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.

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