Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996)

The Movie: In the year 2127, aboard the Space Station Minos; the station’s builder, Paul Merchant (Bruce Ramsay, who also plays his ancestors in this movie) works on a mysterious project involving a familiar (at least to those who watch this movie series) box. However, he is interrupted by a group of soldiers. His recent behavior, evacuating the station, re-routing the power, has worried the corporation that owns the structure. The soldiers, led by the psychiatrist Rimmer (Christine Harnos), have been sent to relieve Merchant of his command and determine the extent of his insanity.

Desperate to make her understand the importance of what he is doing, Merchant explains his family history to Rimmer. In the Eighteenth Century an ancestor of his, a toymaker named Phillip L’Merchant, was commissioned by Duc de L’Isle (Mickey Cottrell), a degenerate aristocrat and black magician, to make a box. He then discovered what the box is for; as the magician and his apprentice, Jacques (Adam Scott), killed a girl they lured to their mansion and used her skin to house the demon princess Angelique (Valentina Vargas), who they employed the box to summon.

Guilt-stricken over what he had unleashed, L’Merchant started a design for a device to destroy the demons his box summoned. Unfortunately, he was caught when he attempted to steal the box back and killed by Angelique. He left behind a pregnant wife, but his bloodline was forever cursed by the incident; its fate entangled with that of the box.

In 1996, John Merchant was a very talented and well-off architect with a wife (Kim Myers of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2) and young son. Unfortunately, his most recent and celebrated work was the office building that we saw at the end of Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth, its design definitely influenced by the puzzle box. Worse, he started suffering graphic dreams about Angelique; and the demoness became aware of him and his work. Things went pear-shaped when she turned up in person.

Using a man she picked up as a sacrifice, Angelique recovered the box from the building’s foundations and summoned the arch-demon “Pinhead” (Doug Bradley in his iconic role) to Earth. Unfortunately for her, Hell changed a lot since she was last there, and Pinhead had his own ideas about how to get Merchant to finish opening a permanent portal. Unfortunately for Merchant and his family, they were placed firmly in the middle of this power struggle. John’s attempt to employ his ancestor’s plan against the demons failed, and he got killed; although his wife was able to send them back to Hell.

Now, Paul has been having the dreams; and he has resolved to finish his ancestor’s work and sever the tie between his bloodline and Hell. He used L’Merchant’s plans to build the space station as a huge trap for the demons. Already his plan is in motion, but unfortunately it was interrupted by the arrival of the soldiers. Now the demons are loose on the station…

The Review:

Hell is more ordered since your time, Princess; and much less amusing.”

I often get asked why I enjoy the horror genre so much. It’s a legitimate question, hence this current double feature. In reviewing these two movies, I seek to explore what, exactly, it is that I get out of horror.

At its core, the horror genre is about an unpleasant little truth that all of us have to face at some point in our lives; we are not in control. Horror stories always center around the protagonists finding themselves in a situation that is outside of their immediate control, and what, if anything, they do to try to gain that control back. In an uncertain world, it can be greatly comforting to vicariously deal with that uncertainty. It can also be immensely cathartic because, unlike the “Real World,” in genre horror sometimes the evil is defeated, if only for a short while.

Believe it or not, Hellraiser: Bloodline is a movie that I find extremely comforting, and that I watch sometimes when I feel the need for something uplifting. The simple reason why is pretty much expounded upon above; it is a movie about a man who seeks to take back his life from the horrors that are attached to it. What’s more, the ways that said horrors are attached to his life in the first place are ones I can identify with on some level.

The theme of family and lineage is one that particularly resonates with me. As I’m sure we’re all well aware of, family is a mixed blessing at the very best of times. On the plus side, you are forever part of something and nothing you do can ever separate you from it completely. On the down side however, you are forever part of something and nothing you do can ever separate you from it completely.

Even the very best and healthiest of families have dark shadows, whether or not its members are consciously aware of them. The thing about a lineage is you never actually choose to be a part of it; which means that you are going to be affected by things you never had anything to do with in the first place. Exodus 34-7 reads: “I will visit the iniquity of the fathers unto the children, unto the children’s children, unto the third and fourth generations.” Now I can remember a story I read a long time ago where the hero, reflecting upon his own problems, thinks of this verse. He then comments that he doesn’t feel that it is the ravings of an evil god, but merely an observation on how long the repercussions of a destructive act can resonate.

There is a lot of truth to this point of view. Now don’t get me wrong, I love my own family; and in many ways I am extremely lucky in that regard. However, as I have learned more and more about my parents’ families since high school, I have come to realize certain things. Among others, that familial issues from three or four generations ago are still affecting my parents, and by extension myself and my two siblings; and will probably continue to influence any children we might have.

It gets even worse when you start on genetic lineage. As our understanding of genetics grows, you have to wonder how much control you actually have over who you are and what kind of life you lead. Having come into several genetic inheritances over the past decade, I can attest that it can be every bit as bad as a demonic curse on the family line. In fact, sometimes I cannot help but wonder if I wouldn’t prefer the demons. So as you can see, I greatly identify with Paul Merchant and his ancestors. What’s more, the idea of separating oneself from one’s genetic heritage, whether it’s a demonic curse or a tendency towards cancer, is one that greatly appeals to me.

Hellraiser: Bloodline was not well received, and I can see what some of the reasons why are. First of all is in the treatment of the Cenobites; as presented in this movie they fall far afield of Clive Barker’s original vision of them. In the original novella they were not simple demons from Hell at all. Instead, they were human beings who figured out how to lock themselves away in their own pocket dimension so that they could experiment with pleasure and sensation. Unfortunately, an eternity of these experimentations combined with no limits on what they can do have turned them into serious sado-masochists.

What’s more, in their original guise the Cenobites are not evil; or at least on a black and white scale they would be a very dark shade of grey. They have a sense of honor and justice, twisted though it might be. They have no real desire to interact with humanity, preferring to stay in their own realm flagellating each other. Most importantly, they don’t torture people out of any real cruelty; their sensations of pleasure and pain are so screwed up that they think they’re giving their victims what they truly want.

The cosmology of Bloodline is very different, but I still find it fascinating. The vision of Hell that it presents is one that I find refreshingly different, and extremely disturbing. The common perception of Hell is of a chaotic place; one of dark temptations where the demons, at least, live in a state of perverse glee at the torture of their human victims. Angelique is definitely a demon of that brand of Hell, a tempter and a promiser of dark pleasures.

However, when Angelique calls up “Pinhead” for the first time, her reaction to his appearance tells us plainly that he’s not what she expected. His explanation (see the quote I begin this review with), and his subsequent actions and philosophy suggest just how far it has left her behind in her time on Earth. The Hell insinuated by Bloodline is not a demonic playground of perverse and sadistic delights, but an impersonal corporate machine. It exists and functions solely for its own existence and function, and even the minions that keep it running get no real pleasure or reward for their efforts. Take note just how Angelique has changed when she reappears in the last chapter of the movie, after about a century or two in this new Hell.

The two main villains are definitely the best characters in the movie, due largely to the actors who play them. Vargas is wonderful as a succubus; usually sexy, but able to be terrifying and threatening at the same time. Bradley, as usual, has such presence that he commands the lion’s share of attention whenever he’s on screen. His presentation of this Lord of the Damned is imperious, threatening, and not a little formidable.

What’s more, Bradley adds a bit more personality to the role than it might otherwise have. Pinhead in Bloodline displays a sense of humor; not the slapstick one that was justifiably derided in the previous sequel, but an ironic one so dry and deadpan it’s easy to miss. Also, Bradley is able to convey large amounts of dialogue with just his facial expressions. Probably my favorite part of this film is a brief shot of his face at the end of the second chapter, when he is being sucked back to Hell but just before he lets out the inevitable scream of impotent thwarted rage, where his expression says very clearly “Brother, here we go again. Sigh, might as well get the formalities out of the way.”

Another reason Bloodline got derided by audiences was the space setting. True, it was made during a period where just about every flagging horror franchise was placing their villain in outer space. However, unlike the other franchises this movie’s use of the setting actually works. For one thing, the space setting is only a very small part of the movie; for another, the space station comes across as a rather fitting setting for the Cenobites.

Also, the setting provides one of the more intriguing aspects of the storyline; in the form of the hero’s one advantage against his foes. Paul never actually confronts the demons directly; undoubtedly having learned from his ancestors’ examples that going toe to toe with them is suicide. When he solves the box he uses a remote controlled robot to do it; and the demons are obviously puzzled when they arrive. Likewise, in the two confrontations he has with Pinhead, Paul is able to use the stations tech to distract the demon from what he is actually doing. This provides the setup for the climax, which I think is very well done.

Admittedly, there are a few criticisms that Bloodline is deserving of. Most of the rest of the cast isn’t as good as they should be. Ramsay’s talents range from not great to adequate, and Harnos really doesn’t provide much at all.
However, I think that this movie’s biggest flaw lies at the feet of its producers.

The man who wrote and directed it had a very ambitious storyline laid out, but the studio changed much of the script behind his back. Many of the good points come across as not as good as they should have been, largely because of unreached potential and the sense that something important is missing. Likewise, there are a few scenes that were obviously just put in because somebody decided that they needed to be there for it to be a horror movie. The most grievous example is where the soldiers are being picked off just before the climax. We’re never given the chance to know them as human beings, and the scenes of them falling prey to the demons mostly play out like an assembly line.

But for all its flaws, I still rather like Hellraiser: Bloodline. It’s not the best movie ever made, but it’s definitely worth the occasional watch and has its good points. Most of all, the storyline itself is one that I, personally, find rather uplifting and inspiring; and the longer I live the more I find uplifting and inspiring to be necessary, whatever the source.

Return of the Living Dead (1985)

The Movie: It’s Fourth of July weekend and Frank (James Karen of Mulholland Drive and Poltergeist), of the Uneeda Medical Supply Warehouse in Louisville Kentucky, is staying after work to show Freddy (Thom Mathews), the new stock boy, the ropes. After seeing the wonders of the place; the skeletons, the prosthetics, the split dogs sold to veterinarian schools, the single human cadaver currently in the freezer; Freddy asks Frank what the weirdest thing he’s ever seen on the job is. Frank tells him.

Apparently the old horror movie Night of the Living Dead is based on a real event. The army commissioned the Darrow Chemical Company to create a chemical, 345 Trioxin, to use in the growing War on Drugs. A canister spilled and its contents seeped into the morgue, causing some of the corpses to move around. The army packed up the animate corpses and contaminated dirt and loaded them into canisters to be shipped back to Darrow Chemical for testing. However, in a “typical army fuck-up,” the canisters were mixed up with another order and shipped to the Uneeda warehouse instead. They’ve sat in the basement for almost a decade and a half now.

Of course, Frank offers to show Freddy the canisters. To demonstrate how sturdy the Army Core of Engineer’s work is, Frank slaps one of the canisters, immediately causing it to rupture. Both men get a face-full of Trioxin gas and pass out, while the ventilation system disperses the gas throughout the warehouse. When they wake up, Frank and Freddy are feeling extremely sick; and the dead inventory are all much more lively now, particularly the corpse in the deep freeze.

Frank calls Burt (the venerable and prolific Clu Gulager), the owner of the warehouse, about the problem. The three men start by trying to destroy the animated corpse, but that task is nowhere near as easy as the original movie would have you believe. All they manage is to restrain it and cut it into many squirming pieces. But Burt gets another idea, take their problem to his friend Ernie (Don Calfa, of Weekend at Bernie’s and Chopper Chicks in Zombietown), the mortician of the Resurrection Cemetery funeral home just across the street. Ernie runs a crematorium, and maybe they could use it to destroy all the evidence; problem solved.

Ernie is talked into it, and the body goes up in smoke. Unfortunately that brings a whole new set of unforeseen complications; the corpse is saturated with Trioxin. The toxic smoke seeds the clouds, causing a massive downpour on the cemetery. Freddy’s girlfriend Tina (Beverly Randolph) and their friends are partying in the cemetery, waiting for him to get off work. This puts them in the perfect position to witness the acidic rainfall and the cemetery living up to its name. The animated corpses that result are not only nearly indestructible, but they are also fast, agile, and intelligent. They seek to eat the brains of the living, because the endorphins mask the pain of rotting for a while.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Freddy and Frank aren’t doing too well either. In fact, the paramedics called in say that they’re technically dead, except that they’re still conscious. There is one possible solution, the contact number on the army canisters. However, this being the organization that had the Trioxin created in the first place, it is doubtful their solution will be pleasing for those involved…

The Review:

"The events portrayed in this film are all true. The names are real names of real people and real organizations"
-Opening Scrawl

Here is part two of my double feature on what I get out of the horror genre. As I mentioned in my previous review, I find the horror genre extremely cathartic because it vicariously explores the theme of not being in control of one’s life. However, there is more than one way to achieve that catharsis. This film is probably the opposite side of the coin in that regard from the one I previously reviewed. Whereas Hellraiser: Bloodline is a movie that I watch when I need some hope that it is possible to regain control of a seemingly hopeless situation; Return of the Living Dead is what I watch when I’m in the mood to explore and revel in just how bad it could possibly get.

Return of the Living Dead is one of those rare horror-comedies that manages to get it right. In fact, for me it stands alongside Re-animator at the pinnacle of successful horror-comedies. Return’s humor is of the blackest sort; it’s the laugh that comes from knowing that it’s all going to Hell, but appreciating how ridiculous it all is anyway. In fact, Return employs its humor and horror elements in a way that I rarely see used, much less used successfully; they feed into each other. The more horrifying things get, the more comically absurd they get, and vice versa. In particular, the scenes where Frank and Freddy discover what has happened with the split dogs, and where they and Burt are trying unsuccessfully to destroy the first re-animated cadaver, are ones where I find myself simultaneously laughing and cringing.

The driving theme of Return of the Living Dead can probably be summed up thusly: it may not be as bad as it could possibly get, but it soon will be. The whole plot is basically one long series of examples of Murphy’s Law in action. No matter what the situation, or how it might first appear, things rapidly go all wrong. Just in the pre-credits section, where Frank first ruptures the canister by slapping it, all the way to the apocalyptic ending (which, the movie makes clear, is very far away from the end of the actual event); we are placed in an atmosphere where we know for certain that nothing will turn out right. Even in the minor events, a feeling of doom and gloom hangs over everything, and we know instinctively that they will end very badly for our protagonists.

And yet despite the atmosphere of doom and gloom, we cannot help but laugh. Terrifying as it is, there is just something really absurd about the world we know coming crashing down. Some of the humor is very blatant; the eye chart in the Uneeda warehouse office that reads “Burt is a slave driver and a son of a bitch…” (it goes on but I can’t read the rest), for example. However, an equal amount of it is very deadpan, sometimes to the point where you might miss it if you’re not paying attention.

Return of the Living Dead is very much a product of its time; the dark depths of the Reagan Era when the twin horrors of Mutually Assured (nuclear) Destruction and Right-wing insanity hung over this country like a cloud of doom. However, more and more I find it fits equally well in this day and age, what with the ongoing “War on Terror.” Having just passed the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks as of this writing; I cannot help but reflect how our foreign policy has gone in a full circle since that terrible event, greatly compounding the damage from it. But that’s a rant I’ll spare you for another time.

Anyway, due to the political influences on this movie resulting from the era in which it was made, there are all sorts of nasty satirical touches in it. The fact that the two main authority figures are named Burt and Ernie, for example, cannot be a coincidence. There’s also the fact that Ernie is listening to Wagner when we first meet him; and that he carries a handgun which he pulls automatically at any excuse. Of course, it poses more potential harm to him and the other protagonists than it ever does to the true threat. And of course, finally, there is the whole theme of “the Proper Authorities are not your friends.” Admittedly it does come straight from the Romero movies that Return is paying homage to, but it also fits right in to the political atmosphere of the time.

Probably the movie’s greatest strength is its cast and characters. All of the characters, while lightly sketched for the most part, come across as at least somewhat believable as a fully fleshed-out human being. There are no square-jawed heroes in this flick, no wise authority figures who have the answer. Instead , we have completely ordinary human beings caught in an extremely extraordinary situation that they have almost no frame of reference for. And, unlike most horror movies, they act as real people would. All the characters do stupid things, but their actions are plausibly stupid, not moronically suicidal. Likewise all of the characters freak out about the situation at some point, but most also have something to contribute to the attempt at a solution as well. The fact that they are completely powerless to affect it at all is hardly their fault.

All of the cast do a great job of portraying a believable human being. Aside from the characters I just mentioned, even the ones playing the punks of Freddy and Tina’s group of friends come across as individuals. Mark Venturini’s Suicide may come off as a “designated asshole” archetype of the genre, but his dialogue reveals that there is legitimate reason for this behavior; and he even shows a bit of nobility when he (albeit unintentionally) sacrifices himself trying to save Tina. The lovely Linnea Quigley, in the role that earned her her crown as Queen of the Scream Queens; is very convincing as the tough-talking, death-obsessed Trash, whose fa├žade collapses as soon as the fewmats really start hitting the windmill. It should also be said that the scene nearly everyone takes away from this movie, with good reason, is the one where she does a striptease on top of a crypt. Finally, the sexy Jewel Shepherd as the bitchy Casey reminds me of a lot of women I have known from high school on out. Sadly she never does a striptease in this movie, on a crypt or otherwise; but if that’s what you’re after she has some other movies that will scratch that itch for you.

In general, the special effects, while coming across as fake-looking in a few parts, are mostly top notch. If you aren’t inured to gore, don’t watch this movie while eating. The soundtrack is wonderful; the punk-rock songs used fully complimenting the action on screen. The script is very well written; and the movie as a whole is so full of little touches, such as the eye chart I mentioned above, that it’s impossible to catch them all on a single viewing. Above all, there is a manic energy about the whole thing that drives you inexorably to its conclusion. And as for said conclusion; while “wait, it’s not over yet” type endings are par for the course for the horror genre, this one flows organically and legitimately from what has happened earlier in the film.

So in conclusion, Return of the Living Dead is a hell of a movie experience; well written, well casted, and very well made. Hilarious and horrifying, gory and gleeful, and driven by a demented yet irresistible energy; never has watching the world get dragged to Hell been this much fun.