Saturday, October 29, 2016
Upon viewing Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) again recently, 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.”
At the risk of embarrassing some readers, I will nonetheless write the following statement regarding Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987).
It’s all about sex.
If that description is too debauching, just consider for a moment how much of our great literature actually concerns sex.
What started the Trojan War, and led to the events of Homer’s Iliad?
Sexual desire (for Helen).
Or consider, Lysistrata.
At the center of all those tales is the human sex drive, or perhaps put more aptly, the mysteries of the human sex drive. How it can be manipulated. How it can be used. How it can be sated.
An extremely gory horror film from 1987, Hellraiser is very much in the same camp as the aforementioned works of literature. The film involves, specifically, one “uptight and frigid” woman’s desire to experience, again, the best sex of her life.
That sex (with Frank Cotton) is so amazing that Julia (Clare Higgins) -- as we see in the film -- would do literally anything to experience it again, even commit murder…repeatedly. Family ties fall by the wayside as Julia single-mindedly pursues a resurrection of not only her lover, but her slumbering passion.
The later Hellraiser films -- as horror sequels often do -- adopt a much more literal, straightforward stance. Those films are about, simply, people opening the gates to Hell and their adventures with Cenobites such as Pinhead (Doug Bradley).
But Barker’s inaugural film is about sexual frustration in Julia, and sexual awakening, after a fashion, in Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence).
Barker explores these notions about human sexuality -- about the flesh -- through repeated instances of remarkable (and either sensual or horrific) visual symbolism.
I have read, over the decades, negative reviews of Hellraiser that don’t understand why people like so much a movie concerning an “evil box.”
In some cases, those critics have failed to understand the central idea that built the franchise; the idea that Hellraiser isn’t about opening an evil box, but rather mastering and unlocking the puzzle-box of human sexuality.
The Hellraiser movies go from brilliant to terrible in short order, and I’ll review at least the first four in the next few weeks here on the blog, but the first film remains a masterpiece of the macabre primarily for its deep exploration into these ideas about sex and desire.
“Some things have to be endured, and that’s what makes the pleasures so sweet.”
Julia (Clare Higgins) and Larry Cotton (Andrew Robinson) move into the family house formerly occupied by Larry’s loner brother Frank (Sean Chapman). Julia and Frank once had an affair, and she covets the memory of it.
But now, bizarrely, a chance arises for Julia to have a second chance with Frank. He died in the house at the hands of demonic beings called Cenobites. In particular, he opened a puzzle -- the Lament Configuration -- that opened a door between Earth and Hell.
Somehow, Frank escaped the tortures of the Cenobites, and was left for dead. His consciousness and bones still survive, but for him to be whole once more, he must have Julia bring him the blood of the living to devour.
She does so, bringing back strange men to the house with a promise of sex, and then bludgeoning them to death with a hammer.
Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), Larry's daughter, grows increasingly concerned for her father, and is troubled by bad dreams. One day, she goes to the house and learns what Frank and Julia are up to. She also gets her hands on the Lament Configuration Puzzle, summoning the Cenobites as Frank once did.
Now Kirsty must make a deal with Pinhead (Doug Bradley), the leader of the Cenobites, to turn over Frank, lest they tear her soul apart. instead...
“Like love…only real.”
I first saw Hellraiser (1987) in movie theaters in 1987. I was seventeen, and had never seen such a bloody film. And yet, I could detect on repeat viewings (especially after I was in my twenties), how all the blood and violence in the film served a dramatic purpose. The cold, empty Julia would do anything to feel her blood pumping again, to feel the heights of passion, even it meant spilling the blood of someone else, someone she didn't care about.
Julia’s passion for Frank and blood-letting are first connected by Barker in a remarkable (and remarkably disgusting...) bit of cross-cutting early on.
Julia is in the attic, remembering the first time Frank made love to her (over her wedding gown, actually…).
Meanwhile, downstairs, Larry is attempting, with several movers, to get a mattress up a narrow staircase. The mattress becomes stuck, and Larry must pull at it. He tugs at it repeatedly, even as we see Frank thrusting atop Julia.
Unfortunately for Larry, he drags his hand across a rusty nail. Blood fountains from his hand.
The symbolism is unmistakable. As Julia has intercourse with Frank and achieves orgasm (in her flashback), that fevered motion is mirrored by Larry’s hand, dragging the mattress. Both moments end with, presumably, the release of fluids.
But in this case, Julia’s driving memory of sex with Frank is linked to explicitly to injury, to blood and death.
Indeed, that’s what her passion will ultimately bring to Larry, his family, and anyone else that gets into her orbit. Her love for Frank is a death sentence to everyone else.
That’s not the only time that visual symbolism comes into play.
Consider specifically how the puzzle box, the Lament Configuration, is opened. The demons are released after the user runs a finger across a small circle of gold filigree.
This small circle (by a roaming finger...) across a surface is mirrored by Julia and Frank’s sign of affection for one another. Several times in the film, they run their fingers across each other’s lips in a circle…even when fingers and lips are drenched in spilled blood.
The little circle that opens the box -- and this sensuous touch of the soft lips -- is also, apparently, a metaphor or stand-in for clitoral stimulation. That stimulation suggests another kind of gateway, one to passion and sexual satisfaction. Frank is a kind of hyper-sexualized figure, an explorer in the realms of pleasure and pain, and he is adept, apparently, at opening the puzzle -- or unlocking a woman’s desire. Julia is ultimately undone by Frank (at least in this movie), because he uses these skills to get his life back, but doesn’t truly love her. He betrays her, instead.
I have always considered Julia's journey to be the emotional and thematic core of Hellraiser. The family house where virtually all the action occurs even seems to be a metaphor for the character of Julia. It is an empty place that, nonetheless, houses inside a monstrous or terrible desire.
The house hides Frank, a dormant figure waiting to be re-activated. And Julia holds him inside her sealed-off heart, wishing him back.
Consider, in comparison, Kirsty’s journey.
A young woman, she is permanently infantilized as "Daddy’s little girl." Kirsty is solicitous of her dad’s attention, and constantly worrying/tending to him. She runs to him whenever she has a problem.
Kirsty is also beautiful, and “ripe” as Frank describes her. She is totally unaware of her own (dawning) sexual power. Kirsty's beauty arouses the movers in the house, and then Kirsty goes to a kitchen sink, which explodes with water, unexpectedly, in her face.
Kirsty is surprised by this explosion, because she is unaware of the power she wields.
To put it another way, Kirsty has not realized the power to unlock the puzzle box of her sexual power. But where Julia’s passion was associated explicitly with spilled blood, Kirsty’s is not.
Instead, her desire is pure, and visualized by the water. Life hasn't twisted Kirsty yet, hasn't transformed her into something sick and co-dependent.
Later, Kirsty has sex with her boyfriend, Steve, and in general seems to have a much healthier attitude about passion than do either Frank or Julia.
So when she gets her hands on the Lament Configuration what does Kirsty do?
First, she teases Frank with the promise of controlling it. She does this not as a flirt, not out of desire, but so as to save her own life.
Kirsty has realized, suddenly, that she possesses something he very much wants. She can bargain with it, and hold him at bay. Kirsty now has an awareness of the power she yields, and again, that's a metaphor for sexual awakening.
Then, Kirsty uses the box for another purpose. She sends back the demons; destroying the sickness that Frank and Julia created. She wields the box for an end that saves her life, and saves others.
Kirsty escapes the out-sized pull her father has on her life (exemplified by Frank’s gross come-on line, “Come to Daddy,”) and demonstrates responsible control over the Lament Configuration. She can use the box to destroy her demons, not summon them, not wallow in them. She governs her passions. She doesn't let them govern her, the way that Julia does.
This fact seems plain in the imagery that connects the two women. For a moment, each woman has a hand on the box. But Julia has destroyed herself playing with it. Kirsty takes it for purposes of escape.
What is presented in Hellraiser then, uniquely, is a story of two very different women. One lives in the memory of the past, and covets a sick relationship that gave her pleasure. The other woman is able to grow up, move beyond her family unit, and demonstrate an ability to conquer the threats that she encounters.
I admire Hellraiser so much not for the goopy special effects, the downright bloody horror, or even the spectacular and immortal Cenobite designs, but because the film focuses so clearly on Julia and Kirsty, and their encounters interacting with the “puzzle” of flesh, skin, and desire.
The imagery -- whether revealed in cross-cutting, or related to the mastery of the Lament Configuration, enhance the film’s themes beautifully.
For me, no other Hellraiser film so perfectly captures the drive and illogic of human behavior. The sequels move into the realm of mythology. I like Hellbound very much, but it’s such a different animal.
In short, Hellraiser is all a about a woman bringing unsuspecting men back to a filthy room and beating them to death with claw hammers…so she can have the best sex of her life again. These particular scenes -- three of them -- are played to perfection by Higgins. Julia is both anxious and excited as she lures her would-be lovers to their doom. On that first encounter, she’s thinking about committing murder. Her mark is thinking about having sex. The line “there’s a first time for everything,” captures the moment perfectly. It is true of both murder and sex.
Once the Hellraiser movies beyond both Julia and Kirsty, they seem a whole lot less intriguing.
Hellraiser also concerns tactile pleasures in a way that explores the Zeitgeist of its time. We experience the world through our flesh, through our skin. We want to do -- at least sometimes -- what feels good, not what it is actually right.
That equation seems like a perfect metaphor for the excess of the 1980s, and so Hellraiser speaks to its time in a remarkably powerful way.
In a decade of “greed is good,” how far do you take greed? In this case, greed transmits, pretty much, as sexual avarice. A merchant asks -- in the film’s book-end questions: “what’s your pleasure?”
That’s the question, isn’t it? How far would somebody go to feel good? As far as Julia goes? Or Frank?
Today we remember Hellraiser as our introduction to Pinhead, Chatterer, Butterball, and the Female. But these Cenobites -- if I recall correctly from Paul Kane’s brilliant book about the series, The Hellraiser Films and Their Legacy -- only appear on screen for seven minutes. These “explorers in the further realm of experience” carry such incredible impact, even today, because they are well-performed, and carefully-designed. But also because we don't see them too often, or get to know them too well.
Pinhead radiates a kind of noble or regal brand of evil. He’s a monster, and yet, in some way, he can be approached with reason and logic. At least if you have something to bargain with.
The others are frightfully monstrous, and they make you wonder how they can be seen as “angels to some” instead of as “demons.”
This first Hellraiser film also features some blind alleys that were never adequately explored in the sequels. After this film, for instance, we never again saw The Engineer, or the bone demon that takes the box from the fire during the denouement. Those seem fascinating elements of the mythology that ought to be developed at some point.
But more troubling, I feel, is the fact that post-Hellbound films don’t’ really deal convincingly or well with human foibles.
Pinhead and his buddies should function as ruthless exploiters of human vice, and each film in the franchise, conceivably, could concern the downward spiral of someone like Frank, or Julia. And in Hellbound, Pinhead notes that “hands don’t” summon him, only “desire” does. That edict is dropped like a hot potato by the third film, and Pinhead, Angelique and other Cenobites torture anyone who haphazardly opens the box and toys with it.
That paradigm takes away much of the power of the franchise and robs Hellraiser of its galvanizing factor; the opening up of the complex puzzle of human desire.
Friday, October 28, 2016
In other words, evil things are clearly occurring, but you don't always understand exactly what, who is doing it, or precisely why. Clarity eludes you...and your imagination starts to fill in the black spots.
Birthday cakes and butcher knives.
"Seven and One" -- written by the team of Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz -- opens immediately with that sense of amorphous anxiety, and with a surfeit of symbols.
|In extreme high angle, Frank faces his fear of drowning.|
But on the surface, "Seven and One" is a baffling, mysterious and opaque installment of Millennium. An unknown, possibly demonic, shape-shifting villain frames Frank for murder, attempts to drive him from the F.B.I, shape-shifts into Boxer and Hollis, threatens Frank and Jordan, and then, after apparently committing suicide in the form of Hollis, disappears into thin air.
Very briefly, the episode reveals this Loki-type character as Mabius (Bob Wilde), the assassin we have seen before, in the employ of the shadowy Millennium Group.
|The flood gates of water -- and understanding -- are opened.|
Again, this is all speculative material that must be sussed out from the action that occurs on screen. Carter and Spotnitz spoon-feed the audience almost nothing. They expect us to keep up.
Thus, the best way to understand what occurs in "Seven in One" is to understand and track the highly-cinematic visuals.
|Ending on Connection|