Back in 1996, it seemed so unlikely that of all the action heroes in Hong Kong, Donnie Yen would be the one called on to foil Satan’s foul schemes. But now it makes a strange kind of sense that Donnie Yen would, well, not so much punch the Devil in his face as knee the Devil’s Envoy repeatedly in the ribs and once in the jaw, because here we are and Donnie Yen is the state-sponsored inheritor of Bruce Lee’s sifu and nunchaku. Who else is left?
World, you spoil us. No matter how much we’ve seen — and we have seen a lot — you always have something else waiting in the wings to delight and make jaws hang slack. Martial arts films are especially fecund soil for stories that operate in the far margins of loony concepts, made all the stranger by the fact that the most surreal and outrageous scenarios are usually handled with the utmost banality of attitude, as if Chinese skinheads kidnapping Abraham Lincoln during World War II is the sort of mundane shit that happens every day. What’s more, there’s something so astoundingly crackpot in the sorts of weirdness with which these films confront the viewer that it’s difficult to fully grasp the sort of thinking that led to such ideas in the first place. This is an honest, sincere wierdness, not the same as, say, the sort of predictable, labored, and juvenile weirdness of a Troma film or one of the endless stream of Japanese splatter-comedies that plague the exploitation film market of that once proud industry. The sort of mind that dreams up, “how about she’s a naked schoolgirl, and then a chainsaw shoots out her butt?” I know people rank that high on the “what the hell?” meter, but to me it’s a very rote sort of goofiness, the kind of thing that any decently perverse or stoned teenager would dream up.
In 1960, American International Picture’s “house” director Roger Corman convinced the notoriously cheap movie studio to pony up a little extra time and money (and color film) to produce Corman’s attempt to capture the lush Gothic atmosphere of a Hammer horror film. Against their thrifty nature, the studio relented, allowing the ambitious and inventive director a staggering fourteen days to make Fall of the House of Usher. The resulting film, a landmark in American horror, is a necessarily narrowly focused affair — there are only four characters — but it’s a fantastic accomplishment. The quick turn-around time and low budget is hardly evident. Every frame is stuffed with decaying Gothic opulence and vibrant color, and the talky nature and slow pace of the film never causes the narrative to drag, thanks almost entirely to the brilliant and tortured performance by Vincent Price. AIP’s risky (for them) investment paid off. The film was a hit, and audiences used to seeing cheap black and white horror were dazzled by this sudden explosion of color and quality. When the dollars started pouring in, AIP gave the go-ahead to Corman for another film in the same vein. And another. And thus was born what’s known as AIP’s Poe Cycle, a series of consistently high-quality horror films based (extremely loosely at times) on the writing of Edgar Allan Poe (and, in one case, H.P. Lovecraft, but they sold it as Poe).
I have a shocking confession to make: I don’t own many movies featuring dwarves. When our fearless leader Keith suggested submitting a review to the little people roundtable, I was forced to confront this deficiency. A couple of my kung fu flicks might feature cameos by short actors, and sure I’ve got the Weng Weng spy epics, but those are already well served by reviews here. Willow? Too obvious. Seven Dwarfs to the Rescue? Too awful — and given the venerable members of the B-Masters, one that’s quite possibly been covered elsewhere. So I have been forced to fall back on a movie from my home country of Great Britain’s 1970s, one which resides variously under the titles The Monster, I Don’t Want To Be Born, Sharon’s Baby* and A Colossal Bag Of Concentrated Suck (one of these might not be real).
* the kind of attention to detail that made this film such a joy is summed up in the fact that there’s nobody in the movie called Sharon.
The film concerns Lucy Carlesi (venerated soap icon Joan Collins), a former cabaret dancer of some sort, currently attempting to give birth to her first baby. It’s not going well, causing the attending physician Dr. Finch (Donald Pleasence!) to observe “this one doesn’t want to be born!” I have to admit, if the first sight to greet me was creepy-looking Donald Pleasence in a surgeon’s mask I might be a bit reticent too. So our credits play out over Finch and the nurse attempting to forcibly drag the baby from Lucy’s womb. We know this is a difficult process because of the exaggerated zoom effect director Peter Sasdy throws in as Lucy’s POV. This would be a tense scene except for the jazzy lounge music serving as a theme, which surprisingly comes from the baton of Doctor Who composer Ron Grainer.
Anyway, the baby is eventually born whether he wants to be or not, much to the delight of Lucy’s husband Gino (Ralph Bates). Bates, as you probably know, was the guy Hammer tried to break in the 1970s as the next Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee. It wasn’t an overwhelming success, probably because Bates never had the charisma of those two legends, but also because he was saddled with fairly indifferent material. Of his Hammer work there’s some good (Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde) and a fair amount of bad (everything else).
Here, Bates plays an Italian businessman. Cue a performance that escaped from sitcom-land, when some wacky ne’er do well is trying to pass himself off as an Italian count or the Pope or something by going “Pizza! Spaghetti! Chianti!” in a patently false accent. Anyway, Finch tells Gino that his baby is healthy and unusually large. They discuss the baby’s name, Nicholas. “I want-a call-a him good EE-taliano name-a,” explains Gino, “but Loosee, she insist-a! Polpetini! Arrivaderci!” Something like that anyway. Incidentally, the pretty black nurse in this scene is none other than Floella Benjamin, who will be known to my fellow Brits (at least old ones like me) as a popular children’s TV presenter.
Things don’t stay idyllic for very long: after hearing a piercing scream, Finch and Gino race into Lucy’s room to find that she has apparently been bitten by the ba… the baby… OK. I’d wanted to get to the end of the review before addressing this, but honestly I can’t. It’s just too ridiculous not to get out of the way up front. We’re in familiar Rosemary’s Baby/Exorcist/Omen territory here, except that instead of a Satanic pregnancy, the Devil’s child or a possessed young girl, what we have here is… a killer baby.
And not just any baby, but a completely benign, affable-looking baby. Every time the wee tyke is supposed to attack, there’ll be a shot of someone leaning over the cot, an off-camera scream, the victim staggering back somehow bloodied, and then a cut to the little fella in his knitted mittens and hat. His expression, far from being sinister, seems to say “don’t look at me; I’m a baby. I still get praise for shitting myself.”
As soon as Lucy and Gino get the baby home, he attacks the housekeeper Mrs. Hyde (Hilary Mason, who’s been in everything from The Six Wives of Henry VIII to Robot Jox), and breast feeding is out of the question. Nicholas is also quite upset in the company of Gino’s sister, Albana, who’s a genuine Sister Albana in that she’s a nun (Eileen Atkins). Increasingly concerned, Lucy confides in her best friend, another cabaret artiste named Mandy. Mandy is played by the goddess in human form that is Caroline Munro, though for some reason her pleasant London accent has been overdubbed by someone else with a slightly different London accent. I’d question the reasons for this some more, but I’m still reeling from the FUCKING KILLER BABY!
While Mandy is at the house, the baby — oh God this is so ridiculous — ‘the baby’ goes crazy and wrecks his room. Distressed, Lucy tells a lengthy tale of her last night at the club where they both worked. Lucy’s act, which seemed to involve being dressed as a gypsy and not removing any clothing, was a smash hit with the rich sheiks and businessmen in the audience. Her act routine involved a hunchbacked dwarf, but again not in an apparently seedy way. I guess my idea of debauched 70s nightclub life is a little distorted. Anyway, the dwarf, Hercules (George Claydon) makes a pass at Lucy backstage, but she’s repulsed. Also she’s in the middle of a torrid affair with the club owner Tommy (John Steiner). Hercules, who doesn’t take rejection well, curses Lucy, telling her she’ll have a baby that will be possessed by the Devil. It’ll also be a giant, as big as he is small. The baby, irritatingly, remains resolutely normal-sized.
And thus the movie progresses with all the required beats. At Nicky’s christening the baby goes berserk, demonstrated by the actor playing the priest faux-struggling and waving the little shawl-wrapped bundle about like a rugby ball. Since the child is clearly, ha, out of control, Dr. Finch recommends a course of sedation and a live-in nurse (Janet Key). Before long the baby is trying to drown the nurse in the bath, and when that doesn’t work he manages to shove her onto rocks in a river. While sitting in his pram. Seriously.
While Lucy has horrible visions of the baby with Hercules’ face (realised by making poor George Claydon dress up as a baby and lie in a cot), Nicky is screaming with rage every time Sister Albana prays, or somehow teleporting dead mice into Mrs. Hyde’s tea. Lucy is still clinging to the idea that there may be a rational, scientific explanation for Nicky’s behaviour, and goes to see Tommy in case he has a family history of killer-baby disease. Y’see, Lucy was still sleeping with Tommy around the time she got pregnant, because I guess he couldn’t resist her gypsy-dancing-with-a-dwarf routine. Tommy turns out to be an unrepentant cad who is now sleeping with Mandy. Lucy meets him at the club where he’s auditioning strippers, which does allow the requisite bit of nudity into the film. Tommy is unimpressed, trying to convince Lucy to return to the stage. The gypsy/dwarf number was apparently such a hit that things have never been the same without it. With his charms failing to work on Lucy, Tommy demands to see the baby for himself. This doesn’t go too well when the little fella punches Tommy in the face.
With this violent bruiser of a child in the house, nerves are strained, so Gino convinces Finch to admit the baby to hospital while he takes Lucy on a therapeutic holiday. Nicky however has other ideas, luring Gino to the garden, slipping a noose around his neck and then dragging him several feet off the ground before hiding the body. A baby does all this, you understand. I feel it needs repeating.
So now with Gino missing Lucy really goes to pieces. Finch, convinced by Sister Albana that there may indeed be Satanic forces at work, goes to the house and finds what appears to be Gino’s decomposed body. Which is impressive given that he only disappeared the previous morning. Nicky doesn’t take too kindly to the discovery and beheads Finch with a garden spade. With everything spiralling out of control, Nicky finally attacks and kills Lucy. Sister Albana’s only option is to perform an exorcism, which has the added effect of causing Hercules to collapse and die mid-performance at the club.
So I suppose the first thing to say about I Don’t Want To Be Born is that there’s nothing particularly inept about it, at least compared to other British horror cheapies of this era. Peter Sasdy was a decent TV and film director, working for Hammer among others. The cast are mostly solid, Ralph Bates’ mama-mia accent aside. Even Joan Collins, an actress who I largely can’t stand, isn’t terrible. This film was made during that period of her career she seems eager to forget, between the early ingénue days and the TV mega-stardom of Dynasty. This was the time Collins moved between TV guest slots and parts in crummy horror films, whether it was being attacked by super-enlarged footage of insects in Empire of the Ants or getting molested by a tree in Tales That Witness Madness. Caroline Munro isn’t in the movie nearly enough, but she does get to wear a basque and stockings, which is very welcome.
The problem here though — and it’s an insurmountable one — is this is a movie about a killer baby. I wish I could elaborate on that more, but every time I try to express my thoughts in a coherent fashion I just want to write KILLER BABY KILLER BABY KILLER BABY! Cinema is the medium of the imagination, and in the hands of a talented filmmaker anything is possible. So I suppose there may be a way to make a genuinely frightening, disturbing film about a killer baby. Sadly, this is not it. I don’t even LIKE babies and I think the little chap is cute. Does he want a lil’ dagger, does he? Yes, oosa cute ickle killer baby, yes you are…
Release year: 1975 | Country: England | Starring: Joan Collins, Eileen Atkins, Ralph Bates, Donald Pleasence, Caroline Munro, Hilary Mason, John Steiner, Janet Key, George Claydon | Screenplay: Stanley Price (screenplay) | Director: Peter Sasdy | Cinematography: Kenneth Talbot | Music: Ron Grainer | Producers: Nato De Angeles, Norma Corney | Alternate titles: The Monster, Sharon’s Baby
Let me be up front: the whole reason I wanted to watch this film in the first place was because the poster art featured a torch-wielding naked woman riding atop a tormented centaur. I knew it was probable nothing like that would ever occur in the actual movie (and I wasn’t disappointed in my pre-disappointment), but I felt like I owed it to the movie never the less to give it a look see. And while it doesn’t feature a naked woman galloping about on a centaur, it still turned out to be, to my old eyes, a surprisingly effective and creepy, if somewhat modest, tale of Satanism and revenge from beyond the grave.
Whenever I’m confronted with a film that lies immeasurably far beyond the boundaries of anything that could be considered competent, coherent, or even sane filmmaking, I find some superficial comfort in attributing said work to the hands and mind of a deranged lunatic possessed of an inner monologue so warped that agreed upon notions of human logic and morality seem to melt entirely away. This is, perhaps, a defense mechanism, as I encounter such films — as you might guess — pretty frequently. I suppose there is some solace in thinking that these films sprung from the fertile yet twisted mind of a madman, that surely there is no way a sane and normal human could have produced such alarmingly, hilariously awful material. To be hyperbolic about it, I suppose it is much the same as when we reflect upon the infamous dictators of our past as monsters rather than men, soothing our horror somewhat by casting them as some otherworldly ghouls rather than what they were and still continue to be: mere men, who remind us that the capacity of man to commit acts of near unimaginable cruelty is vast. They are not monsters. They are us, and but for a chance of fate — being born in another time, another place, or having a minutely different chemical balance in the brain — any of us could have been them.
Slightly less chilling is the similar revelation that a filmmaker like Harinam Singh isn’t some collective of 19th century schizophrenics who somehow started making movies for the Indian horror market, as I hypothesized previously. He is, in fact, just a man, and probably even a fairly ordinary one at that. When I reviewed what has to be his finest film, the mind-bending Shaitani Dracula, I likened it to many things, not the least of which was the product of a lunatic. I also said it had a kindred spirit in the film Manos: The Hands of Fate, and it was right then and there, when I wrote that sentence, that I knew my own hands of fate were guiding me slowly but inevitably toward grappling with a review of Manos.
It’s a fitting name for the movie, because my fate seems intrinsically intertwined with Manos. If any movie was my long lost evil twin brother, it would be Manos. I know that one day, billions of years from now, as the earth boils and dies, Manos and I are fated to stand atop a craggy cliff as a tumultuous sea of lava crashes below us and volcanoes spew fire and dinosaurs into the sky. There we stand, face to face, battered, bloody, aware of the fact that we are both doomed, yet never the less unable to extract ourselves from the eternal combat into which we have been and always shall be locked. I have seen the road lain before me, and I know that it leads to Manos: The Hands of Fate just as surely as its road leads to me. My ties to Manos are sundry, and even I did not realize most of them existed until I started peeling back the layers of the onion, each one confronting me with a revelation more unspeakable than the last, until one day I found myself actually standing on the very grounds that served as the location for the film, at which time I fell to my knees, cried out to the heavens, and went stark raving mad.
Forgive me. Let me begin this tale again, at the beginning. You see, it all started in 1966.
It was in that year that fertilizer salesman Harold P. Warren from El Paso, Texas, entered into conversation with a man by the name of Stirling Silliphant while the two men sat at a coffee shop together. Silliphant was a screenwriter, and he would later go on to pen scripts for movies like Village of the Damned, The New Centurions, The Poseidon Adventure, Shaft in Africa, and The Towering Inferno. He was also the man called in to string together the various stoned ramblings of Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Bruce Lee into the movie that became Circle of Iron. Even before all that, he was a regular contributor to a variety of television shows, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Route 66.
It was, in fact, on the set of Route 66 that Silliphant first met Harold P. “Hal” Warren. Warren, who moonlighted as an actor from time to time in local community theater productions, was appearing in the show as an extra, driving a bus or some such task as payback for doing some location scouting around El Paso. Warren — and this is just my impression of the man, based on conjecture and what other people said about him — seems like he was something of an obnoxious blowhard, the kind of guy who would have loud-mouth local commercials that played all hours of the day and night until everyone in town knew who he was, for better or for worse. You didn’t really hate the guy, because he was basically decent, but you didn’t really want to hang around with him either. So during the course of the conversation that took place at that coffee shop (I only wish I knew which shop it was), Hal boisterously proclaimed that making movies was easy money, that a trained chimp could make a movie, and hell, an untrained chimp could probably get by. He then bet Silliphant that ol’ Hal himself could make a movie, start to finish. And so was it all set in motion. Silliphant went on to win an Oscar for his screenplay for the film In the Heat of the Night, a slick police thriller that explored boiling racial tensions. Hal Warren went on to make Manos: The Hands of Fate.
As the legend has it, Warren not only placed this bet with Silliphant; he even went so far as to complete the script, right then and there, sitting at the table. You know, in the past I’ve joked that several films felt like the entire plot was scrawled on the back of a coffee-stained napkin. Well, in the case of Manos, it’s actually true. Warren outlined the entire plot on a napkin, right before what I assume to be Silliphant’s mystified eyes. What happened after that was a campaign of bullying, hucksterin’, and probably a whole hell of a lot of hornswagglin’, as Warren began his crusade to fund this new endeavor of his. Against all notions of sanity and reason, Warren managed to raise $19,000 for the completion of his film. Looking back from our informed vantage point in the future, the question isn’t so much how Warren was able to swindle people out of so much money — he was, after all, a fertilizer salesman, and presumably adept at the art of the hard sell (or shoveling bullshit). No, the question is, once he had the money, what the hell did he do with it all? Because of all the things that have been written and uttered about Manos since it was made, few people have claimed that it looked like $1,900 — let alone $19,000 — went into it.
In line with the ego others claimed he had, Warren cast himself in the lead, a seemingly decent if somewhat overbearing husband and father who is trying to drive his family to a vacation. The rest of the cast was assembled from friends and acquaintances, members of the local community theater group, and students from a local mannequin modeling agency. None of the performers were paid for their services. In fact, so solid with the spin was Warren that he somehow convinced them all to work for nothing more than a promise of a portion of the profits once the film was released. Say what you will about Warren’s soon-to-be-realized lack of talent as a filmmaker; the man was apparently one of the best salesmen in Texas history.
So with money on the cast thus saved, Warren went on to procure the proper equipment for making a film. This involved him salvaging a spring-loaded 16mm camera. The camera could not shoot sound, and Warren didn’t want to pay for audio recording equipment, so the decision was made that the entire thing would be redubbed in post-production — actually fairly common in low budget films of the time. More impactful than the sound on the limitation of Warren’s armada of one camera was that the spring-activated motor had to be rewound every thirty seconds.
So, free cast: check. Free camera: check. The next step for Wallace was to get some equally cheap location for his film. This came in the form of a ranch owned by a local lawyer named Colbert Coldwell. Coldwell had an office on the same floor as Warren, and I guess the two men knew one another well enough for Warren to know that Coldwell lived on a decent size ranch just outside of town. Coldwell, for his part, was looking at running for elected office, and I suppose he thought that donating a location for an entirely local film product would look good in the campaign. Whatever mesmerizing bullshit Hal Warren was spinning everyone else worked just as well on the ambitious would-be judge, who was lead to believe (by Warren, of course) that Hal Warren was already an experienced hand at making films. I’m sure being able to drop Silliphant’s name and play up the time Warren was a walk-on extra in an episode of Route 66 gave the wily fertilizer salesman more than enough rope with which to snare his prey. Coldwell went on to win his eventual bid for judge; Hal Warren, again, went on to make Manos: The Hands of Fate.
With all the pieces put in place and ready to fall, the time came for shooting on what was then called The Lodge of Sin to begin and for everyone to discover that Warren had no clue what he was doing. On top of that, he was apparently a grade-A jerk while on set, so much so that the small cast and crew did everything in their power to avoid the guy as much as possible. Frequent questions by the cast about what was happening, what was written, and what was being filmed, were met by Hal with the mantra of “We can fix it in the lab.” Hal’s impression that “the lab” was a magical place where horrible work was turned into works of art and all the faucets ran with gumdrops and glitter was fostered primarily by his actor/stuntman/DP, Bernie Rosenblum, who (like most of the cast and crew) recognized what crap Hal was making but, irritated that he wasn’t getting paid, didn’t feel like having to go back and do multiple takes and reshoots. Not that reshoots and retakes were all that realistic an option anyway. As Hal soon discovered, $19,000 sounds like a lot of money until you start paying for film stock and processing.
As one might expect, complications arose at every turn. One of the girls (Joyce Molleur) slated to play a bride of “The Master,” the film’s bizarre Satanic priest-like character who seems to wield no discernible power beyond bullying an acid freak and collecting a harem of women who badger him incessantly, broke her foot and so could not complete her previously assigned tasks. But Hal had her out there, so he was going to make sure she got into the picture. And so was born the “make-out couple,” Joyce and Bernie Rosenblum, who spend the entire film making out in a convertible in a subplot that can’t be called a subplot, because it has nothing to do with the movie itself. It did earn Bernie considerable accolades, since the film’s complete disregard for the flow of time means that he and Joyce were making out in the same spot for over twenty-four hours. While this is indeed impressive, one also has to question the ability of a guy to “close the deal” if, after necking clear through the night, he still hasn’t advanced beyond first base.
When they went to film the big “catfight” scene that takes place between the various wives of The Master, Warren found that his plan to have them all in sexy diaphanous gowns didn’t fly with the school marm-like head of the modeling agency that had lent him the girls. No way were they going to let these future mannequins be seen on a movie screen parading about in a state of tawdry undress. So they all showed up wearing formless see-through gowns on top of what can only be described as “granny panties,” those above-the-navel, below-the-thigh girdles that are usually only worn by the stuffy wife of the stuffy dean in a 1980s teen sex comedy.
When it came time to go into post-production, most of the duties were handled by Warren, who had no experience with such things. He and a couple others (including his wife) dubbed all the voices. With money fast running out, the editing process was slapdash, at best. But by hook and by crook, Hal completed his film. And in a testament to sheer unbridled ego and skill as a swindler, he convinced the people of El Paso that this was a huge event. A premier was booked. A spotlight was rented. Hal even arranged for the cast to arrive at the gala event via limo — one limo, which dropped off a couple performers at a time then drove around the corner and picked up a couple more, so as to create the illusion of lots of limos delivering lots of people.
What happened once the film started to roll was pretty much what you’d expect to happen if you’ve ever seen the movie. By the time the film was over, most of the audience had bailed, and most of the cast had slinked out to the nearest bar to drown the disappointment. But Hal won his bet, even if only technically, and he soon began work on a second film which, sadly, never got made. The rest of the people involved with Manos faded into the background of everyday life. Manos itself vanished into the gauzy folds of memories most people don’t want to remember.
Until January of 1993.
But let us turn back the clock once again, before we learn how it all converged at the same point, to 1984. In that year, I got my first job. It was through my dad, and as he is the owner of a carpet store, it means that any job he could get me would be rather on the undesirable side of things. Said job was working with a landscaping crew, back when landscaping crews were less Mexican and more stoned teenagers. One of my many jobs was hauling around and spreading bags of…wait for it…fertilizer. On the weekends, I worked on my grandpa’s farm, baling hay at some points and, at others, spreading manure on the fields to be used as…yes, fertilizer. Though I didn’t know it yet, my eventual date with Manos was already being seeded in the vast Kentucky fields that needed to be properly coated with the very substance Hal Warren used to build his El Paso empire.
In time, I got other jobs. Some better, some worse, but many of them involving my having to spread fertilizer on some surface or other. In 1993, I got a fairly cushy job at a college bookstore, where I whiled away the hours selling Chemistry texts and bright orange Florida Gator Panama hats of which I did not approve, though they ended up being wildly popular despite my sartorial disdain for them. I thought that my fertilizer-related days were far behind me. But then, someone showed up one night at my apartment with a copy of a movie they swore I absolutely had to see, even though it was the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version. I didn’t know much about MST3K other than it existed. It was on Comedy Central, and Gainesville didn’t get Comedy Central. It wouldn’t have mattered if they did, because I didn’t have cable or even a cable-ready television. I had heard of the show, to be sure. One doesn’t get to be a college nerd in the 1990s without at least having heard of the show and getting kind of irritated at all the people on IRC who would randomly post “Hi-keeba!” and “A forklift!” But that’s about all I knew of the show. Heck, I didn’t even know what the premise was, or that it was people sitting around making fun of bad movies rather than it being bad movies they’d made themselves.
And none of that really mattered. Because as soon as we popped the tape into my 1985 top-loading VCR that was twice the size of my tiny little television and gathered around the diminutive screen while chowing down on items from Taco Bell’s 39-cent Fiesta Menu, I quickly forgot there were any wisecracking robots at all, so mesmerized was I by the film I was watching them watch: Manos: The Hands of Fate.
Watching Manos, like watching Shaitani Dracula, is an experience that can’t be described to anyone who hasn’t done it themselves. And once you have done it, you don’t need to have it explained to you. It is, I assume, not entirely unlike reaching that point in Hinduism or Buddhism where you become enlightened — which is the polite, religious way of saying you start saying and doing things that seem batshit insane to anyone who isn’t enlightened. I am reminded of the koan-like narration that appears at the beginning of Jodorowski’s El Topo, about how a mole spends his entire life trying to dig toward the surface only to discover, when he reaches the surface, he is blinded by the sun. When you dedicate a portion of your life to the pursuit of obscure cinema existing beyond the limits of mainstream film, a movie like Manos is both exactly what you’ve been looking for as well as the ultimate instrument of your destruction. I searched far and wide for a copy of the film in its original form, only to discover that none was to be had at the time. That situation quickly changed, however, as the Manos episode of MST3K proved to be one of their most popular. Before too long, copies of the movie sans the MST3K editing and embellishments began popping up.
Our strange and twisting narrative now takes us into the contents of the movie itself. The action begins with stolid early 60s family man Michael (Hal P. Warren) on a road trip with his wife, Margaret (Diane Mahree) and young daughter, Debbie (Jackey Neyman). This drive is apparently shown in real time, as it seems to go on forever with no real point. It doesn’t even function as filler travelogue footage, as most of what’s shown is the hood of the car, nondescript city outskirts, or southwest Texas scrubland. I’ve spent my fair share of time driving back and forth across Texas — an adventure I shall mention in more detail shortly, as it ties directly in with Manos, as so many things in my life do — and while I’ve had a great deal of fun on these drives, I would not really think of filming the driving parts from beginning to end and releasing it as a movie. In time, we learn that Michael and his clan are heading to…well, we never really have any idea where they are heading, though it seems like their intended destination was the middle of nowhere. By and by, they get lost on the twisting dirt roads of backwoods Texas (or whatever you call the backwoods when there are no woods) and, while driving aimlessly through the desert, stumble across…the hotel.
It’s the kind of structure that, at best, looks like the sort of place an ax-swinging maniac with a burlap sack over his head would come running out of. It also has a goat-legged hillbilly hippie (or, you know, whatever) loitering in the front doorway. Michael decides it’s the perfect place to spend the night, rather than making the drive back out to the main road. Despite this lapse in judgment, the journey to the mysterious motel reminded me of a drive of my own. During one of my excursions through Texas, I was lured by free admission to a place called the Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument outside of Amarillo, where I was eating at and sleeping in the Big Texan Steakhouse, home of the 72-ounce monster steak, as well as a Texas shaped pool and squeaky saloon doors to the bathrooms in every room. You may think, as I did, that squeaky saloon door bathrooms are pretty cool, and they are, at least until the morning, when in the course of two people performing daily hygiene, you walk through them dozens of times…each time with that incessant squeaking…and creaking…and squeaking…
Where was I? Oh yeah, Amarillo. Anyway, we drove out to the Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument even though the name didn’t really strike us with a great degree of interest. But whatever. We had one of those National Parks passes, and we’d been to a lot of out-of-the-way, forgotten parks as a result. Each one had proven to be pretty interesting to a road trippin’ history nerd like myself, so maybe Alibates would surprise us the way Washita and Wilson’s Creek did. So we drove. And we drove. And we drove. Down what seemed like endlessly and randomly winding roads through dusty red-brown Texas hill country, stopping occasionally to snap photos of lizards running across the blistering hot pavement, always following the beckoning finger of road signs that assured us we were going in the right direction. Eventually, however, I started to suspect that the signs had been planted there by desert-dwelling maniacs who liked to lure unsuspecting motorists to their doom by tempting them with the siren song of…well, you know. A flint quarry. In the end, the signs disappeared and the road just sort of petered out, turning from sun-bleached, cracked pavement to dirt, and then dead-ending out in the middle of nowhere. I have no idea if we saw the flint quarry or if we just got lost, but as we traced our route back toward the civilization and steaks of Amarillo, I was keenly aware of just how much our ultimately directionless sojourn resembled the opening of Manos.
Incidentally, we were in Amarillo because we were driving along what remains of Route 66 — the road that birthed the series that brought Hal Warren and Stirling Silliphant together for that fateful meeting which, in turn, resulted in the birth of Manos: The Hands of Fate.
Somehow, on the way back, we got sidetracked and ended up at what looked like an abandoned Air Force base, though signs assured us it was operational, and there were military jets flying overhead if not landing at the base. Still, it looked pretty overgrown and tattered to be in use. Visions of Weird War Tales flashed through my brain. But that, like stumbling across the plains and up to a Texas-sized slaughterhouse, is a horror story for another day.
Speaking of horrors, few experiences in life can prepare you for the tortuous yet impossible-to-turn-away-from sequence with which Manos now challenges the viewers. Convinced that this hellhole with a man-goat out front is the ideal spot for his family to spend the night, Michael starts barking orders to said man-goat, who informs us that his name is Torgo, and he takes care of the place while The Master is away. Torgo also adds that Michael and his family are not welcome, though on this Torgo seems to flip-flop his position like a modern politician. Torgo is played by a young guy named John Reynolds, and the only way to even begin to understand his performance is to realize that Reynolds was, according to everyone else on the set, whacked out on acid the entire time. In the similarly bizarre but more lavishly mounted Ray Dennis Steckler film, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies, I’ve always maintained that despite whatever shortcomings the film may possess, there were some moments of genuine creepiness generated mainly by the grainy, DIY nature of the film and film stock. I feel the same way about Reynolds’ performance as Torgo. It’s so completely bizarre, awkward, and unlike anything that a human would ever think of doing, that it becomes a moment of absolute brilliance.
Coupled with a few other factors — chiefly, the weird dubbing job and the uncomfortable moments of inaction and silence where you can tell everyone was waiting of the camera to start or finish — Torgo becomes an otherworldly, totally successful element of the film. According to Rosenblum, Reynolds built himself a metal contraption that attached to his legs, so as to better mimic the look and movement of someone who has goat legs. This, predicatbly, means that Reynolds staggers and lumbers wildly every time he tries to move (I’m sure the acid didn’t hurt…or help). And so the simple scene of Torgo being bullied into fetching Michael’s luggage out of the car becomes both an ordeal and an odyssey to behold, made all the stranger by the irritatingly haunting “Torgo walks” theme song. Hal Warren elevates his film to near Hitchcockian levels of anticipation by having this luggage scene go on forever, then have Michael and his family change their mind and make Torgo carry everything back to the car, then having Michael change his mind again and having Torgo carry everything back in one more time. It’s excruciating, exquisite pain worthy of Pinhead himself, and like everything in this film, it has to be witnessed to be understood.
And so the nightmare begins. Michael and his family are disturbed by the eerie painting of The Master that adorns the rustic lodge, probably because it looks so much like Frank Zappa crossed with the Frito Bandito. Debbie’s poodle runs outside and gets mauled to death by some unseen desert creature. Michael starts snooping around for no real reason beyond the fact that he had a gun in his glove compartment and felt like prowling around with it. The leaves poor Margaret alone to be peeped on by Torgo, who then approaches her in a scene whose off-kilter (i.e., dreadful) editing makes it even more awkward than the “Torgo gets the luggage” scene. And then The Master (Tom Neyman, the father of the little girl who plays Debbie) awakens and decides that, even though he is surrounded by catty, bickering wives, he wants to claim these two new females as part of his harpy harem. This sets the Satanic dames off to catfighting while The Master half-heartedly attempts to intimidate them by frequently stretching his arms out to yon heavens in order to show off his keen “hands of fate” robe. I don’t know what he’s a master of, but it sure ain’t keeping his broads in line. This just goes to show, as I’ve said elsewhere, that unless you are an all-powerful sultan or god-king, having multiple wives really never amounts to much more than having ten people yell at you for not regrouting the shower when you were supposed to.
Torgo seems to share my sentiments, and after The Master has claimed so many women as his own, just so he can make them lean against pillars, The Master’s goat-legged servant is wondering when the main man in the boss robes and man-sandals is going to throw a little love the way of his loyal assistant. In fact, Torgo seems to think Margaret would make the perfect Mrs. Torgo, a notion he stammers to her while engaging in the aforementioned quivering-hand pawing of her hair, which Margaret reacts to by, well, by not reacting. She just sort of stands there staring blankly at the camera as if the actress isn’t even aware that they’ve started filming.
The Master, despite the fact that he obviously has his fill of sniping women, doesn’t take kindly to this show of independence and lust from Torgo. What’s more, some of The Master’s wives are jealous of his interest in the new woman. Others want to kill the adults but let the child live. And some just want to throw down and have a good ol’ fashioned catfight in their underlovlies. Meanwhile, Michael is — I don’t know. He’s just sort of prowling around with a gun and getting knocked down hills for a while, before he finally recovers and comes walking to he poorly executed attemped rescue of his wife and child. It all culminated in a finale that is as ludicrous and inept as it is disturbing and grim.
Obviously, discussing the technical merits and the acting in this film is a moot point. Like I said, though, I think Jeff Reynolds’ performance is terrifically bizarre and effective. So, too, do I think some of the photography, marred though it may be, is successful at creating a disturbed, eerie atmosphere. Even when it’s just the gaunt, robed Master staring listlessly at the camera, there’s something compelling about it, a sort of Videodrome quality that makes it feel like the guy is staring right at you even though he was probably just waiting for someone to say “The camera has stopped rolling.” Manos is one of those films that fails on every logical level but triumphs when regarded as some sort of “nightmare on film,” relying heavily on strange imagery and a dreamlike structure as would be found in the European horror films of the late 60s and 70s. There’s no reason to apply logic to this film, because it does not operate within the realm of logic. Instead, it inhabits that rarefied air where total incompetence transforms into accidental genius. I’d love to compare it to a similar sounding film, Coffin Joe’s Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasure, but alas, that movie seems to elude me every step of the way. Hal Warren sits at the same table as Harinam Singh, Jean Rollin, Doris Wishman, Coffin Joe, and Jess Franco (who, ironically, would be the most accessible and mainstream of all the assembled artists). Really, isn’t that a table any of us would want to be seated at — especially if it’s a table at one of those groovy, surreal nightclubs that only exist in Jess Franco’s mind and films?
Most of the people involved with the film faded into the background, returning to their day jobs after the humiliating and/or hilarious world premiere. Jeff Reynolds, who was described as a kind and friendly but deeply troubled kid, committed suicide shortly after filming of Manos closed. Hal Warren spent much of his life trying to get money for a second film, but he was only able to snooker people once. Rumor has it that among the pitches he made to potential investors was a sequel to Manos. He passed away in 1985. Bernie Rosenblum stuck around long enough to see Manos going from local embarrassment to cult phenomenon and was interviewed extensively by a couple Canadian filmmakers when they made the short documentary film Hotel Torgo. Manos itself played very briefly in limited engagements at a few Texas drive-ins before vanishing, only to reappear again in 1993. Since then, as befits a film this odd, it has become something larger than itself. If it’s not quite a pop culture touchstone the way, say CHUD is, or Gymkata, where even people outside of cult film fandom can still drop references to it (even if they’ve never seen it), it’s certainly cemented its place in the black, black hearts of cult film fans across…well, probably not the world. But at least around the United States. People cosplay as Torgo and The Master at conventions. I once planned an adults-only remake of the movie (I still have the 75% finished draft of the script). Hell, I remember a while back, someone even made a Torgo screensaver.
This movie…I love this movie. I Shaitani Dracula love this movie. I love everything about it, right through to the startling, bleak, and grim “no one gets out of here alive” ending. Because I am a dark and twisted individual, I love “corruption of the innocent” movies, and I think Manos is a surprisingly effective entry into that category, partly because it feels less like a feature film and more like someone’s fucked up home movies of a boring, terrifying vacation. Michael is just a regular guy, a bit of a dick maybe, but hardly evil. As corny (not to mention taxing) as the opening is, it becomes oddly evocative when placed in the context of what ultimately befalls our seemingly happy family. Mundane driving, the almost ghostly repetition of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” – and then all of a sudden everything begins to unravel in a macabre fashion. No one in the family does anything to deserve the horrible fate that befalls them — there is no generic “dark secret” that somehow justifies the punishment meted out to our hapless protagonists. One can only marvel at what must have been going on inside Hal Warren’s head. Was he just copying dreck he’d seen before, with no thought at all? Or are we watching the machinations of the mind of a seemingly normal man revealed to be somewhat freaky? Is Manos really “don’t give a damn” filmmaking, or is it the product of that sinister side of the brain we all possess but generally elect to repress in deference to the notion of a polite and civil society?
Which, in a way, is just a flowery way of asking Hal Warren, “What the hell were you thinking?” but it goes deeper than that. Whatever conflict may have been raging within Hal between his id and superego manifests itself on-screen, be it consciously or by accident, as we watch Michael and his family struggle then succumb to whatever boring corruptions with which The Master has assaulted them. The movie seizes upon that thinly-veiled thread of perversity that exists within us all and yanks on it until the whole carefully knitted sweater falls apart, dooming Michael, Debbie, and Margaret in the process. I know, I know. Some of you think that’s too much credit for such a bad movie. But I disagree. I think in spite of itself, Manos stumbles into moments where it works well, if you look past the obvious short-comings and agreed-upon popular consensus that this movie is thoroughly wretched.
Having recently exhaustively read and reread every issue of Cult Films and Psychotronic that I own, having read and reread the various books about obscure cult cinema from a round the world that make up my library, I started shopping around for new books to help me pass the time on those late nights when I can’t sleep and have run out of steam for making my zombie apocalypse plans (though such plans are more important than ever, as my current apartment possesses a few notable weak spots that must be properly attended to when the day comes). One of the books I picked up recently is Sleaze Artists, a collection of essays about badfilm, why we love it, and what our love means. I’ve started thinking in a dangerously pseudo-academic fashion about some of the movies I like, or more specifically, about why I like some of the movies that I like. Some are obvious, of course. I mean, when Pam Grier pulls a pistol out of her afro and blows away Shelly Winters, is there really a need to explore the reasons it’s awesome? But other films — films like Manos, films like Shaitani Dracula, films like Jean Rollin’s ponderous and surreal vampire movies — I love these films, despite the fact that by any sane measure, they are so bad so as to hardly even qualify as films. As I was reading through the introduction of Sleaze Artists, though, I came across some references to an older article by Pauline Kael, a critic with whom I have a somewhat contentious relationship (well, on a theoretical level — I’ve never actually met her or engaged in a duel of wits). But in this instance, she managed to perfectly sum up why a film like Manos hold such unholy appeal for me, and in a rare moment of journalistic integrity, I’m even giving her credit for the thought instead of paraphrasing it and pretending like I came up with it all by myself.
We like these films, she states, because we are so educated in the tropes and cliches of “good” filmmaking that such filmmaking has become tedious, predictable, and boring. And this is true. After years of doing this on my own, to say nothing of that film criticism minor I tacked on to my virtually unused journalism degree, I can hardly bear to sit through another by-the-numbers “quality” film. Sit me in front of a quirky indie comedy, and I can describe the whole movie to you before it even happens, right down to the moments of poignant reflection accompanied by ennui-tastic piano music or a crudely played folk-punk tune. The same goes for an indie drama, to say nothing of an Oscar-baiting studio film. Yes, I can see the film is good. Yes, I can see the performances are top notch. And I really do not care. It’s become so rote that it’s near impossible for me to give a damn, even when I think a movie is all right.
But, as Kael puts forth, cult films are the place you can go and be taken by surprise, to see something completely outside of the expected. We watch these films for the thrill of discovery, for the joy of witnessing something that would not be done in any other film, by any more talented and predictable filmmaker. Cult films are the places where true vision and madness find free reign, unfettered by industry and commercial training. In that freedom, yokels like me find great entertainment. Manos appeals to me because it is so wrong, because it is so unlike what any of us expect from a movie. It is the breath of fresh air in a stale environment full of movies in which damaged, quirky people try to reconnect and cold, disillusioned suburbanites struggle for feeling in a sterile environment. In an industry laden with clumsy messages and delusions of importance, the utterly baffling nonsense of Manos has more to say to me than any dreary lesson taught to me by a more competent film. Perhaps I have merely been bewitched, or had my evil side tempted by Hal Warren in much the same way Michael and his family are hopelessly entangled in the laconic and directionless plans of The Master. I mean…what was that guy trying to accomplish, anyway? If you don’t want any visitors, why build your lair in a motel? And if you want to possess people and turn them into your minions, why would you not want visitors? And whata re you up to, anyway? As far as I can tell, The Master harbors no dreams of plunging the world into darkness, or taking over, or summoning Satan or anything. He’s just this pasty dude who uses his black magic powers to arrange poorly executed dances out in the desert. Does he exist purely to corrupt the innocent? Is he trying to establish a less irritating version of Burning Man?
In the hands of someone who knew what the hell they were doing, Manos would never have achieved the air of total strangeness that makes it such an entrancing work of…art? Sure, why not? The out-of-focus camera work, the terrible editing, the silent scenes of people standing around waiting for their queues…these things never would have happened with a real editor on the crew, and Manos would have been worse off because of it. It would have been merely terrible. But Hal Warren, bless him, had no clue what the hell he was doing, and by lucky happenstance, his incompetence elevates Manos to a transcendental plane of existence. It is the sort of out-of-its-mind experience that we jaded filmgoers spend years looking for, and like the mole, when we finally see it, we are blinded by its brilliance.
It was, perhaps, some sort of naive blindness that led me, in the late winter of 2003, to El Paso, Texas.
Ostensibly, I was in Texas to meet up with some friends from Japan whose band, Petty Booka, was playing at SXSW in Austin. My job was to putter around, do the driving, and eventually get them from Texas to Chicago, and then from Chicago to New York. They were traveling across the southwest by van from California, an I flew in to San Antonio a few days early to hang out with some people I barely knew, before making the short trek up to Austin for the festivities. Well, the San Antonio thing ended up being kind of weird, though I did get to see the Alamo and that lovely canal they have running through downtown, so I decided to rent the car early and meet the gang from Japan in El Paso, where they were scheduled to play a gig. Insane, yes, to drive clear across Texas just so I could drive clear back across Texas a couple days later. But something compelled me. Something which, at the time, I could not fully explain. So I left San Antonio early one afternoon and drove, as fate would have it, south by southwest, through the night, across the great plains of Texas, listening to a Mexican oldies station.
When I arrived in El Paso, deprived of sleep and fueled by middle-of-nowhere diner food consumed at places best left in the mind of David Lynch, I checked in to the Coral Motel on Montana Avenue. Beautiful old-school place. Probably hasn’t been redecorated since the time of Manos. It was two days before anyone else was scheduled to arrive, so I decided to forgo sleep and wander around El Paso, eventually finding myself across the border in Juarez — the Chicago of border towns, to Tijuana’s New York. What happened in Juarez is a tale worth telling, though not right now. At some point I can’t nail down, since the entire time seems like one long, hazy hallucination (and, at times, probably was), I ended up at a diner with a couple people I can only assume I met at some point, since they were with me. I have no idea how the subject of Manos was broached, though I’d put good money on me being the one nerdy enough to do it. As the hands of fate would have it, though, two of the people I was with knew the movie through MST3K and, even better, because they were El Paso based fans, knew where it had been filmed.
So it was that, through cheap beer, long drives, ukulele playing Japanese girls, questionable tequila, dominatrixes, seedy Juarez nightclubs, substances I should not have ingested, and all-night diners, I found myself lying on the very stones that served as The Master’s altar, and standing in what remained of the doorway in which Torgo himself once stood so many years ago when he shakily announced…
“I am Torgo. I take care of the place while The Master is away.”
Release Year: 1966 | Country: United States | Starring: Tom Neyman, John Reynolds, Diane Mahree, Harold P. Warren, Stephanie Nielson, Sherry Proctor, Robin Redd, Jackey Neyman, Bernie Rosenblum, Joyce Molleur, William Bryan Jennings, Jay Hall, Bettie Burns, Lelanie Hansard, Pat Coburn, Pat Sullivan, George Cavender | Writer: Harold P. Warren | Director: Harold P. Warren | Cinematographer: Robert Guidry | Music: Russ Huddleston, Robert Smith | Producer: Harold P. Warren
Really, Pinhead? Really? This is how you treat me? We’ve come so far, and I’ve given positive reviews to so many of your movies, and this is how you pay me back? I suppose it’s fitting. After being lea down the tempting and Byzantine labyrinths of the Hellraiser franchise, I finally arrive and the final (for now, anyway) installment, only to discover it is the cinematic equivalent of finally solving the puzzle box only to have hooked chains shoot out and rip me to pieces.
Hellraiser: Hellworld is beyond awful and well into the “absolutely unwatchable” territory. I can’t think of a single redeeming thing to say about this horrible movie, with the possible exception of “Well, at least they finally got around to having Lance Henrikson appear in a Hellraiser film.” But that’s hardly enough for this wretched retread of other, equally as bad horror films. The plot this time around goes “meta” — featuring a group of twenty-somethings who play an online Hellraiser themed video game, only to discover that the game may be more real than they realize!!! Oooo! When the players are invited to a special “Hellworld” rave for the hardest core gamers, they find themselves in the mansion of Lance, who spins them a yarn about the house being built by the same Le Merchant who made the Lament Configuration, even though that guy lived and died in France. As the kids wander from one room to another, they are slowly killed off, one by one, in the usual outlandish fashion…or are they???
See, here’s the thing about Kari Wuhrer: I don’t know what the thing is with Kari Wuhrer. I mean yeah, she’s hot, but plenty of men and women are hot, and most of them didn’t star in Beastmaster II: Through the Portal of Time. There is very little in the career or Kari that I’ve liked, and yet my obsession with her as an actress continues to urge me toward watching whatever goofball piece of junk in which she appears. The way some people think Angelina Jolie is the hottest woman on the planet, or Aishwarya Rai? That’s sort of how I feel about Kari. I just like the woman, and I have ever since Remote Control.
That said, it was inevitable that, even after the dismally dull part six, any meeting of Kari Wuhrer and the Hellraiser franchise was going to get my attention. So I sat down for this seventh installment in the the long-running horror series with some degree of anticipation that, at the very least, it would offer me something more than a jackass having hallucinations while sitting in his office cubicle. And hey, what do you know! Hellraiser gets itself back on track, at least to some degree. Deader, like most of the sequels, is far from being in the same class as the original, but it’s also far from being in that other class occupied by Hellseeker and Hell On Earth, that dimension of pain where even Pinhead dare not tread. This means the movie falls somewhere in the vicinity of Bloodline (part four) and Inferno (part five) in being a flawed but ultimately decent horror film.
Kari stars as perpetually smoking Amy Klein, one of those ace “reporters on the edge” who covers the sort of stories that are only covered in movie versions of what an ace reporter on the edge would cover. Which means, less war in Gaza and Somali pirates, more exposes on sleepy drug addicts and Eastern European resurrection cults. After her editor receives a videotape of a young Eurotrash goth type committing suicide only to be raised from the dead by a guy with stringy hair while other Eurotrash goth types stand around and sway, Amy is off to Bucharest to investigate the story. Eastern Europe is, as you all probably know, the favored haunt these days of pretty much every low budget horror film being made. Here’s an instance where the location works, though. Certainly more so than when a filmmaker tries to pass Prague off as Las Vegas. The Eastern European aesthetic — or at least what we in America imagine to be the Eastern Europe aesthetic — lends itself nicely to the Hellraiser world. Certainly Pinhead is going to seem more imposing when he appears in some crumbling ancient stone building or dripping concrete tenement than when he shows up in Terry Farrell’s posh Manhattan penthouse apartment.
Speaking of which — here’s a movie that at least puts its reporter in the right tax bracket. As someone who works professionally as a writer, despite all the evidence present here that I should be kept away from words, I’m always amused when a film’s struggling young writer can still manage to live in a sprawling multi-story, multi-room penthouse with a breathtaking view of the Manhattan skyline, as did our intrepid reporter in Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth. By contrast, Amy Klein is already an established reporter, but she still lives in an alcohol and cigarette smoke stained shithole. Now that is the sort of reporter’s life to which I can relate.
Anyway, Amy follows the trail of the videotape to an apartment where she finds a corpse and the fabled Lament Configuration puzzle box. So begins her descent into the usual Hellraiser madness, which includes industrial music party trains, an over-reliance on hallucinations and “dream within a dream” red herrings, shoehorning in of the word “flesh,” and token appearances by Hell’s favorite bail bondsman, Pinhead. All in all, as I said, it’s a pretty huge step up from the last film, and there are some sequences that are genuinely effective. My favorite is the dream-within-a-dream nonsense in which Kari finally discovers the location of the “Deaders” cult, as they call themselves, only to find herself forced to undergo their ritual. Then it turns out that was all a dream, then it turns out that dream was a dream, and she really does have a huge gaping hole in her chest. So begins a nightmarish yet blackly comical sequence where she tries to continue her investigation even though she has a huge chest wound that is continually oozing blood all over the place. In addition, her discovery of the industrial music party train after everyone in it has been slaughtered is another wonderfully creepy moment, as is her claustrophobic journey to the Deaders’ hideout.
The film also features one of Pinhead’s most overtly evil moments. The revelation that Amy was sexually abused by a father she eventually stabbed to death is pretty standard shock movie territory, so much so that at this stage in the game, it’s more likely to illicit rolled eyes and “ho hums” than any real horror. But when Pinhead finally shows up for his cameo, he remarks, almost off-handedly, that Amy will have ample time to spend with her father when she has been carried off to Hell, it makes the tired “sexual abuse” background worth the trouble, because that’s flat out creepy. Up until this point, really, the suffering delivered by Pinhead seemed too fanciful (remember the evil carnival in part two) or supernatural (the ever-present flying hook chains) to really be scary. Gross, maybe, but rarely scary. When Pinhead suggests that Amy will be spending eternity trapped with her sexually abusive father — that’s a horror a person can comprehend, and that makes it far more effective than any of the more fantastical nonsense Pinhead might throw at you. After being served up as sort of a cool anti-hero for the past several movies, that one moment makes Pinhead more recognizably evil and terrifying than at any other point in the series.
We also get something that we haven’t had in any of the Hellraiser movies, even the original, which is a downbeat “no one gets out of here alive” ending. In the other films, despite all else that happens, good triumphs over evil, the heroine escapes, the scumbags get ripped apart by hook chains, Pinhead is banished back to Hell by being covered in animated lines while he yells “Nooo!” and we’re pretty happy with how things turned out. Not so in Deader, however, which is thoroughly pessimistic and grim from start to finish. Amy Klein is a damaged but still somewhat decent person, but there is no redemption or catharsis waiting for her at the end of the journey.
Of course, as is standard with the direct to video Hellraiser sequels, Deader is not without its many problems. Once again, we have a script for an entirely unrelated movie that has been retooled to function as a Hellraiser movie. This means that much of the Hellraiser related material feels as shoehorned in as awkward uses of the word “flesh.” The plot depends on the actions of the Deaders and their leader somehow representing a “trespass” into the world of the Cenobites, but how exactly this becomes the supernatural equivalent of Pinhead telling kids to stay off his lawn remains unclear. As far as I know, merely committing suicide isn’t enough to get you into Pinhead’s wing of Hell; you have to actually summon the Cenobites. So I don’t know why Pinhead is so steamed that these kids are killing themselves then being brought back to life. Similarly, the movie links Deader “messiah” Winter (Paul Rhys) to the Le Merchant bloodline that created the puzzle box, but it doesn’t seem to have much of an idea with what to do with that subplot other than mention it. Certainly Winter doesn’t exhibit any of the traits that Bloodline lead us to believe are part of the Le Merchant character. And needless to say, there’s absolutely no explanation of how Winter is able to revive the dead, though in a movie series where people use a puzzle box to summon demons who promise pleasure and pain but only deliver on half their promise, I suppose worrying about the unexplained ability of one guy to revive dead Rumanian goth kids is a bit petty.
And there’s also the problem of the ending. While I appreciate the bleakness of it, it’s also pretty poorly thought out. It feels as if they had themselves a decent enough supernatural horror movie, did a fair job of tweaking it into a Hellraiser movie, then had no idea at all how to bring it all together in a cohesive, satisfying finale. It’s not enough to tank the film by any measure, but it is a shame they couldn’t pull the thing together.
I said with part five that I didn’t mind the rarity of Pinhead and the Cenobites in these sequels provided the surrounding movie was interesting enough to put off their appearance until the end. Five was. Six was not. Seven is back to being interesting enough to survive without Pinhead and his entourage making themselves known until the very end (minus the occasional appearance in a dream within a dream within an hallucination).
What we have here is an able cast, some great location work that takes advantage of the oppressive cityscapes and urban decay, and a plot that, while hardly perfect, is at least good enough for its running time. Kari Wuhrer is solid in her role and puts effort into it, and most of the supporting cast is either able or bad in that familiar way foreign extras are bad in English language films. That’s something I’ve long since learned to live with. I liked this one.
Which is good, because I’ve also seen part eight, and…well, let’s leave that suffering for the next review.
Ehh, ya lost me, Hellraiser. I was with you through part five. I mean, sure, part three was pretty stupid, but it was enjoyably stupid. And I thought that parts four and five put you back on track. But the wheels sort of come off the wagon with part six. As with part three, this one promises us something big then never delivers. With part three, it was “pinhead wages war on earth!” That meant that Pinhead caused some manholes to erupt on a backlot set. This time around, we’re promised the return of Kirsty (Ashley Lawrence), the woman who battled the Cenobites at their meanest in the first two films. What we end up with is a cameo appearance that is so wrong-headed it’ll make you happy it’s only a cameo appearance. The only person in this film less than her is Pinhead. Where as part three was hilariously bad, this one is just dull and lifeless.
When I reviewed part five, I said I actually like having Pinhead be an ominous presence throughout the movie with his actual appearance reserved for when it really matters. But that only holds true if you operate under the assumption that the rest of the movie is filled with other weird stuff building up the final reveal of Pinhead set to his obligatory “Pinhead has revealed himself!” blast of bombastic orchestration. Part five, I thought, did that, giving us a gruesome serial killer movie with surreal Cenobites and oddness sprinkled throughout. Part six is basically that movie again, but instead of a disillusioned cop and creepy Cenobite chicks, it’s a douchebag in an office cubicle.
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