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Hellraiser VI: Hellseeker

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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.

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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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Dunwich Horror

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H.P. Lovecraft may not be one of the best writers in the world, but he’s certainly one of the most fun to read — not to mention imitate. For this reason, I got it in my head that it would be a great idea to read The Dunwich Horror aloud to my wife. She not only loves to be scared, but is so committed to the endeavor that she’s even on occasion been willing to meet Hollywood remakes of Japanese horror movies halfway. That’s a perfect attitude to bring to Lovecraft, in my opinion, because he’s an author you really need to be willing to work with. In cracking open one of his stories, you’re making an implicit agreement to be scared; otherwise it’s just not going to work. Of course, Lovecraft does his part to help you along in that regard, always letting you know exactly how afraid you’re supposed to be, even when the object of that fear remains somewhat sketchily defined, and also modeling the desired behavior by populating his stories with characters who launch into paroxysms of terror at the faintest fetid odor.

With the combination of my wife’s gameness, Lovecraft’s semaphore-like emotional cues, and the fact that the mildewed pages of the 1970s paperback edition of Dunwich I’d found gave off a scent that, with a little imagination, could be interpreted as being primordial, we were, as far as I was concerned, all set. However, after five solid pages describing the blighted landscape of Dunwich town, my wife made clear that she wasn’t having it, saying something to the effect of, “What is this shit?” All of which is not to discourage you from reading Lovecraft to your own spouse or significant other; but it’s certainly important to make sure you’ve done the proper amount of prep work.


By the way, the old Jove paperback of The Dunwich Horror that I purchased features a cover illustration that is a very literal depiction, based on Lovecraft’s description in the story, of Wilbur Whateley in his true form, which looks like the upper half of Golem from Lord of the Rings grafted onto something that looks like a cross between the lower half of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, a pineapple, and one of those cat-shaped wall clocks whose eyes move from side to side with the second hand.

I imagine that Lovecraft’s tendency to devote more words to telling his reader how scared he or she should be than to describing the thing to be feared posed a problem to those filmmakers initially assigned the task of bringing his work to the screen. After all, until the advent of modern J-Horror — whose sensibility is pretty much right in line with Lovecraft’s — the common wisdom would have been that you were supposed to scare your audience by showing them something scary, rather than by just showing them a bunch of people being scared, or, even worse, showing a bunch of people talking about how potentially scary some vaguely defined thing might be if it it actually existed. Furthermore, such filmmakers might understandably conclude that a film whose every character was in a constant state of near-wordless cowering for no clear reason might quickly forfeit audience interest.


It is this last conviction that might explain the casting choices made in connection with director Daniel Haller’s first Lovecraft adaptation for AIP, Die, Monster, Die!. A veteran art director, Haller had also worked in that capacity on AIP’s initial Lovecraft outing, The Haunted Palace, directed by Roger Corman. While by no means a close adaptation of its source material, Die, Monster, Die! did an admirable job of achieving Lovecraft’s patented mood of mounting dread and creeping, formless horror. The only departure from that — and it’s a radical one — was the placement of American actor Nick Adams at its center, probably the most un-Lovecraftian protagonist imaginable, who would be much more likely to call the great Cthulu a “jerk” and punch him in the nose than to simply be driven mad by the impossibility of his existence.

When it came time for Haller to make his second Lovecraft adaptation, 1970s The Dunwich Horror, he and screenwriter Curtis Hanson chose to add another very un-Lovecraftian element to their quintessentially Lovecraftian tale with the introduction into the mix of a sweaty dose of eroticism. Lovecraft’s stories, with all their references to tentacles and other undulating protuberances coming out of things at all angles, were certainly sexual — if in a repressed/hysterical way — but they were far from sexy. In fact, judging from the man’s writings alone, I’d imagine that any attempt by him to describe any normal type of human sexual congress would be one of the most excruciatingly awkward, squirm-inducing things you could possibly read. If there does not exist somewhere a porn parody written in Lovecraftian prose, or myriad examples of erotic Lovecraft fanfic, then the internet truly has no right to exist. It’s not for me to put the effort into finding out, though. Of course, the concept seems less strange when you consider that it was no doubt partly a result of AIP fulfilling their early Seventies mandate to serve up at least some explotational content with every offering. But the whole enterprise rockets back into the realm of the unnamable when you consider that the actors they chose to place at the center of all this heat and steam were Sandra Dee and Dean Stockwell.


The Dunwich Horror was something of a landmark for Sandra Dee, in that the Gidget star was required by its action to spend much of her screen-time writhing and moaning orgasmically on a sacrificial altar while in a state of near undress, and even to treat the audience to a brief flash of her — possibly body-doubled — breasts. Of course, Dee was at an unavoidable crossroads in her career by this time. The wholesome, girl-next-door image that had propelled her to stardom in the early sixties was now not only hopelessly out of sync with the times, but also impossible to maintain now that she had undergone a very public divorce from her husband Bobby Darin. Given these factors, that she would slam her knockers out in an AIP picture was probably as inevitable as it was surprising.

On the other hand, Dean Stockwell’s transition from sweet-faced to unsavory had been accomplished long before he arrived on the Dunwich set, with any memories of the adorable child star he used to be forever tainted by roles such as that of the effeminate child murderer in 1959’s Compulsion. To say that Stockwell comes off as a “little” creepy in The Dunwich Horror would be the Mona Lisa of understatement. From the nervous sidelong glances, to the unwavering hushed monotone, the speech riddled with odd pregnant pauses, and the intent, wild-eyed staring, his performance is, in fact, the whole creepiness package, without one unsettling tick left behind. Of course, given he was charged with portraying a character who, in the original story, was depicted as being a goat-like, preternaturally intelligent, prepubescent eight foot giant who conceals beneath his garments a body that is part T. Rex , part pineapple and part cat clock, you could forgive him for over-compensating.


By the way, my writing this review gave me the opportunity to allay a misconception about Dean Stockwell that I’ve been entertaining for quite some time. I’ve long had this vague notion, which I had the nagging feeling wasn’t true, that he had some kind of strong Walt Disney affiliation. This turns out to be due to me confusing him with that star of countless, animal-themed, live action Disney movies from the sixties, Dean Jones, a man who is creepy in his own right, though in a quite different, more Disney-like way than Dean Stockwell. Now, thanks to Teleport City’s stringent research standards, I can tell you with utmost certainty that Dean Stockwell absolutely, positively did not star in That Darned Cat!, The Ugly Dachshund, Monkeys, Go Home! or The Million Dollar Duck. In fact, during this period in Dean Jones’s career, Dean Stockwell was playing roles like that of an acid-tripping Haight-Ashbury hippy in Psych-Out. So, how wrong can you be, really?

Aside from being the movie that tried to generate sexual heat between Sandra Dee and Dean Stockwell, The Dunwich Horror is notable for being one of the AIP Lovecraft adaptations that — like The Haunted Palace, but unlike Die, Monster, Die! — directly addresses the author’s much vaunted Cthulhu Mythos. Granted, it may not do so with enough authenticity to satisfy fans of the author, but much lip service is indeed given to such touchstone concepts as “Yog-Sothoth”, “The Old Ones” and the “The Necronomicon”. However, as alluded to above, both the Old Ones — that ancient race of unimaginable non-human creatures who, according to Lovecraft, once ruled the Earth and are itching to return — and their followers are portrayed as being much hornier than in any of Lovecraft’s tales. Their most fully-formed emissary in the human world, the unnamed “thing” locked up in a mysterious upstairs room in the Whateley house, seems to be most concerned with first ripping off all of its victim’s clothes when it encounters its first human prey. Similarly, the rituals that Wilbur (Stockwell) must perform in order to summon the Old Ones back into our dimension seem to mostly involve him feeling up a drugged and prostrate Sandra Dee and reading incantations while standing between her splayed legs.


There is a familiar feel of that smarmy, late-to-the-party seventies version of hippie free love to all this, though, of course, in a much more overtly sinister form. It’s a tone that’s driven home even by Les Baxter’s main theme, a narcotically swooning swinger’s revelry with a decadent European sensibility that could just as easily have come from the mind of Serge Gainsbourg or Michel Legrand. Mind you, I don’t think this quality detracts from The Dunwich Horror. I think that an adaptation of Lovecraft’s work for a more permissive age would have no choice but to address the creepy sexuality that underlies it, and Haller’s take here is indeed suitably creepy. That this imperative was put in the hands of a studio like AIP, who was more than happy to deliver on the required nudity and implied sexual shenanigans, just represents a fortuitous dovetailing of interests.

The potent sex magic that Dean Stockwell wields in The Dunwich Horror — at least as it applies to Sandra Dee — is shown to be pretty much in full effect from the very opening moments of the film. It is at this point that we meet Dee’s character, Nancy Wagner, a student at venerable old Miskatonic University. Her professor, Dr. Armitage, has entrusted her with the between classes errand of returning his surprisingly crisp looking copy of the ancient book of forbidden knowledge, The Necronomicon, to the school’s library. The mention of the book’s name attracts the twitchy attentions of the proximately lurking Wilbur Whateley (Stockwell), a visitor to the university from the nearby town of Dunwich whose consummate creepiness is matched only by his single-mindedness. Wilbur follows Nancy to the library and asks her to let him see the book before she replaces it in its case. She resists at first, but it is only a matter of Wilbur making whammy eyes at her for a few seconds before she relents, despite the objections of her obviously unaffected friend Elizabeth (Donna Baccala). Wilbur makes off to hungrily devour the tome’s contents, only to be intercepted by Dr. Armitage, who rents it from his grasp with a stern rebuke. This bit of awkwardness does not preclude the four of them from going out for a drink at the pub later, at which time Wilbur engages Dr. Armitage in a conversation that goes more or less like this:

Wilbur: Can I see the book?

Armitage: No.

Wilbur: Can I see the book?

Armitage: No.

Wilbur: Oh, Okay, but… can I see the book?

Armitage: No.


Dr. Armitage, by the way, is portrayed by the veteran character actor Ed Begley, a man who played supporting roles in almost as many classic film noirs as Elisha Cook Jr. He’s a great, if unusual, choice for the role, because, while he’s appropriately gray and distinguished, his history of playing tough guy roles gives him a two-fisted air decidedly at odds with the tremulous demeanor of the typical Lovecraftian academic. That may not make his character authentic to the text, but it certainly makes him a more credible opponent to the forces he’s up against, and when he and Wilbur face off to shout incantations at one another at the movie’s conclusion, you get the sense that you’re seeing a dramatic showdown between more or less equally matched adversaries — a markedly more satisfying and movie-like conclusion than if the makers had stuck with the finale as presented in the book, in which a bunch of frightened old men cower in the rain while shouting spells and praying that Yog-Sothoth doesn’t kill them.

Wilbur eventually manipulates circumstances so that Nancy has to give him a ride back to his creepy old house in Dunwich, and, once there, sabotages her car so that she has no choice but to spend the night. Nancy is already falling increasingly under Wilbur’s sway by this point, so she raises little objection to this turn of events, but Wilbur still drugs her drink just to be on the safe side — possibly because, in her chemically-induced stupor, she will be less likely to notice the ominous gurgling sounds coming out of the locked room at the top of the stairs. That night, as she slumbers, Nancy dreams that she is being groped and chased by a bunch of hippie mud people who caper around and mug at the camera as if they were auditioning for the Broadway production of Yog-Sothoth: Superstar. This experience seems only to increase Wilbur’s hold over her, and the one night’s stay extends to a series of days, as, all the while, it becomes clearer that Wilbur is grooming her for a very specific purpose, a purpose that is more than hinted at when Wilbur shows Nancy the ancient sacrificial altar perched atop a desolate hilltop near his home.


Once Wilbur has finally gotten his mitts on the Necronomicon and set in motion the rituals necessary to bringing the Old Ones back into the world of men, The Dunwich Horror, like the story it’s based upon, sees out its final act as a pretty sweet little monster on the loose story. The film is helped greatly in this regard by the fact that Lovecraft described the unnamable thing locked up in the Whateley house, once freed, as being mostly invisible to human eyes. This enables the filmmakers to represent it through some pretty effective shots of trees being rent about by unseen forces, an interesting use of negative effects, and reaction shots of the monster’s horrified victims (one of whom is played by a very young Talia Shire). All in all, it’s a satisfyingly apocalyptic payoff to the slow-burn piling on of unease that makes up the film’s first hour, and even survives the fact that, once we do catch a fleeting glimpse of the beast, it appears to be Dean Stockwell wearing a mask made out of plastic snakes.

While the sleazy, swinger’s leer that The Dunwich Horror affects certainly dates the picture — and may go some way toward undermining its scare factor for modern audiences — the film in most respects still holds to the high standard set by AIP’s earlier gothic horrors drawn from the works of Poe and Lovecraft. As with those films, the modest budget is compensated for by both a handsome production design and a studious attention to the creation of a pervasive atmosphere of dread and foreboding. Bolstering that is a range of reliable, if somewhat over-the-top, performances by a cast made up of stolid old troopers, among them Sam Jaffe as Wilbur’s grandfather and Lloyd Bochner as Armitage’s ally, Dr. Cory. Only Sandra Dee, out of all the performers, seems to be holding back, but the fact that she comes off as a bit narcotized is actually in keeping with her character’s situation. Still, it’s a bit odd that Dee, who had not all that long before been a fairly major star, agreed to take a part in a film in which she really ends up being more of a prop than a character.

And pondering that image of Sandra Dee, lying prone and half-conscious while being the subject of all kinds of uninvited groping, I might be inspired to reconsider my previous statement about what might constitute The Dunwich Horror‘s true source of horror for modern audiences. After all, isn’t the thought of being groped by a leering, permed and mustachioed Dean Stockwell really the definition of horror at its most profound and unnamable? More courageous souls than I have doubtless been prompted to tear off and eat their own faces at the mere thought. In fact, if that’s the only way to purge that image from one’s mind, I recommend that we all do that right now.

See you on the other side of madness!

Release Year: 1970 | Country: United States | Starring: Sandra Dee, Dean Stockwell, Ed Begley, Lloyd Bochner, Sam Jaffe, Joanne Moore Jordan, Donna Baccala, Talia Shire, Michael Fox, Jason Wingreen, Barboura Morris, Beach Dickerson, Michael Haynes, Toby Russ, Jack Pierce | Writers: Curtis Hanson, Henry Rosenbaum, Ronald Silkosky | Director: Daniel Haller | Cinematographer: Richard C. Glouner | Music: Les Baxter | Producers: Roger Corman, Jack Bohrer

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Event Horizon

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It’s not that Event Horizon isn’t the kind of movie I would write about. Haunted spaceships and Sam Neill ripping out his own eyeballs is right up my alley. No, the reason isn’t the content, but rather, that fact that this is one of those movies that already has a lot of words spent on it from a variety of sources both in the mainstream and in the realm of cult film fandom. Under such circumstances, it’s hard to imagine what i might have to add that is new. In some cases, I can come up with something — some tiny, meaningless tidbit that is a throwaway line in a movie that then allows me to write endlessly on some idiotic and obscure point. But upon watching Event Horizon, I was left with a distinct lack of ideas when it came to thinking about how I might approach writing about this film with some degree of originality. And now that I’ve finished the first paragraph, I still have no idea, so with any luck, something will pop up as I stumble along.

I didn’t see Event Horizon when it was released. I’m not sure why. I mean, it’s a gory film about a spooky spaceship. I think, however, in 1997, I saw maybe three film the entire year, and that was when I went out on dates with a lovely Southern belle. Somehow we ended up at a screening of Mortal Kombat II: Annihilation. So shamed was I that I just packed up and left North Carolina for New York, hoping to lose myself in the throng and hide my shameful secret. But Teleport City has, in a way, become a curious place for dragging my own horrible secrets into the light for all to see, and on the scale of shameful secrets, “took a date to see Mortal Kombat II: Annihilation” is much worse than “burning passion for Catalina Larranaga” or even “took a date to see Wicked City.” It’s probably not worse than, “invited a girl over, cooked her a crappy dinner, then made her watch Black Devil Doll from Hell,” but it’s pretty close.


I was also pretty much broke in 1997. Hell, I was pretty much broke in 2007, but I’d learned to stretch a dollar in those ten years. Whatever the reason, I didn’t see many movies that year, and Event Horizon was among the ones I didn’t see. Heck, I don’t think I knew a thing about it back then, because I didn’t even have a TV at the time where I could see important commercials informing of the virtues of films like Event Horizon, B*A*P*S, Kull the Conqueror, or any of the other fine films released that year. In the many years that followed, Event Horizon was off my radar and forgotten about, even though from time to time someone would tell me I should see it. That almost always encourages me not to see a film, as very few people seem to understand the complexities of my taste, and so they assume that I will want to be watching Troma films or other intentionally and ironically crappy movies. People just can’t grasp my earnestness. But lately, I’ve been going back and catching up on a lot of the science fiction I missed in the past ten years or so, and after Screamers, Event Horizon was the next film on the list — though calling it science fiction is sort of like calling Halloween a “coming of age drama.”

Despite the starships, hibernation chambers, spacesuits, and other superficial trappings of science fiction, Event Horizon is most definitely a horror film through and through, hewing closely to the classic set-up of a group of people in an isolated location, being preyed upon by a mysterious and murderous force. It just so happens that outer space is a slightly more isolated location than usual. In this regard, Event Horizon draws upon a history of science fiction horror that includes films like Alien and Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires and can be traced back even further to the era of pulp fiction and writers like H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, it’s Lovecraft’s name that is most often invoked when people attempt to describe this film, even though at no point does Sam Neill yell “Yog Sothoth!” Unfortunately for a lot of people, Lovecraft and horror films were not invoked by the advertising for the film when it was released, which marketed it for the most part as a space adventure with some minor overtones of spookiness. People who went in expecting sci-fi space adventure found themselves confronted by hallucinatory images of demon rape, maggots, people being flayed alive, other people vomiting up their own innards or possibly someone else’s arm — at times, the atrocity exhibition is hard to decipher, but the fact remains that it was not what the average sci-fi fan was expecting. I’ve never quite understood this type of bait and switch marketing, as it only makes people mad. But I suspect that it has less to do with some sinister attempt to trick sci-fi fans into seeing a horror film and more to do with an ad agency that never bothered to watch the movie they were marketing and just assumed that, since it featured a spaceship, it was a science fiction film.


By the time I saw this movie, of course, the cat was out of the bag, so I knew exactly what I was getting into. Even if I hadn’t, it would not have mattered much, since I can roll with horror just as easily as I can science fiction. So that’s not what bugs me about this movie. What bugs me is that Event Horizon is this close to being a great movie, and that it comes so close but ultimately fails is, fair or not, much worse than if it had just been a crummy movie from beginning to end. At least then, I could have abandoned any care and gone along with things. That’s what gets me through The Chronicles of Riddick, Aeon Flux, and the many other two-star science fiction films for which I seem to have an incredible weakness. But Event Horizon was almost so much more, and while I ultimately like the movie quite a lot, I do so well aware of the bitter taste left by great ideas left poorly explored and a resolution that sees the movie collapse in on itself — which I guess is fitting in a way for a movie that features the a black hole propulsion system.

The set-up is not unlike that of a couple other “investigating the mysterious ship” movies. I’m thinking specifically of The Black Hole and 2010. In the year 2047, a group of search and rescue astronauts lead by Lawrence Fishburne when he was allowed to show emotion instead of being an emotionless monotonal Matrix guy, are en route to a secret location known only to aerospace scientist Sam Neill. It is soon revealed that they are on their way to rendezvous with the space ship Event Horizon, an experimental craft with the ability to use a black hole generator to warp space and travel massive distances in the blink of an eye. But the ship went missing seven years ago, and there’s been no successful contact with the crew since it suddenly re-appeared near the planet Neptune. Captain Miller (Fishburne), Dr. Weir (Neill), and the crew of the rescue ship Lewis and Clark are to make contact with the crew of the Event Horizon and see what the heck is going on. A rough approach through the stormy space surrounding Neptune results in damage to the Lewis and Clark, meaning that whatever happens on board the Event Horizon, they’re going to have to stick around a spell to fix their own ship.


Things are hardly soothing on the nerves once the team boards the massive experimental space ship. The crew is gone, and the only trace of them is a garbled transmission full of screaming — though eventually Miller and company also discover some hideously mutilated remains splayed across the walls. Although the ship’s black hole drive is presumably shut down, it still finds time to activate itself and suck a member of Miller’s crew into its vortex, returning him in a coma that is only broken long enough for him to babble hysterically about “the darkness inside him” and the nightmarish things he saw on the other side. On top of that, the rest of Miller’s crew starts seeing things — specifically, hallucinations of their dead loved ones. And because horror on top of horror isn’t enough, scans of the Event Horizon begin returning reports of widespread bio signals, inferring that something else is on the ship with them. When one of Miller’s officers decodes the Event Horizon log, they are met with perverse images of the crew being ripped apart, raped by hideous beasts (or possibly by other members of the crew), and suffering untold and unspeakable horrors. Miller decides that the ship can go to hell, and they’re leaving it behind. But Weir seems to feel that the ship has already been to hell, and that somewhere along it’s universe-warping journey, the Event Horizon passed into another dimension, one of absolute chaos and evil, and in doing so became a sentient and highly malevolent living organism. The scans are picking up life forms; they’re picking up the ship itself, and the hallucinations and other problems are a result of the ship’s immune system defending itself from invading organisms.

Or the ship could just be a big ol’ hunk of Hell-infused evil. Whatever the case, Miller is as keen on leaving as Weir is on keeping everybody there.

As a concept, I think Event Horizon is tremendous. The idea of a ship’s experimental drive warping space tot he point where it rips the fabric of the universe and winds up in another dimension humans could best comprehend as Hell is wonderful, and that sort of “horror among the stars” is right out of the old pulp writings of H.P. Lovecraft, who often tinged his horror with elements of science fiction. The universe into which the Event Horizon passed is glimpsed, but only in tiny, tiny portions, and the film relies again on the old Lovecraft trope of a place so completely evil, so thoroughly perverse and malign, that to merely gaze upon it would drive a man insane. Further, the idea that the ship, once returning in some way or another from that universe, would have become a sentient creature as evil as the universe through which it passed is a concept rife with potential. It’s also a set of ideas so vast, so complex, that attempting to tackle them in two hours in a sci-fi horror film is almost certainly doomed to failure.


And that’s what happens to poor Event Horizon; it is filled with too many good ideas that are too complex, and there’s no hope of the film ever being able to satisfactorily unravel it’s science, meta-science, philosophy, and religion. In a way, this isn’t a bad thing. To present human characters with a situation far beyond their comprehension and thus leave many questions necessarily half-answered or completely unresolved is fine. There is a way to do that. I just don’t think Event Horizon hits the mark. It aims. It makes a valiant effort. But int he end, it just can’t get it’s head around its own central concepts, and the whole thing devolves into an ending that lets the film down.

But make no mistake about it — I like this movie. I like it a lot. I think the things it does right make it more than worth the time it takes to watch. My frustration stems purely from the fact that it was well within the grasp of this film to be even better, and it didn’t quite make it. It’s like one of those break-aways in basketball where one guy has the ball,sprints the length of the court alone, has everyone cheering and going nuts, but then when he goes up for the slam dunk, he somehow screws it up and misses. You know, if he’d just dribbled down and missed a jumper, no worries. But because there was tremendous emotion and pageantry around the idea of a breakaway and dunk, when the guy blows the dunk, it makes the missed basket way more painful — especially if it comes near the very end and costs them the game. Event Horizon spends most of its running time building up the freak-out and scares (sometimes with cheap jump scares, but usually through the use of genuine atmosphere), but as Roger Ebert said of the movie, “it’s all foreboding and never gets to the actual boding.”


But let’s detach ourselves from disappointment and spend some time talking about what this movie does right. First and foremost is the atmosphere. Although the science fiction setting misled a lot of viewers, it works wonderfully for this type of film. It’s basically a slightly more fantastic version of the “old dark house,” the remote cabin, or any of the many other locations horror films use to isolate their cast from the outside world — only more so. Millions of miles from home, on a tiny man-made island, surrounded by an environment that will kill you almost instantly if you set foot outside. That’s even more claustrophobic and nerve-wracking than being at some rich weirdo’s country manor. And Event Horizon never lets you forget how vulnerable these people are. Their air is running out. One guy ends up outside the ship without a spacesuit. You never lose sight of how fragile humans are in this setting — something I think could only be replicated by setting your movie in the middle of the ocean. Much of Event Horizon has to do with the concept of tampering in domains man was not meant to see, but while the specific domain may be the Hell Universe, in general it’s obvious that even save travel through space in incredibly dangerous, and a tiny mistake or bit of damage can have colossally negative repercussions.

Adding to the ominous air is the Event Horizon itself, which was apparently designed by someone who thought H.R. Giger’s stuff was just too cuddly. I’m not sure how practical it is to have a spaceship with such features as a rotating tunnel of spikes and a room full of crawlspaces that are accessed through thorn-covered black panels, but I suspect that few aerospace engineers, even in Russia, are looking to design anything quite this terrifying. Remember when the interiors of spaceships were all white and well-lit? I wonder when the point will come that we decide to move away from that color scheme, and away from various pads and cushions covering stuff, and finally embrace the style that calls for dim, flickering lighting, exposed ductwork and wires, and lots and lots of razor blades and thorns. Practicality issues aside, though, and taken purely as art design, the Event Horizon is magnificent. Production designer Joseph Bennett and visual effects supervisor Richard Yuricich bring an immense amount of experience to the game. Yurichich cut his teeth on films like 2001: A Space Odyssey before moving on to supervise visual effects for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, and of course, Ghost Dad. Bennett did design for the cyberpunk cult hit Hardware, and one can see the evidence of all their past work (as well as the ever-present influence of old German expressionism and Giger’s work on Alien) in the design of Event Horizon. This isn’t a terribly big-budget film, but they do a lot with what they have, giving the entire movie the feel of some twisted, horrific opera.


Another feather in the cap of this film is the cast. None of them inhabit especially well-developed characters. They operate on the level of recognizable stock — Fishburne is the tough but fair captain; Neill is the scientist consumed by his obsessions; Richard Jones is the wise-cracking black guy. But even when the characters are thin, the performers still give it their all. You feel like they believe what’s happening around them, and while they sometimes make dumb decisions, they rarely make decisions that aren’t understandable given the circumstances. The exception, perhaps, would be that after Miller spends a long time explaining that the ship will pick you brain and create hallucinations of suffering loved ones, and after everyone in the crew understands this is what the ship is doing, Kathleen Quinlan’s Peters still falls for the trick. I’ve mentioned it in other reviews, but it always annoys me enough that I feel like mentioning it again anytime it happens (and it happens a lot). The hoary old “evil entity transforms into a loved one” shtick grates on my nerves. I mean, you’re in outer space, for crying out loud. Obviously, when you’ve been told that the evil spaceship ghoul thing will make you see visions of your loved ones and use them to lure you to your doom, and then all of a sudden your son appears out of nowhere in a location he absolutely could not be in, well why the hell would you fall for that? Why would your son be running around on a haunted space ship that just returned from Dante’s Inferno? I guess you could dismiss it as some sort of hypnotic effect, or the result of mental breakdown making a character unable to reason, but mostly it just always strikes me as lazy writing.

Still, no one turns in a bad performance, even though they’re sometimes given very little to do. The bulk of the good stuff goes to Sam Neill, since he gets to play the characters who goes completely bonkers. If anyone had seen Neill in In the Mouth of Madness, they wouldn’t have followed him into space, because they would know that spooky H.P. Lovecraft entities tend to follow him around and drive people mad. If Event Horizon succeeds with any one character, it’s Neill’s Dr. Weir, who starts off sympathetic enough before he is consumed by the horrible mysteries contained within the walls of the Event Horizon. However, one gets the feeling that his character never becomes omniscient, never actually knows what these mysteries are despite his enthusiasm about them. No matter the speeches he may give about boundless evil, other dimensions, and forbidden knowledge, his Faust of a doctor is ultimately as clueless about what’s going on and what’s going to happen as everyone else’s. Although this is likely the product of the screenwriter not knowing himself exactly what was going to happen, the end result is effective. Neill becomes the acolyte of an unseen “holy man,” one who speaks only in riddles and fools his followers into thinking they possess some profound understanding or insight when, in fact, they have been fed nothing but meaningless phrases and garbled imagery. There’s a tragedy surrounding Dr. Weir, who far from becoming one with the ship and grasping the universe from which it has returned, instead becomes nothing more than a pitiable dupe.


Whether or not screenwriter Phil Eisner meant that to be the case, he should take it. Because the rest of his script is where the concept of Event Horizon starts to unravel. Poking fun at the science is ultimately meaningless — this is hardly the sort of film you go to for hard facts, and such an exercise would be as futile as poking holes in the space science of Star Wars. Still, it’s kind of fun, so why not, provided we remember that stressing fiction over science never kills a movie for me. Heck, one of my favorite science fiction films is Adieu, Galaxy Express 999, and that’s about a steam locomotive traveling through the galaxy while a little kid hangs his head out the window. The science of Event Horizon plays out as if it was conceived by someone who was told about Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time by someone else who hadn’t actually read the book, but had been around other people discussing it. A Brief History of Time was, of course, one of those great books that everyone bought and no one read, putting it in the rarefied air occupied by other such books: that gigantic Bill Clinton memoir, the 9/11 Commission Report, Ulysses by James Joyce, and The Bible.

Part of what Hawking’s book dealt with in its attempt to bring high physics down to a populist level was the topic of black holes. Now I actually read the book, because I’m a nerd like that, and because I had to as part of one of the classes I was taking. It was one of those science classes set up specifically for people who aren’t very good with equations, which meant it was mostly full of journalism students and members of the University of Florida football team who would groan anytime the professor tried to relate a fundamental understanding of physics to the act of making a solid pass. Yeah, sure, physics is involved, but it was highly suspect to suggest that Danny Wuerffel spent his time in the huddle scrawling geometry and physics equations into the dirt to figure out how best to get the ball into the hands of wide receiver Reidel Anthony.


Anyway, I think that class gave me about as sound an understanding as would be needed to be the guy that Eisner’s friend talked to about black holes. Meaning that I could remember that Hawking made allusions to Dante’s Inferno when speaking of the event horizon of a black hole — that gravitational point of no return from which light itself cannot escape. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” Hawking said, paraphrasing Dante and the sign that hung outside the gates of Hell. He meant, of course, that the pull of a black hole is so great, that if you cross the event horizon, you’re not coming back, so you best make peace with the fact that you’re dead meat. Now pass that sentiment through me passing it on to someone else, who then tells Phil Eisner that he was drunk at a party the other night, talking about some deep shit like black holes. All of a sudden, that simple quote applied to explain how hopeless it is to escape the pull of a black hole is twisted to mean that a black hole actually could be the gateway to Hell. And poof! Event Horizon‘s concept is born. It’s really not a bad concept, regardless of how misconstrued it may be. Black holes are weird, after all, and the idea that they lead somewhere other than to a horrible death in which you are crushed down to microscopic size by the unbelievable gravitational pressure is hardly new to Event Horizon. And even the best minds are still feeble when up against cosmic phenomena of this scale. So why not? And anyway, the use of the term “event horizon” works in a couple different ways, and it refers as much to a black hole as it does to the Event Horizon itself, which proves to be a flashpoint which, once entered, will not allow the humans to escape.

What’s more important to the quality of the screenplay is what Eisner does with the concept, and while he starts off strong, he seems to get lost, allowing the movie at times to devolve into a blood and guts horror film (not bad) and a pastiche of other other movies (slightly less forgivable). I’ve already mentioned some of the films from which Event Horizon draws, but there are plenty of others. In fact, it lifts wholesale the scene of a river of blood gushing forth from an elevator from The Shining. In fact, you could really view this movie as little more than The Shining meets The Black Hole. Sam Neill’s character bears a close resemblance to Jack Nicholson’s character from The Shining, and the concept of a haunted house (or spaceship) that causes hallucinations and may itself be alive is an idea shared by both films. Many other elements are lifted from the Russian sci-fi film Solaris, yet another “man battles hallucinations” sci-fi tale.


One could also invoke the specter of the old Roger Corman Poe films, especially The Fall of the House of Usher, as it too is about a house infused with evil to the point of becoming a malignant being itself, ending in a fiery collapse much the same as we see at the end of Event Horizon. And the idea of the black hole as a portal to Hell was explored — with equal awkwardness — by The Black Hole, a film which sends one of its robotic villains through a black hole and lands him standing on a pillar surrounded by a lake of fire and the souls of the damned. n fact, Event Horizon reflects The Black Hole in many ways — an exploratory crew finds a long lost ship; that ship’ screw has vanished or mostly vanished; things are spooky; and then it all falls apart at the end when the movies both realize that they have ten minutes to explain things that the top scientific minds of the word have been grappling with for decades.

In the case of Event Horizon, all the talk of physics versus metaphysics, of a ship powered by pure evil, of a rip in the fabric of space that leads to a Hellraiser universe, lead to an anti-climatic and predictable fist fight between Miller and Weir. Though it is similar to The Fall of the House of Usher, and though it’s a suitably horrific and downbeat ending for the decent guy Miller, it seems ultimately to be a resolution that fails the film’s attempts at something more complex. I don’t need the questions to be answered. In fact, I prefer that they try and fail, discovering that comprehension of what awaits them is simply beyond the boundaries of the human brain. But a fist fight and an explosion seemed somehow to be less than what should have been delivered. It may not be entirely Eisner’s fault, though. Apparently some forty minutes was cut from the movie in order to achieve a manageable running time (1997 was a few years too early for genre films to run three hours or more and still get a wide release) and an R-rating (the 90s represented MPAA judges in a reactionary phase as an answer to the gore and nudity soaked anarchy of the 70s and 80s). Fans hoped that the footage would be restored at some point, and that such restoration would smooth out many of the wrinkles that prevent Event Horizon from achieving its ambitions, but so far such wishes have gone unsatisfied. Even when released to DVD, the film was still the theatrical cut. Whether or not it will ever be fully restored is up in the air, but given that we live in an era when almost everything, no matter how obscure or trashy, is getting lovingly reconstructed by some madman, there’s still the possibility that a more complete version will emerge and we can re-assess the film based on that.


Until then, though, we have to work with what we get to watch, and as presented, Event Horizon is an almost great movie that loses its way and relies on too many scenes from other movies and too many cheap jolts. I do wish horror films would retire that bit where someone is scared, and then someone comes up behind them and grabs them on the shoulder, refusing to speak until the other person and the audience have gotten a cheap scare. Really — have you ever approached a person in complete silence, from behind, and grabbed them by the shoulder? Yes, you have, but that’s because you were intentionally trying to scare that person. In all other instances, no one does this, and yet horror films feature it like every other scene. What makes it frustrating here is that Event Horizon doesn’t need to rely on these weak scares. It has plenty of legitimate scares and an over-arching feeling of doom and eeriness. Falling back on juvenile tactics like the shoulder grab is just gratuitous and sloppy. At least they didn’t have a scene where a cat jumped out of a box or something.

And really, perhaps I am being like this movie: searching for something that isn’t attained, being more serious than I should. Taken as nothing more than a horror film with sci-fi dressing, I really think Event Horizon is a success. It definitely has the feel of an old pulp — right down to losing track of itself over the course of its running time. Director Paul W.S. Anderson is no stranger to fans of pulpy movies, having directed Mortal Kombat before this (but not Mortal Kombat II), and Resident Evil after, among other things. I have a curious love-hate relationship with Anderson’s films in that I love some, hate others, but rarely find myself somewhere in between. Flaws aside, I love Event Horizon. And even more flaws aside, I love the Resident Evil movies, and Mortal Kombat, even (though not Mortal Kombat II). I guess I’m lukewarm on Soldier, so there’s one middle ground movie.


But I hate with a passion the Alien vs. Predator films, even more than I hate Mortal Kombat II. Still that’s a lot of hits any only one real miss for me (granted, I’m not a discriminating viewer), so I guess I like Anderson as a director, and I think Event Horizon is probably the best film he’s made and will likely make. At its worst, it is grade-A horror hokum, full of mumbo jumbo and ideas that don’t really pan out. And I can deal with that just fine. Heck, like I said, I probably would have preferred if the film was that way from beginning to end instead of flirting with brilliance in spots, only to fold at the last second. But regardless, this is good, gruesome pulp fiction, full of the creeping unknown and vague talk about dimensions of madness and torture that only Cthulhu, Pinhead, and the makers of the Ilsa films can imagine. Anderson’s direction is sure-handed, and he and cinematographer Adrian Biddle make wonderful use of the warped madhouse the production team has created for them.

So, huh. I guess I did have a lot to say about Event Horizon. Funny the things you learn about yourself when faced with writing about a movie where Sam Neill digs out his own eyeballs. I was pleasantly surprised by it. I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was, and even though it’s a shame it wasn’t as good as it could have been, at the end of the day, I’m happy enough. I’m also happy I didn’t see it in 1997, because even though I would have liked it then, perhaps even more than I do now, the fact of the matter is that Southern belle was actually willing to still enter into a relationship with me even after I made her see things like Mortal Kombat II: Annihilation, City of Darkness, and Alien 4. I don’t know if that tenuous, early romance could have survived Event Horizon as well, especially considering the fact that she never made me go see Titanic, like every other girlfriend did in 1997. I guess I could have sold Event Horizon with no more or less deception than the original marketing team if I positioned it as “kind of like Titanic, in that it is about people on a doomed ship.”

Release Year: 1997 | Country: United States | Starring: Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Kathleen Quinlan, Joely Richardson, Richard T. Jones, Jack Noseworthy, Jason Isaacs, Sean Pertwee | Writer: Phil Eisner | Director: Paul W.S. Anderson | Cinematographer: Adrian Biddle | Music: Michael Kamen | Producer: Jeremy Bolt, Lawrence Gordon, Lloyd Levin

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Devils of Darkness

So let’s say, just for the sake of argument, you’re a vampire. Not one of those post-Anne Rice vampires with the leather trenchcoat and the bad poetry and the ill-advised appreciation of Pigface. No, I’m talking about one of those older, more distinguished vampires. Not too bad, huh? I mean, yeah, there are drawbacks. I, for one, would miss the sun and a good day’s surfing. On the other hand, if you were to become any monster, a vampire would be pretty sweet. A mummy or Frankenstein monster would be the worst, of course. Mummies only have one outfit, and they have to spend the entire afterlife shambling around in pursuit of some dame who looks like some other dame the mummy loved back in ancient Egypt, and then a dude in a tweed jacket sets you on fire. And Frankenstein monsters have to do pretty much the same thing in terms of shambling, though at the very least they get to smoke cigars and drink wine. As for werewolves — sure, cool power, but you have no control over it, it only happens once a month, you can’t remember anything afterward, and your clothes are constantly getting ruined by your transformations.

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Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend

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I was having a hard time starting this review, and I’m not sure why. I don’t mean that I was caught in some moral dilemma, wondering if I should dare discuss such a filthy, irredeemable piece of trash — I think we all know how such a moral dilemma would hash out if I’m involved. I guess it was just a case of writer’s block, or exhaustion. Or maybe it was the fact that there were just so many things to say, so many approaches that could be taken in discussing the source material, that I was overwhelmed. Perhaps even spoiled for choice. And under a bit of pressure. An epic as vast and sprawling and serious as this demands an appropriately grave and serious demeanor. Would I do the subject justice? Would my review be deserving of such a monumental work of art? In the end, I simply had to accept that sometimes words don’t come easy, even to a rambling windbag like me, but like the titular character of the Overfiend, while words may not come easily, they must come never the less.

Which brings me to the disagreeable preface that must be applied to a review of a film of this nature. As regular readers know, I pride myself in ardently defending the standards and decency of the community. Luckily, since the community to which I refer is the Internet, which means pretty much anything short of Hitler jerking off on Jesus while the Savior makes sweet love to a little boy can be considered decent and acceptable. Still, even with the community standards of the Internet thus established, I feel like I should warn some of our less seasoned and no doubt happier readers that the movie about which we’re going to talk today is a work of questionable morality and ill repute.


At this point in my career, I don’t think any recreated act on film or video could manage to shock or offend me. Amuse, perhaps. Disappoint, sure. But when you’ve been at this for as long as I have, the disconnect between make-believe and reality becomes crystal clear, and once you’ve managed that, there’s not much point in getting offended by goofy make-believe sleaze. But I understand that not all of you share this particular immunity toward offense, for a variety of valid personal reasons, so allow me to warn you now: Legend of the Overfiend is utter and absolute filth. Unless, like me, what was human in you died a long time ago, you will find this series inexcusably tasteless, offensive, and perhaps even upsetting. In a couple weeks, I’ll be reviewing the ridiculously fun and enjoyable Bollywood caper Shaan, and I suggest that if you have heart or soul left in your being, you simply rejoin us then and give this whole horrible Legend of the Overfiend thing a miss.

On the other hand, if you find cartoon tentacle porn more absurd than upsetting, and if you want to slog through a film that is indeed filthy and wretched, but also one of the single most important titles in the history of anime in the United States, then steel yourself, make sure your boss isn’t working (I’m writing this at work — I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t be reading it there), and prepare to submerge yourself in a series that is impressive both for how callously offensive and perverse it strives to be while also striving to be colossally epic and vast in scale — sort of like the Old Testament.


When, during the summer of 2006, Teleport City decided to dig about in the waters of anime from the 1980s, we mentioned on more than one occasion that the eighties were probably the most glorious decade of unfettered excess and decadence in the anime world. The giant robots and melancholy space pirates of the 1970s gave way to hot chicks in battle armor, exploding heads, and the now infamous birth of tentacle porn, among other things. While today’s anime market may be choked with cheap hentai titles full of tentacle rape and nurses pooping on each other, it’s neither as shocking nor as notable today as it was in the eighties, for two main reasons. First, the eighties did it first, and just about everything that happens today is derivative of the sleazy pioneers of the 1980s. Modern sleazeball anime may have plumbed further into the depths of human perversions and replaced magical demon bodily fluids with actual human bodily fluids, but given how mainstreamed porn and sexual deviance has become (and God bless it!), even the most shockingly sick and twisted modern hentai lacks the punch of its forefathers, if for no other reason than we’ve seen it all before. I don’t know what it says about me or society that a title like Cool Devices can come out, and my reaction is a decadent sigh of boredom and, “Oh, ho hum. He’s peeing on his sister.”

Second, modern hentai (for you people who don’t take time to acquaint yourself with esoteric terms, “hentai” is what people call porn anime so they don’t have to call it porn anime) exists largely and almost exclusively within the confines of the porn ghetto. There is very little, if any, cross-over between hentai and the more mainstream world of shrieking blonde ninjas in orange jumpsuits telling me to “believe it!” Of course, I speak only of official production anime; if one needs to find the crossover between porn and mainstream anime, one need only turn to our dear old friend, the Internet, which will allow you to access a whole world of fanfic in which the characters of Naruto lick each others buttholes while fending off an endless attack of bad grammar and spelling mistakes. But that’s fanfic, and it’s a ghetto all its own. Only Dragonball filk is lower.


There was plenty of underground hentai in the 80s, of course, but there were also several titles which crossed the line (in more ways than one) and either flirted with or achieved legitimate mainstream crossover success. Here in the United States, when anime broke in the latter half of the Reagan era, it was defined primarily by three titles, though only two are ever really acknowledged as having reigned supreme, while the third is filed away as sort of this guilty curiosity that no one really saw, but don’t let that sort of anime history revisionism fool you. There were three king hell titles: Akira was the obvious top of the heap, followed by the OVA Bubblegum Crisis, which dominated the home video market for reasons I still cannot fathom to this day. I guess it was all we had at the time, and it was better than watching MD Geist.

The third title comes to us courtesy of one of the creators of the classic anime series Yamato, aka Starblazers in the United States, and even though Akira is named time and again as the defining moment in 80s anime and one of the landmark accomplishments in the history of anime as a whole, it was the bastard son of a writer-director-producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki — The Nish, as he has become known lately — that really defined anime in the mainstream press. In between creating Starblazers, delighting generations with Odin: Photon Space Sailer Starlight, and shooting cannons off on his private yacht, Nishizaki found time to serve as producer for a new series which, unlike all his previous ideas, wasn’t just a rehash of Yamato. Following the lead of Lovecraft-inspired horror that flirted with graphic sex presented to us in Wicked City, Nishizaki decided that the one thing wrong with that movie was that it only featured some sex thrown in with its violence, and never had the guts to show full-on penetration of a woman by a gigantic demon penis.


And so, as the 90s came to a close and the window for getting a high-profile work of such decadence and depravity was closing, Nishizaki collected together a crew that included director Hideki Takayama (still brand new to the game in 1989, but he’s since gone on to direct all sorts of screwed-up demon rape porn, and for some reason, Sakura Wars) and writer Sho Aikawa (who was fresh off the popular title Vampire Princess Miyu and would go on to write for Fullmetal Alchemist), and together, they made a little OVA series called Urotsukidoji, more popularly known as Legend of the Overfiend.

This is a pretty dubious assembly of talent, and one sort of has to stretch the meaning of the word talent to really fit them all in. After all, Nishizaki hadn’t really come up with anything memorable since Starblazers, and he seemed to be batshit insane in addition. Sho Aikawa — who I’d like to think is the same Sho Aikawa who would go on to acting fame in Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive trilogy, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t — may have achieved some degree of respectability with Vampire Princess Miyu, but that was flirtation with respectability, at best, and you have to do much better work if you want to make people forget about you also having written Dog Soldier and Angel Cop. And director Hideki Takayama? Other than becoming the go-to guy for Overfiend sequels and rip-offs, he doesn’t have much to offer. But the fact remains that while they may not have been impressive names, they were still names, and they had some legitimate work under the belt. And The Nish, crazy or not, still had Yamato era clout that helped make his own private exploration of ridiculously grotesque and pornographic extremes more of a high profile release than the average piece of hentai naughtiness.


But whatever respectability the Overfiend saga — and porn aside, it is a saga, complete with a vast and ambitious personal mythology and epic scope — may have squeezed out in Japan is nothing compared to what happened to the thing when it hit the United States. It became a cult phenom that, for a brief time, very nearly rivaled the status of Akira, albeit with a decidedly different tone in those who talked about it. I remember seeing it for the first time in 1990, when a friend who was heavy into trading VHS tapes to get obscure horror films, ended up with a copy on a tape where it shared space with some Japanese porn movie about a woman pursued by a garbage bag containing her murdered husband, and an underground video of some chick performing “hanadensha,” or “pussy arts,” such as blowing up balloons, shooting a dart gun, smoking a cigarette, and, umm, filling herself up with squirming, live eels. Yeah, I really don’t have any excuse whatsoever, other than it was pretty late, and we sure did laugh a lot.

It was just the first episode of Overfiend, fuzzy and with no translation, so all we really knew was that there was a spectacle on the screen the likes of which we’d never really seen, not even in Wicked City. And we weren’t the only ones. Bootleg copies of this “ridiculously screwed up thing from Japan” were circulating like wild fire throughout the cult film underworld, and while many looked on with awe-inspired disgust, that doesn’t change the fact that many looked on, always corrupted by a friend waving a VHS tape and saying, “Dude, you have got to see this!” So many saw it, in fact, that the Overfiend eventually crept into mainstream consciousness and became the poster boy for how hideous and corrupt anime was. Not just porn anime, but all anime. It didn’t matter if it was the gender bending shenanigans of Ranma 1/2, the turgid teen romance of Kigamure Orange Road, or the epic science fiction of Akira. Overfiend, as far as the local newscaster was concerned, embodied them all, and all anime looked like and was as perverse as Urotsukidoji. If only. I might have finished Kigamure Orange Road if that had been the case.


Of course, it’s not like anime was totally innocent of the charges. The 80s were, as we’ve said, pretty packed to the gills with messed up stuff. If anything, The Overfiend was simply the trends of the 1980s taken to their most logical extreme, or as logical as Nishizaki was ever capable of being, and exploding in the final year of that decade with all the gruesome force of the Overfiend’s orgasm blowing some chick’s head off in a messy splash of blood, brains, and semen. It was the last gasp of the twisted, free-for-all of the 1980s. After that, anime settled down, and the porn settled to the bottom of the barrel. In time, when old timers would go back and talk about the seminal movies of the 1980s, they would neglect to mention the most “seminal” of them all. If Urotuskidoji was mentioned, it was usually as an offhanded aside, or a sneering condemnation of how this tasteless abomination ruined anime and made everyone thing anime fans were all a bunch of murderous pervs. Rarely will they mention that, for better or for worse, damn near everyone who watched anime in those days saw it. Rarely will they mention that it was, again for better or for worse, a defining title of the era, and that among other dubious claims to fame, it was the first anime feature (when the OVA episodes were edited together to create a feature film) to be released in both dubbed and subtitled format not just to U.S. home video — but to U.S. movie theaters as well.


The Overfiend gets no respect, and frankly, it doesn’t deserve much. The animation is sometimes hit or miss, occasionally nicely realized, and in some cases bordering on great; the story is scatter-brained; and yes, it’s packed full of misogynistic violence toward women, underaged sex (though the warning at the front of the film swears the high school characters are all over the age of nineteen), and rape that culminates in exploding heads. It’s just not very good. But it does have its moments, and good or not, it played a huge role in defining the formative years of anime, and deserves, if nothing else, to be recognized for its contributions (be there good or ill) and its rightful place in the history of anime. So it was that I decided that, while I wasn’t going to champion the series (I save my Nishizaki championing for Odin), I would at least try to put it in it’s proper context, and I would do so with the help, should they chose to offer it, of the great and mighty torchbearers of celebrating “old school” anime, the Anime World Order podcast. Of course, they’re a podcast, and I’m a written review website, so I don’t know exactly how this collaboration will work out, but that’s all part of the fun.


Of course, as soon as Gerald from the AWO took me up on the offer, I had to figure out exactly how I was going to deal with such a notorious and admittedly irredeemable piece of filth. The Overfiend, I mean, not Gerald. In my younger years, I would have simply indulged in it with reckless abandon, celebrating the filth and the fury with slimy screencaps and interminable gusto. I am older now, and not so prone to adolescent fits of petty offensiveness, but I’m also still not offended by things that are saucy or stupid, or in the case of Urotsukidoji, both saucy and stupid. And in the end, Urotsukidoji is definitely stupider than it is offensive. In fact, I find the whole thing so absurd, so totally ludicrous as to be inoffensive, because seriously, man, how can anyone take this crap seriously? There are much scarier things in the world and much scarier things in the world of anime, and they are called moe and harem shows, but we’ll come to those later.

So in deference to my more sensitive readers who do not share my callous disregard for what you humans call morality, I’ll do my best to exercise some degree of restraint, which may be an odd thing to do in the case of Urotsukidoji — but only just barely, because while I may claim that the purpose of this review is to put this much maligned piece of trash in its rightful place in the pantheon of anime, my real motivation is simply to have a good laugh, which ultimately, is about all you should get from something as completely goofy as the Overfiend.


Our story begins with narration courtesy of a guy who seems to be competing with Tomisaburo Wakiyama as Ogami Ito for the deepest voice in the world. He lays out the basics for us — demon world and human world, one intruding on the other — the usual. And there’s a chosen one who will rise up and cleanse the world and unite us all while demons with six breasts do it doggy style to clue parents in to the fact that they shouldn’t have rented this movie for their kids, even though the kids themselves are no doubt appreciative. Right away Nishizaki clues us in to the fact that there’s not going to be much in the way of originality on display in this story. We then meet the nominal hero of our story, a goofy peeping tom named Nagumo, who alternates his days between peeking in the girls’ locker room and being licked on the cheek by the number one ace hero of the basketball court during some weird Japanese high school sport in which basketball games are accompanied by a girls’ gymnastics routine. Watching everything from up in the rafters is Amano, the new kid at school who no one seems to notice has catlike whiskers. Amano is searching for the titular Overfiend, the super-being foretold by prophecy to be the savior of the world. Amano is pretty convinced that it’s that cheek-licking basketball guy, but Amano’s sexy sister Megumi is convinced that it’s someone else, possibly nerdy perv Nagumo. Either way, once again we see that ancient beings relying on a “chosen one” is always a stupid idea, because the chosen one is always some kind of a chump. Here we get a face-licking basketball star or a masturbating nerd. Nice going, prophecy of old.

When next we meet the brave and noble Nagumo, he is slinking into the school to peep on Ameki, the sweet girl next door on whom he has a crush, and one of the female teachers. When it turns out that the teacher intends to sex up the young student, Nagumo assumes his standard position of peeking in. But when it’s further revealed that the teacher is, in fact, a hideous demonic monster that is going to rape Akemi via a twitching tangle of giant tentacle penises that spurt glowing neon goo, well, Nagumo still just sort of squats there peeping through the crack in the doorway. It’s not until Amano shows up that the sexual assault is halted thanks to some good ol’ magical intervention that results in exploding heads.


The good thing about Legend of the Overfiend is that it doesn’t try to trick you into thinking it’s something it’s not. If you are going to be offended and disgusted by the movie, it makes sure you know that from the very first few minutes. That way, at least you haven’t wasted your time. Pretty much everything that will jam pack the rest of the series running time is put up front for your consideration in this opening scene, so you can’t say Nishizaki didn’t warn you. Personally, as I said before, the whole scenario is so utterly silly and juvenile and presented in such an over-the-top manner that it’s really hard for me to feel offended in any way. I would have loved to have been sitting in on The Nish and his crew when they were writing the story for this absurd exercise in the extreme. Although the story itself is presented in a serious fashion, I can’t imagine anyone taking it the least bit seriously when they were writing it.

But then again, Nishizaki is batshit insane, so who knows? Whatever sexual and psychological hang-ups he and the society in which he lived might have had are certainly laid bare in The Overfiend. There is an obvious fear and lack of understanding in regards to women. Lesbians are all secretly drooling demons who have hidden their giant penises behind a veneer of femininity. And even as they paint a terrified phobia of homosexuality, they fetishize the penis to a degree that would even make Tom of Finland blush. If you are the type to analyze such things, it’s worth noting that The Nish made his millions working on the Yamato series. The original battleship Yamato was a massive World War II ship that was supposed to be the pride and joy of the Japanese people and a symbol of their might. Its construction bankrupted the Japanese military, and during it’s first major combat operation, it was sunk by American airplanes. Still, however, the Yamato is held up by many — mostly men — as a great symbol of pride despite it being a catastrophic failure. More than a few people have said that the Yamato was nothing more than the “big dick” syndrome. Theirs was the biggest and that made them the baddest. Never mind that the thing turned out to be impotent.


So decades later, Nishizaki resurrects the myth of Yamato’s grandeur by creating a cartoon series in which the original ship is recovered from its watery grave and turned into a spaceship that will save humanity. If The Nish had his history straight, then there would have been tremendous fanfare and pomp as the space battle cruiser Yamato was launched. Then it would have been shot down by aliens a few minutes later. But that would have been a pretty lame television series, and since Yamato is one of my favorites, I’m glad Nishizaki didn’t go that route. And ultimately, I reckon championing the old Yamato battleship is no different than any other country championing their lost causes.

Anyway, after Yamato, Nishizaki made a show about a submarine that’s turned into a spaceship — completely different from the Yamato series, right? Anyway, you may notice that Nishizaki — who also happens to be a gun and cannon nut, as well as sporting a fondness for speed boats and big yachts — seems to have a preoccupation with things that are long and cylindrical in shape. And then comes The Overfiend…I’ve never seen Nishizaki naked, and likely never will, so I can’t say what he’s compensating for. However, it’s pretty obvious that the man has built an entire career around his obsession with his own penis. Overfiend is just the most overt example.


Anyway, having established that this movie is going to be an affront to all that is decent and tasteful in the world, Overfiend then goes on to lay out the rest of its plot, which has got to be one of the most complex and sprawling mythologies ever grafted on to cheap animation and porn. Nishizaki may be obsessed with dicks, he may fear and/or hate women, he may be ripping off Wicked City, but no one can say that the man didn’t have vision or put work into the back story of his infamous masterpiece of the grotesque. Spread over the first few episodes of Legend of the Overfiend, we get a story that spans thousands of years and involves everything from depraved captains of industry to Nazi madmen, to peeping tom high school students. As Amano and Megumi continue to try and ferret out the Overfiend — or Chojin — other forces from the demon realm seek to do the same. This includes such demon assassin hits as messing with that basketball guy during his orgy, offering up a giant possessed demon penis that will make the school’s resident nerd ultra-potent and powerful if he chops off his own useless little member and replaces it, and finally sending a wizardy uber-being out to kill Amano. Just when you think Overfiend can’t possibly get any sillier, it finds a way.


Eventually, Nagumo realizes his destiny, but to the horror of Megumi and Amano, it’s not the destiny they expected — and for all that is ridiculous about Overfiend, the final revelation that basically, the people who believed in the prophecy just got it all wrong, is a pretty nice writing touch. The series ends on a cliffhanger of sorts — with Amano shedding his human disguise and attempting to take on the Overfiend himself while vowing to survive the carnage that comes from the inevitable destruction of the world. Unfortunately, the series is never fully resolved. The final two episodes of the OVA end up being post-apocalyptic side stories that don’t really go anywhere, and subsequent sequel series’ were equally pointless. Eventually, the final Urotsukidoji series was just a remake of the first series. If you’ve seen Odin and suffered through its non-ending, then you might pick up that this is sort of a thing for Nishizaki. Unfortunately, Overfiend does not end by randomly cutting to a Loudness music video.


Not all the blame (or credit — whatever) for Urotsukidoji can be laid at the feet of Nishizaki. Urotsukidoji was actually created by manga artist Toshio Maeda in 1986. Maeda was working as a porn manga artist and had gotten bored, he says, with drawing the same mundane crap over and over. He decided that what erotic manga needed was a dash of grotesque fantasy. Blending his erotic manga with a Lovecraft-esque sense of the horrific, Maeda more or less invented the tentacle porn genre — yes, it’s a genre now — with tentacles and nightmarish abstractions of the penis standing in for actual sexual organs as a way to skirt Japanese censorship laws. When Nishizaki seized upon Urotsukidoji as the source for his next masterpiece of anime, Maeda’s position as the father of sick and twisted cartoon porn was cemented. Maeda went on to create several more of the more infamous high-profile hentai titles of the early 1990s, including the terrible Adventure Kid, Demon Beast Invasion, and La Blue Girl. Maeda is infinitely proud of his legacy and has reportedly even said that he wants “Tentacle Master” inscribed on his tombstone. Urotsukidoji remain his defining “masterpiece.”


You know, Urotsukidoji is an absolute mess. Although the high concept is interesting and intricate, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. And it’s still largely just a pornographic rip-off of Wicked City with a bit of Akira thrown in (the scene in which the Overfiend comes full into power and decides to destroy the world is very reminiscent of the finale of Akira). It draws from the same Lovecraftian/H.R. Giger vision of horror as Wicked City. The characters are ridiculous — after being raped in every orifice by a teacher who turns into a slobbering monster, Akemi shows up for school the next day and is basically no more freaked out than, “Boy, that sure was weird.” Nagumo is completely impossible to like as a character. I guess the story is ultimately about Amano and, to a lesser degree, Megumi, which is OK since Amano is the only halfways decently developed character in the whole thing. The animation is often incredibly cheap, with limited motion in most scenes. Effort seems to have been put into the big battles and the demon rape, but that’s about it.

But for someone as awful as me, there’s a perverse enjoyment to be extracted from the nonsense. For one, I admire the ambition of the story. Most of the tentacle porn that would follow in the footsteps of Urotsukidoji was incredibly weak — basically, they would say, “There’s a demon world, and they rape humans and some people fight them,” and leave it at that, knowing that the ultimate goal of their little film is to get some lonely perv off, and he’s probably not even going to listen to the plot. That wasn’t good enough for Nishizaki. The man had created an expansive universe for Yamato, and even for Odin, and he saw no reason that Urotsukidoji shouldn’t enjoy the same epic mythology. Never mind that it was an endless parade of filthy porn and callous rape; he was still going to weave a monstrously complex tapestry to serve as the backdrop Also, as cheap as the animation is in most scenes, one does have to admire the imagination that went into the monster design. There are, after all, a lot of monsters in Urotsukidoji, and no two of them look alike. From hulking wolfman-like monsters to grotesque toadmen that dress like Humphrey Bogart, the sheer number of drooling ghouls the art team dreamed up is fascinating. Of course, at the end of the day, it’s all about the giant screaming (sometimes literally) cock, but still, points for wickedly sick imagination.


Finally, there’s the finale. Although it leaves almost all of the plot threads dangling and is a weak resolution to the story as a whole, the scenes of mass destruction and carnage as the fury of the Chojin and the whole demon world is unleashed on earth are pretty impressive. They obviously cut costs on the rest of the series so they could deliver on the finale, and at least in that respect, Urotsukidoji doesn’t disappoint.

But it’s still pretty foul. I wouldn’t really recommend it, although I was just as enthusiastic in the old days about convincing unsuspecting friends that they should watch it. But there is something grotesquely fascinating about the whole artistic abomination. The incredible insanity and over-the-top spectacle of it all trumps the nasty misogynistic edge and juvenile penis-obsession and really transforms Urotsukidoji into a sleazy carnival sideshow. You hate yourself for looking, but you can’t turn away. It’s that car wreck everyone slows down to gawk at. As wretched as it may be, it has a strangely hypnotic power that can draw even decent people into its world of laughing demons and spurting bodily fluids.


It might be worth watching just so you can see the cast list for the English dub. Apparently, whoever worked on it was a little embarrassed, so the English cast list includes names like Chris Courage, Rebel Joy, Rosie Palmer, and my two personal favorites, Lucy Morales and Jurgen Offen. I would assume that the use of such names is perfectly in tune with Nishizaki’s high school locker room level of discourse. The dubbing was done primarily for the theatrical cut of the film, which combined the first few OVA episodes into one film and cut out all the scenes of actual penetration. The Japanese cast (most of whom elected to have their names left out of the credits) actually includes a lot of experienced actors, including a lot of people The Nish roped in off the Yamato series and other Leiji Masumoto works. Tomohiro Nishimura, who voices Amano, even worked on My Neighbor Totoro! It’s sort of reminds me of all the respectable actors who showed up in Caligula.


If you are interested in the history and evolution of anime, you can’t help but pay attention to it. The dang thing played in American movie theaters, for criminey’s sake! Newspaper and TV reporters held it up as the sole defining example of “anime,” resulting in crusades to have anime banned and all anime fans branded as slobbering perverts, while at the same time, apologists tied themselves in knots trying to write pieces that deconstructed and analyzed the film and trumpeted its artistic merits (it’s a cautionary tale about teenage pregnancy or a cautionary tale against blind faith, depending on who’s writing the analysis). It was an absolute fiasco, and if nothing else, I always enjoy a good fiasco. As alarmist and shocked as the reaction in the U.S. was, it was even more sensational in England. In the U.K., things were a little more serious. Urotsukidoji practically destroyed the anime market in England, which was only just coming off the high of its infamous Video Nasties years. It took a long time before anime fandom in the U.K. could rebuild itself. Like its titular character, Urotsukidoji destroyed the world so it could rebuild a new and better one in its place. But the fact that it gutted the industry and made anime so incredibly difficult to obtain for many people might be the main reason, far more so than the actual pervy content of the series, so many people harbor a lingering distaste for this anime atrocity.


For me, personally, it didn’t make much of a difference. I didn’t suffer any of the “anime is all porn and anime fans are all perverts” stigma because, frankly, no one at my high school even know what anime was or was in any position to even hear about Overfiend or anime. everyone in Buckner, Kentucky, was too committed to the new Bocephus album at the time. So I have a much better sense of humor about this series than many other people who did get branded as freaks on account of it may have — even if they were Miyazaki fans and had never seen Overfiend. I mean, hell, as far as anyone I knew was concerned, if you were watching cartoons, period, you were just a nerd.

At the end of the day, Urotsukidoji is all those things and more — and less. It is filth. It is irredeemable. It does have artistic merit. It lacks artistic merit. It is shameless and offensive. It is ridiculous and harmless. It was the logical illogical extreme and the culmination of the increasingly outrageous nature of anime in the 1980s. You should avoid it like the plague. You should absolutely see it.


There’s really no way to make sense of the controversy and jungle of opinions surrounding the series. At the end of the day, you really just have to see for yourself. Me, I think it’s mildly entertaining in spots and ultimately harmless. In fact, as outrageous as the porn aspects of Urotsukidoji may be, when held up against certain aspects of the modern anime landscape, it seems to be little more than goofy doodling — quaint, almost, perhaps even innocent. And that’s because everything is presents is so preposterous that it can’t be taken seriously or really looked at as a corrupting agent. No one is going to go out and mimic the Chojin, after all. Compare that to something like the modern moe or harem show — things that may not feature a giant demon raping a woman and making her body explode with his semen, but instead paint a world where an unlikable loser with no redeeming qualities never the less finds himself in control of a group of slavishly devoted women who worship him like a god. Or moe, in which female characters are so overly precious and innocent and doe-eyed and pre-pubescent that the whole thing reeks of child pornography. These types of shows are far more insidious and perverse than the flashy, over-the-top idiocy of Urotsukidoji. They often appeal to a segment of the population that really does relate in some way to the lead male character and really does let the portrayal of women and little girls affect their opinions of the real world. I don’t see Urotsukidoji operating in quite the same fashion.


So yeah. Whatever man. Urotsukidoji is the tawdry piece of pornographic trash you’ve heard it is; it’s also not all that fiendish or corrupting. It’s just silly. But it is a major milestone in the history of anime, so if you are the type who needs or wants to understand the evolution of anime, then you pretty much have to deal with Urotsukidoji. It’s really not as painful as you think it might be. I mean, I wouldn’t watch it with my parents or invite a date over to watch it, but come on: it’s so loopy, so genuinely cracked in the head, and so unabashedly over-the-top, and so epic and ambitious that it really stops being offensive porn and starts being nothing more than a laughable freak show. And it does try to be something more than cheap porn. It tries to be really lavish, complex porn. Earlier, I made a passing reference to Caligula. Overfiend is definitely the Caligula of anime — fitting, even, since both films were funded with Penthouse money. They both contain about the same degree of perversion an twisted grotesquery (I’m pretty sure that’s not a word — but it is now!).

Release Year: 1989 | Country: Japan | Starring: Yasunori Matsumoto, Koichi Yamadera, Yoko Asagami, Daisuke Gori, Tomohiro Nishimura, Maya Okamoto, Hirotaka Suzuoki, Yumi Takada, Norio Wakamoto | Writer: Sho Aikawa | Director: Hideki Takayama | Music: Masamichi Amano | Producer: Yoshinobu Nishizaki, Yasuhito Yamaki | Original Title: Chojin densetsu Urotsukidoji

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Jigoku

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Our rock and roll albums teach us that Hell is one big party town, but Jack Chick comic tracts would have us believe otherwise. Hell can take the shape of many different places. In one movie, it is an oppressively hot tropical village where b-grade made-for-television movie actors sweat profusely. In other movies, legions of the damned march pointlessly to and fro while a killer red robot stands on a mountain. My personal hell, of course, involves frequent broadcasts of Brat Pack movies and a stereo that only plays adult contemporary hits and that “Our God is an Awesome God” song.

Some people don’t even believe in Hell, and I guess I’d have to be among them since I’m not a religious fellow. But still, Hell is fun to talk about. It’s a lot more interesting than Heaven, even to Christians. Fire and brimstone sermons are a dime a dozen, and each one goes into graphic detail regarding the eternal sufferings one endures in Hell. When Dante wrote his epic Divine Comedy, he spent about five pages on Purgatory, a couple of pages on Heaven, and about a million pages on Hell. Everyone wants to describe Hell, but no one seems all that into Heaven. About the best we get is people wear a lot of robes, and maybe it’s foggy. Other than that, who knows? The problem with Heaven is that it’s a place where everything is basically going all right. While that may not be a bad way to live, it doesn’t make for very dramatic literature.

This is why filmmakers, much like Renaissance poets, tend to dwell on Hell while dashing off Heaven scenes with little imagination or consideration. But Hell — now there’s a place worth writing about. It’s miserable, fiery, evil, and full of sin. Actually, I don’t know if it’s full of sin or just full of sinners. Seems like if you were a big time sinner in life, then Hell would be a place where you don’t get to do any more sinnin’. I know I like me a good sin every now and then, and I’d be pretty annoyed if every time I tried to commit a sin, the Devil popped up to make me stop. Likewise, Heaven is a place where, if you didn’t sin in your life, you get to sin like mad for all eternity. I don’t know. This theory is probably why I’m not a preacherman.


Christians don’t have a monopoly on Hell, of course, and lots of other religions serve up their own particular brand of post-mortem eternal suffering. One of the most wild and creative visions of Hell comes from Japan, and more specifically from the gloriously twisted imagination of famed horror director Nobuo Nakagawa. Nakagawa, one of the most respected names in the history of classic Japanese horror cinema, became an instant favorite of mine after I saw his stunning samurai ghost film Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, a film that combined the more traditional slow build-up with some truly shocking gore scenes the likes of which were unheard of in 1959. A year later, he completely outdid himself with the film Jigoku, also known as Sinners of Hell.

People generally credit HG Lewis’ outrageous 1963 film Blood Feast as the first splatter or gore film, a claim that betrays a lack of knowledge regarding horror and shock cinema on a global scale. Nakagawa not only beat Lewis to the punch, but he did it with a movie that is both far bloodier and far better than Lewis’ ridiculously cheap but enjoyable romp. Jigoku is splatter that also manages to maintain a high production value, outrageous imagination, and a truly warped surrealism that sets it far apart from the legions of splatter films from all over the world that would follow in its wake. Part of the reason the film probably isn’t as widely known as Lewis’ film, apart from it being Japanese, is that while it delivers the grue, it’s all reserved until the final third of the film. Up until that point, the movie is fairly slow in its pace, allowing time for the development of characters, the explanation of situations, and other aspects of basic storytelling that the kids these days seem not to have the patience for.

We begin things with a credit sequence that is positively James Bond in nature, or at least Seijun Suzuki. Scantily clad, curvatious femmes in weird shadows and blue light populate the sequence, which then leads into a montage of hellish images that will be revisited during the film’s finale. Having thus shocked the viewer right out of the gate, Nakagawa continues with the story proper. A college professor is giving the typical movie professor lecture on concepts of hell, the kind of lecture that never actually takes place in real classrooms. One of the students, Shiro (Shigeru Amachi, who also played the wicked samurai lead in Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan), is especially interested for a couple different reasons. First, he’s about to marry the professor’s daughter, but more influentially, he and a shady acquaintance named Tamura were recently involved in a hit and run murder. As a result, damnation, sin, and guilt have been weighing pretty heavily on Shiro’s mind.


He and Tamura had been out for a drive that night when a drunken petty criminal stumbled out in front of their car. Though it was clearly not their fault and the police would probably write the matter off entirely as an accident, Tamura – who had been at the wheel – convinces Shiro not to report the incident since no one saw it. Though he is uncomfortable with such a course of action, Shiro is eventually persuaded by the darker, somewhat mysterious Tamura. Shiro begins to question why he even hangs out with this thoroughly creepy individual. “Who is this guy Tamura?” Shiro thinks to himself. “I know I don’t like him.” I guess everyone has one of those people in their lives who you really just absolutely do not like, and yet you always seem thrown together with them regardless of how much you strive to avoid them.

The big hole in Tamura’s plot is that the crime did not go unwitnessed. The gangster’s aging mother actually saw the whole thing, but rather than go to the police and settle for a court battle that will probably not end too horribly for Shiro and Tamura, she gives the license number to the recently widowed wife of the gangster, a fiery woman who immediately vows to hunt down the men who killed her man and extract horrible revenge on them. As if having the sexy but murderous widow of a gangster your creepy acquaintance killed after you isn’t enough of a hassle, Shiro is soon involved in another car accident, this one resulting in the death of his fiancee, the professor’s daughter.

Spurned by her relatives and obviously not getting a passing grade in the professor’s theology class, Shiro seeks solace in the embrace of a young hussy named Yoko, who we immediately recognized as the vengeful widow. Before she can stick an ice pick in the back of his skull, however, he gets word that his mother is dying and so decides to pack up and leave town, his destination being to visit his ailing mother out in the countryside.


Upon reaching the Tenjoen Senior Citizens Facility where his mother lies dying, things hardly improve for the troubled young man. His mom, of course, is at death’s door. His father is an unrepentant asshole who ignores his dying wife in the next room in favor of getting it on with a young harlot from the city. He also runs into the friendly and proper young Sachiko, who happens to look like his recently deceased fiancée. Oh, and there’s the insane artist who spends all day working on paintings of Hell, a corrupt cop, a criminally negligent doctor, a seedy reporter, and a couple other rakehells and ne’er-do-well. Put it all together and you have one hell of those “gathering of lost souls” type things. Suffice it to say that this motley gang of sweaty sinners is hardly the pick-me-up Shiro was needing.

Shiro is at least happy hanging out with his dead fiancee’s doppleganger, but the determined advances of his father’s mistress are unwelcome. Equally unwelcome is Tamura, who shows up to taunt everyone and expose their secret shameful pasts. Slightly more welcome is the old professor, who is ready to reconcile his differences with Shiro, at least until Tamura starts talking about how the old man was a jackass during World War II and stole his wounded buddy’s canteen, then left said buddy to die. It’s really one of those parties that involves too much alcohol and “truth or dare.”

Not one to have a moment of good luck, Shiro’s life is further complicated when both Yoko shows up. She reveals her background then attempts to shoot Shiro. A struggle on a bridge results in Yoko accidentally plunging to her death. Maybe Shiro should just stay home. When Tamura shows up to taunt Shiro and generally act like an asshole, the two get into a fight and Tamura falls off the bridge, too! All this is witnessed by Yoko’s crazy old mother-in-law, who also witnessed the hit and run and apparently spends entire weeks hiding in the bushes around various towns hoping to catch a glimpse of some knavery.

During a party to celebrate the center’s tenth anniversary, everyone gets drunk and belligerent and generally behaves like those old guys you see trying to punch each other out in Japanese parliamentary meetings. When the dad’s young harlot puts the moves on an exhausted Shiro, the father catches them and tries to kill her. The only reason she doesn’t succeed is because she falls down the stairs while running away and breaks her neck. Lesson learned: don’t be friends with Shiro. His dad immediately conspires to cover it up, and they both head back to the main hall where people are passed out, fooling around, or generally behaving like the scum of the earth. Not one to stay dead for long, a pale and deathly looking Tamura shows up to hurl barbs and taunts yet again, and as the clock strikes nine, Shiro finally loses it and tries to choke Tamura to death, his actions slightly hampered by the fact that while trying to choke Tamura to death, he himself is being choked to death by Yoko’s crazy mother-in-law. About that time, the clock freezes, and the fiery pits of hell open up to consume the various lost souls bickering with one another in the living room! That will kill a party even faster than breaking a lamp or getting caught staring at the hostess’ cleavage.


Shiro finds himself on the misty, barren banks of the river of death, and it is here that the movie kicks its eerie surrealism into high gear. I’d be slightly surprised if future surreal horror auteurs like Lucio Fulci didn’t see this movie. There are parts of the landscape of Hell that look very much like the hellish landscapes from The Beyond. The king of hell shows up to bellow about damnation. On the banks of the river, he is met by his inescapable load, Tamura, who tells him they are destined to burn in hell together. Not one to accept the word of a psychopath who recently returned from the dead only to quickly return back to being dead, Shiro wanders off through the various levels of hell just like the protagonist in Dante’s Inferno (as opposed to Dario’s Inferno).

He first encounters his recently departed fiancée, who is spending her time in hell stacking rocks along the riverbank. Her sin: dying before her parents, which seems like a pretty lame thing to get sent to hell for, though not as lame as being damned for driving a Volkswagen backwards into the bay, if you know what I mean (and I bet at least three of you do). She informs Shiro that she was seconds away from joyfully telling him she was pregnant, but got sidetracked by the whole being killed in a car wreck thing. As if Shiro didn’t have enough to deal with, he now understands that their baby, too, is condemned to Hell. This is pretty harsh, really.

Next thing you know, people are being dangled upside down with spikes jammed through their blood-gushing necks. They are being forced to drink from a river filled with pus and bile and other tasty treats (pus and bile custard is only slightly more disgusting than your average British fare, though). Others are forced to simply run around in a big confused circle forever, sort of like being stuck in a never-ending Limp Bizkit concert. One may provide the film’s most shocking and gruesome atrocity as his skin is ripped away, leaving a bloody skeleton covered with pulsating, dripping organs.

As Shiro searches desperately for his child, he is still tormented by Shiro, who is revealed to be a demon and eventually tortured just to shut him the hell up. Shiro finally finds his child on a giant flaming wheel of life and struggles in vain to rescue the child and possibly achieve some sort of salvation from the horrors of hell. Needless to say, he appears to fail miserably.

What Nakagawa accomplishes in the final thirty minutes of this film is truly mind-blowing. His sets are not lavish, but instead make ingenious use of smoke, multi-colored lighting, superimposition, fire, and animation to create an otherworldly and terrifying nightmare landscape. It’s the sort of thing Fulci spent his entire life trying to achieve (and did, to some degree, in The Beyond): an overwhelmingly eerie, alien world that feels like you’ve stepped right into a Salvador Dali painting. Cinematically, it seems to forecast the out-of-control artistic style of maverick film makers like Seijun Suzuki, who would apply similar color-saturated hallucinations to his yakuza films. As grisly as the effects to come are, they are overshadowed by the sheer wild imagination put into the set pieces they inhabit.


Simply put, the gore is good. The scene of the man being flayed alive, lying there screaming as his organs pulsate and spew blood, is really something else. I can only imagine how audiences must have reacted in 1960, because it’s still a very successful and bloody effect, far more shocking than anything HG Lewis would attempt a few years later with his better known but far worse Blood Feast. Part of what makes the splatter content of Jigoku so powerful is that the movie itself is a very well crafted work of art. While some of the editing during the final journey through Hell is confusing, the movie as a whole is technically sound, not to mention full of great writing, pacing, and acting. Lewis’ splatterfest is, of course, amazingly bad in all departments (though not at all unfun to watch).

Pioneering though it was, Jigoku was not necessarily alone in its move toward a more shocking, more surreal, or just plain bloodier presentation. While it was blowing the minds of unsuspecting patrons in Japan, the West was getting assaulted by Alfred Hitchcock’s ground-breaking Psycho, which while not sharing the same artistic style as Nakagawa’s film, certainly shares the same desire to shock, amuse, confuse, and break new ground in what was a very tired and overly safe genre. Though not nearly as well-known today, even in Japan, Jigoku is every bit as much responsible for throwing open the doors to a new type of horror as was Hitchcock’s film. From the seeds planted by these films came glorious monstrosities like Blood Feast and the various Hammer horror films that continued to push the envelope of gore and sexuality throughout the 1960s.

Jigoku snares and disarms you with its very slow-paced, conventional first hour, leaving you completely unprepared for the moment when the clock stops and everyone is plunged into the depths of the underworld. Nakagawa once again proves himself a master of the classic horror film while, at the same time, defiantly showing that he is not bound by the conventions and can move the genre into bold new territory. It is a cautionary tale about the wages of sin and indulgence, yet it communicates its message without seeming preachy and its gore without seeming exploitive. Jigoku is a classic of the horror genre, and self-respecting fan with interest in horror owes it to themselves to track this horrible beauty of a film down.