All posts by Keith

I consider it a good day if you find yourself in a torn Army green t-shirt, using a badly notched machete to split open a coconut and hand half of it to the scantily clad woman sitting on the beach next to you as you stare out at the waves and listen intently for the sound of war drums drifting from the dense foliage of the jungle behind you.
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Faust: Love of the Damned


You know in action films when there’s that scene where two dudes get in a fight, and after one dude has kicked the other dude’s ass, he picks the fallen opponent up, buys him a beer, and they become friends? Well, that’s sort of what it’s like to watch Faust: Love of the Damned. This movie will sucker punch you in the face, knee you in the groin, and generally beat the crap out of you, but in the end, somehow, you’re willing to shake hands with it and help it rescue a damsel from some secret society or something. At least that’s how I felt about it, so you better get ready for another one of those reviews where I spend 99% of the time talking about how terrible the film is, only to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it come the final paragraph.

Back when I was in high school, someone gave me a copy of the comic book Faust, which by then had become an underground sensation and darling of all the horror film nerds who were also comic book nerds, which I don’t need to tell you constitutes a pretty significant cross-over population. Although much is said in retrospect about the poetic nature of the comic book and the epic struggle of the main character, the flat out truth is that most teenage boys read it because it was full of explicit gore and nudity. “Porno Spawn” as some called it. Nothing about the comic book really caught my attention. I didn’t like the artwork. I thought the story was dumb and derivative. But most of all, I wasn’t into comic books. Although I read a few titles regularly in middle school, ultimately the medium has never held my attention. It’s simply not a mode of storytelling that speaks to me. And yes, that includes all the independent and offbeat comic books that people always challenge me with by saying “Sure, you may not like superhero comics, but wait until you see this!” And then they make me read page after page of some Adrian Tomine story where two quiet girls sit in the back of a station wagon driven by their emotionally remote father until finally, in the last panel, one of them says “It’s cold outside,” and stares at a dead tree or something. I don’t devalue the medium or consider it innately “childish,” and I have no bad words about people for whom comics do work. I’m just not among them.


I will, however, take a few potshots at the concept of “adult” and “edgy” as defined by many comic books. The whole “comics are edgy and not just for kids” thing started, oh, I don’t know. I think it really started in the late 1980s and came to fruition during the 90s, coinciding largely with the dotcom windfall and the onset of the “fifty year adolescence” that now defines the mental and emotional growth patterns of most Americans, Japanese, and probably a few other populations. Until then, it was pretty common for people in their thirties to be buying houses and cars and sending their kids to middle school. But by the time I hit thirty, my contemporaries were more likely to be interested in things that interest middle schoolers than they were to have middle schoolers of their own. And I was certainly part of it all, working as I did for Toyfare magazine and having, at the time, an abundance of disposable income to waste on 12-inch action figures and Fonzie sleeping bags. Needless to say, comic book buying was a big part of this culture for a lot of people. Only there was this whole batch of comics that had stopped attempting to appeal to kids and set their sites instead on adult age collectors. This meant that these comics in theory could be much more involved, much more complex, much deeper, and much more sophisticated. In reality, however, they were mostly just dumber and cruder. Thus featuring tits and gratuitous cursing was labeled “sophisticated,” “edgy,” or “mature.” I have no problem, as you might guess, with dumb, crude, or gratuitous; just don’t try to sell it to me as something more highbrow than what it is.


It was the sort of edginess that one expects of a sullen teenage boy who thinks saying “fuck” a lot is somehow a bold confrontation of society. It’s the most juvenile interpretation of “adult.” And more times than not, it stinks of desperation. Witness, for example, the number of nerds and goofballs who think wearing a black Wolverine or Punisher t-shirt makes them as bad-ass as the characters they worship. First of all, the comic book characters themselves are often embarrassingly desperate in their bad-assness, though not as much so as, say, you might find in a Steven Seagal film. So it goes double to say that buying and wearing a Punisher t-shirt doesn’t make you tough, even if you also purchased a bo staff and a wooden katana at the state fair.

Keep in mind that I kid because I have walked among you, been one of you. I once owned a three-section staff, even though it takes a super master to use that thing without whacking himself in the face. That thing was displayed prominently in my bedroom like I was going to have to whip it out any minute and deal out some justice to a bunch of gangsters who wanted to knock down the community center to make room for a shopping mall — because subscribing to Inside Kungfu made me an instant 110-pound kungfu master even though I only worked out once every two months for about fifteen minutes.


Anyway, we’re not here to discuss the time my girlfriend was kidnapped by the yakuza and I had to fight my way, armed with nothing but a three-section staff, through their throngs to rescue her. Everyone knows about that anyway, as it was in all the local papers. The comic book Faust represents everything I always thought was wrong with “comics aren’t just for kids.” It’s edgy and adult in the most juvenile of fashions, like something a dork such as I would have written then said, “Take that, society! You can’t handle how controversial this is!” But regardless of my opinion, Faust has its fans still, and I’m sure many of them get some genuine value out of what I saw even at a young age as rather goofy tits, gore, and fanfic level attempts at Shakespearean (or Marlowean, I reckon) tragedy. I’m sure these people, in turn, are just as baffled by my ability to garner some degree of enjoyment and meaning from The Mighty Gorga.

Wait, wait, wait. I don’t need to go over the full literary history of Faust, aka Doctor Faustus, do I? The man who sold his soul in order to attain unlimited knowledge, only to discover that making a deal with Mephistopheles (who holds power of attorney for Satan) usually means you get shafted? You know that one, right? If not, you should read it, or at least watch the hilariously overblown Richard Burton vanity project, Doctor Faustus. It’s my favorite of the many, many cinematic adaptations of the play, mostly because it’s so insanely pompous and absurd, but also because it features an in-her-prime Elizabeth Taylor naked and painted green. Say what you want to about the misguided over-indulgence of the rest of the project; at least Burton gave us a nude, green Liz Taylor.


Anyway, round about the same time teenage gorehounds were latching onto the Faust comic book, they were also massing behind the banner of filmmakers Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna. Gordon and Yuzna were the duo responsible for the black-hearted horror-comedy Re-Animator, which to this day remains one of the defining films of modern horror cinema. Now, while Faust the comic book may have never kept my attention, I was more than happy to throw my lot in with Re-Animator. The movie blew me out of the water when first I saw it, and over twenty years later, it’s still one of my favorites. At a time when horror franchises ruled the roost and horror directors were largely unknown even by many fans (everyone can name horror franchises of the 80s, but only places like And You Call Yourself a Scientist can you find people who will be able to name the director on every Friday the 13th film), Stuart Gordon became a name people knew and looked forward to seeing attached to another project.

Similarly, producer Brian Yuzna generated a tremendous amount of goodwill thanks to his involvement with Re-Animator, and when he decided to try his hand at directing, fans were eager to see the results. Well, looking back, it’s safe to say that Yuzna was a better producer than he was director, as his directorial efforts remain a shockingly uneven batch. Although the first film he directed was called Society, the first film he directed that anyone remembers was Bride of Re-Animator, the sequel to his and Gordon’s cult mega-hit. Bride of Re-Animator is a film that divides many people. I haven’t seen it since probably 1991 or so, and at the time, I didn’t like it at all. I should probably give it another go and see if my opinion of it has changed in the same way it has for From Beyond, another Gordon-Yuzna collaboration based on an H.P. Lovecraft short story.


Similarly, Yuzna’s Return of the Living Dead III divides critics and fans alike, with some heralding it as a dramatic recovery after the idiotic Return of the Living Dead II, while others consider it a clumsy, poorly written piece of junk (I happen to be in the camp of the latter). Still, when it came out that Yuzna was slated to direct a film version of Faust, fans were hopeful. At the very least, there was little chance that the man who gave us Barbara Crampton getting eaten out by a disembodied head was going to pull any punches when it came to bringing Faust‘s sex and gore to the screen.

Whether this timidly positive outlook was justified has divided fans just as it has on pretty much everything Yuzna has done without Stuart Gordon. However, I’m willing to bet that most fans of the comic book did not want to see Faust turned into a wisecracking Freddy Krueger in a ridiculous looking Power Rangers villain outfit. Well, that’s what they got. In retrospect, you really should have seen it coming.


Bland actor Mark Frost is John Jaspers, a painter (not to be confused with real life painter Jasper Johns) who we first meet after he has, for some reason no one ever bothers to try and figure out, just massacred everyone inside a Chinese consulate building. While the SWAT team is keen to kill the guy, the fact that he lapses into a docile, near catatonic state means they have no choice but to simply arrest him instead. He then becomes the burden of idiotic psychiatrist Jade De Camp (Isabel Brook). She’s the kind of doctor who walks into the padded cell of a man who has just slaughtered an entire building full of people and then covered his cell with esoteric scratching and runes using his own blood, and proceeds to hand him a pointy pen, a stack of CDs in pointy plastic jewel cases, and a CD player. Just once, I wish someone writing one of these movies would do some basic research into what is and is not done when walking into the cell of a guy who just murdered a hundred people.

Doc Jade eventually makes a breakthrough with Jaspers, and via flashback he relates to her the bizarre tale that never really explains why he had to go slaughter everyone in the Chinese Embassy. It turns out that Jaspers has made a deal with the devil, or at least with the devil’s duly appointed representative on earth, M (Andrew Divoff, with the requisite black overcoat and long fingernails everyone assumes these guys always have — what if the devil showed up and was expertly manicured and showcased some basic sartorial taste? Or what if he showed up and instead of being some goth guy, he was just a hideous monster?), after being driven to suicide because of the murder of his beloved Blue (Jennifer Rope). Jaspers was granted the strength, skill, and requisite tools (in this case, big ol’ Wolverine razor claws) to extract revenge. In exchange, he would have to serve M after the task of revenge was complete. Exactly why M needed to take out the Chinese embassy is a detail I don’t think we ever quite have delivered to us, though one can assume it is part of some nefarious scheme for world domination, or possibly retaliation for there being so many Chinese who don’t believe in Satan.


Whatever the case, that’s how Jaspers ends up in the insane asylum, or so he says. Jade isn’t sure how much of the goofy madness to believe, but she seems to believe pretty quickly that something strange is up and that M and his secret society really exist, even if he doesn’t actually possess the devil powers that might justify his ill-clipped fingernails. She is warned off the case by a number of people, and before she has much time to think about it, Jaspers is spirited away by unknown abducters. Her only trustworthy ally is a cop named Margolies (the always welcome Jeffery Combs), who becomes obsessed with M’s cult and does one of those web searches where the first thing to come up is a website that details every single thing you need to know about the cult.

Exactly why a secret society bent on unleashing darkness unto this world and headed up by a demon, needs a webpage is a bit of a mystery, but then, 90% of the sites that offer a “social network” have no real need for it, either. I guess even Mephistopheles can get swept up in dotcom exuberance. I imagine that M was really excited about websites (this film being made in 2001 means that we were at the tail end of the dotcom boom), so on his own time, he made a site, complete with lots of animated gifs of dancing devils, that Java applet that made watery wavy text and crashed everyone’s browser, and an embedded autoplaying midi file of “Danse Macabre.” He got all excited about it and showed it to Satan, but being old school, Satan didn’t really get the whole idea, though he did like the animated gifs of dancing devils. Still, it seemed to mean a lot to M, so Satan let him put it up on Geocities (because although he was willing to humor M, Satan wasn’t willing to pay for hosting).


I guess the alternative explanation is that the site was started by one of those conspiracy freaks who tracks such things as secret societies, but then all that does is beg the question of what kind of security this secret society has if a conspiracy theorist outsider can make a webpage about them and get every single detail correct. Either way, at the end of the business day, Satan grabs his temple with his thumb and index finger and just shakes his head, muttering, “M, I swear, if you weren’t Beelzebub’s nephew…”

As we discover through the exposition of M’s right-hand woman who can’t keep her clothes on (Monica Van Campen), Jaspers was supposed to die after completing the mission. With that bit of the plan having gone awry, they decide to bury Jaspers alive. Unfortunately, the damage to their secrecy is done, as Jade and Margolies are already on their trail. Plus, rather than dying, Jaspers is sent to hell, where he has to watch a 1980s Judas Priest video, complete with a poorly realized yet strangely cool skeleton crawling around. As a result of being straddled by this skeleton from the “Turbo Lover” video, Jaspers returns to earth with all new super demon powers, which include the ability to swish around a cape made of his own skin, the ability to wear black lipstick, the ability to have absolutely perfect white movie star teeth, and the ability to bug out his eyes and make wisecracks.


He gets to use his new demon powers to save Jade when she is being attacked by some of M’s goons. It’s at this point that you realize just how far off the rails this movie is going to go. I don’t know why movies feel the need to have everyone make wisecracks, but they do, and we’re all worse off for it. Jaspers, now Faust, spews one-liners with the rapid speed and stomach-turning insipidness of the Crypt Keeper, and he does it while wearing what is supposed to be his new demon body. It actually looks like a goofy Power Rangers/Guyver rubber monster outfit, complete with monster-foot-shaped shoes. Any chance that this film had of pleasing fans of the comic probably went out the window as soon as floppy-foot Power Rangers Faust comes backflipping into the scene with his Freddy Krueger wisecracks and tendency to make “Oh mammy, how I love ya!” Al Jolson faces.

So the game is on. M wants to kidnap Jade to get to Faust. M’s henchwoman Claire wants to usurp M’s power, possibly because he made her endure the movie’s most hilariously stupid scene, where he turns her into a tits-and-ass monster so ludicrous that it’ll make you think more fondly of the Faust costume. Margolies is continually tempted to sell his soul for more knowledge about whatever the hell it is M is supposed to know. The whole thing ends with a showdown during M’s “summon the giant demon” ritualistic orgy.


Man, this movie is goofy. Really goofy. It explores the darker regions explored by the comic book, topics such as corruption of the innocent, abuse, selling your soul, S&M, so on and so forth, but it’s done within a movie that is so silly, so juvenile, and starring a wisecracking demon in a rubber monster suit, that any attempt to be twisted, sinister, dark, or otherwise anything other than absurd is completely undercut by the schizophrenic tone. Yuzna, as we know, has an addiction to cornball comedy and wisecracks, but without the steady hand of Stuart Gordon or screenwriter Dennis Paoli to reel in the more ludicrous ideas, Yuzna is left to wallow in his own one-liners and baser comic tendencies. There is some attempt here to mine the same balance of comedy, terror, and sex as Gordon and Yuzna achieved in Re-Animator and From Beyond, but it fails miserably. Hilariously and miserably.

There’s not any single reason the film fails, though the script is obviously one of the bigger reasons out of the sundry. Mark Frost hasn’t starred in many movies, and his performance here is a pretty good example of why. He overacts and chews scenery with ravenous abandon. When he has to express pain and despair in human form, he does so by making a bug-eyed sad face that would embarrass most middle school actors. When he is in Faust form, it’s all tongue waggling and that thing where you sort of exhale, sort of exclaim, “Yeah!” If you hear, it, you’ll know it. It’s impossible for anything that happens to possess any degree of gravitas, and it’s impossible to feel anything we’re supposed to feel for Jaspers when his performance is so ridiculous.


I would say he could have looked to Jeffery Combs (Re-Animator, From Beyond, and too many others to list) for guidance on how to play a character that is equal parts pathetic, admirable, insane, and doomed, but for this trip out, Combs has to dial his usual quirk and weirdness down to a more mundane level. The film would have been better severed by having Frost play it straight while Combs’ Margolies shoulders the silliness, as he has a remarkable talent at taking something absurd and still making it have an air of menace. Combs’ performance here is not bad, mind you, and I know he can’t be crazy ol’ Jeffery Combs every time, but in this case, I think it would have been good. Actually, I wish he’d been playing here the twitchy freakish FBI agent character he plays in The Frighteners.

The rest of the cast is actually pretty good. Monica Van Campen makes a perfect succubus, and Andrew Divoff plays M with predictable but confident “furrowing my brow” style. Still, even though he was perfectly acceptable in the role of M, all I could think of during the film was “Imagine if this was Richard Lynch! No, no, no! Wait! Imagine if it was Billy Drago!” He does fall back on the “standing with outstretched arms” pose a little too frequently. Isabel Brook can’t help her character being written so stupidly, but she’s still pretty good within the confines of a poorly written psychiatrist. When Claire transforms her into “Harlot Jade,” she gets a chance to compete with Frost for hammiest overactor, but where as his is all grinning and tongue waggling, hers is all writhing about and feeling her own boobs while hissing, so by my standards, she’s the winner.


Yuzna’s direction is decent enough. The movie has that fakey setbound look that so many similar direct-to-video films of the time possess. He pulls off some nice shots without ever really letting his direction intrude on the story. Although maybe it should have intruded on the story, because the script is the film’s biggest weakness. It’s not the story itself, which is pretty run of the mill with some sex stuff thrown in; it’s the vision of the characters. The script comes to us courtesy of David Quinn, one of the creators of the original comic book, so I guess I can’t blame Yuzna for all the comedy and wisecrackin’. These guys must share responsibility. My assumption is that the comedy is there to take the edge off the sex and violence and deflect any potential criticism of the blending of such things — as if it hadn’t been done before, more explicitly, and better. It’ feels like this movie preemptively neutered itself in anticipation of moral outrage that never came and never really does come for obscure direct to video cult items.

So if you are looking to be scared or wowed, or if you were hoping the film would somehow be gritty or grim or edgy, you’re going to be disappointed. However, if you can roll with the goofiness of a demon anti-hero who seems to be taking acting queues from Jimmy Walker, this movie is fun enough, stupid enough, and warped enough to be a pretty entertaining, dumb time. It is crammed full of weird stuff, from a demon in a rubber suit to a hot Eastern European chick who gets turned into a fakey looking boobs-and-butt blob. The entire thing is a mess, but it’s a pretty glorious mess and one that, as I said in the beginning, felt like a friend after it finally finished pummeling my sense with how bad it was. It may not be the movie Faust fans wanted, but Faust fans read Faust, so you can’t really trust their taste any more than you can trust mine.

Release Year: 2001 | Country: United States, Spain | Starring: Mark Frost, Isabel Brook, Jennifer Rope, Jeffrey Combs, Monica Van Campen, Leslie Charles, Fermi Reixach, Junix Inocian, Robert Paterson, Marc Martinez, Andrew Divoff | Writer: David Quinn | Director: Brian Yuzna | Cinematographer: Jacques Haitkin | Music: Xavier Capellas | Producer: Julio Fernandez, Brian Yuzna

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Hellraiser V: Inferno

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Hellraiser V: Inferno marks the point where the series officially became a direct-to-video franchise (people claim Bloodlines was released to theaters, but I don’t remember ever seeing it in one). It marks the departure of Clive Barker in any capacity whatsoever other than source of the original movie. It also marks the arrival of a new screenwriter and a new approach to what was, by then, becoming a pretty stale formula. The people behind Bloodlines must have recognized the moldiness of the central concept as well, as they tried to do something a little different with it, then ultimately tried simply to end it by setting up the final battle between Pinhead and those he would rip apart with spiky chains.

But final confrontations have never successfully put down a lucrative horror franchise, and even if public interest in the series was waning, horror fan interest was more than enough to sustain another movie. so what do you do when the previous film killed off your main villain? Well, you thank whatever hell Pinhead comes from that the movie was set in the future, which means you an spend the next hundred years making sequels that take place before that eventual final outcome.

I was set to into part five all ready to think the movie was total garbage. It seems to be a pretty polarizing film, and in my opinion, a fairly well misunderstood and misinterpreted film. I was taken by surprise when I ended up really liking this offbeat entry, both for what it accomplishes and for what it admirably tries to accomplish but fails. Franchise films have to walk that thin line between “same old, same old” and doing something different that is “too different.” Many fans of the Hellraiser series felt that Inferno went to far to the side of “different,” but I think those departures from what is perceived to be the tortured soul of the Hellraiser stories are only superficial. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this is the closest film in spirit, if not execution, to the original.

Inferno begins with the story of corrupt but not entirely irredeemable Denver cop Joseph Thorne (Craig Sheffer, Nightbreed) investigating the gruesome murder of an old acquaintance. At the scene of the crime, Thorne finds the now iconic Lament Configuration puzzle box and takes it with him. We soon learn that Thorne’s life is a mess. though he has a nice home, a wife, and a child, he’s also addicted to the dark side of life that his job as a homicide cop exposes him to. Thus he takes drugs, carouses with the healthiest, hottest streetwalkers I’ve seen in a long time, blackmails and abuses people, and isn’t above the occasional frame-up. He’s never truly despicable, though, but rather is simply a man who seems to possess a need to wallow in the filth from time to time. Although he loathes much about he life, he also seems addicted to it. In other words, there is nothing really that keeps him from having a better life; parts of his life are awful because he wants them that way, despite what he may say otehrwise.

Shortly after discovering and accidentally opening the box (though Pinhead maintains that the box is never opened by accident), he finds himself suffering on two different fronts. On the more comprehensible side, he becomes involved with a case in which someone known as The Engineer has kidnapped a child and uses the child’s fingers as a calling call left at the scene of other murders. On the slightly weirder but no less gruesome side, Thorne is suddenly suffering bizarre hallucinations and dreams in which he is stalked and occasionally licked by a pair of semi-faceless female creatures with long black tongues and their friend, the deformed faceless white humanoid with no lower torso. We recognize them as Cenobites, and for the first time in a while, a Hellraiser movie has delivered Cenobites that are truly creepy. Like something straight out of Silent Hill, they seem still to be trying to make up for Camcorder-Head, and this trio is so effective that I say to Hellraiser, “Apology accepted.” I won’t mention Camcorder-Head again.

Needless to say but about to be said anyway, the dreams and the case will become increasingly connected, and it soon looks as if Thorne himself might be committing the murders. He seeks the advice of  police psychiatrist played by James Remar, and all I could think of at first was, “Man, I can’t believe it was the fifth movie before James Remar showed up in one of these.” He’s a little more open to the battier end of Thorne’s stories, seeing as he has previous knowledge of the Lament Configuration and what it can supposedly do.

So you may notice that, up until this point, Pinhead has been most noticeable by his absence. This is one of the things that irks a lot of people, but I welcome it with open arms. Although they did some rehabilitation in part four, Pinhead was overexposed and poorly used in subsequent Hellraiser films. Inferno goes the route of being about the tortured soul rather than the torturer, and I thought it was a nice change. Pinhead’s presence looms over everything, since we as viewers know that he has a hand in everything that is happening, but he doesn’t make an actual appearance until the end of the film, where he belongs.

On the surface, this feels like a grim, somewhat averagely written serial killer cop procedural that had a Hellraiser movie grafted onto it to help rental numbers. I think that’s short-chaning the film, though. Another criticism is that the movie gets Pinhead all wrong, presenting him when he appears as sort of a karmic judge who doles out a moral about selfish living. Again, I think this is missing the point of what happens. By part three, Pinhead’s approach to damnation was pretty tired. Someone opens the box, Pinhead shows up to deliver a few lines about flesh, then he shoots the hooked chains into you and tears you apart. There’s no realization of the theory behind what he does, that the punishment should be as exquisite as it it is painful. here was a singular lack of imagination in the chain gag after the first couple times. The way I read part five, everything that happens from the moment Thorne first opens the box is part of Pinhead’s torture of the man. Only instead of just stepping out of some lighting effects and whipping him with chains, Pinhead constructs a scenario in which Thorne is plunged into the depths of everything to which he has an addiction — drugs, a macabre job, corruption — and finally offered a chance at redemption. When he takes it, Pinhead shows up not to deliver a sermon about selfishness, but to reveal that the chance for redemption never existed in the first place. Isn’t that a far worthier form of torture — to send a man to the depths, offer him a chance at salvation, then reveal that salvation is just a mirage — than just falling back on the hook gag again? The gradual temptation and breakdown, the exploitation of weaknesses and vices, allowing a man to wallow in his faults and take a sick pleasure in them (even the child abduction case is the sort of thing that thrills Thorne just as much as it disturbs and disgusts him) even as they’re destroying him — aren’t these the things we expect from Pinhead? Leaving a person with a complete and utter sense of inescapable desolation after giving them a taste of redemption? That is exquisite suffering.

I really liked this one. It’s not a perfect film, but few films are. The acting is generally good, the direction a bit small-scale but competent, and the story is a combination of the fresh and the stale, sometimes smartly delivered, other times awkward. The Engineer case drags on perhaps too long toward an obvious conclusion, and the bizarre kungfu cowboy scene feels like it was edited in from a completely different movie. But the positive outweighs the negative here. This is a much more thoughtful approach to the idea of damnation; you get three genuinely creepy Cenobites; and there are some pretty good setpieces, like Thorne’s greenlit living room with it snowing inside, danglign chains, and his wife and daughter strapped to that rotating slab of stone. And Pinhead is actually a figure of diabolical menace — sort of the “final boss.” It didn’t really make sense to me that every time someone opened the box, they instantly got Pinhead on the line. He is the architect of the pain, leaving it up to the victim to do the actual inflicting — at least until the very end, when the hooked chains come out. He should be, and in this is, the guy to whom you work up. He should be, at least at this point in the series, the guy who shows up at the end to wrap everything up and rob the characters entirely of any hope they may have once had.

It’s nice to get a movie like this, one I go into expecting to hate but end up liking a lot. It’s much better than the other way around, when I expect to love something and it ends up being Saazish. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if Pinhead isn’t setting me up, giving me hope just so he can take it away and relish my suffering in part six. Well, I guess I understand those whoa re tempted by the incomprehensible pleasures and pains and pains as pleasures that the Lament Configuration represents, because despite my hesitation, even as I sit here writing this, I am making plans top open the puzzle box hell that is Hellraiser VI.

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Hellraiser IV: Bloodlines

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The third film in the installment represents the point at which I originally stopped watching. This one represents the point at which I stopped being aware at all that they were still making Hellraiser films. Tagged by many as “Hellraiser in space,” it just seemed to silly at the time, and it came during a time when pretty much everyone from Jason Vorhees to Leprechaun was getting shuttled off into space (though I suspect this film drew inspiration less from them and more from Event Horizon). Years after the fact, I actually find the idea of Hellraiser expanding out into space to be a fairly promising, if underealized in this film, premise that lends the series a bit of Lovecraftian cosmic scope. Potential aside, however, Bloodlines fails to hit the mark, though it turns out it’s not nearly as bad a film as I originally assumed it would be.

The action skips back and forth through time, beginning in the future with an engineer (Bruce Ramsay) who has designed a space station with the sole purpose summoning and permanently trapping Pinhead and his Cenobites. Unfortunately, just as the Cenobites make their appearance — and thankfully,we’re back to a more authentic line-up, with Camcorder-Head and CD-Head being left on the scrapheap of the third film — stanrd issue space marines storm the facility, halt the experiment, and demand to know what the hell the engineer is up to. And so kicks off his lengthy tale, which takes us to 18th century France where we meet his ancestor, the toymaker — and the original designer of the maligned Lament Configuration puzzle box that has caused so many people to have their skin pulled off by hooky chain things.

The toymaker doesn’t realize at first exactly what it is he’s been commissioned to make by a twisted Marquis DeSade style nobleman who longs to indulge himself in the pleasures and pains that exist just beyond the reach of our dimension. He soon finds out, though, and in his mad struggle to undo what horror he has brought into the world, the toymaker assures that all those of his bloodline will be motivated, either consciously or unconsciously, to seek out the box and devise some way to destroy it.

The first demon called forth from the box isn’t any of the Cenobites we know and love, but is instead a more standard issue succubus type named Angelique (Valentina Vargas). Just as the toymaker’s bloodline carries the innate desire to undo the box’s making, she exists through the ages to protect it and see that it gets used. Which takes us to 1996, when we learn tat one of the toymaker’s descendants is the architect who designed the Lament Configuration-inspired building we see at the end of Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth. Like his ancestor, he has no idea at first what he’s done, but the memory of blood begins to kick in once the she-demon shows up, and before too long, he’s struggling with his own creation while trying to protect his family from the destructive forces the design unleashes. Which means it’s about time for Pinhead to show up, and this time he’s brought better Cenobites, including his very own hound of Hell.

His story brings us back to the future, and the marines’ quickly learn the bloody price of their intervention in the trap. We get a fairly standard Aliens-inspired “marines walk around in dark corridors and get killed in gruesome ways” sequence before the engineer finally settles in for what they bill as the final show-down between good and evil.

This movie’s failings aren’t in what it does, but rather in what it could have done. There’s a lot of potential that gets squandered, either because they didn’t have much imagination or because they just didn’t have the cash to realize the epic scope of the story at which this film hints. The space station is a suitable progression for the series, and it lends a desolate air of isolation and melancholy on top of the usual talk about flesh and suffering. Something about Pinhead against a backdrop of cold metal and circuits is more chilling than seeing him try to be menacing while standing in someone’s well-appointed living room. I think the concept of demons from another dimension works well with the outer space setting, given how little we know of space and how vulnerable we are while in it. And I like the idea of technology advancing to the point where it can mess with the design of the box. The engineer uses a robot, for example, to open the puzzle box, and when the Cenobites first appear, they seem genuinely confused.

The other time periods are well-realized as well. The French bit conjures up a nice, if low-scale, Hellfire Club sort of atmosphere, and the parts set in 1996 avoid the banality of a 1996 setting by having the action take place mostly in the bowels of the bizarre building our protagonist has constructed. And did I mention that there’s no sign of the Camcorder-Head Cenobite with the one-liners and the mustache? After descending into wisecracking parody in part three, the Cenobites pull back a little bit and return to a relatively serious state. Plus, Pinhead gets his best line in the whole series (Merchant: “And what do you have faith in?” Pinhead: “Nothing. I am so exquisitely empty.”)

Unfortunately, these ideas remain half-baked or merely hinted at, and it’s that failure to be what it could have been that prevents this movie from being one of the best entries in the series. Instead, it is merely good, with some nice shocks, a tepid lead, fair writing, and the usual quality performance from Douglas Bradley as Pinhead. Actually, the acting this time around is a quantum leap up from the awful stuff we saw in the last film. Skipping back and forth through time works well, and the revelation as to the origin of the box, while uninspired, isn’t terrible. I was able to role with it better than I was the “Pinhead discovers his human side” bit from the second film.

With more money and just a little bit more time to expand on ideas presented in the script, this could have been one hell of a movie. But we can only review what he have in the end, and that’s a movie that I think is a definite step up from the sublimely idiotic part three, with better actors, a better script, and a creepier atmosphere. First-time (only time) director Kevin Yagher had a more epic — and apparently more graphic — vision of what this film should have been as well, but he and the money men could never get on the same page. Thus the film was edited without his input, and he felt the need to make this an Alan Smithee film. Bloodlines also marks the end of Clive Barker’s involvement with the series, though it’s questionable how much the “executive producer” had to do with part three, as it does mark the final contribution of Peter Atkins, who’d been scripting the movies since part two. Part four feels more in line with the first two movie while falling just short of the mark that would have made it a truly worthy sequel. All in all, though, I feel my suspicions toward this film were largely unfounded.

So when you’ve taken Pinhead to the ends of outer space, where do you go from there?

Denver, apparently.

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Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth

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Back when I was little, parents used to teach you things by letting you do something stupid, and then hoping that the consequences of what you’d just done would inform you as to why you should not have done it in the first place. A minor burn from a hot pot or open fire was a far more effective way of teaching a kid not to touch hot things than simply telling them. I, unfortunately, am an idiot, and even to this day, when I see fire, my initial reaction is, “Man, I bet I could catch it this time!”

Similarly, I’ve never learned that doing a marathon viewing of an awful movie series is never as funny an idea as I think it is. This started back in college, when my roommate and I thought it wold be hilarious to watch all the Porky’s films in one sitting. The sickness continues to this very day, with no lesson learned in the interim despite ample experience to teach me. And so I found myself one day sitting around with a stack of Hellraiser movies.

I, like many people, loved the first two Hellraiser films, and as they garner some modicum of respect, I decided it was best to skip over them and go directly to the one featuring a wisecracking Cenobite with a video camera embedded in his head. Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth represents a quantum leap downward from the first two films — disappointing not just because of the drop in quality, but also because this was supposed to be something of a “Pinhead and crew run wild on Earth” scenario. In reality, the rampage through New York City of these demons called forth from another realm by way of a cursed puzzle box ends up looking more like Jason’s five minute jaunt through Manhattan in Friday the 13th, Part 8.

For those who don’t know the Hellraiser story, here it is in a nutshell: a long time ago, someone made a puzzle box. The box happens to be a key to opening a door to Hell, and out of it come creatures known to fans as the Cenobites. The Cenobites, lead by the now iconic Pinhead, are dedicated to pushing the humans who summon them into the extremes of pain/pleasure, something that is usually expressed via hooked chains shooting out of the ether and ripping the person apart — which always seemed to me to be a bit of a gyp in terms of the pain/pleasure ratio, but I guess that’s what you get for fooling around with an undead guy whose head is covered in pins.

At the end of part two, the Cenobites were defeated, the puzzle box lost but that didn’t last for very long. Part three picks up with a skeevy young guy who owns the most ridiculous combination of fancy five-star restaurant playing “String Quintet In E Major, Op.13, No.5 – Minuet” and fake industrial goth club decorated with S&M teddy bears. He buys a horrific sculpture that we know to be the current prison of Pinhead. Meanwhile, plucky young reporter Terry Farrell is trying to make a name for herself. When at a hospital, she stumbles upon a screaming young man embedded with hooked chains. He eventually explodes, and this puts her on the track leading to the goth club, which is supposed to be the most awesome underground goth club ever, except that it’s full of early 1990s frat guy types.

Eventually, of course, Pinhead will be released from his prison and, after creating a new army of Cenobites to replace the ones he lost last movie, he will go on the aforementioned rampage through New York, which means he mostly goes on a casual stroll through a deserted movie set and makes some manhole covers blow up.The reporter will have to team up with the ghost of Pinhead’s former self in hopes of defeating the lord of Hell in a fairly unmemorable final showdown.

It’s all pretty tepid stuff, but it’s still watchable despite being such a letdown. Pinhead at least gets to massacre a club full of fake movie goths, so I guess that counts for something. But mostly, the whole thing is just a letdown. Pinhead’s new Cenobites are completely ludicrous and possess none of the menace of the previous batch. Instead, this time around, we got a guy who throws CDs at people and a guy with a video camera in his head — and a mustache! What the hell kind of a demon has a droopy Southern rock mustache? This is ground zero for the Cenobites being transformed from creatures of evil and terror into wisecracking goofballs.

The acting is almost uniformly terrible with the exception of Douglas Bradley, the guy who plays Pinhead. But even Pinhead doesn’t escape completely unscathed, as he is put through a number of ham-fisted “shock” scenes, such as the completely ludicrous bit that takes place in a church and has Pinhead assuming “The Jesus pose.” We get it, we get it! It’s ironic!

Terry Farrell was a couple years away from fame and the lust of sci-fi nerds everywhere thanks to her role in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and she’s pretty terrible here. At least she’s in like company. Still, despite all that, the movie manages to be watchable and even entertaining in a pretty lame way. There’s still some decent scenes, a fleeting vestige of “that ol’ Hellraiser magic,” Pinhead is in decent form, and if nothing else, it’s a lot better than what Hellraiser would have in store for us later on down the road.

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Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter

At the end of the day, I have to shrug and surrender to my baser side and say that Michael Carreras probably needed to be kicked in the shin at least once. Possibly more than once, but at least once. Allow me to explain myself. Michael Carreras was the son of Hammer Studio founder James Carreras, and he used that relationship to finagle himself a more or less permanent fixture in the hierarchy of the studio, until eventually the reigns were passed to him entirely and the whole show collapsed. Now not everything with the name of Michael Carrereas on it was an embarrassing display of nepotism. In fact, there is much about Michael’s involvement with his father’s studio that is of high merit. He served as producer for most of the studio’s best films. As a director, he was a mixed bag, but he did manage to deliver The Lost Continent, one of Hammer’s loopiest and most hilariously daft adventure films. And after directing a decidedly pedestrian follow-up to Hammer’s smash hit The Mummy, he redeemed himself somewhat by stepping in to finish the job of directing the superb Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb when original director Seth Holt passed away. No, there is much about Michael’s tenure at Hammer that is worth celebrating. It’s just that at some point in the 1970s, he lost his mind.

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Haunted Palace

In 1960, AIP’s go-to director for cheap, quickly produced science fiction and horror double bills convinced the powers that be to gamble on letting him make a stand-alone film, in color, with double the production time and more money. Granted that, compared to other studios, this still meant an incredibly lean budget and an incredibly short production schedule. The result was Roger Corman’s Fall of the House of Usher, a landmark film in the history of American horror and one of the best Gothic horror films from any country. Although more sedate and slower paced, finally the United States had an answer to the wild, Technicolor horror films from England’s Hammer Studio.

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Angelfist

Angelfist, aside from being a nonsensical title, was a video box cover that haunted my friends and I for many years. It was perched right up at the front entrance of Pick of the Flicks in Gainesville, Florida, and featured a blonde woman in an ugly leotard doing what has to be one of the most awkward high kicks I’ve ever seen, while holding her arms in this weird little curled-up T-Rex position. It was perhaps the single most ludicrous martial arts movie box cover pose I’d ever seen, at least until those Matrix movies made that completely silly looking Spiderman-meets-chicken jump/pose/kick inexplicably popular. I know guys did it in old kungfu films too, and it looked just as silly then, unless they happen to be wearing one of those silver wigs that is supposed to make you look like an old master even if you have the face of a guy in his twenties. Also, if you do that kick, the only way to get any power from such an awkward position is if a foley artist loops in the screech of a hawk or an eagle right as you jump

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Deathsport

In 1975, exploitation film master Roger Corman produced one of his very best films. Combining a wicked sense of campy humor, a healthy dose of violence, and an angry satirical edge, Death Race 2000, directed by Paul Bartel, was the best things to bear Corman’s name (as producer) since Corman himself was directing cool horror films based on Edgar Allan Poe stories for AIP. Always keen to make a buck, Corman immediately set about creating another vehicle-based futuristic fling, albeit one with a lot less of a budget — even for a Corman flick — and a much less talented writer and director. Corman would do his best to make people think it was related in some way to Death Race 2000 by calling the new film Deathsport and casting David Carradine in the lead. But the similarities end there, and while Death Race 2000 is a genuinely good, enjoyable, and even smart film, Deathsport is an incompetent piece of junk with almost nothing to offer humanity. Predictably, I do not own Death Race 2000 and have only seen it once. I do, however, own Deathsport in two different formats now and have watched it at least half a dozen times.

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Vampire Circus

At various points in various reviews, we’ve discussed the painful demise of Hammer Studios and the Hammer horror film, so rather than rehash it here yet again, I direct you to Taste the Blood of Dracula (the review, I don’t mean I’m actually directing you to taste Dracula’s blood, should you have any lying about), Dracula AD 1972, and Satanic Rites of Dracula, all of which ramble on and probably repeat the same information about Hammer’s inability to sustain itself into the 1970s and in the face of a brutal collapse of the British film industry. I also point out on several occasions that, despite the fact that Hammer was a rudderless ship adrift in a tumultuous sea, many — in fact, most — of the horror films they made in the 1970s were of exceptional quality. It’s a shame that the worst horror film they ever made, To the Devil…A Daughter was their last, and thus the swan song for a studio that deserved much better.

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White Hell of Piz Palu

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This movie offers so many potential avenues from which I could approach it that I’m finding it almost as overwhelming as climbing the north face of the Eiger while an unknown assassin tries to kill me because he knows I’m trying to kill him. There’s the career of geologist-filmmaker Arnold Fanck, whose fascination with mountains and mountaineering resulting in a series of films possessed of breathtaking beauty and power. There’s the subject of mountaineering itself, and of the depiction of mountain climbing in film. There’s the subject of silent film, and more specifically, silent spectacle and action films, which were far more lavish and epic in scope than most people ever imagine. And perhaps the 900 pound gorilla in the room is the bizarre and difficult career of German actress turned Nazi propagandist and, until her death in 2003 at the age of 101, the world’s oldest living certified scuba diver, Leni Riefenstahl. Hers is a story of incredible talent, revolutionary film technique, terrifying loyalty to Adolf Hitler, arrest by a naval intelligence officer working with a John Ford film crew, war crimes, and after the dust settled, a career as an underwater nature photographer.

I’ll try to cover them all, but forgive me if I’m a bit scattershot in my style. Well, more scattershot than usual, which is really saying something. After all, it’s rather nice outside right now, and I’m thinking about going climbing instead of finishing this review.

So let’s begin at the beginning, a very good place to start. Oh man, this review is chocked with the potential for awful Alps-related film references. I prmise that, as far as I know, that is going to be the only one I make. Heidi. There. I said it, just to get it out there. Now we’re done.


But the beginning to which I’m referring is the beginning of modern feature filmmaking. When I was a young lad full of energy and vim, I did not have very much interest in silent film. I’d seen plenty of them, all the usual suspects a horror film fan sees early in his viewing career: Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis (including the one with the rockin’ 80s soundtrack). They were interesting, but I preferred movies with talking. Later in life, I grew to appreciate and adore silent films much more, but even now I don’t get excited about discussing any of the classic silent horror films from Germany — not because I don’t love them, but rather because such a tremendous amount of ink has already been spent on them by much smarter people than me, and there’s really not a lot I can add to the discussion of German expressionism, the Weimer Republic, or vergangenheits-bewaltigung that hasn’t been covered by someone who, unlike me, actually knows what the hell they’re talking about.

In high school, we had to watch The Birth of a Nation because it was a valuable lesson in the history of perceptions regarding the Civil War and race relations, and also because cinema pioneer D.W. Griffith was buried in the small Methodist church a couple minutes away — the very same church I attended as a youth and had my first and eventual ruinous run-ins with religious authority. It was a pretty typical looking small-town country church: whitewash wood, a steeple, no air conditioning, heavy wooden pews filled with sweating men and women in their Sunday finery, furiously fanning themselves with those cardboard fans attached to a Popsicle stick and featuring a painting of kindly Jesus waving at you or blessing you or possibly just fanning you because he grew up in the Middle East, and he understands what it means to be hot. Anyway, in the church cemetery were a variety of crumbling old graves, and right in the middle of them was the grave of D.W. Griffith.


Griffith, for those who may be unfamiliar with the early days of feature film making, was one of the fathers of the modern feature film. Along with a group of film makers in Europe, many of them Italian, and inspired by the Italian costumed spectacle Cabiria, Griffith was at the forefront of exploring what could be done with a motion picture camera and the ability to work on location rather than being bound to stages and sets like plays. Unfortunately, Griffith chose to explore these new possibilities in the form of a film called Birth of a Nation. The movie tells the story of the Antebellum South, when all the black slaves were suddenly free and immediately set about raping white women and dancing while getting drunk on cheap booze on the floor of the Senate. So basically, the slaves were all freed and acted like legally elected, white congressmen. The only thing standing between these unruly throngs of free, violent black folks (who, I should mention, were all happy and content as slaves,with gumdrop smiles and the freedom to hambone solo on the banks of rivers filled with chocolate and gold) and proud white America was the noble and chivalrous order of the Ku Klux Klan.

Yeah, so you pretty much get the picture, right? regardless, this was where it all began: the first American feature film. At the time of its release, Birth of a Nation was wildly popular — America wasn’t exactly racial paradise in 1915, and there were veterans of the Civil War still floating around. Civil rights groups protested the film, but that did precious little to diminish it int he eyes of a white America for which black freedom was still a relatively new thing. It seems that Griffith himself was ultimately horrified by the reaction many audiences had to the film, reactions that often involved race rioting and violence. His next film, Intolerance, was an attempt to undo some of what he’d wrought with Birth of a Nation, by showing the evils slavery has caused through time. The film was another lavish spectacle in the spirit of the great Italian spectacles like Cabiria, but it was a failure both politically and financially. Griffith’s career never recovered. Though he was one of the founding artists of United Artists, he wasn’t with the company for long, and the final years of his life were spent in relative seclusion. Despite all he may have contributed to the history of cinema, Griffith’s name was forever linked with that single movie, and it forever shadows — perhaps rightfully so — everything else he did.


Of course, I didn’t know any of this in 1977, darting around the cemetery at Mount Tabor and poking around his grave. The grave is still there, of course, though the quaint church building has been replaced by one of those generic, pre-fab deals Methodists seem oddly fond of. Still, that grave connects to the movie we’re actually here to discuss, as the career of German actress Leni Riefenstahl is very similar. Riefenstahl began her career in front of the camera, but it was behind it that she made her lasting contribution to cinema. Many of the techniques we now take for granted — moving the camera around, crane shots, dolly shots — can be traced back to Riefenstahl. Along with a host of other German filmmakers, she made cinema far more kinetic, far more dynamic, than it had been before. Unfortunately, she chose to showcase much of her incredible talent in Triumph of the Will, a film whose primary aim was to show how glorious Hitler and the Third Reich was. Like Griffith, pretty much anything you did before and after a film like that is going to be overshadowed. And among the things Riefenstahl did before Triumph of the Will was star in a series of sweeping mountaineering epics directed by geologist and outdoor sporting enthusiast Arnold Fanck.

The White Hell of Piz Palu represents the middle entry in a thematic trilogy that began with The Holy Mountain and ended with Storm Over Mont Blanc (SOS Iceberg is sort of a cousin), all three starring Riefenstahl, directed by Fanck, and concerning people who get in a lot of trouble up in the Alps. In the case of Piz Palu, the trouble begins straight away with a trio of climbers making an ascent up the titular mountain. Piz Palu was and remains notable for being covered in a lot of ice, and it is this ice, in combination with a warm wind, that causes such trouble for healthy young lovers Dr. Johannes and Maria Krafft (Gustaff Deissl and Mizzi Gotzel respectively) and guide Christian (Otto Spring). A snow slide catches them off guard, and poor Maria plunges into a crevasse, leaving Johannes kneeling helpless at the edge while Christian makes his way down the mountain in search of help, though both men know there’s precious little hope of it amounting to anything other than body recovery.


Skip ahead a bit, to the same mountain, where hearty newlyweds Hans (Ernst Peterson) and Maria (Leni Riefenstahl) have decided, apparently, to celebrate their marriage by hiking up into the Alps and staying in one of the many shelters that dot all the popular hiking and climbing routes. From time to time their friend Flieger (real life World War One flying ace Ernst Udet) buzzes them in his biplane and drops little bottles of champagne attached to wee parachutes. It’s all very healthy and fun and vigorous, so much so that Maria is more than happy to cavort happily in the snow while wearing a skirt and sleeveless blouse. Things turn dour, however, when Johannes shows up at the shelter. Maria does her best to befriend the haunted climber, who returns to Piz Palu every season in a vain search for his wife’s body. Hans, on the other hand, seems alternately fascinated by the gloomy man and irritated that he’s lurking around. I guess that’s what happens when you spend your honeymoon in a public cabin in the Alps. You’re just asking for a damned soul to show up and recount his haunted past to you.

Maria discovers that, while he was waiting for Christian to return with help from the town at the foot of the mountain, Johannes thought he could hear Maria (his Maria — that the two women have the same name is no accident, I’m sure) shouting for help. Both horrified and elated by the thought that his wife might still be alive, injured at the bottom of the crevasse, Johannes begins a reckless solo descent into the cavernous crack. But when he reaches the literal end of his rope, there is no one there and no sign of Maria. Since then, he has combed the mountain for her, but to no avail and with no ability to do it effectively without a support team. Well, obviously, he’s about to get one, and this trio’s ascent isn’t going to go any better than the first time Johannes attempted Piz Palu.


There’s a lot of stuff to admire in this film, but you’re really going to need to like mountaineering, because that’s the film’s obsession. Fanck was a naturalist, after all, and Piz Palu itself is the star of this film. I thought it was fascinating. Being a beginner climber myself, though one with no aspirations to go anywhere where the photo of me includes having an ice-encrusted beard (I’ll stick to boulders and mountains of a shorter stature than The Matterhorn), these movies serve as an incredible, documentary-like look at Alpine climbing in the early years of the 20th century. In fact, this movie could very well be regarded as a documentary about mountain climbing with some make believe drama injected. Fanck, working alongside co-directed G.W. Pabst, films much of the movie on location and with actual mountaineering going on. And given modern clothing and safety systems, watching it done old school — in heavy wool and with almost no equipment other than a rope, and ax, crampons, and that famous German/Swiss physical culture can-do vitality — is interesting. But make no mistake, given the choice between climbing in heavy wool and knee socks or performance fleece and ultra-5000 space age wicking material, I’m sticking with modern gear, regardless of how cool someone looks kitted out in the old style duds.

And the climbing in this film is truly breathtaking, especially when it concentrates on Johannes’ dangerous descent into the crevasse. Watching the way the climber wedges his way into small spaces, makes crazy leaps, dangles over nothing — there have been decades of mountain films made since this one, but few capture the activity with such raw energy. Fanck is a documentarian by nature, and he doesn’t rely on camera tricks and snazzy editing. He simply puts the camera in place — which itself must have been quite a feat of climbing and rappelling — and lets the action speak for itself. Most of the film’s drama stems from this approach, as one gets the feeling that the actors are in as much danger as the characters they are playing. A second descent into an icy network of caverns and crevasses, this one performed by a rescue team searching for the bodies of a university climbing team caught in an avalanche — succeeds in creating a completely alien, eerie universe. Shadowy men with flares move through the ice tunnels, casting reflections and smoke in all directions.


Secondary to the presence of the mountain and the act of climbing, then simply trying to survive, it, is the human drama. One of the things that sets this film apart from many of the silent era is that the acting is subdued and natural, never reverting to any of that extremely exaggerated pantomiming that has become synonymous with performances of the era. I love films of the silent era, but even I have to admit that many of the performances in even the best of films are so stylized and artificial that it becomes hard to relate to the characters. Not so in The White Hell of Piz Palu. Everyone looks and acts like a regular person, and as such, it becomes very easy to identify with them. It would have been easy for Gustaff Deissl to express his melancholy by doing the “crazy panic face” and “furtive glancing back and forth before burying head in hands.”

Instead, we get a deceptively powerful scene where he sits in stoic contemplation, listening to the dripping of a melting icicle that reminds of the melting icicles that surrounded him as he waited desperately at the edge of the cliff for Christian to return with help. But instead of doing the freak out or the over-sold “making an O with my mouth” face, he simply sits there, winces slightly, then quietly gets up, walks outside, and breaks off the icicle. It’s a perfect example of how complicated acting can be. There’s the hammy over the top way to go, and there’s the very accomplished and dramatic but still obviously acting way to go (the “win an Oscar” method). Deissl goes the third, less journeyed route, which is to act in a way that makes the audience forget you are acting. Simply put, I believe this guy.


The film hints at but never develops a romantic triangle. It’s obvious that Maria (the Riefenstahl one) is entranced by this dark, brooding, rugged man who climbs the most dangerous mountains in Europe by himself in a hopeless search for his dead wife. And it’s just as obvious that Hans develops an almost immediate inferiority complex, feeling that measured against Joannes, he himself is less of a man. But once again, the film plays the melodrama with subtlety, and never turns Hans into some cartoonish jealous lover. His insecurity around Johannes first manifests itself in a need to engage in a bout of manly firewood chopping, and later to accompanying Johannes on his quest, thus enabling Johannes to cover territory that can’t be covered solo. Finally, it culminates in Hans insisting on walking point for a while, and it’s then that the trouble really begins, even though it’s not entirely Hans’ fault.

An avalanche injures Hans, and the ensuing rescue attempt results in Johannes breaking a leg, leaving the trio stranded atop the mountain hoping that Christian will notice their entry into the mountain hut log and assemble some sort of rescue. Hans eventually succumbs to high altitude cerebral edema (altitude sickness to you and me), resulting in him becoming delirious and, at times, even suicidal. Needless to say, the romantic triangle that could have developed never trudges into such predictable territory as romantic triangles often do, and it is soon replaced by the simple tale of three people attempting to survive near impossible odds.


Riefenstahl impresses as an actress, and if you are able to forget for a moment that she would go on a few years later to turn Hitler into a godlike Wotan figure descending from the clouds to deliver rousing speeches to masses of Sieg Heiling Germans, she exudes an instant likability. She’s not exactly attractive — not in the way one could instantly accept the likes of Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, or Josephine Baker — but there’s such a natural air of vitality and energy about her that she endears herself. She’s sort of like the tomboy best friend, the cute one you don’t date but love to go hiking with. Of course, this best friend eventually turns out to be a Nazi propagandist, and that sort of sours the milk.

In 1933, after making her last film as an actress (SOS Iceberg, again with Fanck), Riefenstahl launched her career as a director. The Blue Light treads familiar territory, as it is set in the Alps and once again prominently features mountaineering. But where as Fanck strove for as much realism as possible, Riefenstahl’s film goes whole hog in on mysticism. It was while watching her in movies like these that Hitler became infatuated with Riefenstahl and began the process of bringing her into the Nazi party. Riefenstahl directed a series of pro-German, if not pro-Nazi, documentaries, all of which are considered landmark technical achievements. These included a documentary on the 1936 Berlin Olympics and 1933’s Victory of Faith, a propaganda piece that became something of an embarrassment when one of the chief subjects, Ernst Rohm, was executed during the Night of the Long Knives. Rohm was an open homosexual, as were several other prominent members of the paramilitary stormtrooper organization Sturmabteilung, of which Rohm was in command. Rohm was eventually caught up in the purge and charged by Himmler and Goring with plotting to overthrow Hitler. Hitler, however, still considered Rohm a friend, and did as much as he could to put off the man’s death. When Rohm refused to commit “honorable suicide” however, he was executed, with his homosexuality being the on-record reason.

Once the war was rolling, Riefenstahl’s career became even harder to sort out. She was active in filming a number of victory parades, such as Hitler’s triumphant parade through conquered Poland, and was on hand during the killing of a number of civilians in retaliation for resistance efforts. Pictures of Leni at the execution were used to both condemn and exonerate her. She was indeed present, but she is also noticeably upset. What’s the story? In her own words, she attempted to prevent the executions but was forced back a gunpoint by German soldiers. War being what it is, who knows? She continued her propaganda work, though, filming the aforementioned victory parade in 1939. She also began work on a feature film adaptation of Tiefland, a production that included in its crew a number of forced labor conscripts from German concentration camps.


Fate seems to have been committed to keeping the actress-director’s life as weird as possible. When the war in Europe ended, novelist-screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who was with the Navy at the time working on Allied propaganda films being directed by John Ford (some of which can be downloaded from archive.org and are really worth a look), wa tasked with arresting Riefenstahl. The Allies wanted her in Nuremberg for the War Crimes trials, so that she could identify various people in her films. Riefenstahl herself did not stand trial, but many were skeptical of her claims that she was just an innocent bystander who had no idea what concentration camps were or “what the Nazis were really up to” — especially when that statement was coupled with a statement that she made propaganda films because Goebbels threatened to send her to a concentration camp if she didn’t. History, of course, is a nasty knot to untangle, especially in times of conflict.

That was pretty much it for her career. She attempted to return to film making but found few people willing to finance her projects. Tiefland was finally released in 1954. Eventually, she turned to still photography and worked for a while in The Sudan. At the age of 72 — though she lied and said she was 52 in order to do it — she became a certified diver and began a career as an underwater photographer. Her contributions to the history of cinema are as great as they are terrible, and she remains a very divisive person to discuss. However, divorced of its political context and the frightening results it helped yield, her pioneering contributions to film making cannot be denied. In her films we find the birth of much of the modern language of cinema. Even as her subject matter repulses most, her technique is breathtaking. It’s hard, even knowing what we know, to watch something like Triumph of the Will or Olympia and not get swept up by how beautiful it is. It’s not unlike watching the work of D.W. Griffith, who was, in my opinion, nowhere near the league of Riefenstahl. But he still made sweeping films, and one can’t help but get caught up momentarily in the spectacle before the reality of what you’re watching sets in again.


Director Arnold Fanck apparently ran afoul of German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels early on. After making such films as Storm Over Mont Blanc — a film featuring a French hero — Fanck found it increasingly difficult to work, until he finally capitulated and began working on projects for both the German and Japanese government. When the war ended, Fanck’s career was dead, and he faded into obscurity, his final days being spent working as a lumberjack. It wasn’t until more recently that Fanck’s adventure films were rediscovered and he collected groups of admirers who appreciated his much more natural approach to film making.

At the behest of Leni Riefenstahl, White Hell of Piz Palu was co-directed by G.W. Pabst. Pabst split his time between German and American projects, as well as between cinema and opera. It was in one of Pabst’s films, in fact, that Deissl had his first role. In the end, though, they are all of them the human subplot dominated by the Alps-sized shadow cast by the leading lady.

But even she is outsized by the mountain itself. Mountain adventure films have come and gone since then, and most of the movement has been toward the goofy and embarrassing. Arnold Fanck is really where this type of adventure begins, though, and even if his became a largely forgotten name, his adventure films still stand as some of the best ever made, and his combination of documentary and drama informs many modern films. His camera studies the mountain intently, dwells on the natural wonders such behemoths generate: the dance of cloud shadows over snow fields and rags, the glistening tunnels and pits of ice fields, the bizarre swirls of powder kicked up by winds cascading over the peaks. One gets a feel for every nook and cranny, every nub, jug, and crimpy little handhold. And that helps us understand the pain of the characters as they toil up the spine of this beast. Unencumbered by the modern thirst for special effects, madcap editing, and overblown theatrics, Fanck simply lets the mountain be a mountain, and the end result is both hypnotic and scary. It’s going to brutalize you, probably even kill you. But you can’t stop yourself from going anyway.


As exciting as White Hell of Piz Palu is in many places, it’s also unevenly paced. After the opening disaster, the film settles down for nearly forty minutes of drama that alternates between being effective and simply dragging on for too long and becoming tedious. Even though the acting is natural and there is much in the film that is subtle, it also has its moments of clunkiness, specifically in the overly long way it goes about telling us just how happy and delightful Hans and Maria are. And while it is punctuated by Johannes’ panicked descent into the crevasse — quite possibly my favorite part of the film — his time in the mountain hut consists of far too much pensive staring while symbolic snow melts. But then, Fanck goes and does something like the shot of Johannes outside, smoking a cigarette while sitting on an old wooden fence with the whole of the Alps spreading out behind him, and it pulls you right back in. Silent films trade in images, by necessity, and Fanck manages on many occasions to capture scenes of iconic beauty.

Still, despite these missteps, White Hell of Piz Palu emerges as a truly fascinating and exciting film from the dawn of action-adventure cinema. Once we’re on the mountain itself, the film is tense and well-executed, not to mention jaw-dropping in some of the stunts that aren’t even stunts as much as they are just examples of how dangerous mountaineering was (and is). If I had to compare it to any modern movie, it would be the docu-drama Touching the Void, or the slightly older documentary The Man Who Skied Down Everest. Both films, like White Hell of Piz Palu, capture both the menace and the beauty of such natural wonders and our enduring fascination with trying to climb them. When our trio suffers onscreen, it’s easy to feel their suffering. When they stand on the threshold of rescue only to have hope vanish, we feel it. And when Fanck shows us ice-encrusted Piz Palu towering over the landscape, we feel the oppressive weight of its menace as well as the stunning allure of its beauty.