Good werewolf movies are difficult to come by. Most just don’t find a way to make them interesting, alluring, or entertaining like vampire films are more easily able to do. However, there are a few universally accepted classics of this subgenre, and this 1981 film from director Joe Danté based on the novel by Gary Brandner is indeed one of them. For me, it’s a movie that’s taken some time to get into. The first time I rented it on VHS I was working twelve hour shifts to the early morning hours, and fell asleep halfway through, same as with The Amityville Horror. This time, I gave it my full attention and patience.
Severely shaken after a near-fatal encounter with a serial killer, TV newscaster Karen White (Dee Wallace) takes some much-needed time off. Hoping to conquer her inner demons, she heads for “the Colony,” a secluded retreat where her new neighbors are just a tad too eager to make her feel at home. Also, there seems to be a bizarre link between her would-be attacker and this supposedly safe haven. And when, after nights of being tormented by savage shrieks and unearthly cries, Karen ventures into the forest to find answers, she makes a terrifying discovery. Now she must fight not only for her life, but for her very soul.
The Howling is an extremely slow burn film. Joe Danté gives you only the vaguest of teases early on hiding his ravenous creatures in the shadows and brief glimpses, which can be effective. The best execution of this is in the first act of the film where Karen encounters Eddie, the supposed serial killer portrayed by Robert Picardo. The use of darkness, suspense, and subtle backlight is a brilliant work of art. However, my suspicions from way back on first viewing were right in that we don’t see a werewolf in all its full glory until well past the halfway point in the movie. Until then, Danté takes the time to utilize some psychological aspects as Karen is haunted by her experience with Eddie. She is hit with nightmares and startling visions that heighten her fear and paranoia. This film is a bit of give and take. You certainly go into this wanting to see the werewolves reeking havoc often, but you have to wait a very, very long time to get to that point. However, once you do, the pay-off is excellent as Danté doesn’t hold back anything.
Many would know the special make-up effects work of Rob Bottin from John Carpenter’s The Thing, but that would be another year after this picture. Here, he creates some of the most amazing werewolf effects ever. Everything is so lifelike with very fine details and textures in addition to very elaborate methods used in the transformation sequences. Today, it would all be digital effects, but in 1981, you needed a practical effects master to realize something of this stunning vision of horror. The full size werewolves are wholly frightening as they tower probably at a good seven feet tall with every ferocious quality imaginable. What Bottin accomplished here will truly unnerve and terrify many. How he did it on a $1.5 million budget, even in 1981 dollars, just floors me.
This is also one of the absolutely most beautifully shot horror films I’ve ever seen. Joe Danté and his cinematographer John Hora utilize some very inspired camera angles and compositions. However, the most gorgeous aspects are the brilliant backlighting and the use of colored gels to create a wonderful haunting atmosphere. There are films that are simply shot in color, and then, there are films that utilize color in remarkable ways. The Howling is truly the latter as these reds, blues, and greens highlight the creepy and eerie moments like fine brush strokes of artistic inspiration.
The Howling does more than simply give you werewolves slashing and gnawing on humans. Firstly, it has some satire on the entire self-help movement. Trying to aid those afflicted with being a werewolf with therapy and a push towards integration into society is handled with the right kind of wit without being comical. Joe Danté definitely has that talent to fuse horror and humor such as with Gremlins, but he keeps things on point with the horror and barely diminishes that at all. Furthermore, this film gives us a strange but perfectly executed mix of sensuality and terror in one sex sequence. Once again, the artistic beauty of the film is on display as two people engage in sexual activity at a campfire, but as the act becomes more virile, the beats within are unleashed and they begin to transform. What begins as very erotic turns into a frightening, primal act that still gets the heart pumping. This is a very tantalizing and compelling sequence melding these two things together in a very provocative way.
The cast of this horror classic is jam packed with excellent acting talents such as Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, John Carradine, Kevin McCarthy, Robert Picardo, Noble Willingham, Dick Miller, and several others. Every single one of them does a solid job bringing forth the distinct qualities of their characters’ personalities. In particular, Dee Wallace leads the film with the right level of vulnerability and traumatic unease. The fear the audience regularly feels is channeled through her performance, and the journey her character goes through in this results in a unforgettable conclusion. Also very notable is Robert Picardo proving yet again that I know he’s a great actor. What he does as the supposed serial killer Eddie is tremendous and dead-on-the-mark showing a very subtle intimidation factor with his restrained charisma and clear full fledged absorption of this character into himself. He also acts through all the wickedly good make-up with exceptional ease. He might have only a few brief scenes, but he really becomes one of the most memorable things about this cast.
The ending of The Howling is fantastic and frightening. First off, the entire third act is just excellent every step of the way as we finally get our full helping of werewolf awesomeness in a hair-raising escape sequence. However, what comes after that when Karen returns to the television studio for her news report is exceptionally tragic and clever. What she sets out to accomplish with her live report is smartly turned on its head by these filmmakers. Almost no one believes what they see and dismiss it as a high quality fabrication. They believe it to be spectacle instead of the raw, chilling reality that it is. The film concludes on a very signature Joe Danté beat of wit and humor. He has always been a unique filmmaker infusing a special, unmatched blend of the bizarre and the humorous with excellent results.
Now, is The Howling a horror movie for everyone? Maybe not. I’m sure there are people who wouldn’t enjoy sitting around for fifty minutes before we get a real good look at a werewolf, which I honestly had an issue with. After Karen’s early encounter with Eddie, there’s very little horror or suspense to engage you on the horror movie level until you’re more than halfway through the movie. The characters and performances are perfectly fine to move the plot forward in the interim, but there’s hardly anything to get your heart pounding with terror in that time. However, I appreciate the artistic brilliance of this film, and anything that doesn’t quite work for me is possibly more attributed to just not being quite my style. I also wholly endorse teasing us with the werewolves, much like Ridley Scott did with his creature in Alien. Build up suspense with it, and then, once you finally reveal it, you’ve got a great, startling moment of awe. This is a remarkably well made movie, and one that absolutely has its rabid fan base that I entirely respect. Whether or not the slow, slow build up and reveal is to your taste, this is one of those horror essentials you need to see. The pay-off for that build-up is definitely well worth the wait, and seeing what practical effects could achieve back in the day will show you what CGI has almost never been able to replicate.
Something went wrong with Hellraiser III. Clive Barker might be credited as an executive producer, but it essentially means nothing. He proposed a storyline, but then, was relegated to a back seat executive producer’s credit. I can’t perceive any of his influence here, but that’s not what’s really wrong with this sequel. This sequel had workable elements for a thoroughly fascinating story, but what might seem to have some potential eventually degrades into sub-standard horror movie cheesiness. The execution of Hell on Earth diverges far away from the style of the previous two films. Part of the problem is that the franchise was now in the hands of a Hollywood studio who wanted to push a far more commercial appeal. The script needed an overhaul, and the quality of acting is akin to a jokey slasher flick, which is exactly what this film descends into.
Joey Summerskill (Terry Farrell) is a failing television news reporter in search of that story that will break her out of obscurity. While finishing a report on some go-nowhere story at the hospital one night, a young man is carted into the emergency room with chains ripped into his flesh and dangling from his body. Then, before the eyes of many in the emergency operating room, the man’s body is torn apart, and of course, Joey believes this is the caliber of story she’s been seeking. She tracks the young woman, Terri (Paula Marshall), that accompanied the man to the hospital and finds that her boyfriend is night club owner J.P. Munroe (Kevin Bernhardt), who owns a familiar pillar – the pillar of souls which now contains an imprisoned Pinhead who became trapped there after the confrontation with the Channard Cenobite in the previous film. After the spilling of blood on the pillar, Pinhead begins to reawaken, and with more blood, he can be fully regenerated. Meanwhile, Joey comes into possession of the Lament Configuration through Terri., and details of Pinhead’s mortal, human life as British Captain Elliott Spenser are soon revealed. Elliott exists apart from Pinhead now who is a free being, separated from Leviathan and Spenser, and thus, has become a far more lively and sadistic being. There is no more reasoning, no more hesitation, and no more bargains. Elliott believes he can defeat Pinhead, but Joey must bring the two together within Elliott’s realm to do so. Therefore, Joey is sent out on her mission to lure Pinhead into a trap, but Pinhead proves to be a more cunning adversary than she anticipates.
There was a very good Pinhead origin story buried underneath the second rate qualities of this sequel. It follows a logical story progression from the first two films, but the script they put together and the execution thereof just crashed and burned so hard. At the start, it doesn’t seem like a bad movie, but the garbage just continues to accumulate to turn it into a bad, cringable entry in the Hellraiser franchise. Instead of carrying on an ambitious, intelligent, and bold storytelling mentality, the film constantly takes the soft, cheap, or thinly developed route. Worse yet is that so much of the Hellraiser mythology and atmosphere is abandoned here that measuring up to the first two films becomes hopeless. For one, aside from Pinhead, all of the other Cenobites we’ve seen are gone, and new ones are created by Pinhead for his own convenience. That alone contradicts the mythology. Leviathan creates Cenobites, and only those that solve the Lament Configuration have the potential to become one. Pinhead and other Cenobites do not have the power to create other Cenobites at will. Where this new power comes from for Pinhead is a complete mystery, and it only gets worse in the following film. Granted, Pinhead does say that these new minions are a mere shadow of his former troops, but that’s a thin consolation for giving us such jokey trash. Hellraiser III simply bestows a wealth of powers upon Pinhead including gaining psychic abilities as well as creating illusions and dream-like realities without ever explaining how he or even Elliott Spenser obtained such powers. Captain Spenser says he and Pinhead have been unbound from Hell, but since all the power they had was derived from Leviathan, shouldn’t that mean being cutoff from Hell would leave them powerless? That would seem logical.
The characters and acting are a mixed bag. Being a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fan, I know Terry Farrell is quite a good and capable actress, but her performance as Joey Summerskill is very unimpressive. She’s supposed to be this driven journalist frustrated at her obscure status trying to crack open this riveting case, but what’s on the page doesn’t come out on screen. There’s no intensity or hard hitting motivation in Farrell’s performance. It’s almost all very soft and bland. I was continually struck by how flat her performance was throughout this movie. She makes what was an underdeveloped character on the page, and made it terribly yawn inducing. One would expect something along the lines of a Margot Kidder Lois Lane who is assertive, aggressive, and driven to prove herself. Instead, Farrell seems to put the minimum amount of effort into this role. The dream sequences about Joey’s father are meant to make her a sympathetic character, but they just came off as cheap, forced, and uninspired. They have almost nothing at all to do with the plot except for a very thinly veiled deception near the end. Between the lazy screenwriting and the lackluster acting, this is not a character or performance that could carry this film at all. Ashley Laurence has more depth, life, and emotion in her momentary cameo on a videotape than Terry Farrell shows in the entire movie.
Thankfully, Paula Marshall puts in a much better performance as Terri. Although, some of the stuff they write in to give the character depth is rather ridiculous. It would be one thing if Terri had nothing to aspire to, no ambition or direction in life, but to not have actual dreams when she sleeps would actually result in severe health problems. Maybe I’m taking things a little too seriously here, but it’s clearly something would’ve worked better as a metaphor instead of a literal statement. Regardless of this off-the-mark idea, Marshall really brings some viable depth and vulnerability to the role. She comes off as vastly more dimensional than Joey by way of a more grounded and relatable emotional portrayal. I would’ve preferred her being the central protagonist in the film picking up the reins from Kirsty Cotton. She seems to have more fertile emotional ground to explore than the uneven and uninteresting character of Joey. Being a drifter with no home or family, Terri automatically has a wealth of potential for a screenwriter to delve into, and Paula Marshall clearly had the talent to handle such material. It’s sad that this movie was constantly ignorant towards the potential it had on-hand, and made no effort to utilize that potential to its fullest effect.
Kevin Bernhardt’s J.P. Munroe is the most one dimensional, cheap sleaze as it gets. He’s just a cog in the story, and the script doesn’t do anything with the character. Likewise, Bernhardt doesn’t do anything worth noting with the role. He has no more to him than any low grade slasher flick, and that’s what this seems to span out to in the third act. Bloodbaths, senseless killings, and a high body count – none of which are in the Hellraiser style. The studio took Hellraiser, and turned it into a cheesy slasher franchise, eliminating anything innovative, thematic, or chilling about the mythos. The filmmakers turn Pinhead into the new Freddy Krueger with one-liners, over the top moments, and a group of seriously lame Cenobites. Pinhead loses his coldness and his seemingly heartless passion for hell. Some fans say that the appeal of this film is seeing Pinhead unleashed, but for me, that becomes its least intriguing quality. The character was far more fascinating when there was still a chilling air of mystique to his personality. On the whole here, he has been written as a completely different character that is bad enough on its own, but in the guise of Pinhead, it becomes excessively ridiculous and continually cringable. Pinhead becomes a deceiver, manipulator, and tempter of desires. He comes off more like a standard, melodramatic portrayal of the Devil than a logical progression of Pinhead. You’ve got Doug Bradley just going for broke like it doesn’t matter. He does a good job early on, but once the film does begin to “unleash” the character, his performance just becomes terribly uninteresting. Pinhead becomes another schlocky, cackling, dumb villain who’s there just to chew up scenery. Conversely, Bradley does a fine job as Elliott Spenser giving him both a strong sense of will and determination with a subtle humanity. It’s a decent performance, but it’s only too bad that it wasn’t in a better quality film to allow the Spenser character to be more fleshed out with a stronger dynamic with Pinhead.
Further contradictions to the established Hellraiser universe come with all the religious references and quips. Beyond just the betrayal of tone, one would swear that screenwriter Peter Atkins didn’t understand the franchise he was writing for, but he also co-wrote the incredible Hellbound: Hellraiser II. So, it entirely baffles me how he wrote this weak, uninspired script. What Hell really is in this fictional universe has no connection to religious interpretations or beliefs. It’s not a place for sinners or where your soul goes after death. It’s another dimension accessed by the solving of the Lament Configuration in conjunction with one’s desires to be subjected to the indivisible experiences of pain and pleasure that Leviathan offers. Atkins shows no respect to the established mythology or tone of these films. The scene of Pinhead in the church is one of the absolute worst scenes of the entire franchise because it exemplifies every downright horrible aspect of this movie. It is gratuitous in the extreme, and puts Pinhead in a setting he has no necessity to ever be in. The film is simply going as over-the-top at this point as possible not caring about story or character relevance, and just indulging in whatever the filmmakers want to do on a whim.
Thematically or visually, Hellraiser III isn’t really dark at all, let alone macabre, and repeatedly delves into a completely out-of-place self-parodying style. It conforms to the trends of the time, and thus, loses a lot of credibility for the future of the franchise. The cinematography is generally gimmicky and frenetic at times relying on a cheap early 90s MTV style. It’s definitely something that would be more enjoyable in a B-grade action movie than a horror film. Lighting schemes that might have potential just come off as ineffective due to a lack of vision and talent to create proper atmosphere. Unlike the previous two Hellraiser movies, there is no thematic material here, and instead, the movie simply gratifies itself with cheap gore and sexual content with no substance to justify any of it. An unrated cut was released on VHS and Laserdisc including extra gore and some other minor additions, but apparently, this version has not been released on DVD in North America. The film, as it is, is obviously cut down for gore as there are numerous quick, bad cutaways from the bloodier moments creating a quite tame and unsatisfying experience. However, an unrated cut is nothing that could salvage this film as a whole. A lack of substantive gore is the very least of this film’s problems.
Director Anthony Hickox demonstrates no better handle on horror than he ever has before. It’s a cheesy, jokey film with a light, commercial tone that is more interested in silly, cheap entertainment than offering up a chilling, intelligent vision of horror. The entire third act of the movie is just wretched for a Hellraiser movie. It couldn’t be any more of a betrayal and insult to what the series had stood for up to this point. It’s horrendously schlocky, terribly cheap, and stupidly over-the-top. It demonstrates no respect for the franchise by having Pinhead cackling like a brainless third rate villain, and throwing loads of gratuitous violence and action set pieces which have no relevance to horror. This is where those aforementioned poor excuses for Cenobites are revealed, and they are even given bad dialogue with cringable one-liners. This is not a Hellraiser movie, but it is quite expected for an Anthony Hickox movie. Warlock: The Armageddon had many of these cheesy qualities which indulged in underwhelming characters, some bad acting, and a severe lack of horror related content. Where that film is essentially disposable and dismissible, Hellraiser III ultimately develops into a giant slap in the face of the franchise. It’s hard to believe that Clive Barker would still want his name associated with this movie because he surely didn’t want it with Hellraiser: Bloodline. This is a mid-to-late 80s slasher film made in the early 90s when horror was on a very steep decline in quality and popularity. Between terrible handling by Dimension Films, and helmed by a cheap director, Hellraiser III easily falls short of all its potential.
The vast majority of these passionate gripes are focused on the final half hour of the movie. This is when Pinhead is released from the pillar of souls, and becomes this over-the-top, uninteresting villain. Before that, there are some good qualities in the film such as Paula Marshall’s performance, and the more subtle moments with Doug Bradley as Captain Spenser and Pinhead. Despite having a new composer, it retains Christopher Young’s iconic themes, and they are used throughout the film. However, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth is barely passable as a horror film. Atmosphere, suspense, or proper tone have nothing to do with this film, and the majority of the acting is simply devoid of passion or is embarrassingly over-the-top. There are a lot of duds in this franchise, and it’s hard to say exactly which is the worst. This is more like another bad, cheesy A Nightmare On Elm Street sequel instead of a chilling and intelligent Hellraiser sequel. Barker’s involvement seems non-existent here as Pinhead is forced into too much of a foreground, dominant character instead of the ominous, looming figure in the background where he seems to work best. His limited screen time in the first two movies made his presence and character seem more powerful. He does tend to do more in a limited time capacity than he achieves in a lengthy role here. Basically, this is sad excuse for a sequel to the brilliant and macabre masterpieces of Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II. Maybe if this was not a Hellraiser movie, something entirely separate and unrelated, one might be able to view it in a better light and actually gain some cheesy entertainment value out of it. However, as a part of this franchise, it’s just downright embarrassing The only consolation you have at the end of this movie is that the excellent track “Hellraiser” by Motörhead from their March Or Die album blares over the end credits. The music video, directed by Clive Barker, actually features Lemmy Kilmister squaring off with Pinhead in a game of cards. The song, lyrically, has nothing to do with the Hellraiser films, but this film at least gave us something worthwhile in that very cool music video. It’s just about the only worthwhile thing it produced.