Wednesday, February 28, 2007

BOOK REVIEW: The Hellraiser Films and Their Legacy

"Time to play!"

Cutting to the heart of the matter, The Hellraiser Films and Their Legacy is a crisply-argued and impressive companion to the Hellraiser film series, one that's extensively researched and in spots, genuinely fascinating.

Paul Kane's treatise kicks off with a droll and welcome foreword from Pinhead himself, actor Doug Bradley. The Spiked One recounts an anecdote that I found particularly amusing...one about the true "origin" of Hellraiser IV's odd plot line. Yeah, that was the franchise entry that saw Pinhead arrive in outer space...in case you forgot that particular travesty.

Kane's introduction is terrific too. I always appreciate an author who goes after his subject matter with enthusiasm and passion...but honesty too. For instance, Kane makes no bones about this book's audience. The contents, he suggests "are only for those with a craving, a passion to learn about the Hellraiser mythos, primarily the cinematic interpretations, but also its intrusions into other artistic and cultural forms."

In other words, don't buy this book for Mum. Unless she happens to be a leather fetishist...

But, hey I'm in that "craving" Hellraiser camp! I count myself a devoted admirer of the original Hellraiser (1987), a film that beautifully charts the pitfalls of obsessive, tragic love. Some of the scenes in the latter half of the film, particularly those which feature Julia bludgeoning would-be lovers with a hammer - live in the memory quite vividly. Getting right down to it, Julia - a frigid woman - commits murder again and again in the movie so she can get off, so she can again screw the one man, Frank, who knew how to bring her to orgasm. That's...great stuff pure and simple. The Lament Configuration, Pinhead and all the flying hooks and chains are just window dressing to a terrific human story.

So yeah, I'm among those who do want to know more about this film series. Although, honesty requires me to note the following: I feel the franchise suffers from the law of diminishing returns. Hellraiser is pure genius. Hellbound (the sequel) is good bloody fun. Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth...less fun and less scary. And it's right on down the drain from there, up to and including the direct-to-DVD "movies" of recent vintage. I don't know whether this is a popular view to hold or not, but I feel I should admit my disdain for some of the latter productions in the cycle.

Writing in his preface, Kane detects the legacy of Hellraiser in such productions as Cube, Event Horizon, White Noise, and on TV, Star Trek: The Next Generation (the Borg..) and Farscape (the look of Scorpius), and I felt this was a valid point. But, showing the danger of pinpointing one production as "origin point," he also points out that Dune featured creatures (in the Spice Guild) who may have influenced the look of the cenobites.

I particularly enjoyed the author's analysis of the Cenobites in Chapter 3 ("Demons to Some"). Kane points out an interesting factoid here: Pinhead and his minions only appear on screen for seven minutes in the original Hellraiser. I don't think I realized that, but it makes sense. We fear what we can't see; what isn't seen often, and these boogeyman are scarier in short bursts. These "repulsively glamorous" creations, Kane suggests, are actually personifications of our dreams and fears. Pinhead the author sees as a vision of defilement and the fear of penetration (by nails...). Butterball, he suggests, is a vision of gluttony gone crazy, and Chatterer symbolizes the fear of being devoured. The female Cenobite, he suggests (with a vaginal gash in her throat...) is symbolically representative of a fear of women!

Personally, I really dig this kind of cinematic analysis, and especially appreciated how Kane examines Hellbound as an Orpheus type-story. This is a personal love of mine, and one of these days I'm going to write that book I've been putting off: The Orpheus Myth in the Horror Film (see my review of Silent Hill for another example of Orpheus re-told within the genre.)

Perhaps what I appreciated most about The Hellraiser Films and Their Legacy is that Kane writes clearly and efficiently. He is effusive and supportive when he can be (and hell, why not?) but he takes strong, objective stands as well. For instance, he notes that time has not been kind to the two jump scares in the original Hellraiser and calls them "obvious" and "unnecessary."

Another interesting chapter here is called "The Road to Hell" and it gazes at the biography/history of creator Clive Barker. It discusses early movie failures (such as Rawhead Rex) and takes us through Barker's decision to direct his own novella, "The Hellbound Heart" as Hellraiser for the screen. I'm fascinated by Clive Barker and by the fact that other than Hellraiser, his movies (like Lord of Illusions and Nightbreed) have been creative failures. So the background detail on this great writer is most welcome.

If you have a fascination with the Hellraiser mythology, you'll find this an informative text, and a great companion. My only nitpick (and it's just that, a nitpick), is that Kane makes one of the same mistakes I did in my early film and TV books. He takes up valuable "analysis" space by writing, in exhaustive detail, about the film/tv credits of every bit actor who ever stumbled into a Hellraiser film. I only bring up this matter because I used to do this too and wish that someone had told me sooner (and nicely...) to stop doing that. It's commendable to be complete, but most critics won't be kind about it, and will accuse these passages of being it filler. Believe me, I memorized the reviews...

Still, that's an incredibly minor quibble with an otherwise delightful study of the Hellraiser films. Kane promises in his intro that he has "such sights" to show us, and - unlike Kirsty (at least according to Uncle Frank in Hellbound) - he "delivers." Well done.

2 comments:

  1. Anonymous8:49 PM

    I just read Doug Bradley's book "Behind the Mask of the Horror Actor," in which he examines several points where mythology, anthropology and horror films overlap. The best part of the book was his chapter on the early days with Clive and company, leading up to the first Hellraiser film. Doug doesn't care for the new Hellraiser movies anymore than you do(though he keeps starring in them because, hey, money is money)... I personally liked "Inferno" and "Hellseeker" as human-centered stories similar to the original, but I seem to be in the minority. Be sure to check out Shinya Tsukamoto's "Marebito" for your Orpheus book.
    - Joe M

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  2. Anonymous8:49 AM

    I feel like a "Necromancer" for writing a comment on such an old post, but what the hell(raiser)? :)

    This book sounds very interesting, and I'm glad there is some love for Hellbound, a solid sequel (a movie enhances by one of the best orchestral horror scores EVER). Hellraiser III is essentially the "Batman Forever" of the franchise, but still entertaining, supported with music by Motorhead and Armored Saint.

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