The Greatest Movie Ever! podcast invited me on to stammer and giggle and eventually be edited into some semblance of coherence — or at least as much coherence as can be wrung from the colossally oddball Howling 2: Your Sister is a Werewolf, movie as famous for it’s depiction of Christopher Lee in new wave sunglasses as it is for Sybil Danning’s werewolf orgy.
This movie was treading into precarious territory before I even saw it. Hidden Fortress is one of my favorite movies and not one I felt was in any need of being updated or remade. Still, I’m nothing if not fair-minded and bored late at night, so I decided to give this remake from 2008 a chance. While I told myself that I was going to judge it fairly, by the measure of it’s own merits rather than through the rosy lenses of my bias, I have to admit that i probably went in with a small chip on my shoulder regardless. Journalistic objectiveness is, after all, a myth. But I’m also not someone who is instantly offended by modern film makers remaking a classic, or what I consider to be a classic. To say The Last Princess is not as good as the original is, I think, fairly obvious. But the original notwithstanding, The Last Princess managed to be entertaining, if unspectacular. The very definition, I think, of adequate film making.
Some time back in the mid-1800s, I attended college. It was there that, while otherwise ensconced deep within the confines of the school of journalism (believe it or not) — where we all smelled of acrid ink, Dektol, stale coffee, and cigarettes — that I also began to refine my taste in the cinema. As part of that pursuit, on the rare days when we were allowed to leave the confines of Weimer Hall (which, if nothing else, had a lovely indoor courtyard and terrarium), I enrolled in a few film classes. Nothing too advanced that semester. An intro to film theories thing, and something about film noir with a professor who used to hop up onto his desk and do suggestive interpretive dances to the music of In a Lonely Place.
When the idea was pitched for a “counter culture” theme for a B-Masters Round Table, I was both excited and apprehensive. On the one hand, it was a subject with which I had acute first-hand experience, which meant I wouldn’t have to rely simply on theory and supposition to extract some sort of a review from the material. I could ramble on endlessly about some obscure thing that happened to me back when I was sixteen and the world was new. I was, however, also apprehensive, as I am sometimes loathe to throw myself into public discourse regarding the counter-cultures with which I have some connection. Not because I’m ashamed, mind you. Hell, I’m still associated in some way with pretty much every loony thing I ever believed in or adopted as an identity. But I’ve read a lot of the “studies” about these things.
While they were certainly responsible for their share of cinematic flotsam, American International Pictures can also be credited with creating a good few films that are today considered genre classics, as well as some films that are extraordinary solely for the fact that, given the circumstances of their production, they were even made at all. As far as AIP’s ventures into the Blaxploitation arena go, 1973’s Black Caesar definitely falls within the former category, while its sequel, that same year’s Hell Up In Harlem, serves as a perfect example of that last mentioned type of film.
Black Caesar was initially conceived by writer/director Larry Cohen as a vehicle for Sammy Davis, Jr. Instead, he ended up taking the project to AIP, where it became hitched to the star of former pro footballer and emerging blaxploitation leading man Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. While I think that this was probably the best outcome for all involved, I have to admit to growing a bit misty at the thought that, had things worked out differently, I might now be reviewing a film in which Sammy Davis Jr. beats a white man to death with a shoeshine box. In any case, AIP had already struck black gold with 1972’s Slaughter and Blacula, and saw Cohen’s reworking of the classic gangster film formula for a black milieu as a suitable next step in their venture into the black action genre. From this point, it was only a matter of second-time director Cohen hitting the streets of New York with his camera and delivering the goods.
Made in eighteen days for less than half a million dollars, Black Caesar went on to become a big hit, and AIP were quick to demand that Cohen provide a sequel as soon as possible. Adding to the time pressure on Cohen was the fact that his star, Williamson, would soon be leaving the country for some shooting overseas, which meant that production had to begin more or less immediately. Unfortunately, Williamson was at the time stuck in L.A. — far from Black Caesar‘s New York locations — filming That Man Bolt for Universal, while Cohen was working five days a week to complete It’s Alive, the first of his reputation-making creature features, for Warner Brothers. The solution that Cohen came up with to this problem was to shoot Hell Up In Harlem on the weekends using his It’s Alive crew and equipment, trying all the while to cope as best he could with the fact that he had neither his main actor or anything close to a completed script on hand.
Now, if you were a religious person, you might look at the obstacles that Cohen and his crew faced and conclude that Hell Up In Harlem was a film made in defiance of God’s will. And if you were a religious person and a fan of Black Caesar, you might look at the finished product and conclude that you were doubly justified in that opinion. Still, the lengths that were gone to complete it, combined with Cohen’s “shoot first, ask permission later” guerilla filmmaking style, make Hell Up In Harlem just about as good an example as you could find of classic B movie, seat-of-your-pants filmmaking, as well as a crystalline artifact of a long gone era in the American movie game.
While filming Hell Up In Harlem‘s many New York location scenes, Cohen employed a mixed bag of tricks in order to conceal Williamson’s absence, including frequently shooting from his character’s point-of-view. His primary ruse, however, involved the use of a double — always shown either from behind, at a distance, or with something obscuring his face — whose presence was later augmented by the insertion of close-ups of Williamson that were filmed in L.A., as well as a generous amount of post-dubbed Williamson dialogue. Cohen also managed to shoot quite a few of the film’s interior scenes in Los Angeles, relying a great deal on his Coldwater Canyon home as a location (Cohen’s wood paneled home office, in particular, shows up in a couple of different guises throughout), with the result that, once he was able to get Williamson to New York for some brief location shooting, those actors who had appeared in the Los Angeles scenes with Williamson, but could not make the trip back East, had to be doubled themselves. Given this patchwork approach, it’s a testament to Cohen’s ingenuity that the seams in the finished product are less obvious than they might have been. Nonetheless, it has to be said that, even when you don’t consciously notice them, they still contribute to the overall impression that there is something ineluctably “off” about Hell Up In Harlem –- and that’s without even considering those dialog scenes in which it’s all too clear that you’re watching actors performing monologues in completely different locations.
As far as the writing of the film went, Cohen basically decided to make up the considerable, unscripted portion of Hell Up In Harlem‘s story as he shot. In this case that meant that he not only structured the narrative to accommodate Williamson’s absence (of which the most absurd instance is the placing front-and-center of the character played by Julius Harris — the father of Williamson’s character, Tommy Gibbs, who was a comparatively minor presence in Black Caesar), but also around whatever locations became available at any given time, whichever of Cohen’s friends and acquaintances happened to decide they’d like to be in a scene, or just whatever off-the-cuff scenario struck the director’s fancy at the moment. Surprisingly, given Cohen’s background as a screenwriter, working outside the confines of a script proved to infect him with a serious case of directorial ADD, since much of Harlem‘s footage turned out to be of exactly the capricious nature described above, with the result that he essentially had to “write” the film in the editing room with the aid of lots of randomly inserted narrated exposition.
Given all of the above, it will probably come as no surprise to anyone that Hell Up In Harlem is a film that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Even I, a man who has managed to provide coherent synopsis of films watched on un-subtitled Hindi and Cantonese language DVDs, shudder at the thought of reigning its disparate narrative components into a recognizable structure. This is largely due to the fact that Cohen, whenever presented with an opportunity to shoot an improvised scene, seems to have invariably made that scene one involving Fred Williamson killing some anonymous actor or friend of the production who happened to be on the set that day. Such opportunities clearly arose quite often, with the result that Harlem consistently connects its plot points by way of countless scenes of our hero offing characters who we have not previously seen and will never hear mentioned again.
One of the casualties of this approach is the idea that Hell Up In Harlem is anything but a sequel to Black Caesar in name only. Black Caesar, after all, was a relatively sober effort — one that, with its grim story of an inner city gangster’s precipitous rise and calamitous fall, stood in contrast to most other films in the Blaxploitation genre, which had a tendency to present their heroes as invincible black supermen who always triumphed over adversity in the end. Hell Up In Harlem, on the other hand, by positioning Williamson’s character as simply the driving force behind a string of randomly connected, violent action set pieces, becomes exactly the type of film that Rudy Ray Moore and D’Urville Martin were parodying with Dolemite. Even Tommy Gibb’s trademark limp –- an injury sustained at the hands of the film’s villain at the beginning of Black Caesar, and a motivating force for Williamson’s character throughout –- is gone here, making it that much easier for Williamson to sprint back and forth from one nonsensical bit of mayhem to the next.
In this spirit, Hell Up In Harlem spends it’s opening act frantically undoing everything that Black Caesar established in its last scene. This is necessitated primarily by the fact that, in the overseas cut of Black Caesar, Williamson’s character ends up dying an ignominious death at the hands of a gang of vicious street urchins. Or, at least, so it would appear. Because, as we see at the beginning of Harlem, Tommy Gibbs has not, as we have been lead to believe, either alienated or caused to be killed every last one of his friends and associates, but instead still has a gang of loyal flunkies ready at the call to come to his rescue. Not only that, but Tommy’s formerly absentee father (the aforementioned Harris), whose sheepish overtures of conciliation were harshly rejected by Tommy in the first film, is also waiting anxiously by the phone and ready to pitch in. From here it’s just a matter of the gang getting Tommy patched-up, which turns out to be a simple matter of taking over Harlem Hospital at gunpoint — a scene that was essentially accomplished by Cohen and his crew, on very short notice and without shooting permits, taking over the real Harlem Hospital at camera-point.
It is exactly that practice of “stolen” location shooting, practiced by Cohen with neither a union crew or the benefit of permits, that, along with the improvised nature of the production as a whole, marks Hell Up In Harlem as an artifact of, not just a lost style of filmmaking, but also of an America that, in spirit, has long since ceased to exist. Often filming from a concealing distance and with one camera, Cohen and company here pull off things that, if attempted in a major city in today’s security-obsessed United States, would result in them being thrown in jail at best and taken down by a SWAT team at worst. These stunts range from having gun-waving actors run down the middle of crowded mid-town Manhattan streets to sending cars careening along city sidewalks — with, in that last instance, the only precaution being ropes hastily strung across doorways to prevent the innocent from straying into harm’s way. Of all of these, though, the one sequence that really seems to have originated from some strange yet familiar shadow Earth is one that was shot — if Cohen is to be believed, at least — without permission at LAX, in which Cohen stages a fight between Williamson and actor Tony King that takes place on a baggage carousel in front of a crowd of stunned and very real travelers. To top this off, the director then has his combatants run up the luggage shoot to continue the fight on the actual airfield, after which we’re treated to the sight of Williamson strutting around on the tarmac with an airliner taxiing just yards away. For those of us living in today’s locked-down society, scenes like that amount to a veritable pornography of unfettered access. And, whether you love or hate Hell Up In Harlem, you simply have to thrill to the spectacle of combined institutional innocence and individual chutzpa that they present.
Once Tommy Gibbs is again at large and in charge, Hell Up In Harlem introduces us to a new villain, corrupt District Attorney D’Angelo (Gerald Gordon), who, if I understood correctly, turns out to have been behind everything that happened in the first film. There is still a lot of talk about a pair of ledgers containing the names of on-the-take politicians that motivated a good deal of the first film’s action, but Tommy’s primary concern is with getting payback against those who brought about his downfall, which, of course, turns out to involve him and his gang randomly killing a bunch of unidentified people who are only notable for their complete absence from Black Caesar. Somewhere in all this, Tommy’s mild mannered dad ends up killing a couple of crooked cops in self defense, putting himself on the wrong side of the law as a result. The only proper response to this, of course, is for dad to officially become part of Tommy’s gang, a turn of events which somehow leads to him being put in charge of his son’s entire East Coast operation. “Big Papa” quickly grows accustomed to the pimping threads and lavish lifestyle that such a position entails, and we are soon treated to a montage of Julius Harris gleefully gunning people down that nicely bookends a similar montage of Fred Williamson that we saw toward the beginning of the picture.
To accompany all of this nonsense we have a soundtrack by Edwin Starr that literally provides a song for every occasion. Seriously, if Cohen had asked for a theme to accompany someone walking across the street, Starr would have come up with a song called “Walkin’ ‘Cross the Street” that consisted of nothing but him shouting the phrase “Walkin’ ‘cross the street” over and over again on top of a driving funk track. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, until you consider that James Brown, who also scored Black Caesar, had already provided a score for Hell Up In Harlem that was written and recorded entirely on spec. Unfortunately, the execs at AIP had been unhappy with Brown’s soundtrack work on Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off –- apparently Brown had a problem with timing his compositions to match the action on screen –- and rejected his Harlem score over Cohen’s objections, leaving Brown to release the work as The Payback, which is widely considered to be the last great album of Brown’s career.
Despite Hell Up In Harlem‘s many problems, I have to say that I think I prefer it over its predecessor. While it’s certainly true that Black Caesar is the more earnest and ambitious of the two, I don’t think that the abilities of Cohen and his cast were always up to that level of earnestness and ambition. Williamson, for instance, while undeniable blessed with a glaring surplus of charisma, gives an enthusiastic performance in both movies, but is seemingly incapable of giving a convincing line reading, with the result that Caesar’s level of melodrama is really not his friend. Leading lady Gloria Hendry, on the other hand, is just a little too cozy with melodrama, and comports herself throughout much of her screen time in both films as if she were chained to the wailing wall. Factors like these, along with the rough edges of Cohen’s direction, combine to make Black Caesar a bit of a bumpy ride for fans of consistent narrative tone. By contrast, Hell Up In Harlem, with its frenetic opening deconstruction of Black Caesar‘s final act, lets you know from the get-go that it’s going to be a wild ride through crazy town, and never disappoints.
One way that Hell Up In Harlem gains a lot is if you simply appreciate Cohen’s random set pieces on their own terms without attempting to tie them in with any larger narrative, because the fact is that many of them evidence a crazy sort of amphetamine-edged inspiration. The most famous of these is the entirely pointless scuba assault by Tommy and his gang on a mob summit being held on an “unnamed island off the Florida Keys”. This sequence involves, among many other things, a kung fu fight between Williamson and a bikini babe, a body count seemingly in the triple digits, and middle-aged black women in maids’ uniforms smiling serenely as they gun down central casting goombahs who, if anyone had bothered to name them, would surely have to a man gone by either “Guido” or “Sal”. Another highpoint is a hit that takes place at a hotdog stand that leaves all of its victims with half-eaten hotdogs sticking out of their mouths. And of course let’s not forget the scene in which Williamson sprints across a crowded Coney Island beach to pole vault the sharp end of a beach umbrella into the chest of yet another unidentified and previously unseen character.
Hell Up In Harlem‘s final scene sees Tommy lynching D.A. D’Angelo with his own necktie while crowing about how he’s “the first whitey hung by a nigger”. This was intended by Cohen as a topper to the previously referenced final scene in Black Caesar, in which Gibbs makes his white nemesis wear blackface and sing “Mammy” before beating him to death with a shoeshine box. It fails of course, which is not surprising. From the sound of it, the scene, like much of Hell Up In Harlem, was made up on the spot, and owed its existence to Cohen just happening at that moment to make a visual connection between Gerald Gordon’s tie and a convenient tree branch. Still, the scene is a fitting conclusion, in that it so appropriately sums up the spirit of Hell Up In Harlem as a whole. It is at once off-the-cuff, ultimately pointless, and, at the same time, possessed of that fascinating aura denoting a thing that someone, at one very particular time, and for only one fleeting moment, thought was a great idea, even though it totally wasn’t.
And then someone rolled film, and it was too late to turn back.
Release Year: 1973 | Country: United States | Starring: Fred Williamson, Julius Harris, Gloria Hendry, Margaret Avery, D’Urville Martin, Tony King, Gerald Gordon, Bobby Ramsen, James Dixon, Esther Sutherland, Charles MacGuire, Mindi Miller, Al Kirk, Janelle Webb | Writer: Larry Cohen | Director: Larry Cohen | Cinematographer: Fenton Hamilton | Music: Fonce Mizell, Freddie Perren, Edwin Starr | Producer: Larry Cohen
Really, Pinhead? Really? This is how you treat me? We’ve come so far, and I’ve given positive reviews to so many of your movies, and this is how you pay me back? I suppose it’s fitting. After being lea down the tempting and Byzantine labyrinths of the Hellraiser franchise, I finally arrive and the final (for now, anyway) installment, only to discover it is the cinematic equivalent of finally solving the puzzle box only to have hooked chains shoot out and rip me to pieces.
Hellraiser: Hellworld is beyond awful and well into the “absolutely unwatchable” territory. I can’t think of a single redeeming thing to say about this horrible movie, with the possible exception of “Well, at least they finally got around to having Lance Henrikson appear in a Hellraiser film.” But that’s hardly enough for this wretched retread of other, equally as bad horror films. The plot this time around goes “meta” — featuring a group of twenty-somethings who play an online Hellraiser themed video game, only to discover that the game may be more real than they realize!!! Oooo! When the players are invited to a special “Hellworld” rave for the hardest core gamers, they find themselves in the mansion of Lance, who spins them a yarn about the house being built by the same Le Merchant who made the Lament Configuration, even though that guy lived and died in France. As the kids wander from one room to another, they are slowly killed off, one by one, in the usual outlandish fashion…or are they???
See, here’s the thing about Kari Wuhrer: I don’t know what the thing is with Kari Wuhrer. I mean yeah, she’s hot, but plenty of men and women are hot, and most of them didn’t star in Beastmaster II: Through the Portal of Time. There is very little in the career or Kari that I’ve liked, and yet my obsession with her as an actress continues to urge me toward watching whatever goofball piece of junk in which she appears. The way some people think Angelina Jolie is the hottest woman on the planet, or Aishwarya Rai? That’s sort of how I feel about Kari. I just like the woman, and I have ever since Remote Control.
That said, it was inevitable that, even after the dismally dull part six, any meeting of Kari Wuhrer and the Hellraiser franchise was going to get my attention. So I sat down for this seventh installment in the the long-running horror series with some degree of anticipation that, at the very least, it would offer me something more than a jackass having hallucinations while sitting in his office cubicle. And hey, what do you know! Hellraiser gets itself back on track, at least to some degree. Deader, like most of the sequels, is far from being in the same class as the original, but it’s also far from being in that other class occupied by Hellseeker and Hell On Earth, that dimension of pain where even Pinhead dare not tread. This means the movie falls somewhere in the vicinity of Bloodline (part four) and Inferno (part five) in being a flawed but ultimately decent horror film.
Kari stars as perpetually smoking Amy Klein, one of those ace “reporters on the edge” who covers the sort of stories that are only covered in movie versions of what an ace reporter on the edge would cover. Which means, less war in Gaza and Somali pirates, more exposes on sleepy drug addicts and Eastern European resurrection cults. After her editor receives a videotape of a young Eurotrash goth type committing suicide only to be raised from the dead by a guy with stringy hair while other Eurotrash goth types stand around and sway, Amy is off to Bucharest to investigate the story. Eastern Europe is, as you all probably know, the favored haunt these days of pretty much every low budget horror film being made. Here’s an instance where the location works, though. Certainly more so than when a filmmaker tries to pass Prague off as Las Vegas. The Eastern European aesthetic — or at least what we in America imagine to be the Eastern Europe aesthetic — lends itself nicely to the Hellraiser world. Certainly Pinhead is going to seem more imposing when he appears in some crumbling ancient stone building or dripping concrete tenement than when he shows up in Terry Farrell’s posh Manhattan penthouse apartment.
Speaking of which — here’s a movie that at least puts its reporter in the right tax bracket. As someone who works professionally as a writer, despite all the evidence present here that I should be kept away from words, I’m always amused when a film’s struggling young writer can still manage to live in a sprawling multi-story, multi-room penthouse with a breathtaking view of the Manhattan skyline, as did our intrepid reporter in Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth. By contrast, Amy Klein is already an established reporter, but she still lives in an alcohol and cigarette smoke stained shithole. Now that is the sort of reporter’s life to which I can relate.
Anyway, Amy follows the trail of the videotape to an apartment where she finds a corpse and the fabled Lament Configuration puzzle box. So begins her descent into the usual Hellraiser madness, which includes industrial music party trains, an over-reliance on hallucinations and “dream within a dream” red herrings, shoehorning in of the word “flesh,” and token appearances by Hell’s favorite bail bondsman, Pinhead. All in all, as I said, it’s a pretty huge step up from the last film, and there are some sequences that are genuinely effective. My favorite is the dream-within-a-dream nonsense in which Kari finally discovers the location of the “Deaders” cult, as they call themselves, only to find herself forced to undergo their ritual. Then it turns out that was all a dream, then it turns out that dream was a dream, and she really does have a huge gaping hole in her chest. So begins a nightmarish yet blackly comical sequence where she tries to continue her investigation even though she has a huge chest wound that is continually oozing blood all over the place. In addition, her discovery of the industrial music party train after everyone in it has been slaughtered is another wonderfully creepy moment, as is her claustrophobic journey to the Deaders’ hideout.
The film also features one of Pinhead’s most overtly evil moments. The revelation that Amy was sexually abused by a father she eventually stabbed to death is pretty standard shock movie territory, so much so that at this stage in the game, it’s more likely to illicit rolled eyes and “ho hums” than any real horror. But when Pinhead finally shows up for his cameo, he remarks, almost off-handedly, that Amy will have ample time to spend with her father when she has been carried off to Hell, it makes the tired “sexual abuse” background worth the trouble, because that’s flat out creepy. Up until this point, really, the suffering delivered by Pinhead seemed too fanciful (remember the evil carnival in part two) or supernatural (the ever-present flying hook chains) to really be scary. Gross, maybe, but rarely scary. When Pinhead suggests that Amy will be spending eternity trapped with her sexually abusive father — that’s a horror a person can comprehend, and that makes it far more effective than any of the more fantastical nonsense Pinhead might throw at you. After being served up as sort of a cool anti-hero for the past several movies, that one moment makes Pinhead more recognizably evil and terrifying than at any other point in the series.
We also get something that we haven’t had in any of the Hellraiser movies, even the original, which is a downbeat “no one gets out of here alive” ending. In the other films, despite all else that happens, good triumphs over evil, the heroine escapes, the scumbags get ripped apart by hook chains, Pinhead is banished back to Hell by being covered in animated lines while he yells “Nooo!” and we’re pretty happy with how things turned out. Not so in Deader, however, which is thoroughly pessimistic and grim from start to finish. Amy Klein is a damaged but still somewhat decent person, but there is no redemption or catharsis waiting for her at the end of the journey.
Of course, as is standard with the direct to video Hellraiser sequels, Deader is not without its many problems. Once again, we have a script for an entirely unrelated movie that has been retooled to function as a Hellraiser movie. This means that much of the Hellraiser related material feels as shoehorned in as awkward uses of the word “flesh.” The plot depends on the actions of the Deaders and their leader somehow representing a “trespass” into the world of the Cenobites, but how exactly this becomes the supernatural equivalent of Pinhead telling kids to stay off his lawn remains unclear. As far as I know, merely committing suicide isn’t enough to get you into Pinhead’s wing of Hell; you have to actually summon the Cenobites. So I don’t know why Pinhead is so steamed that these kids are killing themselves then being brought back to life. Similarly, the movie links Deader “messiah” Winter (Paul Rhys) to the Le Merchant bloodline that created the puzzle box, but it doesn’t seem to have much of an idea with what to do with that subplot other than mention it. Certainly Winter doesn’t exhibit any of the traits that Bloodline lead us to believe are part of the Le Merchant character. And needless to say, there’s absolutely no explanation of how Winter is able to revive the dead, though in a movie series where people use a puzzle box to summon demons who promise pleasure and pain but only deliver on half their promise, I suppose worrying about the unexplained ability of one guy to revive dead Rumanian goth kids is a bit petty.
And there’s also the problem of the ending. While I appreciate the bleakness of it, it’s also pretty poorly thought out. It feels as if they had themselves a decent enough supernatural horror movie, did a fair job of tweaking it into a Hellraiser movie, then had no idea at all how to bring it all together in a cohesive, satisfying finale. It’s not enough to tank the film by any measure, but it is a shame they couldn’t pull the thing together.
I said with part five that I didn’t mind the rarity of Pinhead and the Cenobites in these sequels provided the surrounding movie was interesting enough to put off their appearance until the end. Five was. Six was not. Seven is back to being interesting enough to survive without Pinhead and his entourage making themselves known until the very end (minus the occasional appearance in a dream within a dream within an hallucination).
What we have here is an able cast, some great location work that takes advantage of the oppressive cityscapes and urban decay, and a plot that, while hardly perfect, is at least good enough for its running time. Kari Wuhrer is solid in her role and puts effort into it, and most of the supporting cast is either able or bad in that familiar way foreign extras are bad in English language films. That’s something I’ve long since learned to live with. I liked this one.
Which is good, because I’ve also seen part eight, and…well, let’s leave that suffering for the next review.
Ehh, ya lost me, Hellraiser. I was with you through part five. I mean, sure, part three was pretty stupid, but it was enjoyably stupid. And I thought that parts four and five put you back on track. But the wheels sort of come off the wagon with part six. As with part three, this one promises us something big then never delivers. With part three, it was “pinhead wages war on earth!” That meant that Pinhead caused some manholes to erupt on a backlot set. This time around, we’re promised the return of Kirsty (Ashley Lawrence), the woman who battled the Cenobites at their meanest in the first two films. What we end up with is a cameo appearance that is so wrong-headed it’ll make you happy it’s only a cameo appearance. The only person in this film less than her is Pinhead. Where as part three was hilariously bad, this one is just dull and lifeless.
When I reviewed part five, I said I actually like having Pinhead be an ominous presence throughout the movie with his actual appearance reserved for when it really matters. But that only holds true if you operate under the assumption that the rest of the movie is filled with other weird stuff building up the final reveal of Pinhead set to his obligatory “Pinhead has revealed himself!” blast of bombastic orchestration. Part five, I thought, did that, giving us a gruesome serial killer movie with surreal Cenobites and oddness sprinkled throughout. Part six is basically that movie again, but instead of a disillusioned cop and creepy Cenobite chicks, it’s a douchebag in an office cubicle.
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.
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?