Monday, August 07, 2006

Pleasure & Pain (Part Two)

(Read Part One of this piece by clicking here.)

Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) reared its bloated head a year after the first installment, and it is a direct sequel featuring three of the four members of the Cotton clan. It’s a mildly worthy, even if often misguided continuation of the story. As claustrophobic as the first movie is, Hellbound attempts the opposite by opening the story up with bigger effects and a larger playing field, all in the dimension of the Cenobites - a world that seems to indicate M.C. Escher is behind all of this madness. (Think Jim Henson’s Labyrinth for easily amused adults.)

Hellbound’s opening scenario echoes Frank’s first encounter with the Cenobites, only this time the man attempting to solve the puzzle is Elliott Spenser, a Captain in the British Army circa World War I. We do not know his reasons for doing so or even how he came to be in possession of the box. Upon its opening, tiny knives spring forth and slice a grid across his head, followed by tentacles hammering nails into the symmetrical pattern: The genesis of Pinhead. (More on the big guy later…)

The film’s most stimulating character is Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham of Rome), a psychiatrist obsessed with the Lament Configuration and the Cenobites. His interest is fueled by intellectual fascination and curiosity, as opposed to Frank’s pleasure seeking agenda from the first movie. One of his great lines - uttered after a hellish transformation to both his body and mind - “And to think, I hesitated”.

Frank himself returns in a scene that’s another Hellbound highlight: He’s reduced to spending eternity in a room full of beds on top of which lay naked, writhing female bodies covered in white sheets – only when the sheets are removed, the bodies disappear. When Kirsty begs him to reveal the whereabouts of her father, he offers up the classic “When you’re dead, you’re fuckin’ dead!” - which could be more of a key to understanding this world than the flippancy with which its delivered allows it to reveal.

Speaking of Kirsty’s father, Larry Cotton was to figure prominently in the film. Late in the game Andrew Robinson chose not to reprise the role, which led to some hasty rewrites. I’ve been unable to find precise details of “what might have been”, although one tidbit I found didn’t lead me to believe the film would have been much better if he had featured in the story. The movie eventually falls into a mish-mash of silly chases and popcorn science fiction and in the end fails to make much sense out of a series of promising setups. But even with its problems, nobody can ever accuse it of being boring, which leads me to...

Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992), a movie that’s nothing if not a snoozefest. Its central premise is the idea that Pinhead wants to escape his world and exist on Earth. After seeing his world in Hellbound, I cannot grasp why he’d want to do this – Earth is pretty tedious in comparison. Maybe the grass is always greener, even when you’re a supernatural being. The film’s utter cheeseitude can pretty much be summed up by a new Cenobite with compact discs lodged in his head - an image that confirmed major Hellraiser Shark-Jumpage. There isn’t much more to say about it, except that if you’re a Star Trek fan, Terry Farrell (DS9’s Dax) plays the central heroine (although if you're a Trek fan you probably already know this).

The fourth movie, Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996), may have been good or even great at one point; one section of the film details the invention of the Lament Configuration and is set in the 18th Century, with some nice period costumes and so forth. But Miramax/Dimension interfered by reediting and butchering it over concerns that Pinhead didn’t appear until about 40 minutes into the picture. It ended up with an infamous “Directed by Alan Smithee” credit after director Kevin Yagher asked that his name be removed. I’ve always hoped for a Director’s Cut, but over the years it’s seeming less and less likely.

The new millennium saw Hellraiser go direct to video and since the year 2000 there’ve been four more installments. This is a moderately peculiar development as it’s an affliction that hasn’t struck the Freddy, Jason or Michael Myers franchises, no matter how far they’ve fallen.

Are these flicks any good? I must admit I’ve only seen the first two: Inferno (2000) & Hellseeker (2002). The former is like watching Bad Lieutenant on good acid and stars Craig Sheffer. The latter resembles an Elm Street flick in that it’s a blurred “what’s real and what’s not?” type of affair. It’s most noteworthy for featuring the return of Kirsty Cotton, again played by the lovely Ashley Laurence, and the film deserves props for bringing her back in an unexpected fashion that didn't degrade the series or Kirsty as a character.
Neither movie is great and both are needlessly obtuse, but ultimately they’re a few steps up from the schlockfests into which the theatrical films eventually devolved. They at least attempt to go for the gold, even if they can’t see the rainbow through the clouds.

The series, at least for now, is better off on video rather than the big screen where it could suffer far more evil (i.e. commercialized) fates. These low-budget Hellraiser flicks can afford experimentation and risk-taking even if they don’t always pay off. The original remains not only the best, but also the lowest-budgeted film in the entire saga – it was made for only $1,000,000. $20 mill isn’t necessary to tell a good story in the Cenobite universe; a smart script and a twisted imagination will go farther than piles of cash.

What somebody really needs to do is go back to the beginning, dissect the themes that made the first film work so well, and come up with a fresh spin on the material. As iconic as Pinhead is, Frank Cotton is still Hellraiser’s most intriguing character and I’d like to see Frank again in some form or fashion.

And what of our main man…he of all things hammered home? Is Pinhead necessary to Hellraiser or is there room for stories without him? That’s a toughie. He is not integral to the Hellraiser universe in the same way Jason, Freddy and Michael Myers are to theirs. He’s not the only Cenobite - just the most well spoken and best dressed (which actually counts for quite a bit). I’d rather see a good Hellraiser movie without Pinhead than a bad installment that featured him running all over the place.

On the other hand, Pinhead hasn’t suffered the undignified fates of many movie monsters. He’s always possessed immense intelligence and fortunately hasn’t been totally reduced to a wisecracking demonic entity, although there have been occasional derailments (Hell on Earth being the biggest transgressor). There's life [and death] in the old boy yet.

Both Inferno and Hellseeker seem to understand that the less we see of Pinhead, the more effective he is as a boogeyman, which hails back to Barker’s original vision. Go back and check out the credits of the first movie; Doug Bradley doesn’t play Pinhead – he plays “Lead Cenobite”. And Mrs. Voorhees was the killer in Friday the 13th, Freddy mostly lurked in dreamlike shadows in the first Elm Street, and don’t even get me started on Halloween’s Michael Myers, who really just needs to fucking die already.

Like most fans, I live with a hope that someday a Hellraiser flick is created that lives up to the inspired beauty of Barker's original vision. Unlike the other franchises mentioned here, Hellraiser rarely repeats itself nor has it been forced to fall back on hip gimmickry (New Nightmare anyone?) as a means of reinvention. My hope is likely rooted in one of "Lead Cenobite's" most infamous bits of dialogue:

We have such sights to show you!