Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Jesus Wept

HELLRAISER (1987)
HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II (1988)
 
The chamber of horrors that is HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II.

WRITER/DIRECTOR Clive Barker burst onto the scene with HELLRAISER, a raw meditation on human desire and sadomasochism. Unsatisfied with the pleasures available to him in our world, Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) purchases a puzzle box from a mysterious dealer in an unspecified Middle East location. Upon opening it, the Cenobites appear - demons from another dimension - who tear him apart. Larry (Andrew Robinson) moves into his brother Frank’s empty house in England with his frigid wife Julia (a glacial Clare Higgins) and before long Julia is reminiscing about her brief and torrid affair with Frank. When Larry accidentally cuts his hand and spills blood on the floor, his brother is resurrected, but not completely; the undead thrill-seeker convinces Julia to provide him with bodies on which to feed.

Barker's breakthrough arrived at a time when neither pleasure nor pain had much to do with the genre. The NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, FRIDAY THE 13th and HALLOWEEN franchises had turned the horror movie into a joyless but profitable procession. Yet here was a cutting-edge horror replete with adult, sexual tensions: the Cenobites are pallid-skinned fetishists, with “Lead Cenobite” Pinhead (Doug Bradley) possessing a gravely poise which made the character a relief from the wisecracks of Freddy Krueger. Greatly enhanced by Christopher Young’s majestic score, Barker's vision cribs equally from the mythos of vampires and zombies, and is an unwitting product of the AIDS crisis. Scenes of sexual intercourse are marked by the presence of blood - often gelatinous or recycled - and stagnant pools are constantly inhabited by insects. Ultimately, Julia's mission to gather plasma for her lover results in a libidinous, walking disease. The scenes in which she lures unsuspecting men into the house, stripping them to their Y-fronts only to hammer them to death, constitute the best parts of the film.


Angels to some, Demons to others; the "Chattering" Cenobite from HELLRAISER.

It was the flawed and damaged starkness that gave HELLRAISER real bite; its tone has been ransacked by post-punk artists such as Damien Hirst into a medieval torture-garden aesthetic. However groundbreaking, it suffers - like all 1980s horrors - with garish colour schemes, Modern Romantic looks, and outlandish special effects. In fact, the corridor-stalking “Engineer” and the cricket-eating vagrant who turns into a pterodactyl are perhaps two of the most notable examples.

Inevitably HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II followed, leaving the subsequent (at present count, six) sequels to be made in the United States. The only surviving human from the first film - teenage daughter of Larry, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) - is recuperating from her trauma in a sanatorium run by Dr Clannard (Kenneth Cranham). Channard is familiar with the “Lament Configuration” puzzle box and uses his knowledge to resurrect Julia (a returning Higgins). After procuring victims from his asylum to provide new skin for her, he uses autistic patient Tiffany (Imogen Boorman) to solve the configuration and unleash the Cenobites. Despite some harrowing imagery, this second outing directed by Tony Randall is a clear victim of Elm Street Syndrome, where screenwriters could dispense with motivation or logic when dealing with the supernatural. Without a firm narrative hook, HELLBOUND is just a collection of uneven set pieces and money shots, with the series already introducing some Kruegerisms (as in Channard’s “The doctor is in.”)