life. My days consist, almost exclusively, of the following activities: writing, hiking/geocaching, sleeping, listening to music, working, and watching movies.  I watch a lot of movies. Recently, I’ve begun holding mini-film festivals for an audience of one where all of the selections share some sort of common theme. Over the course of several nights, I’ll settle down with a tub of popcorn and indulge in all the films Quentin Tarantino directed; or perhaps I’ll treat myself to several days of Asian horror, classic sci-fi, or 70’s era exploitation flicks.  Currently, I’m watching the Hellraiser franchise, all nine movies viewed in consecutive order.  I distinctly remember seeing the original on the big screen back in 1987, had vague memories of the second installment, and caught the very end of Part IV on cable several years back.  However, the other six films are entirely new to me—mainly due to the wariness and mistrust I harbor toward sequels.  What follows are my thoughts on not only the individual films, but the series as a whole.  These aren’t exactly reviews.  They could probably be better referred to as musings.  So take them as you will.

Hellraiser:  In the 80s, our horror movie villains mainly came in two flavors:  A) Silent psychopaths who stalked and murdered their victims without uttering a word and B) Wise-cracking maniacs who punctuated each kill with a cheesy one-liner (which, personally, annoyed the shit out of me).  Pinhead, however, was something completely different.  If you listen to his dialogue, he’s actually quite eloquent at times.  Take, for example, his reply when Kirtsy asks who he and his fellow Cenobites are:  “Explorers in the further regions of experience. Angels to some; demons to others.”   In these two sentences, he not only tells us how the Cenobites view themselves, but how others see them as well.  It also distances them a bit from the Judeo-Christian trappings of the terms being employed.  Angels to some, demons to others implies that the Cenobites don’t really belong in either of those classifications…that such distinctions are entirely left to the realm of human perception.  This leads me to something else I found refreshing about Pinhead and his bizarre crew: they weren’t the embodiments of evil.  Yes, they did horrific things to those who summoned them; but their intent wasn’t necessarily evil, per se.  If anything, the Cenobites were amoral more than anything else. They existed in a realm where right and wrong were foreign concepts; there was only the pursuit of pleasure, even if that pleasure was found in the most extreme forms of sadomasochism imaginable. Which brings me to my final thoughts on the original movie; I also loved that the tortures they employed weren’t designed to punish people.  The Cenobites weren’t agents of divine retribution; the people they inflected suffering upon sought them out.  When Frank Cotton tries to buy the puzzle box at the beginning of the film, it is freely given to him, accompanied by the explanation, “Take it.  It’s yours…it always was.”; this seems to imply that certain individuals are called to the box, that their destinies are inexplicably intertwined. When Kirsty inadvertently solves the puzzle box, Pinhead’s explanation is simple cause and effect, as if it was fully expected that the person summoning the Cenobites knew exactly what they were doing: “The box… you opened it. We came.”

Hellbound: Hellraiser II  As far as sequels go, this wasn’t an entirely horrible film.  I liked the surrealism of some of its scenes and thought its depiction of “Hell” as a labyrinth was really cool.  I put Hell in parenthesis because at this point in the overall arc of the series, the Cenobites still aren’t exactly demonic, which—as previously stated—is something I really enjoyed about the first movie.  We see evidence once again that the realm the Cenobites reside in calls to a specific type of person, in this instance Dr. Channard, who was obviously obsessed with Cenobite lore. Frank Cotton is being punished, true, but there’s a certain logic to his imprisonment.  He escaped the Cenobites in the first film, essentially rejecting the “pleasures” they offered, though his dialogue indicated these tortures weren’t entirely unwelcome: “The Cenobites gave me an experience beyond limits... pain and pleasure, indivisible”; “Some things have to be endured. And that makes the pleasures so much sweeter. “  For turning away from them, he is punished with an eternity of frustration in a manner which is reminiscent of classical Greek mythology:  a lustful man tempted by erotic women he can never touch, devoid of both the pleasure and pain he rejected.  In other places, however, the internal logic between the two films breaks down. For example, when Dr. Channard resurrects Julia from the bloody mattress she died upon, she comes back as a hideous, corpse-like creature.  That’s fine.  After all, that’s what happened with Frank in the first film.  Dr. Channard then begins to offer victims to Julia to help restore her to a human form, just as she had done for Frank in Hellraiser.  When the time came that Frank needed a skin, however, he had to kill his brother and harvest his, the end result being that he looked like Larry Cotton .  So why then did Julia look like Julia after it was time to get her skin?  Another piece of faulty logic that bugs me is when Dr.Channard uses the mute mental patient, Tiffany, to open the puzzle box while he and Julia watch from a hidden room. The Cenobites are prepared to take Tiffany when Pinhead stops them, stating, “It is not hands that call us, it is desire.”  This is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, it reinforces that the Cenobites come for those who desire what they offer; but in the first movie, Kirsty inadvertently opened the puzzle box while toying with it.  Though she lacked the desire, they were prepared to take her anyway, believing that she must have known what she was doing.  Besides internal logic, I also didn’t particularly care for the Channard Cenobite. His lines came too close to the wise-crackery I mentioned in the opening paragraph and, overall, I found him to be a rather uninteresting monster.

Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth  I didn’t like Pinhead’s characterization in this one at all.  He was portrayed in a more stereotypical evil fashion, complete with diabolical laughter, the desecration of a church, and even the claim that he exists to force humanity to recognize the darkness in their hearts.  When investigative reporter Joey watches a videotaped interview of Kirsty Cotton in a mental hospital, Kirsty says she can only describe the creatures as demons…despite the fact that she consistently referred to them as Cenobites in earlier films.  While I did feel that debaucherous nightclub owner JP Monroe was the type of person who would be drawn to Pinhead, I thought Pinhead’s seduction of Terri—who up until that point was portrayed as a rather tragic, na├»ve character—was too easy.  I also cannot stress this next bit enough:  I hated the new Cenobites Pinhead created toward the end of the film.  Strike one: they were simply too gimmicky.  Strike Two: The original Cenobites were hideously deformed in ways that implied extreme body modification and radical fetishism.  The pins which gave Pinhead his name and the female Cenobite, who basically had a vagina carved into her throat, are prime examples of this. These new ones though felt more like cyborgs than anything else.  Strike Three:  the Doc Cenobite had cheesy one-liners.  My feelings on that have already been made clear.  All in all this was a really disappointing movie.

Hellraiser: Bloodline  I have mixed feelings about Bloodline.  As a standalone, it’s a really good movie.  The acting was much better than in the previous sequels and I liked that the plot spanned millennia.  Plus, the wrapper story was set in space (anyone who knows me, or has read my work, knows that I have a special love of that borderland where sci-fi and horror intersect).  In addition to this, the newest Cenobites have returned to the repulsive naturalism of the originals.  However, my beloved Cenobite mythos—amoral explorers into the further regions of experience—was shot to Hell.  The Cenobites are now expressly referred to as demons and enmeshed in Judeo-Christian trappings. No longer called by specific types of people, they seek to open a permanent gateway to Hell. While I did enjoy a lot of the dialogue between Pinhead and the Princess (is it just me or does that sound like a bizarre children’s book?), he spoke with intimate knowledge about how Hell had changed since she left.  So intimate, in fact, that if not for the other films, one would naturally assume he was an eternal demon who’d personally been there with her.  However, she was summoned and trapped centuries before he was ever created.  So that’s why I’m torn:  I enjoyed the film immensely, but have seen—and liked—so many other movies about demons trying to open a portal to Hell and it pained me to see the more unique aspects of the underlying mythology changed so blatantly.

Hellraiser: Inferno  There was a lot to like about this movie. It was very dark, surreal, and contained film noir overtones which appealed to the classic movie buff in me.  As a crooked cop who rationalizes adultery with prostitutes as a means of keeping his marriage alive, Joseph Thorne is also the type of person that would be drawn to the puzzle box so the consistency there was nice. While Pinhead’s screentime is limited in this film, the Cenobites we do see are exquisitely fetishistic; but , like a good burlesque act, you only get hints and glimpses without really being able to take everything in with a lingering stare. They also embodied the pleasure/pain principle in ways not depicted in the previous films. Rather than simply elevating pain to the point that it is indistinguishable from pleasure, the Wire Twins (as I later learned they were called) blend the two in manners that aren’t quite as extreme as Pinhead’s hooks and chains.  Speaking of Pinhead, his characterization in this movie changes once again.  No more the diabolical demon, he now seems to take the role of guiding condemned souls to self-realization, exposing their sins so they have an understanding of why all of this is happening to them.  While this depiction still shows the Cenobite leader in a Judeo-Christian light, I didn’t find it quite as annoying as the fully demonic manifestation in the last couple films. To be honest, my mind kept drawing comparisons to the ghosts in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol...without, of course, redemption at the end.  In my opinion this is one of the better films in the series

Hellraiser: Hellseeker  I thought this movie was similar to Inferno in a lot of ways.  Once again, we see Pinhead  in the role of “guide”, there are surreal breaks in reality, and also a mystery element to the plot.  It wasn’t quite as dark as Inferno, however, and the other Cenobites depicted in it were literally forgettable… I’m writing this less than twenty-four hours after watching the movie and really can’t recall anything about them, so much so that I’m now second-guessing as to whether or not there actually were any other Cenobites in the film. I have to admit that I got kind of excited when I saw Ashley Laurence appear in the opening credits; I thought the return of Kirsty Cotton might also indicate a return to the original film's Cenobite mythos, but alas this wasn’t to be.  Something I didn’t like was how easily Kirsty acquiesced when her husband demanded she open the puzzle box.  She knew all too well what would happen once that box opened…and yet she did it anyway. The argument could be made that it was all part of her master plan; but the way the scene was played made it seem as though her deal with Pinhead was a spur-of-the-moment act of desperation. This line of thought, though, does confirm that other Cenobites were present in the film.  I remember them being with Pinhead in this scene, but I still can’t recall anything about them.  This wasn’t a horrible film.  It was much better the Hell on Earth, but not quite as good as Inferno.   All in all, I thought it was a “middle of the road” kind of movie.

Hellraiser: Deader  Initially, I thought this was the weakest subtitle I’d ever heard.  Within the first fifteen minutes, however, I understood exactly what was meant by the term and that prejudice was wiped away.  I found the concept of the cult highly intriguing and thought Amy Klein was a much more interesting reporter than Joey Summerskill from Hell on Earth.  As a whole, though, I thought the movie came across as somewhat muddled.  I still don’t understand what gave Winter LeMarchand the ability to bring the dead back to life.  If you take the series as canon, his ancestor didn’t possess any special powers; he was simply a toymaker who created the puzzle box. While I knew that LeMarchand was waging a war he could not win (to use Pinhead’s words) I also wasn’t entirely clear on what the goal of this war was until I read a wiki for this movie.  The acting was good, it had an interesting premise, and a few particularly chilling scenes; it’s just a shame that it didn’t live up to its full potential.

Hellraiser: Hellworld  The best thing I can say about this movie is that Lance Henriksen was in it. I like Lance Henriksen.  But even he couldn’t redeem this travesty.  Hellworld felt more like a teen slasher flick, complete with attractive young people being picked off one by one, a car which wouldn’t start when our heroine was trying to make her escape, and that same heroine fleeing into the woods.  The movie adhered so much to slasher film standards that I even knew which two characters would still be alive at the end, due to them refusing the alcohol offered by the party’s host. I also didn’t like the way the movie made references to the previous films as films; I understand what the filmmakers were doing with it, I just thought it came off as kind of cheesy.  Especially when you bounce back and forth between “are these films based on something real?”, “no, they’re not.”, “oh wait, yes they are.” Definitely my least favorite of the series.  But I’m wasting my breath.  This film can actually be summed up quite succinctly by a quote from Lance Henriksen’s character: “It’s like a bad horror movie, isn't it?”

Hellraiser: Revelations  I don’t understand why so many people hate this film.  I’ve heard it referred to as “a piece of garbage”, “witless”, and “dancing on the grave of a cinematic classic.”  In my opinion, however, it took the series back to its roots.   The Cenobites here are the same amoral “explorers” from the original film; they’re not out to punish the wicked, open a permanent gateway to Hell, or any of the demonic hokum that’s plagued previous films.  If any of the sequels danced on Hellraiser’s grave, it would be Hellworld; the plot of Revelations was tighter than Deader, the Cenobites more integral than in Hellseeker and Inferno, the scope more refined than Bloodlines, and the acting far superior to Hell on Earth. Yet, I hear that Revelations makes the other sequels look good in comparison.  Sure, it was kind of strange seeing someone other than Doug Bradley in the role of Pinhead, but I cannot fault an entire film simply because an actor didn’t play a role with which he’s become synonymous.  The argument can’t even really be made that Bradley captured “the essence” of Pinhead since the Cenobite leader’s characterization throughout the sequels has fluctuated so wildly.  Reviewers also consistently point out that the movie was made quickly and cheaply to ensure that Dimension Films didn’t lose their rights to the franchise.  I’ve seen a lot of films made quickly and cheaply, but  this one honestly didn’t look like a third-rate B-film quickie.  As indie filmmakers consistently prove, you don’t need massive budgets and mind-blowing CGI to make an effective movie. When the puzzle box is opened, it doesn’t crackle as electricity zips around it like in previous installments, but I actually liked the light radiating from within it better to be perfectly honest.  If the Lament Configuration serves as a doorway between dimensions, it makes sense that the box would glow with the same light that spills through cracks in the walls when the Cenobites are summoned; and this otherworldly glow makes the opening of the box far more creepy in my opinion.

No comments:

Post a Comment