Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Solving The Puzzle Box: The Hellraiser Series

The 1980s spawned many horror film franchises, all of varying quality. There were the many slasher films, such as the endless Friday the 13th films and the Halloween drones, which even though it's original film inspired the former, it's appearance was a steal on the latter. A Nightmare on Elm Street was more upscale  in terms of production and scripts, but were still largely poor. Of all of them, the most creative and disturbing, especially from a visual aesthetic, was the Hellraiser series created by Clive Barker. These films offered some of the most grotesque imagery ever witnessed in the horror film and made a horror star out of Doug Bradley, who created one of horror's most durable characters in the form of "Pinhead."
However, they are overall, very poor films that offer interesting visual concepts, but lacked substance and as they progressed, lost sight of what they initially sought out to be. Only the first film has emerged as notable, and even that is a minor classic at best. So, why the praise and popularity?
Well, for one thing, these films were unique and the vision of Hell offered was different and the ideas were intriguing. That's more than can be said of most slasher films, which hardly go in with any ideas present. Maybe, it's also because through Pinhead and his fellow "cenobites," a truly interesting horror creation is born, however poorly used they would eventually be.
I went back and reviewed all these films recently, having acquired a DVD that contains the majority of the sequels and this made me discover and reacquaint myself, with this film series. It wasn't pretty and most were  horrid, but I can understand the interest, at least partially. I reviewed all the films, but left out the final picture, Hellraiser: Revelations(2011), the only one to not contain Doug Bradley. Most of the sequels are awful, yes, but this was a new low. It was like taking the one vital spark from this long running engine and still seeing if it would run. It could not. Like Robert Englund and Freddy Krueger, Bradley and Pinhead at least offered the only entertainment available in an increasingly dreary series and in respect to him and his legacy, I admitted this cash grab from my reviews.

Director: Clive Barker
Cast: Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence, Sean Chapman

After years of seeing his work bastardized on the screen, writer Clive Barker turned to directing himself and helmed his own adaption of his work, The Hellbound Heart. The result was his best screen adaption and one of the best horror films of the late 1980s. Barker's narrative is kind of clunky, in it's dealings of the unfaithful, Julia(Clare Higgins) helping to restore the flesh to her past lover, Frank(Sean Chapman) who has escaped a sort of Hell, which he entered through a mysterious puzzle box. Dramatically, Julia and Frank are fairly uninteresting, even if the concept is very disturbing and chilling. Hellraiser's ultimate problem lies in it's lack of an emotional core and inconsistent writing. It's what deprives this of being one of the ten best of the decade, which it could have easily had been.
Ashley Laurence who plays Kirsty and is actually quite good here and very(underline that word, very) pretty is turned into nothing more than an imitation of the Heather Langenkamp role in the first, A Nightmare on Elm Street(1984). Her character becomes as heroic as the script requires it, but sadly, she is not the focus and it's ultimately the dramatic conviction and sheer likability of the performer that lets her rise above the material.
Despite, his popularity and prominence in the advertising art, Pinhead(Doug Bradley) and his cenobites, are relatively minor characters in the background, though there scenes have immense power and impact. Bradley delivers his lines in a matter of fact manner that both soothes and echoes a certain melancholy, reminding one of the classic horror creations of the past. It's a great horror role and he rises above as the most memorable, though in terms of horror, "Chatter" and "Butterball" are certainly gruesome enough!
Andy Robinson probably takes the acting honors here, first playing Kirsty's father and then his own brother, Frank, with an amazing amount of relish. Finally cornered by the cenobites and tied by by hooks, his sarcastic, sinister reading of the line, "Jesus wept," lingers long in the memory.
Clare Higgins is ice cold as Julia, but has no dimension to her character and therefore, no reason for us to root for or against her. Julia has no real connection to Frank beyond that he was a "good lay" and that's pretty superficial for most of us to buy. Likewise, despite Chapman's menace, he's not much of a character, besides being a bit of a bastard. It's hard for me to judge though, considering his voice was dubbed, though it probably was for the best, as it's suitably menacing and not as polite as his original English accent was.
When one comes out of Hellraiser, it's the visual components one remembers the most fondly. From the creepy blue light and arrival of the cenobites(a brilliant touch by Barker) to the disturbing scene where Frank first forms out of Hell, the many gruesome delights on hand make this film memorable and far more atmospheric than other 80s offerings and for that reason, this is still a must see and is the best of the series.

HellBound: Hellraiser 2(1988)
Director: Tony Randel
Cast: Ashley Laurence, Clare Higgins, Imogen Boorman, Kenneth Cranham

This direct sequel to the 1987 original is a mess of a movie. While, it contains many(and there are many) disturbing images throughout, there's very little story and absolutely no cohesion. Ashley Laurence returns as the distraught Kirsty, who ends up in a ward, where she is cared by Dr. Channard(Kenneth Cranham) who has an obsession with that damn puzzle box, and one day he even unleashes Julia, who is now as skinned as Frank was in the original film and Channard is attracted to her for reasons, i'd rather not contemplate.
Kirsty is in danger, because not just is she back, but the cenobites return once more, including Pinhead, who is even given a back story, however slight, that is probably the most intriguing thing about this film. Bradley gets more depth as Pinhead, which will explored more in the next film and he remains one of the film's saving graces. Laurence is likable and cute as ever, even when covered in blood and yuck, but her character is significantly altered and it does not go with the previous film at all. Likewise, the other performances are disturbing, but flat and most of it feels like a retread, and a not very good one at that.
Most of the running time is spent on disturbing(often disgusting) imagery and a penchant for attempting to scare it's audience with loud noises. While, the same sense of dread and weird is felt as it was in the first film, the results are barely even half as successful, making this one of the most disappointing sequels of the 1980s.

Hellraiser 3: Hell On Earth(1992)
Director: Anthony Hickox
Cast: Terry Farrell, Paula Marshall, Doug Bradley

A marginal improvement over the previous film, at least entertainment-wise, this features a nasty Goth club owner(Kevin Bernhardt) who buys a statue that contains both the puzzle box and Pinhead himself, who beckons him to unleash him so that he may create...HELL ON EARTH!
It's a schlocky premise, more in tune with an Elm Street sequel, but it does offer Doug Bradley more to do and that's always good. The background that was hinted at in the previous film is explored again, revealing Pinhead to be a World War One Captain, who served in the British infantry. He seeks to unite the two souls, his and Pinhead's, and destroy the terror. He finds aid in a reporter(Terry Farrell) who has recurring dreams about her father, who went MIA in Vietnam and this bond unifies them in spirit. She also meets Paula Marshall, as one of the sexiest goths ever depicted on the screen, who unfortunately, falls prey to Pinhead and is turned into one dumb looking cenobite. In fact, this film has many dumb cenobites, all created during a particularly gruesome massacre at the Goth club, where one guy gets a camera for an eye and another gets killed by CDs(!) and is resurrected as a CD-spewing baddie. Sound stupid? It certainly is! Wait, until Pinhead and his goons walk through town and blow up everything in their path, including in one hilarious moment, a group of police officers, who get squirted with gasoline and yell out, "Gasoline!" before being blown sky high. And than there's the scene, where Pinhead invades a church and does some nasty things to a priest and makes many funny faces at the altar. Gone is the ambiguity of his character from the first film. For some reason, he has morphed into a surrogate Satan, and while it's fun to watch, it's also a tad silly.
Hellraiser 3 is not exactly the most cerebral horror film around, but it does contain some fun gore for the splatter hounds and a nice turn by Doug Bradley, who really shines in this film, being given more screen time than in any previous entry. Unfortunately, the script is mixed and the acting is below par, especially with Farrell, who goes from being an intelligent and sensitive heroine to the stereotypical, obscenity spewing tough chick by the final reel(clad in a wife-beater, no less!) and it's just not believable. Plus, the cenobites that Bernhardt and Marshall become are beyond silly and needless. This is sort of a fun film, and the concept of a cenobite finding his soul is a good one, but this needed a softer, more subtle touch, otherwise, as this film proves, it becomes parody, quite easily.
Interesting note for metalheads: The band playing in the club is Armored Saint, one of the great cult bands of the 1980s American metal scene. It sort of freaked me out, because I have the record they were promoting, Symbol of Salvation, and the song played, Hanging Judge, still makes the round son my ipod. Very cool. Of course, most may recall the hilarious video that accompanied the film, which was the song Hellraiser by Motorhead, which was originally written by Lemmy for Ozzy Osbourne to be used on his, No More Tears album in 1991. In the video, Pinhead and Lemmy play a card game. Lemmy plays the Ace of Spades.
Nuff' said.

Hellraiser: Bloodline(1996)
Director: Alan Smithee
Cast: Bruce Ramsay, Valentina Vargas, Doug Bradley

This fourth film is something of a novel concept: the origins of the puzzle box. Unfortunately, it's wrapped around an awful plot device, where everything is set hundreds of years in the future, where the ancestor(Bruce Ramsay) of the original creator is attempting to destroy the box in space. He is captured by a military force and interrogated, and much of the bulk of the film revolves around the box's insidious creation, as it passes from one hand to another. The most interesting aspect of this film is Valentina Vargas as Angelique, who is actually the conjured up "Princess of Hell," of whom I am pretty sure Pinhead has a crush on. She's very sexy in this film and it could have been about her adventures, but alas, the plot gets in the way, what little there is. Her original owner, Jacques(Adam Scott, Amy Poehler's boyfriend from Parks and Rec!) treats her like crap, for whatever reason and she is forced to kill him, which leads her to find the cenobites and Pinhead.Awwwwwww. I guess Jacques should have learned a thing or two about treating his demon right, and you know, that could have been a great movie! A wonderful romantic comedy, complete with torture, sadism and sex. And valuable lessons about love, of course. That's the movie I wanted.
Anyway, in the future, Pinhead has caught up with the "toy maker" as he calls the descendant and walks into a trap, where the entire space station is turned into the puzzle box(!) and blows up. "Welcome to oblivion" indeed!
This is a mess of a movie, I mean, it's really bad. You know, you're in trouble, when you see the name "Alan Smithee" on the credits, a surefire sign of disaster, as that name guarantees production issues. Not much is interesting here, save for a few Pinhead wisecracks and Valentina Vargas, who is kind enough to indulge in a few sex scenes and wear a ludicrous cenobite getup at the end(complete with her always lovely cleavage on display.) and that's about it entertainment wise. Easily one of the worst horror films of the 90s.
Below are the best parts from this film. As you may have noticed most of them involve Miss Vargas sans her cenobite getup and clothing. You're welcome.

Hellraiser: Inferno
Director: Scott Derrickson
Cast: Craig Sheffer, Nicholas Turturro, James Remar, Doug Bradley

This was originally intended as it's own picture. but greedy Miramax decided it wanted another another Hellraiser, so the damn puzzle box and Pinhead were added to the film, even they serve little purpose. This wannabe Noir begins well enough with a crooked cop(Craig Sheffer) on a case involving a serial killer who leaves the fingers of a small child at every crime scene. He also discovers the puzzle box and this sends him on an odyssey of madness and corruption, as he discovers the demons in his own soul and in a last reel revelation that I saw a mile away, and screw the spoilers, it's all a part of his twisted psyche and he's actually the killer! This film thinks it's clever, but substituting bizarre imagery and loose plotting, does not equate intelligence, which this film gradually loses by the end. Sheffer isn't bad, but this film feels padded out and would have been served better as a television episode as part of an anthology series, rather than a feature length film.
It's nice to see 80s bad guy James Remar as a sophisticated villain, but he has little to do and when he turns out to be Pinhead, the result is laughable. Bradley returns with his hooks as Pinhead and is really just there to please the fans seeking another adventure with the cenobites.
It's a better film than Bloodline, but not as entertaining or as engaging, as awful as that film was. This is the sort of picture you see once, feel like it was decent, but have no interest in ever returning to again, and frankly, I don't think I ever will.

Hellraiser: Hellseeker(2002)
Director: Rick Bota
Cast: Ashley Laurence, Dean Winters, Doug Bradley

Hellraiser: Hellseeker must have excited a lot of fans, not just because of it's hilarious cover art, but because the ever beautiful Ashley Laurence is back as Kirsty. It's amazing how lovely this woman looks and I swear, she seems to get more beautiful every year. Did she do a deal with the devil? Who knows.
The sweet and likable actress is given little to do here, though, as this film is hardly a proper continuation of the Hellraiser saga that she began and is quite strange. Most of the plot reminds me of the previous film, in fact, with the emphasis on Kirsty's unfaithful husband(Dean Winters) who sleeps around with a bunch of women, even though he has Ashley Laurence as a wife, and her subsequent revenge, which involves the puzzle box and Pinhead, who hardly has time to catch up with her on old times. That would have made a great film, actually. Just her and Pinhead, waxing philosophic about life and the various dimensions of Hell. it could have been called, Dinner With Pinhead, or something and could have been an instant arthouse classic. Instead, we get this meandering, and annoying flick, which all turns out to be a dream, which was inevitable, since the entire plot contradicted the rest of the series. The film ends with Kirsty given the puzzle box by the police and it's just plain weird.
Laurence is very good in this, but the film is hardly watchable and yet again, Bradley makes the briefest of appearances and it's more than a little sad that he has such little time with his favorite quarry. And where's the tension between those two? I could imagine Pinhead being nonplussed that she's married and everything. Call me crazy, but I always thought the old cenobite had a crush on her. Not that I can't blame him, as I have supplied some images of Laurence in, shall we say, "happier" times.

Hellraiser: Hellworld(2003)
Director: Rick Bota
Cast: Lance Henriksen, Katheryn Winnick, Doug Bradley

Look at the faces above. Notice the expressions? Pay close attention to the one on Mr. Henriksen in the first photo. You know what that is? It's boredom and bewilderment and that's precisely what the audience must surely feel when(and if they are so unlucky) to discover this, which is effectively hitting rock bottom.
Forget Hell. This is even lower than that. This is the pit that even Satan himself, throws his garbage. This is excruciatingly bad to watch and without much of the humor of the previous entries, unintentional or otherwise.
Instead, Henriksen owns a hip place where Goths and the like hang out, but is really a front for torture and sadism, straight out of the tasteless and juvenile "torture porn" films of the last decade. Pinhead and a few cenobites show up, but offer little to the plot, though it still makes me smile when Bradley arrives to deliver his deadpan line readings. The possibilities of Henriksen and him teaming up, are rich, but are squandered and they hardly have a scene together. Most of the running time is spent on boring teens, the types that helped spell doom for the horror genre and any respectability it has obtained over the years. They are lifeless and flat, and so is the direction, once again by Rick Bota, who lends very little in the ways of creativity and atmosphere. This is a far cry from the first film, or for that matter, any half decent horror film made in the last 70 years. Even Bloodline looks good here, hell, even the last film looked good here. And at least they had Vargas and Laurence, two total that moment a light bulb went off in the head of Rick Bota and in the next film...

Hellraiser: Deader(2004)
Director: Rick Bota
Cast: Kari Wuhrer, Paul Rhys, Doug Bradley

...Kari Wuhrer the veteran babe of many softcore features, stars! Praise the Lord! Well, maybe not yet, I mean did you see that title? "Deader" is not even a word. What sort of Hell has Bota wrought this time? Not the sort that Clive Barker designed, that's for sure!
Kari Wuhrer plays a journalist, who is a bit punk and gets involved with a group that can seem to resurrect the dead...and guess how they do it! Pinhead is mighty pissed when he finds out that upstart, "Winter"(Paul Ryhs) is playing God and he goes to teach him a lesson, which predictably involves hooks and chains and promises of torture and his usual shtick. Wuhrer's character finds out she's dead and instead of being taken by Pinhead, kills herself, making this whole experience beyond pointless.
This is a very dull film, and as one can surmise, this series really gets lethargic at this point, rehashing the same old stuff and not doing much with the potentially interesting world of the puzzle box and it's keepers. Mr. Bradley has very little to do, as he had in the previous few entries and Miss Wuhrer does show some skin, but you have seen better and below you will see examples of her "happier times," of which this is not one of them. The subtitle of this film is apt in describing how this once interesting series had gone out to pasture, and somehow, even after being pronounced dead, got worse and worse...a sad way to end the tale, which is why you should be glad that I spared you the tragic final installment, which is anything but a Revelation. 

Obviously, I lost my train of thought half-way through this exercise, evidenced by the amount of babes and skin I posted, but it really is a chose to sit through such a series. Hellraiser is not a great or even good series, but I can understand some of the fascination. For one thing, the cenobites are interesting and Doug Bradley is a good enough actor to make Pinhead work on a certain level, even giving him some subtle pathos, though the later entries dispensed with that almost entirely. It boggles my mind that most of these films were not even supposed to be Hellraiser films and that for some reason, there were no scripts to work on. I feel like there's still meat in this story and would love to see it explored again in a more complex and mature way. Barker created some great characters here and a wonderfully dark universe, but it has all come to naught. This series is frustrating because of all the wasted potential, inherent.
Most of them are bad films, while the rest are strictly mediocre. Even the first is a minor classic, and a flawed one at that. Still, the plots, the monsters and some of the actors(and especially, the actresses) have kept this series both interesting and strangely, compelling. If anything, they offered something new and different in a time when horror meant nothing other than mad slashers and that's something in itself. Maybe, this series wasn't entirely the safe haven that the intelligent horror fan desired, but it had ideas, and that's more than can be said of most current franchises. The Hellraiser saga has a level of poignancy, I suppose, in the end. What started off as a new and fresh horror concept was in subsequent years, through greed and control, corrupted into nothing but an empty husk of it's former self. The cenobite's final and ultimate torture, it seems, came not from the horrors inflicted on the characters in the films, but on the audiences who paid money to actually watch such utter banality.