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Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005)

At one time, this was to be the apparent final installment in the original Hellraiser film continuity, and there was a very real reason for that.  Since the Weinstein’s have been unable to get their remake off the ground, they slap dashed another sequel together after this one which I will never see.  Hellraiser: Hellworld is like The Matrix meets New Nightmare crossed with the worse entries in this franchise.  Don’t be fooled by the presence of Lance Henriksen – he’s made plenty of bad movies.  While it is nice to see Lance and Pinhead share a scene, it’s brief and doesn’t save the film one bit.  In fact, it confuses the issue even further – what reality is this set in?

A young man named Adam (Stelian Urian) commits suicide after forging a deep obsession with the Hellraiser mythos and an internet game called Hellworld.  His friends fail to act when Adam was spiraling out of control, aside from Jake (Christopher Jacot), who ultimately blames them for everything.  This is all, supposedly, a reality where the films are real and everything else is fiction, but that’s not for certain.  Adam’s friends grieve his death, and two years later, are invited to a mansion-filled Hellworld party by The Host (Lance Henriksen).  They are greeted by the mysterious, cryptic gentleman, and are shown into his private, macabre collection to explore freely.  Though, what they see and experience soon horrifies them.  Somehow, they have entered into a manufactured hell, designed to take their sanity and their lives, but what is the true reality here?

What honestly drags the value of this film down into the dumps really is the story.  Setting it in a world such as Wes Craven’s New Nightmare where Hellraiser is an actual film series and internet presence, and making it that the Cenobites, supposedly, are not real, they are just a device for which Henriksen’s character seeks revenge, sets itself up for failure.  While New Nightmare was a very intelligent and effective film with a cleverly crafted premise, Hellworld just doesn’t have that ambition or creativity to coherently make the concept work.  The story really has nothing to do with the mythology of the series, or anything of a personal hell.  If this was produced as a film with no connection of any kind to Hellraiser, as it originally was written as, it might have been pretty decent, but you cannot follow this film’s logic.  You cannot setup a world where the Cenobites, Leviathan, the Lament Configuration, and so forth are merely fictional creations, but then, turn around at the very end to show that they are completely real.  New Nightmare handled it differently, and had actual explanations for how it was possible for Freddy, or a demon in the guise thereof, was able to transcend the realities.  Hellworld’s ending has some satisfaction, but as I said, it’s too short-lived to make a real impact on the quality of the film.

Regardless of the plot or script, the film is as generally well-acted as any of the last few sequels – nothing spectacular, but just good enough.  Henriksen, obviously, presents a strong performance that helps to gravitate the film’s events and characters.  It’s pretty much what you’d expect from him in a villainous role.  It is sad that Henriksen is such a damn good and very dedicated actor, but he continually stars in such poor quality films.  I really think he should seek out new representation, and get himself back into better roles in better movies.  Moving on, we still get faithful Doug Bradley in his usual role.  Not much to say about it.  Same old, reliable thing, as expected.  Personally, I would have liked to see Doug Bradley have more to work with in this series, such as in the third film when the filmmakers were exploring Elliot Spenser.  Give him somewhere new to go with the character and his acting talents.  By this point, it felt like he was just playing it by-the-numbers, but at least he had enough sense to back out of Hellraiser: Revelations.  The supporting cast of Hellworld is your usual horror film youngsters all looking pretty, and ready to get ripped to shreds.  No one exceptional stands out, but they all hold their own well enough.  I don’t mean to be cavalier about it, but it’s mostly your standard horror movie performances.  There’s not a great deal of room for the actors to stretch their abilities, but it is comfortably above the cheap talent we’ve all occasionally endured in other horror films.

The effects here are about standard for the direct-to-video end of the series.  There’s very little that will jump out and amaze you at its awesomeness.  After watching all of these lower budgeted sequels, it’s difficult to conjure up anything substantive to say about the practical or visual effects.  At times with Hellworld, there is fast cutting, trying to give the film a more disorienting experience, but I can’t say it’s all that favorable.  It works as good as it can.  Unfortunately, it does little but to confuse an audience.  Computer generated imagery is, inevitably, made use of in this film.  You can’t escape it, especially on the lower budgets of these direct-to-video films.  It simply allows the filmmakers to do more while spending less, in comparison to practical, physical effects.

Now, despite the whole mixed bag of crap we have here, I do have to say that the cinematography and general look of the film is very good.  It is probably one of the better entries to establish a visual self-identity.  The use of dark and light along with a select color palette truly allow the imagery to pop out and be eye-catching.  Granted, we’re not talking Blade Runner here, but it certainly lends itself towards a workable and generally effective atmosphere.  While the production values are still rather sleek, the lighting helps to shadow almost anything that may, potentially, appear to be too cheap or fabricated.  That’s something to credit director Rick Bota for since he has a solid career as a cinematographer, but the film’s actual director of photograph, Gabriel Kosuth, deserves the credit for realizing this style.

While I have left two prior sequels un-reviewed at this time, I might get around to them eventually for compeltist’s sake.  In short, Inferno is one I’ve never liked at all, not one bit.  It turns Pinhead into a figure of moral persecution in the extremely little screentime he has, and gives us a fully morally corrupt and unsympathetic character as a lead.  I do own Hellraiser: Deader, but it’s been a long time since I’ve watched it.  I do recall it being very surreal, but it manages to tie itself back into the mythology with connections back to Bloodline.  I recall liking it enough to warrant a purchase when it was released, which was around the same time as Hellworld.  The summation of this franchise seems to be that it started out with brilliance and progressively got diluted into a mess of inconsistency and frequent incoherence.  It’s a very hit or miss franchise following Hellbound, but each entry, more or less, seems to have its fans.  Perhaps, some sequels would have been better films apart from the Hellraiser name, or simply judged in a vacuum.  However, it’s difficult to watch a lesser grade sequel knowing just how amazing and awe-inspiring its early predecessors were.

Taking all things into account with this sequel, there’s really too much going against it to make a recommendation for it.  The franchise just fizzled out completely with Hellworld.  Granted, there’s plenty of ways to rebound, but Dimension Films still seems like the wholly wrong studio to be controlling this franchise.  They don’t seem to care about making the best movie they possibly can.  They just want the most commercialized, wide appealing pile of incoherence they can put together.  In any case, there are worthwhile qualities within this film, but the negatives bog it down far too much.


Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002)

The direct-to-video end of the Hellraiser franchise has not yielded very admirable results.  However, I found this entry to be a great surprise.  Granted, this one doesn’t have a lot of Hellraiser-style gore, but gore alone does not make a Hellraiser film.  Although, one early scene might spur thoughts from Hellbound, and  I feel this is the best sequel since Hellbound: Hellraiser II.  While this does share some elements with Hellraiser: Inferno, it blends everything together very nicely for a superior film.  It is a whole twisting story that wraps itself with past mythology and storylines featuring the return of Ashley Laurence.

We open to Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) and her now husband, Trevor (Dean Winters), driving down the road speaking vaguely of things we are yet to understand.  They start playfully fooling around, start kissing, but Trevor narrowly misses a head-on collision with an SUV which swerves the car off the bridge into the river.  Tthe car sinks, Trevor escapes, but is unable to free Kirsty.  Naturally, Trevor believes she drowned to death, but her body cannot be found.  Trevor wakes up to some amnesia along with several disturbing experiences, but he takes them as nightmares due to his head trauma.  Trevor is re-oriented to his peculiar surroundings including his sexually aggressive boss Gwen, his sexy young neighbor in his apartment complex, and his somewhat oddly-behaving co-worker and friend Bret.  Trevor is plagued by bizarre images and nightmarish experiences all the while more and more of his memory returns.  He can’t explain why someone dies in his apartment, but then, reappear alive with no memory of such events.  Or why he sees an image in the video camera happening right before him, but yet, it isn’t.  Why he feels he’s being watched or followed by a faceless, dark figure.  None of it makes sense to him.  One cop believes he’s done nothing wrong, but another believes he killed his wife.  The further it all progresses, the more it comes together like any sort of puzzle.  It’s all cleverly woven into a worthy sequel to the first two Hellraiser films.

I really have to say that I think Dean Winters is a severely under-recognized talent.  He’s an actor with a lot of charisma and emotional strength capable of being a major leading man.  He always puts everything he has into everything he does.  Hellraiser: Hellseeker is no different.  He carries this film excellently reflecting various states of confusion, heartfelt emotion, inquisitiveness, menace, and passion.  He embodies that wide range with ease and depth.  With both how the story is structured, and the honest quality of his performance, even in the end, I didn’t really despise Trevor despite what he tried to do to Kirsty.  You can come to feel empathy for Trevor as the man you’ve come to know over the course of this film instead of the man he really was.

The entire cast really is a solid mixture.  Detective Lange is given plenty of humanity and compassion by William S. Taylor, and conversely, Detective Givens is nicely hard edged and abrasive by way of Michael Rogers.  The ladies of the film are all very attractive, and handle the steamy, seductive aspects of their roles with a lot of passion and assertiveness.  There’s definite some stimulating sexually charged action in the movie that further throws Trevor into a whirlwind of confusion.

Doug Bradley puts in one of his best performances here.  Of course, he portrays Pinhead, and does so with a lot of chilling, intimidating vigor.  He seemed very amped up for this script as it gives him a very juicy role that he sinks his teeth into very deeply.  The film puts in just the right amount of Pinhead to keep him compelling with just a few poignant scenes.  Since they avoid over indulging in the character, those scenes have strong impact which had been missed in the last several entries.  The previous film, Hellraiser: Inferno, had so little Pinhead in it that he had nearly zero impact.  Hellseeker gets it right.  Bradley also portrays a sort of second character which he brings a different, yet similar quality to.  He’s more cryptic and tempting in a subtle fashion that is very effective.  His performance as this Merchant really sets a foreboding, mysterious tone for much of the film.  The scene is very nicely interspersed throughout the film as Trevor flashes back to it every so often to reveal more of it.

The structure used here to build up these very vivid and terrifying hallucinations, and slowly reveal the darker truths surrounding Trevor is, dare I say, very brilliant.  While it’s not all that original of a structure, the execution is just so exceptionally effective.  The hallucinations are startling and constantly unnerving to an audience who must regularly question the reality of the situation.  The mysterious aspects are greatly interwoven for a very compelling story that moves at strong, steady pace.  Overall, this is just an exceptionally well written and executed script that has a strong punch of a twist ending.

The film was directed by Rick Bota, who had previously been an amazing cinematographer on a number of movies.  So, it’s no surprise that he makes this film look far above its direct-to-video status.  He clearly worked extensively with director of photography John Drake to create a very textured and moody look for Hellseeker with its blue and green tones.  It creates a hardened, cold aesthetic that benefits the story very well.  There is plenty of grit in the darker visuals and a rich depth of contrast that enhances the moodiness.  The visuals really have a lot of weight and integrity, and the camera work is very solid.  There’s plenty of dramatic angles, used sparingly, and competent camera movement to give this film production value and artistic quality.  Overall, this is a film that is shot very solidly.

While the Steven Edwards’ score is definite departure from the classic Christopher Young style music, it suits this film nicely.  There are some electric guitar pieces mixed in with the orchestral work, and I think that gives this Hellraiser film a bit more respectable self-identity.  The score of Edwards surely supports the unnerving and startling tone that is so very well executed by Rick Bota.

Hellseeker still unsettled me after several years since my last watch of it.  There were plenty of graphic sequences that made me squirm and wince.  These are great story beats that weave into the overall plot smartly by the end.  Nothing’s ever gratuitous.  It all has a purpose once understood in retrospect.  The effectiveness of this nerve twitching moments are a testament to both the amazing make-up effects work of Gary Tunnicliffe, and the digital effects work headed up by Jamison Goei.  Regardless of a direct-to-video budget, the results of both are greatly impressive.  Tunnicliffe really raised the standards of practical effects back to the first two films of the franchise.  I will admit that the Cenobites still have the same quality as they do in the other later sequels, they are surely photographed better.  The visual effects of Goei are very admirable on this kind of level.  I’ve seen big budget summer blockbusters with horrendous CGI, but here, it’s quite good.  It’s not Jurassic Park quality, but for a horror franchise of this budget, it’s superior to what you’d likely expect.

All in all, this is a damn good sequel.  While I do feel this is the best sequel since Hellbound, don’t go thinking that this is a comparison to the first two films because it’s not.  Those are different styles of stories than this.  It’s a far more suspenseful, creepy, and mysterious film.  It’s not so dependent on the Cenobites to drive the story forward.  It has its surreal, bewildering qualities as Trevor’s own perception of reality is increasingly distorted.  This is what Hellraiser: Inferno should have been, but failed greatly by detaching itself from any backstory or mythology that the series had been built on.  That’s what Hellraiser is, it’s a story built on mythology as well as inner and outer conflicts.  To lose the mythology and the backstory really doesn’t make it feel like Hellraiser.  From the very beginning of the original Hellraiser, we’ve got mythology and history that was rich with depth.  That’s what gives this series its strength.  Pinhead and the rest of the Hellraiser mythos have so much that is yet to be known.  There’s so much fertile ground that can still be harvested for further stories such as this one.  With something as vast and as dark as Leviathan’s realm, there has to be much more that can be told about it.

While this was another original script re-written and adapted to be a Hellraiser film, I believe those writers did a solid job doing so.  Tying the entire story into Kirsty was exciting and smart.  Seeing her and Pinhead square off yet again was awesome, and acknowledged some substantive history with the franchise.  On the DVD, there is an extended version of that scene which is very well written re-treading their back story that better explains why Pinhead sought her out.  It’s only too bad that Ashley Laurence reportedly said Dimension Films only paid her enough for a single payment on a refrigerator.  That stings, a lot!  Regardless of that, she still put in her all for this performance, and it was a great stronger, edgier side to the character which fit perfectly into this excellent story.

This film really stands up, and it’s good that you learn things along with Trevor.  You’re about as confused as he is as these bizarre, horrific, and startling events keep intruding on what he believes is reality.  It’s all a puzzle that both you and Trevor discover together.  It’s a film that really pays respect to the origins of the franchise, and continues on Kirsty’s story in a very intelligent way.  Rick Bota proved he could be a solid director of horror with the right script.  The film has a great level of grit and harden atmosphere that sets a perfect unsettling and creepy tone.  Simply said, Hellraiser: Hellseeker is one to see for any Hellraiser fan!


House on Haunted Hill (1999)

Back in 1999, the horror genre was a different game.  We were in the wake of the post-modern, self-referential Scream clones, but there was room for something a little more creepy and atmospheric.  Remakes hadn’t become an epidemic, despite a couple of reviled ones surfacing.  Then arose Dark Castle Entertainment who wanted to re-fashion several old William Castle black & white scare flicks for a modern audience.  In the long run, their attempts took a quick, steep decline in quality, but their first effort was House on Haunted Hill, which originally starred classic horror icon Vincent Price.  This was an interesting effort that left many critics of the day very cold, but I have always found it to be an effective, if slightly flawed film that did entertain.

Eccentric millionaire and amusement park thrill ride mogul Steven Price (Geoffrey Rush) learns that his vindictive wife, Evelyn (Famke Janssen), twistedly chooses to hold her birthday party at the “House on Haunted Hill.”  The house used to be the Vannacutt Institute for the Criminally Insane until a violent mass murder marked its end decades ago.  Being an equally twisted master of thrills, Steven plans to alter his wife’s guest list, but the vengeful spirits of the house have other plans.  When the five guests arrive at the house, they are met by Watson Pritchett (Chris Kattan), whose grandfather designed the house, and whose father helped build it.  After a bit of a scare to jump start them all, Steven Price reveals himself and his intentions in grand fashion – he knows no other way.  If these guests can all survive the night, they will receive one million dollars each, and if any should die, their money shall be divided up between the survivors.  Obviously, none of them know why they’ve been invited to this place, and neither do Steven or Evelyn.  However, when the house suddenly and mysteriously goes into lockdown, sealing off all exits, and further bizarre, frightening incidents occur, they slowly begin to heed Pritchett’s claims of the house being haunted by the murderous spirits of the inmates who were killed here decades ago.

House on Haunted Hill is an immensely creepy film.  There is a wealth of frighteningly chaotic and psychotic imagery that will have most audiences jumping out of their skin.  It has a very classic haunted house ghost story, but with a modern intensity.  There’s a mix of subtle, ominous moments, and intense in-your-face, bone rattling scares.  One of the best chilling moments is when one of the characters, toting a video camera, comes across a room of ghosts who are only visible via the video camera.  She observes them for a moment before they all become aware that she is watching them.  The scene is then punctuated with one of the film’s biggest exclamation points.  It’s a deeply effective scene on multiple levels with a creepy setup and startling conclusion.

The film really incorporates plenty of dark, eerie atmosphere and a chilling sound design to keep an audience rattled and on edge.  The cinematography by Rick Bota is very powerful with an abundance of shadows and clever, moody lighting which set a very rich tone throughout the picture.  There’s a very effective score by Don Davis who incorporates some dark, heavy compositions that really drive home the imminent danger and ominous, haunting qualities here.  His score never allows you to feel very safe at any moment in the film, but still is able to strongly punctuate the right scares at the right times.

Making the house an actual former asylum for the criminally insane run by a madman was a great idea.  It opened the film up to some extremely disturbing visuals such as when Steven Price is locked in the “saturation chamber” which causes sensory overload, and forces him to become delusional.  All of that archaic, jagged medical equipment really added a creepy feeling to the bowels of the house.  It just has a very hard edged industrial look that brings out a very primal fear.  The Dr. Vannacutt character himself comes off as immensely disturbing without ever speaking a word, and seeing his ghost stalk the house always sends chills up and down my spine.  The bizarre, jittery motion of Vannacutt presents something so unnatural that it is downright creepy.  Not only is this place haunted, but it’s haunted by the mentally disturbed.  The creep factor couldn’t be richer in that regard.  It’s a very smart creative direction for this remake.  It adds something new to the mix without altering the base concept.

The cast here is all gold all the way through.  You can never deny the wonderful charismatic work of Geoffrey Rush.  He leads the film with a very sly, venomous quality and a rich helping of enthusiasm.  He was having a lot of fun playing this role.  Steven Price will do anything for a good scare.  That makes the character both very interesting and entertaining, but also, a cutthroat foil for certain characters.  Being so cunningly manipulative and dastardly egotistical, he is easily viewed as shady and coldly villainous.  Overall, Steven Price is a showman, and there couldn’t have been a better actor to bring those elegant, classy qualities to life than Geoffrey Rush.  Also, the mustache was a nice touch to his appearance emulating the look of Vincent Price.

There is a dark, spicy performance here from Famke Janssen who is right up to Geoffrey Rush’s level as a conniving, devilish woman.  There’s no lack of a dangerous edge to Evelyn as she proves to be capable of wicked, devious turns.  The love-hate relationship between the unhappily married Prices is a juicy bit of conflict in the film, and provides a lot of fine material for Rush and Janssen to work with.  Their chemistry is deliciously vile, and creates an enthralling, passionate fire to keep the film lively.

Chris Kattan has great comedic energy, as always.  He plays up Pritchett’s skittish fear in a very entertaining way.  He’s the one person that knows the dreadful reality of the house, and that frightful knowledge really manifests in a very funny yet prophetic performance.  It adds levity where needed while bolstering the grim threat that the house does possess.  Kattan’s performance really sets a foreboding tone that plays nicely off of Geoffrey Rush’s more mischievous, enjoyably despicable style.

The always vibrant Taye Diggs plays the strong heroic type in the ex-pro baseball player Eddie Baker.  Diggs is a bright talent with a lot of charm and charisma who never fails to endear himself to an audience, and that’s no different here.  The beautiful Ali Larter from Final Destination fame gives us a solid, assertive performance as Sara Wolfe that really drives her into the forefront by the end.  Bridgette Wilson does nicely as the ambitious Melissa, but has the least amount of screentime of the main cast to really breakout.  Of course, the wonderfully talented Peter Gallagher brings a subtle, engaging intelligence to Donald W. Blackburn, M.D., and showcases a fine tinge of humor and a perfectly seedy dark side.  He has a nice twist in the film that fits comfortably into the treacherous, scheming ways of the Prices.  Capping it off is genre great Jeffrey Combs who puts in an excellently psychotic and spine-tingling performance as Dr. Vannacutt.

Granted, aside from Steven and Evelyn Price, the characters aren’t given all that much to work with.  They’re essentially one-note characters, but in a lively, entertaining B-movie style with high quality talents behind them.  The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, and basically just wants you to have fun scaring you in the most effective ways possible.  With a solid cast that has very natural chemistry together, it makes that approach work very well.

The film does have some highly effective visual effects, and the practical effects are yet again done by the standard bearers of the industry – KNB EFX Group.  You’re likely to see them pop up in a lot of reviews I’m doing for Forever Horror Month because of that fact. While House on Haunted Hill is not very heavy on splatter effects, it does have its generous helping of blood, a few graphic images that required only the best to achieve them.

The digital effects near the end when the full dark spirits are unleashed are arguable if they’re up to the standards of 1999 era CGI.  Regardless, they still come off as very lacking, in retrospect.  To my eyes, they just seem rather typical and not exceptional in conception or execution.  They seem more akin to what you’d see if this were adapted into a video game at the time, but for the big monstrous evil to cap off the film, it is a definite nose dive.  While some effects in this climactic sequence are a little better than others, the CGI apparition just doesn’t do much at all for me.  It’s a failure in design, primarily, and quite lackluster in execution.  For a film that showed some strong creativity in its scares and production design, this feels like someone running out of good ideas at the last minute.  This digital creation definitely could’ve used more creative thought put into it for a more unique impact.

The ending overall is not the best it could have been.  It just sort of shifts into high gear racing to the end credits in the last ten minutes discarding with much of the plot and suspense it had built up, and it dispatches of its characters very swiftly.  The richly enjoyable characters just don’t have a conclusion befitting their performances, and are disposed of like ripe smelling trash.  While the “darkness” is setup early on, the creep factor of the film is so focused on the Vannacutt spirit and the other twisted ghosts that it just goes a little off-kilter when it takes a turn into that full-on CGI creation stalking the characters.  The film could’ve used a far smoother and natural transition into its final act, and had a more prolonged climax to allow for a more graceful resolution for each member of this stellar cast.  As it is, a great scene of Steven and Evelyn literally at each others’ throats is cut short to unleash this manifestation of evil.  It’s an abrupt shift in the momentum and direction of the film, and in this case, it works against the better strengths of the film.  It’s not a bad ending, just one that disappoints when the build up had more potential.  A better setup would have been showing this darkness slowly leaking out throughout the film until it finally forms out in the open, thus, allowing for an underlying foreboding tension to build as the film goes on.  It would allow the knowledge that this darker, more powerful evil is soon to befall these characters instead of springing it onto an audience in sudden fashion.

I do like the reveal of why the ghosts chose these people to invite to the party.  It fulfills the vengeful spirit angle smartly, and gives a purpose to collecting an unlikely group of strangers here.  How it pays off at the very end is rather cheap, and adds to the weakness of the film’s conclusion.  That whole ending just feels like a different screenwriter took over without a fraction of the ambition for creativity as the rest of the movie.  I will give credit to how the Steven Price character continually enhances the danger, tension, and distrust as the film goes on.  Giving everyone a handgun is the first unsettling step.  The fact that he has the house wired up with video cameras, and likely has plenty of wild tricks setup throughout the house, heightens that shady air of distrust.  He establishes the intense, sly situation with a devilish smirk so that everyone can easily accuse Price of these strange occurrences, and they constantly do so throughout the film as people die or go missing.  This creates a strong conflict as Price sees the ghost of Vannacutt stalking through the house, knowing exactly who is responsible, even if he doesn’t believe what he is.  It’s a smart dynamic which maintains a level of heightened tension, paranoia, and suspense amongst these diverse personalities.  There’s enough uncertainty circulating amongst these characters to constantly question what to believe.  It keeps them nicely off-balance for an exciting, intense ride.  Generally speaking, the premise is nicely laid out with a tight pacing that keeps the thrills coming at a regular interval.

The direction of William Malone is superb as he easily gave us the best film from Dark Castle Entertainment.  Obviously, it has its flaws near the end, but up until then, it is a film of solid, spine chilling scares with plenty of creepy atmosphere.  It has plenty of fun thrills that will satisfy a late night desire for a haunted house tale.  The film is worth seeing just for the entertaining cast with Geoffrey Rush and Chris Kattan the most enjoyable among them.  House on Haunted Hill was a decent success for Dark Castle that I think holds more entertainment value than most critics gave it credit for.  It’s certainly not a great horror movie, but it’s definitely a good one that delivers on the scares.  I do recommend it, but just don’t expect much from the ending.  Enjoy the good while it lasts!