Thursday, March 10, 2016

Cult-Movie Review: Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)

Upon viewing Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) this week, I was struck with an illuminating thought. 

There are two kinds of horror movies in 1970s and 1980s franchises.

The first kind of movie is an artistic masterpiece, one that thrives on visual imagery, on symbolism, and on subtext. In this category, I land movies such as Halloween (1978), Phantasm (1979), A Nightmare on Elm Street and Clive Barker’s original masterpiece, Hellraiser (1987).  These films operate on both a literal level and a metaphorical one.

And then there’s the second kind of horror movie in these franchises, which viewers will often detect in the first sequel.

This second brand of franchise horror film eschews the overt, careful artistry of the first film and doubles down instead on internal mythology.  In other words, the details of the world are hammered out, and character motivations are more deeply explained. A sketch is colored in, essentially, but in terms of symbolism some things get lost, forgotten, or over-written.

Why do horror franchises from this era operate in this fashion?

Well, perhaps because symbolic imagery and sub-text may be limited to a specific, singular narrative or set of characters. That imagery may be beautiful, canny and informative, yet when time comes for a sequel with a new story, new characters, and even a new setting, it is hard to sustain it. The zeitgeist has changed, for one thing, and so symbols change. 

Therefore, intrepid filmmakers turn to the internal consistencies of the world where they work. Like the idea that Michael Myers must have a concrete motivation for his murders, and is thus the sibling of Laurie Strode.

Perhaps this is why sequels so rarely live up to the originals. They don’t pinpoint an adequate new sub-text or deep imagery to sustain the series. So instead, additional concrete details are provided.

Yet, inescapably, familiarity is the enemy of horror. The more we know, the less scared we become. We are scared not when we know more, but when we no less.  The more vague the details, the better chance that we will be unsettled by the film.

Hellbound is the second kind of movie in terms of this paradigm.

Specifically, Hellbound: Hellraiser II is a mythology-based, world-building sequel to Clive Barker’s brilliant horror film, Hellraiser (1987). It’s a good mythology-based horror film on it own terms, but I miss the sheer artistic inspiration of Clive Barker’s inaugural film in the franchise.

Hellbound opens with a recap of Hellraiser’s scary ending, and then shows us the origins of Pinhead (Doug Bradley) himself. It also finishes off any personal business left lingering between Julia (Clare Higgins) and Frank (Sean Chapman), before settling down in Hell itself.  The details of Hell, and even an evil Deity (Leviathan, Lord of the Labyrinth) are all explored.

The focus, as that description suggests, is on deepening and broadening the Hellraiser universe. The focus is on providing more details, and revealing a consistent “universe.”

I can’t complain too much, however since the solid 1988 sequel shows audiences how Cenobites are manufactured, takes us to Hell for a grand tour, features the great Ashley Laurence in a starring role, and reveals to us precisely the kind of torment in Hell that Frank deserves.  There’s an overall reflection of literary mythology too -- an Orphean descent into the Underworld to retrieve a loved one -- but even that is broadly applied.

So by my estimation, Hellbound is a good horror film, of the second type.

It’s just that traveling from Hellraiser to Hellbound is roughly akin to going from Phantasm (1979) to Phantasm II (1988).

The first film in each series is richly symbolic and reveals something about the human condition, whether the fear of mortality, or mankind’s sexual obsessions. 

Then the ambitious sequel comes along, and it’s big and world-building and totally impressive as a straight-up horror flick, but it exists almost purely on a literal level, not a symbolic one. 

Therefore, in comparison to the original, I can’t help but register the sequel as a bit of a disappointment, or at least a come down. I admire so much the rarefied, symbolic level of Hellraiser and Phantasm

This is about me, as much as the film, a reader might conclude. I want my horror movies to do more than just scare me a little, like I’m on a roller coaster ride. I want the movie to concern or reflect something important; something that makes me think about the world, myself, and my relationships.
So I miss Clive Barker’s facility for visual symbolism in Tony Randel’s Hellbound, but I still like the sequel for what it is (a rip-roaring, gory horror movie), even if, at times, the movie looks to be held together by little more than spit and polish.

“The mind is a labyrinth…a puzzle.”

Following the ghoulish events with Julia and Frank, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) is remanded to the Channard Institute, an insane asylum.

There, she talks about the box, and doorways to Hell being opened and closed.

Listening intently to her strange tale is Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham), a man who has devoted his life to the study of the Lament Configuration. 

Another patient in his custody, young Tiffany (Imogen Boorman) is mute, but is an expert at solving puzzles. Presumably, he has in mind for this ward to solve one particular puzzle box.

Even as Dr. Channard takes gruesome steps to revive Julia (Clare Higgins), Kirsty receives a message that she believes is from her dead father.  “I am in Hell. Help me,” it reads, written in blood.

Kirsty determines to go with Tiffany, into Hell, and rescue her father.

After Tiffany opens the box, Channard meets his fate as a Cenobite, and engineers a coup of the Labyrinth.  Kirsty helps Pinhead (Doug Bradley) finds his humanity for one battle against this new cenobite, but it does not go well.

After an encounter with Frank, Kirsty must summon all her resourcefulness to escape Hell, and more than that, stop Channard.

“What tales will she tell us from the other side?”

In a significant fashion, Hellbound really is about tales from the “other side.”

The other world that we saw only briefly in Hellraiser, Hell itself, is depicted for long stretches of the film. Some of the visuals are generally amazing, while others prove a letdown.

The matte painting, for instance, of the labyrinth, looks astonishingly good. There are several shots which reveal Kirsty and Tiffany walking a long, narrow pathway across that Escher-like maze. The maze extends to the horizon, but also stretches downwards, across multiple levels. 

Also successfully depicted is Frank Cotton’s personal hell.  He lives in a room where ghostly women “promise” sex but never “deliver.”To Frank, this is a punishment on the scale of Tantalus, and quite appropriate. He lives, essentially, in a trap that will drive him mad for all eternity.  And that’s the reason he summoned Kirsty. He believes she’s a girl who keeps her “promises,” and wants to test that theory.

Unfortunately, when we don’t see the big matte shots, or visit Frank in his personal Hell, the underworld is depicted in less than inspiring fashion.

In fact it appears to consist of one hallway that branches off, and is filmed again and again. At one point, we get a P.O.V. shot with the camera hurtling through the corridor, and before the editor can cut away, it looks like there are some boards or lumber balanced against one wall.

This section of Hell: under construction.

When one couples shots like this one with the fact that Chatterer’s make-up design completely changes at one point, with no explanation, one gets the feeling that the film was made in a tearing hurry, and suffered from a lot of tinkering with.

Tiffany’s weird hall-of-mirrors/carnival scene is similarly crude in visualization, and doesn’t really add anything to the proceedings. Did she lose her Mom at a carnival? The sequence never makes us understand why this circus-like place is Tiffany’s personal Hell, or why she is permitted to escape it.

On the plus side, the Cenobite-making chamber is radically evil and neat, though it proves a stumbling block in future entries since it isn’t, apparently, required to make Cenobites after all. 

And though I wonder about the rationale of making Leviathan a huge puzzle box, I nonetheless love the deeply creepy black light it periodically shines across the realm. Instead of a lighthouse, Leviathan is a dark-house, shining darkness throughout every corner of Hell.

To get back to my treatise on mythology, Hellbound feels duty-bound to give us a lot of information.  It provides background on Pinhead, revealing his pre-Cenobite life. We learn he was a British soldier in World War I, and Hell on Earth, the next installment, even tells us his name.

We also get to reconnect in the film, powerfully, with Clare Higgins’ Julia. Once more, she gives voice to the film’s intermittent motif about literary mythology (seen in the Orpheus-like story and in the damnations of Hell being like the torments of Tantalus or Sisyphus). Here, Julia relevantly notes her role in the myth; that she is both the “wicked stepmother” and “evil queen” in Kirstie’s fairy tale. I love that Julia, formerly repressed and frigid, internalizes this role and emerges from Hell as a siren, a seductress.

Again, however, one has to wonder about the discontinuities between the two films, vis-à-vis revival via human blood. Frank had new skin after three strangers and Larry were killed in the first film. Julia in Hellbound kills a room full of prostitutes, and still doesn’t have all her new skin yet.

Another scene in the film is also incongruous. It shows a hospital ward of insane patients being tortured by many copies of the Lament Configuration, even after Pinhead has verbally confirmed that desire, not hands, call him. The scene doesn’t make any sense, in light of that remark.

Yet Hellbound’s heights of imagination generally tend to overcome such deficits. A movie would really have to go some distance to prove itself bloodier and gorier than Hellraiser was.  Hellbound manages that feat with ease. The scene involving a straight razor, a bloody mattress, and a very sick man, is one for the record books.

The Channard Cenobite is hugely creative too, for example. Who in his or her right mind devised an individual who is carried around by a giant worm that has burrowed into that individual’s head? The conception and imagery of the character is remarkable.

If the final battle between Channard and Pinhead’s team had featured a little more punch, a little more suspense, I’d rate the film even higher.  I very much enjoy the scenes of Kirsty and Pinhead teaming up, as it were, but I wish Pinhead put up a better fight before getting his throat slit.

As it stands, Hellbound is a perfectly satisfying mythology-based horror sequel. For those who “have to see, have to know…” -- like Channard -- the movie both promises and delivers.

For those audiences seeking a film functioning at at the same artistic apex as Hellraiser does, however, this first sequel may not exactly qualify as a “pleasure.”

1 comment:

  1. Yeah I enjoyed this movie quite a bit when I first saw it a few years ago. It just goes for it and doesn't hold back. But as you pointed out, that gusto comes at the expense of cutting down the mystery and creating some non-sensical moments. And there is a big different between confusing moments and mystery. The confusion in this film feels sloppy. But the mystery of "Hellraiser" is crafted to draw us in.

    Still I love Higgin's oh so sexy-evil take on Claire in this movie. I wish she had lasted a bit longer in the film. I also enjoyed some of the hell concepts, especially Leviathan. Sadly the Tiffany character felt more like a writer's crutch than an actual character.

    This movie could have used another pass with the script (or two). But all told it is a visceral film that does some great stuff. And I LOVE Christoper Young's amazingly dark, gothic and romantic score for this film. It sounds HUGE and imposing and drenched in darkness. Great stuff.