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A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)

Nightmare on Elm Street 2Horror film sequel subtitles are never all that clever, but it’s odd that this is called Freddy’s Revenge considering these are all brand new characters that Freddy has no past history with to seek revenge against.  Nor is there any theme or hint at a revenge ideal here.  That aside, this is a peculiar film in this franchise.  As is no surprise, it was a rushed production since the first film was so financially successful for New Line Cinema.  So, it really does lack all of the brilliance of Wes Craven’s film, but what makes it peculiar is a certain subtext that many are aware of by now.  There are certainly detrimental qualities to this first sequel, but it’s not a terrible movie.  Still, that doesn’t mean it’s particularly good or memorable.

Five years have passed since Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) was sent howling back to hell.  But now, Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton), a new kid on Elm Street, is being haunted every night by gruesome visions of the deadly dream stalker.  And if his twisted soul takes possession of the boy’s body, Freddy will return from the dead to wreak bloody murder and mayhem upon the entire town.

The subtext in question is a rather obvious homoerotic subtext.  It has been talked about at great length, and so, it’s nothing new I’m bringing up here.  The 1980’s did have this bizarre homoerotic sensibility in the air, but this film, if any at all, seemed to have galvanized that all into a single 87 minute runtime.  Screenwriter David Chaskin did write all of this into the script, but apparently, none were aware of it while making the film.  There’s the constant bare-chested, sweaty scenes of Jesse every few minutes, there’s the S&M bondage club, the gym teacher getting stripped bare by Freddy, and the all too close relationship between Jesse and Grady.  You’ve got, yet again, a bare-chested Jesse barging into Grady’s bedroom where he is asleep and mostly undressed to talk about Jesse’s sexual inabilities with Lisa.  It is very obvious like a punch in the face, and that’s just the start of it.  Jesse’s struggle with Freddy is supposedly a struggle with his own repressed sexuality.  I will say it comes across loud and clear, but that’s not at all what Freddy is meant to be about.  He’s not the manifestation of anything except your own fears, and this film doesn’t deal with that aspect of Krueger at all, ever.

I sort of like the idea of Freddy using someone else as a conduit into our reality.  This is revisited in another way in The Dream Child and Freddy’s Dead, but it also doesn’t make a lot of sense for Freddy to transcend into our reality since he is essentially powerless outside of the dream world.  The problem here is that Freddy kills no one in the dream world, and instead, goes after them in a slightly surreal waking world.  Bringing Freddy into our reality, fully, feels wrong.  The scene where he finally does this was so ridiculous to director Jack Sholder that he couldn’t direct it himself because of how hard he was laughing during it.  The scene is not really scary at all, and is more silly than anything.  Freddy just running around and randomly terrorizing teenagers at a pool party even sounds wrong in concept, and doesn’t work in execution either.  Ideas like this are a big reason why Wes Craven stayed far away from this movie.

Even then, the kills are very forgettable and stock.  One guy gets whipped to death, and another gets stabbed with Freddy’s razor glove.  The rest are just slashed as the party.  This grossly pales in comparison to the brilliantly imaginative kills in Wes Craven’s original.  The innovative effects work created a darkly fantastical atmosphere of nightmarish deaths.  That showed Freddy’s power and enhanced his menace.  This film leans entirely on Freddy taking over Jesse as its sole hook of gruesome fantastical captivation, and it’s not remotely enough.  There are a few nightmares, but there is not really any haunting or chilling imagery to crawl up under your skin.

What you absolutely have to credit this film with is holding true to the presentation of Freddy even if the concepts behind him are altered.  Knowing how jokey and cheesy he became, it’s refreshing to see that this sequel didn’t start that trend.  He’s still masked in shadows, and his voice still has that low, salacious quality.  He feels concretely scary, and Robert Englund still puts his all into it.  This is the most highly admirable aspect of this movie, and becomes more apparent in retrospect looking at the franchise overall.  I just wish Englund had a better movie to complement that performance.

What make-up effects we do get are still great here.  The best evidence of this is when Freddy crawls and tears his way out of Jesse in gruesome, frightening fashion.  It is so excellently done.  Also, the make-up on Freddy himself is still fantastic.  Even in full light, it never appears cheap or rubbery like it would in later sequels.  It’s all very admirable work that doesn’t slack off anywhere, and while there’s not much use of visual effects, they are of a comparable quality.  I just wish there was a greater need for them to realize a more fiery imagination to rival the first movie.

The characters here are a divided issue for me.  I do feel that Mark Patton does a fine job as Jesse.  He’s fairly well written making him vulnerable and relatable.  He’s definitely the kind of teenager that doesn’t quite fit in, and is easily picked on.  Jesse has definite internal conflicts, but for a horror movie protagonist, he is terribly weak.  He is both the intended hero and the main victim.  That makes him difficult to invest yourself in because he is the furthest thing from a heroic figure.  He is not strong willed at all, and essentially, is the polar opposite of Nancy Thompson.  He’s not introverted like Tommy Jarvis in Friday the 13th, Part V, but it’s almost as bad having a main character who is nothing but troubled and full of angst when we’re looking for an inspiring hero.  The fact that Jesse is absent from the third act, and it is his girlfriend who releases him from Freddy’s control shows how out of whack the concept here is.  There’s really no one here to connect with as a hero or heroine.

Now, no one among this cast is really a poor actor, but the characters don’t really pop out at you.  They are fine, but they don’t have that special quality of personality and chemistry to really come to vibrant life.  Kim Myers is a potentially decent romantic interest, but despite a few moments of affection, she hardly feels like Jesse’s girlfriend and more like the best friend.  There’s no hot spark between Patton and Myers to sell this the way it’s supposed to be by the time they’re making out at the party.  The rest of the cast is essentially forgettable.  They’re not bad performances, but it all does just feel flat and disposable all on its own.  These just aren’t especially entertaining characters to spend time with.

The film deals with Jesse’s psychological elements very well.  Mark Patton does put in a solid effort selling the terror and torment that Freddy puts him through.  If this film kept true to Wes Craven’s ideas, I think it could have been a more effective and creatively satisfying movie.  Making the struggle psychologically based could be very intriguing instead of a physical or ideological battle.  Patton clearly showed he had the talent for the role, but even then, as I said, he’s never put into a position of strength to become our hero.  He never really fights back, and is constantly running away from every confrontation with Krueger.  Even at the film’s end, he’s still afraid and prone to Freddy screwing with him again.

Freddy’s Revenge is not a bad movie, and there are far, far worse entries in this franchise.  However, it really is a misconceived sequel taking things in the wrong direction.  It takes Freddy out of the dream world so much that you remove so much o the appeal of the original.  All of the dream-like qualities are downplayed with only a few nightmarish images, and extremely few actually occur when someone’s asleep.  The dream world is Freddy’s domain where he holds the power, and you want to see someone go into that world and battle Krueger on his own ground at his own game.  This is Fred Krueger royally screwing with the film’s lead character, and turning him into his own puppet.  That’s not very appealing.  It’s just an example of rushing a film into production with talents that didn’t have much reverence for Craven’s material or ideas.  It’s also not very pleasing that Christopher Young’s score does not include a single appearance of Charles Bernstein’s Elm Street theme, and is rather forgettable.  Even if this was its own standalone movie, and not a sequel to a horror classic, I don’t think this would be regarded as very good, regardless.


Urban Legend (1998)

Urban LegendUrban legends in general are quite fascinating to me.  I’ve spent many late night hours reading through whole websites dedicated to these modern day myths, and they are a fertile ground for an imaginative horror movie.  Of course, this movie came out in the wake of Scream and does a lot to follow in that style.  Unfortunately, it was an extreme rarity that any of those types of trend cash-ins were any good.  I clearly remember seeing this on opening weekend and regarding it as not scary at all.  In no way do I expect that sentiment to change after fifteen years.  I’m reviewing this because it was high time I got back to some very critical reviewing, and nothing’s better than a disappointing post-modern slasher film for that task!

When New England college student Natalie (Alicia Witt) finds herself at the center of a series of sadistic murders seemingly inspired by urban legends.  Natalie and her friends are all involved in the Folklore class being taught by Professor Wexler (Robert Englund).  Wexler regales his class with urban legends, which include Pendleton’s own urban legend about a Psych professor who murdered six students at Stanley Hall 25 years ago.  As the fraternities prepare to celebrate the macabre anniversary, and Natalie’s friends fall victim to this axe wielding murderer, she discovers that she is the focus of the crazed killer’s intentions in the ultimate urban legend – the story of her own horrific murder.

This is not a badly made movie.  It has respectable, polished production values and top notch gore effects.  Cinematography is wholly competent with solid compositions and smart camera moves punctuating the dramatic moments.  The editing is mostly great, side from the gimmicky flash cuts.  So, I think the problem with the effectiveness of this movie is that these urban legends are so terribly familiar to us that the movie becomes damn predictable.  There’s little tension or suspense when you know how the kills are supposed to be plotted out.  While playing them out verbatim perfectly fits in with the killer’s ultimate motives, creatively, it would have been more effective to put a fresh twist on them.  Have them play out not exactly as you would expect them to, but still be evocative of the classic tales.  Of course, the various false jump scares don’t help matters either.

The red herrings we get as to the identity of the killer are also quite underwhelming.  They are dashed about as quickly as they are brought up.  This sort of thing worked better in Scream where no one was ever entirely absolved of potential guilt in the eyes of the audience.  Everyone was an equally viable suspect, but here, the suspects are not very credible nor are they main characters.  They show up for two or three scenes total.  The main characters are not implicated as the potential killer, and that evaporates a lot of heightened tension and paranoia that could have existed in the movie.  As it is, there’s not much focus put on who the killer is, but more the methods that this killer uses.

And one last negative critique would be that the look of the killer is not all that intimidating.  A relatively small statured person in a hooded parka leaves a lot to be desired in the realm of chilling imagery.  All the great, iconic slashers have not only a instantly recognizable, unmistakable look to them, but they also have a distinct personality in how they move and act.  This slasher, which doesn’t even have a name to its credit, comes off entirely generic with no distinct personality in its movements.  This takes away a lot of the menace this killer could have had, and thus, further adds to the lack of effective horror in this movie.  While Ghostface was a different person in each Scream movie, the image of Ghostface was iconic and carried a strong weight of horror with him.  The Urban Legend slasher is just terribly forgettable.  If this killer wasn’t wielding an axe, you wouldn’t feel any serious imposing threat from him/her at all.  I think my critiques hold weight with the makers of the sequel Urban Legends: Final Cut since they entirely revamped the look of their killer.

Still, the film has a few exciting sequences such as when the killer is chasing Tara Reid’s Sasha.  It’s fairly intense and suspenseful as Sasha tries to evade this axe wielding maniac.  Shortly thereafter, the climactic chase sequence in the storming rain is pretty good with some good tension and strenuous physicality for Alicia Witt.  Proving my point, this is when the killer turns away from urban legend themed kills, and just starts going after people full boar.  These are the scenes that work because they’re not so predictable.  They keep an audience more on edge in the midst of random peril.  They’re surely not wholly original inventions in the slasher genre, but they are staples of it because they are effective.  So, it is that final 20-30 minutes which actually become intense and suspenseful, but for a 100 minute horror movie, that’s not very adequate.

On the acting end of things, Alicia Witt delivers a solid leading performance making Natalie sweet, vulnerable, smart, and tough.  I like when she punches Joshua Jackson’s Damon Brooks right in the face after a bad come-on in a parked car showing there’s some assertiveness in her.  Witt is a strong actress with a lot of talent to her credit.  Plus, she’s a beautiful redhead, and I absolutely adore redheads.  Jared Leto has a decent performance here as college newspaper reporter Paul Gardner, but his character just doesn’t have much personality on the page to speak of.  Paul’s constantly trying to pry information out of everyone for his news story, but he doesn’t come off as the least bit imposing or ethically objectionable as that statement would suggest.  Rebecca Gayheart is a fine talent working well as Natalie’s best friend Brenda, but offering little more, initially, than the qualities of the supportive friend.  The latter end of the film gives her a lot more juicy material to work with that she really sinks her teeth into, and does an excellent job with.

Now. Michael Rosenbaum is plain awesome.  After seeing him for so many years as Lex Luthor on Smallville it’s great seeing his comedic charisma in full swing here as the fun loving Parker.  He’s charged up with energy and personality to spare, but Rosenbaum has enough charm to shy it away from becoming obnoxious.  Tara Reid has a great promiscuous role as the saucy, sexually charged radio talk show host Sasha.  Halloween franchise alumnus Danielle Harris clocks in as Natalie’s Goth roommate Tosh.  It’s a good minor performance, and she looks quite hot in all that black garb.

Urban Legend features some notable horror legends in Robert Englund and Brad Dourif.  Both of which put in solid performances.  Dourif portrays a stuttering gas station attendant at the film’s start, and he’s sufficiently creepy.  Englund gives Professor Wexler plenty of dignity and a little bit of theatrical edge for a strong, respectable performance.  Both actors put a good measure of enthusiasm and quality into their roles here, and are small highlights that gave this film particular notoriety upon release.

The film’s score is provided by Christopher Young, who also did the music for the first two Hellraiser movies and last year’s highly effective horror film Sinister.  Here, he does a far more understated but still admirable job.  It has plenty of strong, tense cues throughout, and is probably a notch above the standard slasher film fare.

Now, I do really like the dark, shameful secret that Natalie has in her past, and how it ties into the motivation of the killer.  It is all smartly and realistically put together.  It makes for a nice twist in the climax that does get setup from Natalie’s story earlier on.  The climax itself is pretty decent and typical for a slasher movie, but it’s surely far from terrible.  It delivers some satisfaction, but it’s nothing that will stick with you like the endings of Halloween or Friday The 13th.  The somewhat quirky coda fits for the movie, but also, doesn’t make a lot of sense.  It could’ve used a better resolution that was more pertinent to the actual characters and story.  It kind of goes with the half-baked feeling of the movie.  It had good ideas, but just didn’t do anything worthwhile with them.

Ultimately, this is a real disappointment of a slasher film that just isn’t scary at all.  They had a very talented cast to work with, and a premise that could’ve worked very well if it injected some original thinking into it.  Instead, it just comes off as generic and predictable.  The killer is entirely forgettable, and offers no menace or threatening presence.  Director Jamie Blanks does a respectable job with Urban Legend, but the script is just devoid of ambition.  He handles his cast exceptionally well, knows how to shoot a film very cinematically, and shows some talent for suspense.  Yet, the film fails because the script uses a gimmick purely at face value without trying to add anything fresh or innovative to it.  A killer offing people using urban legends is a clever idea, but screenwriter Silvio Horta progressed it no further than that.  I know Jamie Blanks can make a good slasher movie because he did it with his next film Valentine, which I think is quite underappreciated.  Given a stronger script, he can certainly deliver a much more effective product.  It certainly won’t hurt you to watch Urban Legend, but it’s nothing special you’re missing out on.  It did spawn two sequels that really were rather horrible that I would strongly advise avoiding.  I saw them each once, and that was more than enough for me.  This film is decent enough if you just need a mild way to kill 100 minutes.  It likely won’t make you cringe, depending on your slasher film tastes, but it likely won’t excite you either.


Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)

It is rare for a movie sequel to equal or exceed the original film.  In the realm of horror, there’s always that formulaic trap, but for a film so brilliantly original and powerful as Hellraiser, it becomes a challenge of artistic ambition and macabre thematic imagination.  Hellbound: Hellraiser II is that sequel which takes what the first film unleashed upon us, and built upon it for a fully enveloping vision of masterful horror.  Before, you were only teased at the temptations and horrors of Leviathan’s realm.  Now, you are plunged fully into this experience which will tear your soul apart.  Welcome to Hell, and the 100th review posted to Forever Cinematic.

Picking up just about where the previous film ended, Larry, Frank, and Julia are all dead.  Meanwhile, Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) is being held within the Channard Institute of Mental Health for observation.  She speaks of the Cenobites, the dead returning to life, the opening of a gateway to hell.  Of course, people believe she is psychologically traumatized by the death of her father.  Although, one thing gains the attention of Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham).  Kirsty mentions that they must destroy the mattress that Julia died on for she can return just as Frank did.  Channard put his hands on the bloodstained mattress where her stepmother Julia (Clare Higgins) died, Channard decides to resurrect her, killing his patients and offering them to Julia to quicken her regeneration.  The twisted doctor is shown to have much research into a familiar puzzle box, properly called the Lament Configuration, and via the puzzle-solving talents of one of his patients, Tina (Imogen Boorman), a speechless young girl, the Cenobites are summoned once again.  Soon, all of our main characters venture into hell, Channard and Julia to explore it, Kirsty and Tina to stop the aforementioned duo.

If you haven’t seen the first Hellraiser, this sequel smartly brings you up-to-speed with a few carefully placed flashbacks and expositional sequences.  Still, there’s no excuse these days not to watch that amazing film.  However, back then, it took about a year for a movie to go from theatrical release to home video.  So, audiences needed a little refresher in 1988, and it’s done very smoothly here.

This film treats the Cenobites with the respect they earned in Clive Barker’s original movie.  Flashbacks aside, they don’t make their first appearance until fifty minutes into the picture, but when they do, we get an introduction of majesty.  Pinhead is given a truly iconic moment stepping out from the blinding white light alone, and the music is at its operatic best here.  The Cenobites are still generally background characters, but are given the opportunity to step forward into a more fascinating and revealing role.  It’s one of the many ways this film builds upon the ideas and mystique of the first Hellraiser.  It knows you’re intrigued by all of this boundless imagination, and it reels you in further with enticing insights that do not disappoint.

Dr. Channard is a fascinating new character that pushes the film beyond its smaller, more intimate beginnings.  He is a man of no conscience, and is driven towards exploring the twisted, despicable, dark depths of the human mind.  Where Frank was a sexually charged character, Channard is more cerebral.  He’s psychologically stimulated by the gruesome horrors that he witnesses and even inflicts upon others.  He’s a sociopath, sadist, and psychopath, which is exactly what Leviathan craves.  Channard is in amazement and wonder at the sight of Hell, as if it is his Promised Land.  What he gets from it is more than he ever anticipated, but ultimately, does not regret it.  Actor Kenneth Cranham does a fantastic job with this character, and he restrains nothing when Hell finally gets its way with the Doctor.  It takes a lot to rival Pinhead in the eyes of the fans, but many have long taken a strong liking to Channard.  That’s all due to Cranham’s excellent performance.

Hellbound is absolutely grotesque.  There’s not a drop of blood spared at any moment in this unrated cut.  The violence is as gritty and graphic as you could imagine and then some.  What you witnessed in Clive Barker’s film is multiplied in Tony Randel’s sequel.  The most disgusting and horrific sights come from the Channard Cenobite, who is Leviathan’s most powerful creation.  Channard’s twisted, sickening psyche combined with Leviathan’s power and domination give birth to a frightening monstrosity that ups the stakes in the final act.  This is not a film for the weak of stomach.  This is a heavyweight horror film loaded with terrifying, disturbing imagery, and gore in abundance.  There is nothing held back from the dark, macabre imagination of Clive Barker, screenwriter Peter Atkins, or the magnificent direction of Tony Randel.  The special make-up and creature effects do not fall off one bit from the first film, and are possibly more refined in some places.  It’s more of that signature Clive Barker repulsive beauty that is brought to glorious life.  His imagination delves into places that are far too forbidden for others, but it is where he thrives, creatively.  Barker finds an attraction and an elegant artistry in these dark corners of the human psyche, and the creative forces on these first two Hellraiser films were able to embrace and realize that so marvelously.  The special make-up effects artists employed for both films were clearly masters of their craft bringing gritty, ghastly realism to everything they did.

While the visual effects are still rather low budget using strictly grainy optical techniques, stop motion photography, and animation, they are very ambitious.  They really push the boundaries of anything you’d expect from a generally low budget horror film of this time.  The filmmakers had a bold vision to realize, and they were going to commit every bit of it to film.  For a modern audience, yes, these effects come off as primitive, but it’s something these filmmakers had to work hard to accomplish.  It took a wide imagination, and a commitment to a rigorous process to put them up on screen.  For that alone, I respect these visual effects immensely.

This is truly an exceptionally well shot film creating a masterpiece of horror.  Tony Randel allows this sequel to seamlessly blend with the first Hellraiser.  While that film is incontrovertibly iconic in so many ways, Hellbound simply goes more ambitious with its visuals along with the story.  Once inside Hell, we are treated to powerful, nightmarish images of blood, fire, sexual desires, and epic scope.  Leviathan’s realm is a vast labyrinth of torture and pleasure indivisibly merged as one.  Delving into Frank Cotton’s personal hell shows him tormented by temptation unable to satisfy his desires.  This scene is ultimately a great moment that ties up a little bit of loose ends from the previous film.  Seeing Frank, Kirsty, and Julia confronting one another again is an awesome moment with plenty of pay-off.

Above anything else is Christopher Young’s bold, more expansive score.  The first film was more intimate with a smaller scope, and Young punctuated that tone and atmosphere beautifully.  Here, it’s verbose and operatic.  It’s grand and sweeping matching the film’s broader, more ominous scope.  Hearing the powerful gothic theme crash into the film following the opening flashback just gets my blood pumping.  It makes an immediate statement that Hellbound: Hellraiser II is bigger and bolder.  It sends chills up and down me.  This music is frightening, dark, and gorgeous.  It’s a masterpiece all on its own, but coupled with the film, it’s indelibly iconic.  It’s possibly the best and most beautiful horror movie score I’ve ever heard.  This film in particular is why the name Christopher Young holds so much eternal respect with me.  What he achieved here became inevitably influential in various gothic styled scores in the years following this film such as Batman and The Crow.

Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II are so seamlessly blended together and the latter builds so perfectly on the ideas and aspects of the former, that they can feel like two halves of a single whole story.  This sequel takes the logical progression of plot forward, and expands on everything  While they do both powerfully exist apart from one another, they are immensely stronger as a single entity.  You get a fuller story with wider scope and deeper insights into the themes presents in these stories and characters.  It is an absolutely brilliant piece of work that demonstrates exactly what a great sequel is meant to do.

The returning cast members also push themselves further.  Julia has definitely changed having gone to Hell and back.  She is still a conniving and devilish woman, but now, her motives are far more insidious and grand.  She is no longer than one being manipulated.  Julia is now the one leading the mesmerized Channard towards a dreadful fate.  Clare Higgins takes that strength to a much more imposing and dangerous level.  Doug Bradley is given a great opportunity here as both Pinhead, and his human alter ego British Army Captain Elliott Spenser.  The film offers up a stunning revelation about the Cenobites, and we see who Pinhead was before he was tortured and twisted by Hell.  With only a few moments of screentime in his human form, Bradley gives us a strong sense of humanity and compassion which sets up for a better story than what he got with the next sequel.  His opening scene is shockingly powerful showing the creation of Pinhead himself with each nail being hammered into his skull, and him screaming in agony.

Ashley Laurence evolves with the role of Kirsty.  She’s more aggressive and assertive now.  No longer is Kirsty cowering in fear, trembling at the carnage she sees.  She is motivated forward with a new found courage as she charges straight into Hell on a search to find her father, and does not let her encounters with the Cenobites, Frank, or Julia deter her from attempting this.  Kirsty has become a far stronger person now, and becomes an even more confident hero for the audience.  Yet, there’s still that solid core of warmth and heart that made her so relatable and endearing to begin with.  She has done a remarkable, standout job in this role, and it is thankful that she would get the chance to reprise it once more in Hellraiser: Hellseeker.

There is just no weak link anywhere in this film.  It stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the first film as a bonafide horror classic.  I really do love what Clive Barker has brought us in the medium of film.  His imagination seems boundless and always fascinating.  While he believes, same as with his own written and directed Hellraiser, that this is an uneven film, there is nothing I can ever take away from it.  Any technical aspects that haven’t stood the test of time still display an amazing depth of vision that startle the senses.  Tony Randel did a stunning job as director of this picture.  He has said that the film reflects the dark mindset he was in at the time, and while that might not have been favorable for him, it benefitted this film immensely.  This is a dark, intriguing, and revealing journey into an expansive, macabre world that would not have been easy to achieve without that mindset.  Every talent involved was clearly committed wholeheartedly towards this challenging vision, and it resulted in an undeniable masterpiece of horror.  Hellbound: Hellraiser II is one of the best horror films ever made, and many consider it superior to the first film.  Both are different enough in their stories and scopes to offer you something distinct while also complimenting one another beautifully.  With this film, the Hellraiser franchise seemed as if it could have limitless potential for original, innovative stories with the right minds behind it.  Unfortunately, subsequent sequels would be a severely mixed bag with more bad than good in the hands of Dimension Films who would ultimately run it into the ground.


Hellraiser (1987)

Reviewing this film is quite a pleasure.  Of all the masters of horror to come around in the last couple decades, Clive Barker seems to be the one you can always count on.  Even The Midnight Meat Train, while not directed by Barker, is a great film that I enjoyed quite thoroughly.  The man takes a lot of care and heart with his work, both written and on film.  He doesn’t rush every new novel or short story into a film adaptation like Stephen King.  While there were some missteps with Barker’s earlier film adaptations, it wasn’t directly his fault.  Still, you ask Clive questions about this movie, he’ll probably turn you down.  He’s sick of discussing it, and feels it is firmly settled in his past.  But never minding that, Hellraiser still stands as a horror classic.  It was a serious injection of true horror when the rest of the genre was turning campy and being drained of anything resembling a scary movie.  Written & directed by Barker, based on his short story, “The Hellbound Heart” this is possibly, the most gritty horror film since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but far gorier.  The gore quality is damn near off-the-chart.  I still find myself cringing at how gruesome Hellraiser is.  This film is truly an original piece of classic horror cinema.  As stated by Stephen King himself, “I have seen the future of horror fiction, and his name is Clive Barker.”

This film’s premise is certainly original in all aspects.  It starts out with a small puzzle box, seemingly harmless, but is said to unlock an experience where pain and pleasure are indivisible.  The man who seeks it is named Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman).  He thought he’d been to the limits of human pleasures, but his fate is unimaginable.  He solves the puzzle box, and what it invites is hell itself, in the form of the Cenobites.  He dies in the third floor room of this house that is soon inhabited by his brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) along with Larry’s wife Julia (Clare Higgins) and daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence).  After cutting himself trying to haul the mattress upstairs, Larry’s blood spills upon the floor that Frank died on.  Unknowingly to them all, that small amount of blood is enough to regenerate some amount of Frank’s living body.  He has escaped from hell, and hell doesn’t like that.  We learn of a past sexual relationship between Julia and Frank, and Frank uses her devotion to him to regain his full form through unsuspecting men.  Kirsty gets caught in the midst of this horrific conspiracy, and things rise to another level when the Cenobites come looking for more victims.

This is a dark, gory, and unbound vision of horror by Clive Barker.  In retrospect, it is easy for one’s focus to shift towards Doug Bradley and the other Cenobites as the star attraction.  For me, it is the performances of the human characters that are the real jewels here.  The emotional and psychological depth the actors bring to their roles are rich and real.  Clare Higgins is devilishly seductive, but also, presents an honest vulnerability and apprehension.  She is captivating and fascinating.   She shows a nice wide range in how Frank took a generally decent young woman and ensnared her into becoming the more deceptive and corrupted woman she is now.  Andrew Robinson is also a marvel.  While his portrayal of Larry Cotton is certainly what it should be, and doesn’t seem like much of a standout, he portrays it with a lot of heart.  It’s sincere and honest.  Although, it is his turn at the end of the film which really gets the juices flowing.  He becomes deliciously sadistic and sinister.  He really chews it up, and lets nothing stand in his way of delivering an insidious, lustful villain.  Robinson has repeatedly impressed me with his amazingly diverse and substantive performances, especially in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Our female lead, Ashley Laurence, really draws in an audience, firstly, with her fresh-faced beauty, but quickly becomes an immensely likable protagonist.  Where Kirsty is surrounded by people who are either morally corrupt or faced with emotional conflicts, she shines through as the most innocent.  She maintains strength of character with conviction, and remains an excellent conduit for the audience to experience the horrific fantasy that unfolds before them.  She is the moral center of the story, caught in the eye of the storm which she weathers greatly.  She loves her father deeply, and that motivates her actions throughout the latter half of the film.  Despite the disturbing and horrific things befalling her, she holds onto that love to carry her through in order to keep her dad safe.  Kirsty is an excellent heroine that an audience can really get behind, and feel true sympathy for.

The character of Frank Cotton is brilliantly brought to life by Sean Chapman, who handles the human half, and Oliver Wood, who appears as the skinless Frank.  Chapman establishes the lustful and dangerously seductive man who desires to experience the extreme limits of human pleasure.  Wood creates a man who has been beyond those limits, and is now a darker, more threatening creature.  However, he still has seductive qualities as demonstrated by the fact that he gets Julia to lure in and kill unsuspecting men so he can regenerate himself.  However, he is a man motivated by fear of the Cenobites ready to use and abuse anyone necessary to escape them.  Julia is so blinded by her overwhelming desire to be with him again that she will do anything for him.  Larry is such a lightweight man, cringing at blood, and being a generally decent person that Julia feels her life to be rather bland.  Frank offers the wild erotic excitement and danger that she craves.  Getting a woman to murder for you in order to resurrect yourself is an amazing feat, and shows how psychologically warped Frank has made Julia.  This is the true villain of the film, and demonstrates what kind of twisted evil can lurk in the human heart.

Of course, Doug Bradley does need to be addressed.  In conjunction with Barker, Bradley creates a character that is beautifully dispassionate.  He has a cold zeal regarding the transcendent experiences of Hell.  He has tasted them, reveled in their indescribable sensations, and has been tamed by them into perfect order.  Bradley sinks his teeth into what is best described as a standout supporting role.  The Cenobites are used, essentially, as a plot device, same as the puzzle box.  They are background characters here, but powerful ones.  The full contingent of the Cenobites are well played by their respective actors aided by their deeply detailed prosthetic and make-up designs.  With Bradley, you clearly can’t help but be taken aback by his appearance in this film.  Pinhead, or “Lead Cenobite,” is an instantly iconic character with a more direct and identifiable design than his fellow Cenobites, but they are all memorable to the franchise’s fans.

The look of the film is very dark and grainy, but is shot excellently despite its budgetary limitations.  There is a clear vision of artistry here born out of Clive’s own dense, dark imagination.  The film showcases how rawness and grittiness can create a certain macabre beauty.  The gore of Hellraiser is intense and in abundance.  For the weak of stomach, it could get overwhelming, but the skinless Frank is a genuine work of gruesome art.  Barker has a way to make horror beautiful, in a twisted, demented fashion. The Cenobite makeup, while in a rawer form than later on, truly adds to the texture of this film. Tortured, twisted, and mutilated to hellish perfection, they are amazingly well conceived and designed.  I rather prefer this look over later installments which got cheap in the costuming department, and sleeker in the makeup design.  By the direct-to-video entries, their appearances became more fake and soft than anything else.  In this film, all of the make-up effects work is groundbreaking, in my eyes.  They hold up amazingly well in tight close-ups as hooks dig into prosthetic skin, and lend to the realization of great overall nasty creations.  The only dated piece of effects work comes with the visual effects, which were simple rotoscoped cell animation, but it’s all kept to minimum.  It’s really apparent in the climax, but it hardly diminishes the enjoyment of the film as a whole for me.  However, for a modern audience used to more sophisticated digital effects, it might certainly come off as terribly primitive and jokey.

On the higher quality end of the things, the score by Christopher Young is wonderful and powerful.  It is highly orchestral for a horror film, but that aspect creates a far grander canvas for this film to exist upon.  I have always liked that Hellraiser was a more epic horror franchise presenting operatic visuals, themes, and characterizations with the Cenobites.  That’s where Barker’s imagination lives and thrives.  While the story is more personal in nature, the fantastical elements are always grand and sweeping.  Christopher Young’s gothic stylings really would spark off many similar scores such as Danny Elfman’s Batman themes, and Graeme Revell’s The Crow compositions.  The gothic aspects take the operatic qualities and tones them towards more haunting, atmospheric, and chilling aspects.

Now, despite Clive Barker’s belief that this is an uneven film, I do feel he did a highly admirable job.  Barker had directed a few short films before this in the 1970s, but this was his feature film directorial debut.  I believe a director can be his own harshest critic, and I wholly understand that.  Regardless, the storytelling is tight and solid.  There’s a lot of tension of varying kinds throughout the film, and Barker delivers it all quite well.  I have been a large supporter of Clive Barker as a filmmaker.  Lord of Illusions is one of my all time favorite horror films because of the brilliant genre blending work he did there.  It is unfortunate that studio conflicts and interference soured him towards continuing on as a director, but he has continued as a producer for adaptations of his written work.  I believe Hellraiser to definitely be something for him to be proud of for his first feature length directorial work.  This is a classic for a reason.  In a time where B-level slasher films were the dominant sub-genre in horror, this film came out and changed the standard for horror films.  Fortunately or unfortunately, in my eyes, nothing has yet to equal to Hellraiser, except for its first sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II.  It is an excellent mix of an intelligent, original, and ambitious story with that classic Barker macabre horror.   It has solid, powerful performances all around creating a very diverse, rich set of characters, and a great gritty beauty enhanced masterfully by the score.  This has allowed Barker’s 1987 film to standout still, to this day, as a bonafide horror classic.  You really cannot afford to pass this film up.