Wednesday, 12 January 2011

HELLRAISER: The Complete Saga Reviewed & Torn Apart

Today, I finally achieved something I had been working on for a long time: I finished watching the Hellraiser films.

Some people might think 'ah, sure, there's only three of them. Big deal', but something a lot of people don't know is that there is a lot more to the sadomasochist series than released in the Anchor Bay box set. There are, in fact, EIGHT Hellraiser films, with a ninth on the way. What better time than to do a rundown on the series so far? Here we go!

The Lament Configuration

Beginning with a low budget 1987 horror film directed and based on the novella of Clive Barker (also responsible for the Candyman story) and currently about to continue with an eighth low budget sequel destined for Video On Demand and budget DVD shelves, the Hellraiser films set themselves as one of the most important horror franchises (obviously behind Freddy and Jason, of course) with one of the most remarkable movie monster on show, Pinhead; a demon with nails driven into his skull. 

The gist of the films is that people solve the puzzle of the Lament Configuration, seen above, in hopes of achieving pleasures not of this world. This turns out to be an eternity of suffering and agony dished out by the hellish Cenobites, led by cult icon Pinhead. They view the torture they are giving you as the most rare form of pleasure; that achieved from a never-ending pain. I'd hazard a guess almost everyone has stubbed their toe and, after a few moments of embarrassing hopping around, actually get a kind of a rush from it, so these films have my hooked in (I wonder how many people can't get past this pain for pleasure concept and instead go 'that's not fair. They keep saying pleasure, but that's pain. How can pain be pleasure? This is stupid').

As an impressionable young boy, I always remember Pinhead's mutilated visage looking back at me from the video store shelf and thinking that these films must be the most out of this world, brutal movies ever, and that the people who watch them would  probably be considered sick. Years later, I finally saw the first three films over three nights on Filmfour when they were doing a free weekend back when you had to pay a premium. I'll always remember how the first two films in particular got under my skin and hooked me in (fans of the films might find that funny!). 

As years went on and my brother gave me the gift of Anchor Bay's limited edition Lament Configuration boxset, I enjoyed the films but began to see them as what they were; low budget 80s horror that, story wise, felt very slow and inherently of their time, with the third film having an American gloss (the first two were made in the UK and later passed as the US) and ridiculous 90s pitfalls. I saw the fourth film on Channel 4, when it was coming in off the aerial, in fuzzy black and white and snow, making it all that more intriguing to me. I didn't overdo it by getting a hold of all the films and pigging out on them. I'm sure there is some fun there, and can imagine it being fun in a group (how many people wanted the kids in Scream to choose Hellraiser over Halloween?), but I decidedly gave each film a chance to breath on its own.

The results are as you might expect. The series that started out very strong gradually diminished again and again, but of course, there are some surprises. This list is certainly personal taste. Many die-hard fans will disagree with me, but this is my opinion on the best and the worst of the films. There are some gems that utilise the promising (though, ultimately, never fully achieved) premise of the Hellraiser legacy. Hopefully this may help you guide your way through the rough and tumble world of the Cenobites!

8. HELLRAISER: HELLWORLD (2005) - No. 8 chronologically
Not even the mighty Lance Henriksen could save this straight to DVD sucker. The idea is totally awful and corny (revolving around the online game based on Hellraiser, that becomes all too real), but should have been fun. I like the idea of ghosts in the machines, and look at that one sheet, it's just begging for some Lawnmower Man-like action, but instead this film passes over this popcorn element and puts its protagonists into a rave in a mansion, which also has the potential to be fun, but oh God... This film is hard to watch because it takes Pinhead so long to dispatch of all these twerps. I'll grant you there is a nice twist, but it works as well as Kane uttering Rosebud at the end of Marmaduke. My verdict? This film has drinking game potential only.

7. HELLRAISER: DEADER (2005) - No. 7 chronologically
Filmed back-to-back with the above tripe, this film also has an interesting premise, though this time it is because it could have actually been good. A reporter is sent to Bucharest to check out a cult that we see kill themselves, but then come back to life, because the have discovered the secrets of the box and essentially worship it accordingly. It has the potential to be a very dark film, and the first fifteen minutes are actually quite good (seeing the reporter undercover and seeing her enter the apartment of some victim), but that is it. The film goes downhill into nonsense. I'm not sure if the filmmakers thought they were being intelligent or if they thought they were making a fun film, but there is nothing intelligent nor fun here. It's bland, SyFi made-for-TV-esque material. Watch the first few minutes, then turn it off and imagine how it could go from there, because you will not only hate but actually feel insulted by what happens.

6. HELLRAISER: INFERNO - No. 5 chronologically
Actually not too bad a film, but very bland. I actually remember very little of this besides its TV-film feel. All the later films suffer from this, but at least this one felt like it could have been an episode of Masters of Horror (made by one of those guys you've never heard of). Since I have little to say about this one, other than that it is better than the last two on this list but not good enough to resonate (it's inoffensive, I guess), I just want to point out the elephant in the room: the film titles. I have Wikipedia open to help me remember which film goes with which title. I guess producers don't want people to view the films as lowly sequels, but there's so many of them, it is impossible not to get confused! I'm working on a conspiracy theory that this is so people mistake the ok ones for the rubbish ones. For my money, I bet people just walk away and go 'meh'.

Finally, a numbered film (well, Roman numeral, at least)! Always included with the first two films to make a trilogy, I have long wondered do people view this as one of the best in the series? For me, it loses the visceral and almost Gothic horror of the first two films and replaces it with techno music and stupid Americans (no offence to Americans. It's just a culture shock after the first two films faux Americans!). I respect that they try to go into Pinhead's backstory a bit more and develop the general story arch from the first two films, but it's like The Matrix; it just gets worse the longer you pick at it (actually, I prefer Revolutions over Reloaded, but I thought it was a good analogy). It seems to happen with every established independent franchise studios get their mitts on; Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday The 13th all quickly went under after the New Line 'sheen' was applied. A lesson for studios; horror fans do love visceral an awful lot!

4. HELLRAISER: HELLSEEKER (2002) - No. 6 chronologically
Fans might not agree with this, and even though it was made by the same man responsible for entries 7 and 8 in this list, but this is a well crafted and worthy sequel. It introduces new themes to the films, relying heavily on distorted reality and general mind-fucking, and even has Hellraiser's equivalent to Ripley play a part and tie things in (though I have to say, I find her one of the weakest parts of the film. She seems tagged in). The story follows Trevor, who is in a car crash that seems to mess up his memory and kill Kirsty (Ripley). What follows is a lovely display of meshing of fact and fiction and him discovering who he really is. Actually quite a nice character piece. Some of the visual effects are a bit dodgy, and it still looks like a straight to video film (then again, so do a lot of films from this time), but this is probably the most overlooked film in the series. Or perhaps not. Like we've seen, director Rick Bota was given the reigns on the next sequels and squandered the faith I had in him. Damn you, Rick.

Another one that fans might not agree with, this is the film I tried to watch through that bad TV signal I mentioned earlier. I think part of my disdain for Part 3 is because I for some reason thought this was Part 3, and this one isn't quite as caught in the then-current trends on the discotheque (that's what they call them, right?). Using a nice three period structure, Bloodline starts in the future, where a man is trying to destroy the Lament Configuration once and for all but it obtained by security, where he explains the history of the box, which brings the story back to the 18th century, explaining the origins of the box and then we also have a major plot change to 'present day' 90s, where a descendant of the boxes maker has designed a building that has the box trapped in it. Obviously, the film has flaws. For me, I like ambiguity in a film and never really needed to know how or who made the box, but I find it actually works well within the film and what the series had become. Director Kevin Yagher disowned the film over disputes about the edit and story with the studio, which is a shame as what he seems to have been making was brilliant so far. There is a lovely air of claustrophobia in all scenarios of the film, keeping the plot within workable bounds, instead of trying to overachieve and failing. I'll go as far as to say there is almost an air of class about this film. A worthy part of the franchise.

Of course, it was always going to boil down to these last two films. They establish the hellish world of the Cenobites and don't need to over complicate or miss the point, as some of the sequels are prone to do. This is a lot like Aliens to the first films Alien. It is bigger, bolder, more action orientated. Centering around a doctor who is obsessed with the hellworld and directly continuing on the story from the first film, this film adds on to the mythos without diluting or spoiling it. The beginning of the film has some startling gore and beautiful images (skinless woman in a white house, what else!?), with the remainder of the film, which takes place in hell (or the Cenobites dimension, if you will. It may be awful, but nothing ever points to it being Hell as described by religion), toying around with ideas of labyrinths and black light. The films over-ambition is its only downfall really. The effects don't do some of the fantastic ideas justice, but it is an accessible and deservedly important film in the horror world.

1. HELLRAISER (1987)
The original, and the one that was never topped. Directed by Clive Barker, who authored the novella this is based on, we are given a dark tale of love, deceit, greed, and choices. As you would expect from an acclaimed writer, there are many layers and meanings within the story and you are able to place yourself in the position of Kirsty very easily (a 'Final Girl' by any definition), making the right choice with her along the way. The series is quite varied as it goes, but I always forget just how far this film pushes itself in the final act. It is just shy of arthouse, providing a nice closure to an isolated film. As good as this film is now, I can only imagine how amazing the rebirth scene was back when the film was released (I don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it). The role of disloyal wife is portrayed gleefully by Clare Higgins, and our first glimpses of Doug Bradley's Pinhead (in a more minor role here) are just the perfect elements in what is one of the 80s quintessential horror films. Of course, there are problems with it. The effects towards the end are very 80s and even cheap by those standards, and the story feels slow and dated, a victim of time and changing tastes, I suppose. However, most of these story problems are in the first act, so once you get past that, you get a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

I will leave it there. There are plenty of hardcore fans of the series who have gone into much deeper detail than I have, but I thought I would throw my 2 cents in, especially for those unfamiliar with the films. To be honest, I might switch around the top 4 if I was in a different mood, but they are the cream of the crop of a patchy series. I hope this helps someone who is looking to get their feet wet with a bit of intense horror/gore! Happy viewings!