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Too Many Horror Films: The Hellraiser Direct-to-Video Films (2000-2006)

I have seen too many horror films. These films include the four direct-to-video Hellraiser sequels starring Doug Bradley as Pinhead (not that he’s in any of them for more than a cameo). I have yet to see the most recent entry, Revelations (which has no participation from Bradley), but rest assured that I will waste my time soon enough.

  • Dir. (Listed below by film)
  • Released by Dimension
  • Based on The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker
  • Average Rating: *
Okay, so last time we saw Pinhead, he was terrorizing a space station. How could things get any worse? Then the dreadful news came out: Hellraiser 5 would be direct-to-video! Surely, nothing good could come out of that, right?
Wrong. Hellraiser: Inferno (2000) is easily one of the best films in the series. Although its story is unconnected to the previous 4, and Pinhead is in it less than he’s in the first one, the fifth chapter in the series provides the perfect blend of pleasure and pain, with great directorial work by Scott Derrickson (especially considering the limited budget).

Detective Joseph Thorne (Craig Sheffer) is a corrupt cop, to say the least. And considering his love for puzzles, we know that the future is going to be bleak for him. After examining a crime scene, Thorne finds the infamous puzzle box and decides to give it a whirl. Suddenly, his world is turned upside down as the boundaries between reality and surreality blur. He’s on the trail of a mysterious figure named The Engineer, and when he finally discovers the truth, it’s not pretty…

Sure, it has its problems. In fact, the ending is highly questionable in its portrayal of the Cenobites. Even so, it’s a fine film that shakes up the Hellraiser mythos and relieves our fears of the saga going direct-to-video.

The next entry, 2002’s Hellraiser: Hellseeker, Rick Bota’s first contribution to the series, has plenty of things going for it, including the return of Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), the protagonist of parts 1 and 2. So surely it would take a really bad judgment call to botch this one.
Trevor Gooden (Dean Winters) is having some domestic problems with his wife, Kirsty. However, after a harrowing car accident leaves her dead, he is heartbroken. There’s a problem, though: he has a police detective on his tail who’s convinced that he plotted Kirsty’s death to inherit her family’s money. If that’s not bad enough, Pinhead starts appearing in strange visions, which end in Trevor finding himself framed for yet another murder. What is reality and what is in his mind?
Why does that question sound so familiar? Oh, yeah. That’s right…it was the same thing that they did in Inferno. Sadly, this movie is an underwhelming retread of the fifth film. To make matters worse, Kirsty is hardly in the film, which completely negates the whole point of bringing her back in the first place! Not to mention the end of the film will seem all-too-familiar to fans of the original film.
In 2005, Rick Bota returned to make two more chapters in this saga. Whoopee. And to make matters worse, the first of these sequels, Hellraiser: Deader, is based on a script that was not even written to be a Hellraiser sequel!
Amy Klein (Kari Wuhrer) is investigating the Deader cult, a strange group of twentysomethings who may or may not be the living dead. They are led by Winter (Paul Rhys), who apparently has blood ties to the Merchant family (the creators of the Lament Configuration). Pinhead arrives, to be sure, and seems rather peeved at Winter. The lead Cenobite cuts a deal with Amy to take down the leader of the cult.

There are some good elements, to be sure, and this is an improvement over Hellseeker, despite having a sillier title (somehow!). However, the ties to the Hellraiser franchise are strained at best. This would have been much better if it was its own film rather than a wolf in Pinhead’s clothing.

Oh, look…another 2005 Rick Bota direct-to-video sequel, Hellraiser: Hellworld. Why even bother? Oh, wait–this one has a twist! It’s a self-aware sequel, somewhat like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (okay, not much like that movie). The characters are aware of the Hellraiser franchise, and they’re fans! This one could go either way…
Hellworld is a hit Internet game based on the Hellraiser films. And a mysterious man known only as the host (Lance Henriksen of Aliens fame) is inviting its biggest fans to a party at his spooky mansion. But watch out! Amongst all the sexy teen escapades, danger lurks in the form of Pinhead, who has given up the hooks and chains routine for knives and various torture devices. But is he real, or just a figment of someone’s sick imaginations?

In the end, this was probably not a good idea. Much like Halloween: Resurrection, this one decided to play up the modern internet craze, and it fit the franchise like O.J.’s glove (read: not at all). Besides, in spite of the last few moments, this film completely debunks parts 1-7, and that’s just not cool.

Too Many Horror Films: The Hellraiser Theatrical Films (1987-1996)

I have seen too many horror films. These films include the first four entries in the Hellraiser series, all of which were released in theaters, and most of which are disappointing.

  • Dir. (Listed below by film)
  • Released by New World (I & II) and Dimension (III & IV)
  • Based on The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker
  • Average Rating: ***

In 1987, Clive Barker adapted his novella The Hellbound Heart into the low-budget British horror film Hellraiser, which has since developed into an immense franchise. Was this little indie film deserving? Absolutely, since it is a solid UK spook flick and a far superior piece of cinema to anything that came afterward.

Larry and Julia Cotton move into the home formerly occupied by Larry’s brother Frank. What they don’t know is that Frank is still around…sorta. Soon, Julia is convinced by a skinless mess that used to be Frank, and he uses his former affair with her as leverage to convince her to help him regenerate. He needs human flesh to restore the damage done by hell…

But this is not just any hell. Rather than going with an established theology, Barker creates an all-new interpretation of the afterlife, a world of pain and pleasure reached through a mysterious little puzzle box. The guides to hell are the Cenobites, a group dedicated to experiences of the flesh. These amoral beings declare themselves as “angels to some, demons to others.”

This is an entertaining little film, and although the visual effects are rather unimpressive, the makeup and gore effects are excellent. But this movie does not succeed through splatter, but rather through gothic horror. The mood has more in common with a Hammer Dracula film than its Elm Street contemporaries. Ashley Laurence makes a great heroine as Larry’s daughter Kirsty, and Doug Bradley is haunting as the head of the sadomasochistic Cenobites.

A year later, Clive Barker decided to back off and allow Tony Randel (director) and Peter Atkins (writer) take over. The result was New World Pictures’s final entry in the series before Dimension snatched up the rights, Hellbound: Hellraiser II.

Moments after the ending of the original, Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) finds herself in Dr. Channard’s (Kenneth Cranham) psyciatric hospital, trying to explain what happened to her to some skeptical detectives. Dr. Channard, a man obsessed with the occult, hears about the bloody matress of Julia (Claire Higgins), and formulates a plan…

Soon, the puzzle box is opened again, and Kirsty is roaming the Labyrinth with her new companion Tiffany (Imogen Boorman), dodging the Cenobites (led once again by Doug Bradley) and battling both Julia and Channard, the latter of whom will make a shocking metamorphosis.

The big problem with the movie is that it’s trying to be Halloween II and Nightmare on Elm Street 3 at the same time, and it just doesn’t work. The movie has some great moments, though, including a glimpse at the origins of Pinhead (and, of course, some memorable lines from said character). Also, the movie just tries to add so much mythology to the the Hellraiser mythos so quickly that it becomes a Highlander II affair. Even so, I somewhat recommend it for those who enjoyed the first movie.

Several years pass, and now Dimension Pictures takes over. Anthony Hickox takes over as the director, and Peter Atkins and Tony Randel return for the script. 1992’s Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth promises to expand the audience and turn the series into a competitive horror franchise, but at what cost?

The Pillar of Souls is purchased by a womanizing club owner (Kevin Bernhardt), and Pinhead (Doug Bradley) looks to strike a deal with him. At the same time, the alter ego of Pinhead, Captain Elliot Spenser (Bradley again), visits a reporter (Terry Farrell of Star Trek:DS9) for help in stopping the soon-to-be unbound Cenobite and bringing him back to Hell.

This entry could be seen as the commercialization of Hellraiser. Everything looks nice and shiny compared to the previous films, and the budget increase is obvious. Sadly, this also means that Pinhead becomes a Freddy Krueger-type character, and the new batch of Cenobites look not unlike the Borg from Star Trek: First Contact. This one is more jokey than the others, and it doesn’t really follow the rules, either. Still, it’s somewhat amusing…on par with Hellbound, if nothing else.

Surely, after the mediocre 2 and 3, there was nowhere to go but up, right? Wrong!!! Hellraiser: Bloodline is another classic film brought to us by Alan Smithee (the pseudonym for directors who want their names taken of the credits). This 1996 disaster was initially filmed by makeup effects man Kevin Yagher (responsible for Freddy Krueger’s visage in Elm Streets 2-4) and completed in ill-conceived reshoots by Joe Chappelle (who had already ruined his own film, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, with ill-conceived reshoots a year earlier).

In the distant future (?), a man named Paul Merchant (Bruce Ramsay) is interrogated after compromising the safety of his own space station (?). He soon reveals that the purpose of the station is to seal off hell and destroy the Cenobites (?), and lets us in on a little secret…he’s the descendant of the creator of the puzzle box, Philip L’Merchant (Ramsay again). Cue a flashback to the origin of the puzzlebox, and then another flashback to 1996, when John Merchant (Ramsay again!) built the Puzzle Box Building that we saw at the end of Hellraiser III. Yep, three storylines, telling the battle of the Merchant family against the forces of evil. Snore.

Not only is the premise absurd, but the whole BDSM angle is lost here. Pinhead is only interested in causing pain, while his new counterpart, Angelique (Valentina Vargas), receives scoldings for promoting pleasure. Right. This movie is rather short, but it’s still torture to get through, and not the hooks-on-chains kind of torture, either. The sad thing is that the name of Peter Atkins once again appears in the writing credits. What went wrong, man?

Bloodline was so incompetent and incomprehensible by the time it came out of its hack-job editing session that the director disowned it, but even the oft-bootlegged workprint suffers from a plot that was totally misguided. The Pinhead in Space angle was intended as a final act twist, but it would have still been silly even in that case. This entry killed the franchise’s theatrical potential, and it is recommended for true masochists only.

Too Many Horror Films: The Psycho Sequels (1982-1998)

I have seen too many horror films. Now that Halloween 2011 approaches, I will pass on the knowledge gained by this wasted time to you, so you may be spared. We might as well start off with a substandard franchise to one of the greatest motion pictures of all time, the Psycho sequels.

  • Dir. (Listed below by film)
  • Released by Universal
  • Based on the Alfred Hitchcock film
  • Average Rating: **

My review of the original 1960 classic can be found in my Five Favorite Films review series, so I will not waste any space repeating myself here. I will only discuss the three sequels and the remake, none of which would warrant more than three stars, and one of which barely earns one star.

In 1982, Richard Franklin did the unthinkable–he tried to follow up on Alfred Hitchcock’s groundbreaking horror film with Psycho II. Anthony Perkins and Vera Miles return for the sequel, but would that be enough to save this picture?

Norman Bates (Perkins) has been declared sane and is released back into the world. He seems to have a hard time adapting, however. It certainly doesn’t help that Lila Loomis (Miles), the sister of Marion Crane, is out to get him put back in the asylum. Lila’s daughter Mary (Meg Tilly) is not quite sure about her mother’s plans. Of course, it’s not too long before the body count begins to rise…

This is an okay film that could have been much better. Near the end, it becomes so muddled that it’s hard to even know who the killer is! Add to that the needlessly gory murders, and you’re stuck with a movie that does not quite work as its own film or as a follow-up to the classic original.

In 1986, Norman Bates–and his mother–came back for a third round of terror. And this time, Anthony Perkins ended up in the director’s chair. Psycho III is more of a slasher film than its predecessors, but don’t hold that against the flick.

The Bates motel receives a new visitor, Maureen Coyle (Diana Scarwid), a runaway nun whose similarities to Marion Crane go beyond her initials, at least in Norman’s mind. Soon, more people show up, including a drifter looking for a job (Jeff Fahey), a reporter looking for the truth about Norman’s past (Roberta Maxwell), and a bus full of teenagers. It’s not long before “Mother” reaches for the butcher knife again…

This one is an improvement over II, although it really doesn’t make much sense unless you’ve seen II. It has great suspense moments, including one involving an ice chest and the local sheriff. The Psycho movies have always have unsettling endings, and this one is no exception. Of course, it’s no match for the original, but it still delivers.

After Anthony Perkins’ turn in the director’s chair, the next two follow ups were made for TV. The first was the 1987 Richard Rothstein picture Bates Motel, starring Robert Altman regular Bud Cort as Norman Bates’ former cellmate turned heir (according to this one, Bates died after III). It was intended as a TV series pilot, but it failed and has not been made available on home video. It is unremarkable and has since been forgotten.

The second was a 1990 made-for-cable prequel featuring Perkins and directed by Mick Garris, based on a screenplay by Joseph Stefano (the screenwriter of Hitchcock’s original). Psycho IV: The Beginning premiered on Showtime with an introduction by Marion Crane herself, Janet Leigh (who did not appear in the film itself, unfortunately).

Perkins appears again as Norman Bates in the frame story, which shows him calling into a talk radio show and recounting his past under the pseudonym Ed (as in Gein; get it?). This is the best part of the film, due to Mr. Perkins delivering the goods again. (And look for a cameo by John Landis!)

The rest of the film is the story of young Norman, dealing with his sexual frustrations with his mother and his blooming homicidal tendencies. It’s interesting, if unsettling, to watch. Olivia Hussey (returning to horror years after her role in 1974’s Black Christmas) does okay as Mother, but she seems way too young to be playing the role…and frankly, no one can compete with the creepy voice and taxidermied corpse from the previous films. Henry Thomas (Elliot from E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial) does a fair young Norman, too.

This is the weakest of the four, but that does not mean that it’s bad. It certainly has its moments, but one would expect more out of Stefano. If you like the other sequels, then you should like this one, too (even if it does somewhat ignore/contradict them at certain points).

Plans for a fifth entry died with Anthony Perkins in the early 1990s. Given that slasher movies were on the decline at the time anyway, the movie probably would not have been a success. However, 1996’s Scream repopularized horror, and considering that it included several loving homages to the 1960 classic, Universal decided to return to the Bates Motel in 1998.

Gus Van Sant (the director of Good Will Hunting) thought that it would be interesting to remake Hitchcock’s movie with the same shooting script. Considering that Robert Bloch’s original novel was pretty much discarded by Hitch the first time around, a more faithful adaptation would seem the way to go. But no, let’s use the exact same screenplay again. Good idea.

Now, let’s cast Vince Vaughn as Norman, Anne Heche as Marion, Julianne Moore as Lila, Viggo Mortensen as Sam, and William H. Macy as Arbogast. Oh, and make sure that none of them deliver any of their lines with any conviction.

Now, let’s add some strange, pseudo-symbolic imagery into the murders. Let’s say, a blindfolded woman, a cow, etc. Yes, this is certainly the way to remake a classic. Thanks for nothing, Gus. I will not waste any more time discussing this junk. Avoid the remake!

Rental Review: 13 Assassins (2010)

  • Dir. Takashi Miike
  • Released by Toho
  • Written by Shoichiro Ikemiya and Daisuke Tengan
  • Rating: ****

Along with of the daikaiju (giant monster) genre, the jidaigeki (period drama) genre may be one of the most overplayed in Japanese cinema. It is certainly one of the most familiar genres to foreign audiences, thanks largely to the classic period films directed by Akira Kurosawa, the John Ford of Japan. But because it has been done so often, and done well (much like the American Western), the standard for the jidaigeki picture disables most films of the genre from standing out as memorable or significant.

Takashi Miike may have just made one of those exceptions. Miike, best known in the West for his shock pictures such as Audition and Ichi the Killer, shows relative constraint here. Only one scene approaches the graphic body horror that has become one of Miike’s trademarks, and even that moment enhances the emotional impact of this fairly mainstream historical epic rather than threatening to downgrade the picture to the level of exploitation cinema.

On the surface, Jusannin no Shikaku may appear to be little more than a twenty-first century update of The Seven Samurai (although it is actually a remake of 1963’s The Thirteen Assassins, a film made by Toei in the wake of Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece), but it is the way in which Miike presents the story that allows the film to stand out as more than a rehash. He blends the Kurosawa-esque slow burn with the kinetic modern blockbuster approach without violating the integrity of either style.

More than half of the film (with possibly the exception of the previously-mentioned graphic scene) is very much in the 1950s-1960s samurai film tradition. Deliberate pacing, subtle characterization, and introspection pervade the quiet, calm proceedings. Then, the final conflict arrives and overtakes nearly an hour of the runtime, and Miike does all he can to upstage any samurai battle scene seen thus far in Japanese period films. Energetic, violent, and gory, the climax jolts the viewer with enough sensory stimuli to silence any complaints about the slow first section of the movie.

However, for all of his explosive indulgence, Miike takes more interest in challenging the audience’s enjoyment of the final battle through the commentary of the sadistic daimyo, who would love nothing more than to resurrect the clan wars of the past for his own entertainment. The gratification this young ruler receives from witnessing the event derives from his sociopathic detachment from humanity, and by critiquing him, the film critiques the viewer for enjoying the bloodshed as well.

The honor of the samurai code and its philosophical value come into question throughout the film, and while 13 Assassins forces no definitive answers, it notably allows one character to transcend the cycle of death in the denouement while depicting another character reaching nearly a Dirty Harry-esque resolution (if only he had a badge to toss). Despite all of the carnage in its conclusion, the film retains the philosophical pondering of the best examples of the genre and is more than just another samurai flick. (Kurosawa is still firmly #1, though.)

Video Review: Jingle All the Way (1996)

  • Dir. Brian Levant
  • Released by 20th Century Fox
  • Written by Randy Kornfield and Chris Columbus
  • Rating **
Original Laserdicks Review:
When I mentioned to Klaymore Kutlass the existence of a Christmas film co-starring Sinbad, he immediately asked me how he had missed out on that particular Ray Harryhausen film. Unfortunately, I had to inform him that I was actually referring to comedian David Adkins, not the famous fictional sailor. My Bargain Reviews co-host quickly lost interest and returned to watching some Doug McClure movie.
Jingle All the Way is one of the many Arnold Schwarzenegger films reviewed on Laserdicks Reviews, but, as the video indicates, I did not bother forming an opinion on the film at the time. I disregarded it as yet another empty-headed 90s family film, and considering my lukewarm reaction to Kindergarten Cop, I had little hope in its potential to convince me otherwise.
For the most part, I was correct. This film is a weaker effort than Kindergarten Cop, which at least had Ivan Reitman behind the camera. This film’s director, Brian Levant, also directed such weak family films as The Flintstones and its sequel, the film version of Leave It to Beaver, and the Ice Cube vehicle Are We There Yet? To his credit, he also directed Beethoven, which was not half-bad. Jingle All the Way, however, is not Beethoven.
Jake Lloyd plays Arnie’s son. Lloyd wants a Turbo Man action figure for Christmas. Arnie waits too late to get the toy and thus has to face the wrath of last-minute shoppers. Hilarity ensues, supposedly. Other than serving a middle finger to the Ayn Rand worldview, though, the movie settles on standard family values for its thematic content. Yawn.
Sinbad plays the rival father fighting for the toy, and he is okay, if unremarkable. The same rule applies for every actor in the film except for Phil Hartman, who serves as the exception implied above. He single-handedly makes the film watchable, which is a rather remarkable achievement considering that he is such a minor character. As such, I would recommend this film only to people who enjoy Hartman enough to sit through a generally dull family comedy to reach his bits.

Rental Review: Micmacs à tire-larigot (2009)

  • Dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet
  • Released by Warner Bros.
  • Written by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Guillaume Laurent
  • Rating: ****

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s latest film should appeal to audiences who adored his previous films, such as Delicatessen and Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain. Thankfully, even those of us who have not forgiven this director for Alien Resurrection can still appreciate this quirky comedy (where Jeunet’s penchant for farce is more appropriate).

Viewers with no patience for subtitles will likely be the only ones not taken in by this film’s charms…well, maybe war profiteers will not care for it, either. The movie’s antiwar slant is hardly subtle, but the light-hearted approach will hopefully disarm even the war hawks, metaphorically if not literally. Much like Blazing Saddles, this French flick is too much fun to warrant serious offense, but it still has the potential to win some people over to its political bias.

Dany Boon plays Bazil, who lost his father to a land mine as a child and nearly lost his own life to a bullet as an adult. By the time he recovers, he has lost his position in society, and he lives on the streets of Paris until Mama Chow (Yolande Moreau) adopts him as part of her clan of misfits, which also includes Julie Ferrier as a contortionist (and love interest) and Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon as a human cannonball.

Bazil discovers the competing arms manufacturers that created the land mine and the bullet, respectively, and with the help of his bizarre new troupe, he begins engaging in Non-Stop Shenanigans (a translation of the film’s title) to pit the amoral profiteers against each other. Through some rather inspired schemes, Bazil takes down the businesses that place weapons into the hands of terrorists, dictators, revolutionaries, and other such killers.

As usual, Jeunet’s vision of Paris is gorgeously grotesque, and his farcical outlook prevents the social commentary from ever becoming overbearing or mean-spirited. He does, however, take his message seriously, preventing the movie from feeling too inconsequential. His actors capture the intended tone perfectly with their performances, thus avoiding another Alien Resurrection-style mishap.

The film relies heavily upon Max Steiner’s score for the Howard Hawks classic The Big Sleep (which also makes an onscreen appearance near the beginning of this film), but the term “film noir” could hardly be applied to this picture. (If Micmacs resembles the Bogie/Becall picture in any way, it would have to be in the 1946 film’s reshoots, which injected ample amounts of humor into the story.) Despite its allusions to far graver pictures, Jeunet’s cinematic antiwar statement remains utterly optimistic.

Video Review: The Passion of the Christ (2004)

  • Dir. Mel Gibson
  • Released by 20th Century Fox
  • Written by Benedict Fitzgerald, Mel Gibson, and William Fulco
  • Rating **
Video Review:
Yeshua of Nazareth (aka Jesus Christ) gained fame as a controversial Jewish prophet, following the success of his cousin, John the Baptist. His pacifistic, apocalyptic philosophy managed to upset the Sanhedrin establishment without resorting to the extremism of the Zealots. His martyrdom triggered the formation of a sect of Judaism that eventually formed an entirely new religion, Christianity. Oh, and He is also the Son of God…didn’t see that one coming.
Mel Gibson gained fame as an Australian action flick hero, starring in George Miller’s Mad Max trilogy. His popularity spread once he took the role of Martin Riggs in the Lethal Weapon series, and he proved himself capable of spreading into dramatic roles as well. His decision to move into direction paid off with The Man Without a Face and Braveheart, which were both well-received. Oh, and he is also a Traditionalist Catholic…see where this is going?
James Caviezel plays the former under the direction of the latter, and the long-standing Hollywood tradition of casting actors of European descent to play Semitic characters continues. At least he gets to speak Aramaic in the movie, as do his disciples and his Jewish enemies. The Romans, alternatively, speak Latin. This little touch of accuracy indicates how much better this film could have been if it had taken a less sensationalized approach to its subject.
Filmed in Italy (with largely European-born actors), this film carries a distinct Roman Catholic bias, both in dogma/exegesis and in theatricality. Much like Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, it indulges in stylized filmmaking, touches of metaphor, and a melodramatic score (provided here by John Debney). Unlike Scorsese’s film, however, this movie proports to be a straight adaptation of the Gospels with references to extracanonical tradition.
Therein lies my greatest quibble with the film. The only reasonable justification for the level of violence depicted in the film is an attempt at realism, a serious depiction of the suffering that Jesus actually experienced during the trial and execution. However, the film’s lush, epic treatment of the material feels oh-so-artificial, and thus the violence comes off as overstated and manipulative rather than moving. Gibson does not trust the story to work on its own merits.
The acting is suitable enough, especially considering that the performers are speaking essentially dead languages. Caviezel shows as much range as he can in a role that sadly has him screaming in pain for most of the runtime. Hristo Shopov is not as memorable in the role of Pontius Pilate as Telly Savalas in The Greatest Story Ever Told, Rod Steiger in Jesus of Nazareth, or David Bowie in The Last Temptation of Christ, but he’s certainly still solid.
With the exception of the hokey The Greatest Story Ever Told (which is as sterile in its reverence as The Passion is eccentric in its own), any of the other Jesus movies listed above provide superior alternatives to this one. With its narrow focus on the last hours of Christ’s life, Gibson’s film lacks much of the thought provocation offered by other versions and relies almost solely on emotional impact. As the title indicates, it is little more than a study of suffering.