Category Archives: 1980s

Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)

*. Jason Takes Manhattan has a special place for me in the canon of Friday the 13th films in that it’s the only one that I saw in a cinema upon its theatrical release. You may judge me accordingly. And by that I mean judge me harshly.
*. It’s also usually regarded as the worst film in the franchise, both among critics and that segment of the general public that cares about such things (meaning fans). This is not, I can personally attest, a revisionist view. We all thought it was shit at the time.
*. There is some legitimate debate over whether this low estimation is because it’s just a shit movie or because the title was so misleading. Jason spends little time in Manhattan, with most of the film’s action taking place on a rusty freighter that has been refitted, rather improbably, as a cruise ship. At least it has a sauna and a disco on board. A bunch of high school grads are taking the ship to NYC. A creepy crew member (the only crew member?) appears at odd times to say things like “This voyage is doomed” and “He’s come back and you’re all going to die.”
*. Of course, the audience is already aware of this because we know that Jason is a stowaway on the Lazarus (get it?). He proceeds to kill almost everyone on board. He then later pursues the survivors through the streets of Manhattan before being dissolved, apparently, in toxic goo.
*. So the story makes even less sense than the previous instalments. The score is less interesting, with none of the signature notes and a very dated theme song (“The Darkest Side of the Night”). They only shot in New York for a couple of days and as far as famous landmarks go only made use of one brief sequence in Times Square. Most of the film was shot in Vancouver, so the streets of the Big Apple are just so many steamy, garbage-strewn alleys.
*. I mentioned how good Jason looked in the previous film, The New Blood. In this version they weren’t trying as hard. Despite Kane Hodder reprising his role they didn’t bother with the rotting physical body and his face isn’t nearly as well done. Basically he’s just a burly guy in a hockey mask.

*. I appreciate that director Rob Hedden wanted to do something different. “The biggest thing we could do with Jason is to get him out of that stupid lake where he’s been hanging out,” he said. Mission accomplished. The script was apparently the result of bolting together two different concepts: Jason on a ship and Jason in a big city. Unfortunately, nothing much is done with either premise and we’re still just watching a string of unrelated killings.
*. As had become usual, these killings were edited to pass the censors. Based on the outtakes I don’t think much was lost though, and only one remains very interesting, with Jason winning a rooftop boxing match with a devastating KO punch.
*. That this is also a very silly scene, ending on a comic beat, gives you some indication of the tone of the film. Let’s face it, we’re all cheering for Jason to thrash the punks he runs into in New York, just as we’re pulling for him to kill mean Mr. McCulloch. But sticking with the latter, I think if you spend the entire movie building up a heel he needs to be given a more spectacular send-off than being drowned in the slum version of a butt of malmsey.
*. It’s not just that the two parts of the film — on the ship and in New York — are only awkwardly linked. The rest of the plot’s construction seems equally flawed. I couldn’t understand how Rennie’s repressed childhood trauma linked her psychically to Jason, as seems to have happened. I also questioned the way Jason reverts to an earlier form at times. What was the significance of that? Was the young Jason supposed to represent his innocent self? Because he seems just as vengeful as the adult version. But then there doesn’t seem much consistency in his appearance among his various youthful iterations either.
*. Oh well. It’s not like anyone would have expected this to be any good. I sure didn’t in 1989, though now I can’t remember just what it was that lured me into the theatre. It had a great poster. Maybe that was it.
*. I may like it a bit more than I did thirty years ago, which is not to say that I misjudged it back then. The passage of time, however, has brought out more of its goofy ’80s charm. It remains a really dumb movie though and I can’t think of any reason to go back to it aside from nostalgia.

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Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)

*. There’s not much point hating on a late entry in a lousy franchise that was by this time far removed from its not-so-lofty peak. I’ve always tried to find some good in these Friday the 13th films, and I remember being somewhat amused by them as a young man. But The New Blood is a weak entry with little to recommend it.
*. The only new wrinkle this time out is that the last girl figure, Tina (Lar Park Lincoln), has psychokinetic powers. Director John Carl Buechler frankly describes her as “a clone of Carrie.” This actually makes for a fun battle between her and Jason in the final act as she goes all Carrie on him and he is (as always) indestructible. If this sounds a bit like a trial run for Freddy vs. Jason (2003) that shouldn’t be surprising because they were planning at the time on having the two franchise heavyweights face off against each other in a crossover film but the studios couldn’t come to an agreement.
*. Up until the final fifteen minutes, however, this is dull stuff. I can’t think of a Friday the 13th movie where the kills are more perfunctory. As had become usual by this time a lot of the gore had to be taken out to placate censors, but even so most of the kills are just the usual slashings and skewerings. There was a nice bit with a sleeping bag that made me think of the classic scene in Prophecy, and a scene that had to be cut of Jason crushing Ben’s head with his bare hands, but aside from that there’s nothing to get excited about. The circular saw is often cited by fans, but I think it just looks silly.
*. Just as perfunctory are the characters. They are the usual types — the nerd, the preppie, the pothead, the black couple, the slutty rich bitch — but even being this crudely drawn I found them nearly indistinguishable. Usually these people are only so much fresh meat (or “new blood”) anyway, but this movie took my disengagement to a new level.

*. Jason, however, played by Kane Hodder in his first turn under the mask, has never looked better. He’s apparently been rotting at the bottom of Crystal Lake for about ten years, so despite his burly physique he’s also showing signs of zombie-like decomposition, with a visible rib cage front and back. His clothes are covered in a layer of muck and he’s also got a chain wrapped around his neck. When his mask comes off he looks even more zombie-ish, and I mean that in a complimentary way. For the most part he’s just doing the usual Jason things — crashing through windows, throwing other people through windows — but he’s looking good doing it.
*. The script is crap but it does manage to hit with one great line when the nerd, who is an aspiring author, is rejected by the rich bitch. “Rejection? Fine. I can take it. I’ve been rejected by some of the finest science fiction magazines in the continental United States!”
*. So up until the fight between Jason and Tina I would rate The New Blood below average for the franchise. The ending, however, does a lot to redeem it. This was something new for a slasher film. To be sure there’d been feisty and resourceful last girls before, usually in the first part of a franchise (Nancy Thompson in the original Nightmare on Elm Street comes to mind), but I don’t think there’d been anything like Tina going toe-to-toe with one of these superhuman killing machines. Note how, after she discovers that Jason has killed her mother, Tina immediately goes chasing after him!
*. On the commentary Lincoln mentions how she thinks Jason probably enjoys the challenge of fighting someone who is his equal, and I think she has a point. It’s fun seeing these two go at it, and I’d also add that, while nothing spectacular, the psychokinesis effects are pretty good. This is never a scary movie — it’s too formulaic to either care about or be surprised by — but it turns into a decent little action thriller in the end.

Night Shift (1982)

*. A movie full of not-quite debuts.
*. It wasn’t Ron Howard’s first feature film working behind the camera, but it was his first Hollywood studio film (and he’d done some TV-movies as well). It also wasn’t Michael Keaton’s first film, though it was the part that made him a star. Shelley Long had been on TV a lot. Going down the list of credits, it wasn’t even Kevin Costner’s first movie (he’s Frat Boy #1 here, but had appeared in Malibu Hot Summer the year before), or Shannon Doherty’s (she plays one of the Girl Guides).
*. It wasn’t Henry Winkler’s debut either, though again you’d be forgiven for thinking it was at the time. There can’t be that many people who had seen The Lords of Flatbush. He was, however, the biggest star in the cast because of his role as the Fonz on Happy Days.
*. It’s easy, but nonetheless fair I think, to ascribe the general small-screen feel of Night Shift to the fact that all of this talent was coming from television. This isn’t a big movie, and is content to mainly play within its handful of sets (the morgue, the jail, the different apartments). Sets, I would add, that very much look like sets. How many hallways in apartment buildings have we seen on sitcoms that look like the ones here?
*. Another near first: I remember this as being one of the first movies I watched on video after getting a VHS tape machine in the ’80s. Watching movies at home without commercials seemed almost magical then.
*. What also seems magical: the fact that Chuck (Winkler) is investing his hooker clients’ money in accounts that are returning 17.5% (you can read the numbers on his computer). Oh, those interest rates! I remember them going up even higher than that in the ’80s.
*. There is one first. That’s the first recorded version of “That’s What Friends Are For” being sung by Rod Stewart over the end credits. It seems a bit downbeat, however, to wind the movie down with.
*. As for the film itself, I can’t think of much to say. I think this was the first time I’ve seen it since the days of VHS, which is over thirty years ago now. I guess it’s kind of a sweet in a very conventional way. Winkler is Caspar Milquetoast. Long is the hooker with a heart of gold. Keaton I can still enjoy, but he’s only playing a type as well.
*. What sort of type? The American dreamer with endless entrepreneurial schemes for making it big. Night Shift is a movie dealing with adult subject matter but it doesn’t have much to say about the morality of what’s going on. In so far as it does glance in that direction it only suggests that conventional morals are for squares. Making money has its own, transcendent, morality. Is Belinda going to have to go back to work at the end? She will if Chuck can’t support her. And Billy . . . there’s no saying what depths he was likely to fall to after being fired as a towel boy. I hope his idea for microwaveable clothes took off.

The Dante Quartet (1987)

*. Film presents the illusion of continuity through the rapid projection of consecutive images. In this experimental work by Stan Brakhage there is no continuity, at least of this type, as it is composed of stretches of film that have been hand painted and otherwise altered in a way that can’t really be called animation because of that missing sense of flow. But then, the images aren’t static either. As you might imagine, it’s a weird experience.
*. Is there a linear progression to the imagery? I won’t say narrative, but what I mean is that if you rearranged the images in whatever random way you wanted would it make a difference? I can’t imagine anyone outside of the most devout students of such a film as being able to notice the difference. The different sections have some common characteristics, but there’s no sense of a direction to any of it.
*. That might seem kind of obvious, but the allusions in the titles and Brakhage’s own thoughts on the subject of Dante suggest that he thought there was some kind of narrative, or at least argument, here at work, however condensed or metaphorical. From hell (Brakhage’s own break-up) through purgatory and onto a sort of heaven. I confess it’s a movement I have trouble seeing, and I don’t think anyone not so alerted to it would be able to identify any such connections, beyond perhaps the “Hell Spit Fluxion” section being darker and more circumscribed (because presented on a smaller film stock).
*. At best what we’re getting here are colours that may be taken as corresponding to emotional states. Chaos reigns throughout. It’s a silent film, but I find a soundtrack helps. Though isn’t introducing music cheating a bit? Without continuity or representation, isn’t a visual rhythm all this movie has?
*. Perhaps the meaning is all subliminal, in the ghosts of images that some see lurking beneath the shapes of paint. It’s not entirely random, or shouldn’t be, seeing as Brakhage apparently spent six years producing these six minutes. But while it’s very pretty, and evocative of lots of things, it stops short of the goals I think it set for itself. I really enjoy it, but like any work of art without direction it doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

*. OK, you probably know the story behind this movie. Michael Myers seemed to have died pretty conclusively at the end of Halloween II, so John Carpenter had the idea of making subsequent films as stand-alones that would present scary stories with a Halloween theme. The series would take on the character of a horror anthology, of which Season of the Witch was to be the first instalment. As things turned out it would also be the last, since audiences just wanted more Michael Myers. Even critics were mystified, and perhaps, without admitting as much, disappointed.
*. Sticking with that critical response for just a second, Roger Ebert made a howler of a mistake in his review, saying that the lab technician is sifting through the ashes of Michael Myers (incinerated at the end of the previous film) when in fact she’s going through the ashes of the robot who blows himself up after killing the toyseller. Overall, Ebert missed the boat badly here, calling it “one of those Identikit movies, assembled out of familiar parts from other, better movies.” I don’t think this is fair at all. There are certainly homages present, particularly to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but I would rate this as about original a horror film as you could get at the time.
*. The original screenplay was written by British legend Nigel Kneale but he wanted his name taken off of it when they added a whole bunch of gore he hadn’t wanted (Kneale’s brand of horror is decidely lower key). Oddly enough, Rick Rosenthal was also upset when more gore was added to Halloween II. What did these people thinking they were getting into?
*. I actually like the gore in this movie. The kills are extreme, but they make a point about the supernatural strength of the killers by having them tear people’s heads off or crush their skulls with their bare hands. Later we will find out that they are robots. Then, the way that the heads melt down and spawn various bugs and snakes evokes the supernatural in a different way, while providing the movie (and indeed the entire Halloween series) with one of its most iconic moments.

*. I remember shaking my head when Tom Atkins chucks his mask neatly over the security camera. What are the chances he could have made such a throw? As it turns out, the chances were very poor. It took them more than 40 takes to get the shot.
*. I wonder how many real people there are living in Santa Mira. The bodyguards are all robots, as is everyone working at the factory (Conal Cochran’s imported labour force is what the town drunk complains of). I suppose the cops are too. But if everyone in the town is a robot they wouldn’t need to announce a curfew, would they? This is probably not a point worth puzzling over, but it made me curious.
*. The plot is bananas, which bothers some people. I found it . . . different, and just shrugged at its implausibility. I mean, a druid (Dan O’Herlihy) who has a town full of androids steals one of the megaliths from Stonehenge and brings it to the U.S. so that he can put pieces of it into Halloween masks? I wasn’t taking any of this mix of “advanced and antique technology” seriously. How could anyone? You just have to go along with it.
*. If you do go along with it I think it moves pretty well and provides decent entertainment. I enjoyed all the parallels to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I thought using the captured family as test subjects was hilarious. The corporate satire worked well, reminding me of what would be done a few years later in The Stuff (1985), with the robots in gray flannel suits being an especially nice touch. I liked O’Herlihy as the villainous CEO wishing Dr. Challis a happy Halloween. And finally I loved the ending, with the way Atkins roars into the phone recalling “Look to the skies!” or “You’re next! You’re next!”
*. In brief, I can say without hesitation that I liked Season of the Witch a lot more than Halloween II, which was just a bore. In fact, I might even call this my second-favourite instalment in the Halloween franchise, rating it only below the original. But really such a ranking is meaningless since this is the one Halloween movie that isn’t like any of the others, to the point where many people don’t consider it to be a Halloween movie at all. Which is fair enough and not a judgment I’d disagree with. I’d just call it cheap and silly but still more interesting and at least as well done as most of the other generic horror crap that was being made in the ’80s. Though not a personal favourite, it is a movie that I’ve found worth watching again, which is more than I can say for most of its peers.

Halloween II (1981)

*. John Carpenter didn’t want to make a sequel to Halloween. However, since it was one of the most profitable films of all time, and he felt he hadn’t seen enough of those profits, he signed on. Unfortunately, he felt “there was no more story to the idea,” and basically just put together what he felt, justifiably, was an inferior script while drinking a lot of beer. He didn’t direct, passing the reins to Rick Rosenthal (whose first feature this was), though he was involved a lot in the production.
*. Even with a better script I think this movie was doomed. It’s not just the story here that’s tired. The direction is utterly lifeless. I can’t imagine a horror movie feeling more inert. Even the jump scares (a cat leaping out of a dumpster, the old hand-on-the-shoulder gag) fail. There’s no attempt at building suspense. Michael just looms up behind people and kills them. That’s it.

*. The dialogue is drippy, with the leering by-play between the ambulance medic and the nurse being bad even by the low standards of the genre. Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Loomis repeats, several times, the same vague diagnosis of Michael’s evil he made in the first movie. Jamie Lee Curtis spends most of the movie asleep or huddled in a fetal ball. She also inexplicably loses her voice at an inopportune moment.
*. None of it works. I don’t think Rosenthal was the right fellow for the job, as he just seems to have the timing all wrong. That’s why the jump scares don’t work. Or look at how long the camera just sits on Jimmy as he lies in that pool of blood. It’s a nice shot, sure, but why hold it for six seconds? It stops the movie in its tracks.

*. Worst of all is the way Michael’s invincibility has become a bad running joke. “Why won’t he die?” Laurie complains at one point. Good question. Go ahead, shoot him as many times as you want. He’ll just get back up again. Hell, even drilling him with bullets through both eyes only temporarily blinds him.
*. There was some conflict over the amount of gore that Carpenter felt had to be added in order to keep up with what was going on in the genre post-Halloween. Despite this, I wasn’t that impressed by it back in the ’80s and it strikes me as a remarkably tame movie today. Inflation has that effect.
*. Look, Halloween II isn’t a terrible movie. It’s just that I can’t think of a single good thing to say about it. It’s a big yawn. The franchise ball was rolling though, and there were going to be a lot more.

The Funhouse (1981)

*. The opening is both familiar and weird. The killer’s POV, the black gloves, the girl stepping into the shower . . . check. And we know this is a set-up so it’s no surprise that it all turns out to be a joke being played on her. But . . . by her brother? Who is maybe 8 years old? How creepy is that?
*. As an aside, that’s child actor Shawn Carson playing Joey, and he would return to the fairgrounds just a couple of years later in Something Wicked This Way Comes. Strange how these things work out.
*. The combination of familiarity and weirdness continues throughout The Funhouse. Most of the time it’s a not-very-interesting dead-teenager movie, of the kind that were coming out in a rush at this time in an attempt to cash in on the success of Friday the 13th. It has all the elements you’d expect. Just look at the four leads: the jock (tight t-shirt), the slut (tight red pants), the nerd (big glasses), and the virginal last girl (but not so virginal she isn’t ready to go all the way with a dude named Buzz at a sleazy fair). You can even tell in advance what order they’re going to be dispatched in.
*. But there are surprising elements as well. The killer may be less a psycho than a freak. Like Frankenstein’s monster, whose mask he wears, he is an object of pity. Despite his father’s suggestion of his having cannibalistic tendencies, he seems a sympathetic figure. And even his father, who is a bad man (Kevin Conway, playing all three carnival barkers), is practical in his approach to murder. He just wants to get rid of these pesky kids and move on to the next town.
*. How scared of the killer can we be when he appears in such a silly looking mask and, instead of being beaten by his father, is ordered to beat himself up? How can you not laugh at that scene?
*. Maybe the funhouse is just a strange place where strange things happen. I mean, just look at how much bigger it is on the inside than the outside. How does it have so damn many levels to it? It’s not like it can have a basement.
*. It’s not even a gory or particularly violent movie. There are really only a couple of deaths that are shown on screen, and the others are often hidden in the dark or are mostly kept out of frame. In all of this there seems a real confusion as to what kind of a movie was being made.
*. I’d like to think someone thought of The Funhouse as a horror-comedy, but I suspect there was little intentional about the humour. The movie seems like too much of a grab-bag of ill-assorted odds-and-ends. The plot, for example, is full of extraneous material. Why introduce Joey as such a major, even creepy character when nothing is done with him later? He can’t be a red herring, and at the same time there’s not enough to his role to allow us to identify with him. What is the significance of his sister’s earlier line to him about getting even with him later? I can’t figure this out. Nor is it clear why so much time is wasted introducing all the different carnies.
*. Perhaps they just didn’t have enough material. That’s the sense I had: of a fair-ground ride that had to be somehow stretched out to 90 minutes. Some of what they threw into the mix is, as I’ve said, weird. Most of it, however, is just pointless.
*. Tobe Hooper. I guess enough has been said already about the disappointment of his career after The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Maybe he was just an odd fit for big studio productions. Even here there was apparently a lot of interference. Meanwhile, I’ve heard he turned down directing E.T. in order to do this film. He might have already suspected that it was going to be Spielberg’s movie anyway. If not, that’s a lesson he’d learn making Poltergeist.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

*. Right from the beginning (I’m looking at the original English-language newspaper advertisement) Tetsuo: The Iron Man was compared to the work of David Lynch and David Cronenberg. I still see it discussed this way, almost as a critical default setting. In fact, reading over various reviews and commentaries online I don’t think I found more than a couple that didn’t mention at least one of the Daves.
*. I don’t get it. I don’t see any visual relationship between this film and the work of Cronenberg or Lynch. None at all. You can say it’s like Eraserhead because it’s in black-and-white, or like Cronenberg because it deals with body horror (a rather wide-ranging term) but that’s it. Writer-director Shin’ya Tsukamoto has called himself a disciple of Cronenberg and there are thematic connections to be made. The fetishization of technology is of a piece with what we saw in Videodrome and would see in Crash. But those are common enough themes and, as I’ve said, these films don’t look the same or move in the same way.
*. Just sticking with movement, there’s nothing like the crazy editing we see here in the work of the Daves. If anything their films are characterized by a languid sense of pacing. This movie is manic from start to finish. Pacing is a big part of any film, and any director’s sense of style, and here Tsukamoto is worlds apart from Lynch and Cronenberg.
*. I don’t even think the thematic connection to Cronenberg can be pushed very far. This is because I’m unclear what themes are being explored in Tetsuo. The most common interpretation that I’ve seen has it that it’s meant as a commentary on the regimentation of Japanese society, but the metal man (the meaning of “tetsuo”) doesn’t take on the bureaucracy or corporate capitalism. He’s just a monster. And anyway, doesn’t the fact that the salaryman becomes crazier and more rebellious as he becomes more mechanical undercut such a message? Isn’t this movie about embracing, however perversely or violently, our transformation into a form of technology?

*. Instead of trying to interpret it, I see it mainly as just another bit of Japanese zaniness. It’s off the wall and all over the place with scenes of sex and violence so extreme they don’t even register because they’re so silly. It has some shock value and nicely evokes the industrial grotesque but it doesn’t carry a message any deeper than a Toho monster movie, or an episode of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which are the analogs I was most reminded of by the slugfest at the end. Is the final hybrid creature a giant cock, as is usually suggested? This is something else I don’t see. It looks more Dalek than dick to me. The giant drill strikes me as more naturalistic, mainly in the way it seems to operate with a mind of its own.
*. The first time I saw Tetsuo was in a version without subtitles, which is how I think it was initially played on the festival circuit. I don’t see how it makes much difference. Most people who watch it today head online for help in understanding the plot. I’ve had recourse to the same aids, and while what I’ve learned is sometimes interesting I don’t know how far to trust these sources. The synopses that I’ve read seem to explain more than we can safely assume from what’s on screen. And so there are parts of the film where I’m still not sure what’s going on.
*. This isn’t to belittle Tetsuo. I’d rather watch this again than Crash any day. It took Tsukamoto a grueling 18 months to make, and you can really feel that odd juxtaposition between the care he took with it and its frantic, hyper-kinetic qualities, between its art-house and grindhouse origins. I don’t find it as weird as a lot of other people do. To me it looks like a lot of experimental or avant-garde film from 70 years ago, only with a punkier soundtrack and more blood. At just over an hour it becomes repetitive, but it’s still a movie to enjoy and even delight in, and one that introduces a new sensibility.

Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)

*. September 9, 1988. Hellbound: Hellraiser II has its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. And your humble commentary writer was there. I believe it was being run as a “midnight movie.”
*. That is the only world premiere I’ve ever attended. Not much of a bragging point, I know, but I haven’t lived a very interesting life.
*. The movie we saw that night was the director’s cut, which is also the version you’re likely to see today on DVD. As I recall, it was not very well received. The audience was primed, and let out a cheer when Pinhead made his entrance. After that, however, things quieted down, and I had the sense that most of us left feeling led down and confused. Was Pinhead dead? How was that possible? And why? He was the hero!
*. Today there’s some debate over the merits of Hellbound. The rest of the Hellraiser series, it’s pretty widely agreed, went downhill fast, but this film still has its strong supporters. Personally, I find it disappointing, so I’ll start with the question of what went wrong.
*. In the first place, it’s no Hellraiser. There’s no shame in that: Hellraiser was a movie I rate very highly as well as consider a personal favourite and any sequel was almost sure to mark a drop off.
*. Despite expecting the usual let-down, there was reason to be hopeful. Clare Higgins comes back as the wicked stepmom turned evil queen, even though I’d heard she hadn’t enjoyed being in the first film. Kenneth Cranham is very good as the evil and obsessed Dr. Channard running a mad madhouse with a Victorian Bedlam in its basement. Christopher Young’s score is fittingly baroque.

*. But there are problems. Visually it’s reach exceeds its grasp, but as a vision of hell it’s at least interesting and has some unique elements mixed in with the more traditional motifs. Andrew Robinson didn’t want to come back either — he has claimed he was being low-balled, or alternatively that he didn’t like the script — which might have ended up being a plus (his character wasn’t necessary) but apparently led to last-minute rewriting of the script. Also there were arguments over the budget, with the result that it had to be shot for a lot less than they had originally planned on. Can you tell?
*. But if you’re looking for someone to blame for Hellbound I think you have to go straight to the source, to the very man who made Hellraiser an instant classic: Clive Barker.
*. The script is a mess, which may have had something to do with the rewrite but I think is more the result of Barker just not having a strong enough grip on what he wanted to do. The first movie was tight. It could have been shot entirely on a couple of sets, and the story was just as compact and economical.
*. The seeds of this film’s undoing, however, were evident already in Hellraiser. In so far as that film stayed true to his novella The Hellbound Heart it was the better for it. When it started adding things (Kirsty’s boyfriend, the homeless man who turns out to be a demon) it went astray.

*. Hellbound goes even further off track. It wants to give us more on the mythology of the Cenobites and their world but it just ends up a mess. The budget wasn’t up to the effects they wanted, making a lot of what they did get on screen look silly. The action becomes chaotic, and we’re never sure what the larger point is. I mean, when Julia “kills” Frank, isn’t she doing him a favour? And how can he be killed when, as he himself puts it, “when you’re dead you’re fucking dead” anyway?
*. “It’s not hands that summon us. It’s desire.” Sounds fair. But that excuse didn’t help Kirsty in the first movie, did it? And when she tries to raise it as a defence again here, since she didn’t open the box and she’s obviously not a thrill-seeker like Dr. Channard, she’s shut down immediately as someone who can’t be trusted. I think the Cenobites just like her.

*. What are we to make of Kirsty’s subterfuge of donning Julia’s skin? Clearly it’s absurd, an impossibility. So what’s going on? Is the point that this is all just a fairy tale? That’s the best I can come up with.
*. The kink and fetish angle was something new in the first film, but here it seems played out before things even get started. You just don’t feel these people being seduced by obscenity or so plagued by ennui that they’re ready to pay the ultimate price for a new experience.
*. I do like how Julia can not only reconstruct her body from draining the life from others, but the same process can even do her nails and makeup as well.
*. Roger Ebert: “This movie has no plot in a conventional sense. It is simply a series of ugly and bloody episodes strung together one after another like a demo tape by a perverted special-effects man. There is nothing the heroines can do to understand or change their plight and no way we can get involved in their story.” I don’t think this is entirely fair. There is a plot, however sketchy, and the heroines do have agency. Tiffany has to solve that puzzle, most obviously.
*. I like what Ebert says though about a demo tape of gore put out by a special-effects man. The whole final act just seems like they were trying to throw as much splatter at the camera as they could.
*. Most disappointing of all, however, both at the premiere and ever since, is the cursory disposal of Pinhead. Perhaps Barker had grown jealous of his most famous creation but he deserved a better send-off than the flimsy bit of redemption he gets here, his fascination with Kirsty left unexplored so that we feel like we’re being cheated of something. Of course they had to be bring Pinhead back — he was the franchise — but the damage had been done and something important had been lost.

Hellraiser (1987)

*. I saw this movie when it was first released in theatres and came away very impressed. I felt I had seen nothing like it.
*. You have to remember the times: in the early ’80s horror films had devolved into endless repetitions of the same old slasher clichés and formulas. The genre was in a desperate rut. There was no originality, no invention. Hellraiser was different. And not just because it was British (though that probably helped).
*. There’s an interesting comment made on the Hellraiser: Resurrection featurette where author Bill Condon calls this film one of the two landmark horror movies of the 1980s, along with Nightmare on Elm Street. But Nightmare on Elm Street has always struck me as a parody of conventional elements that Wes Craven was already bored with, inspiring a dive into the surreal. Hellraiser was going in a different direction.
*. It’s all the more surprising then that this is a film that was not that well received at the time. Roger Ebert was perhaps the most prominent nay-sayer, but critical aggregate scores were not good and the box office ($14 million, on a $1 million budget) wasn’t outstanding. Still, voices such as Stephen King and Kim Newman both saw in it “the future of horror,” and this seemed to me to be a good call.
*. But Barker’s promise, which really was immense, fizzled. It’s amazing that this was his first movie, and that just before shooting started he’d gone to the library to find a book on directing. He’s said that at the time he might not have known the difference between a lens and a plate of spaghetti (which was, no doubt, an exaggeration).
*. Now this movie is not the Citizen Kane of horror debuts, but it is very effective. Barker had a unique vision and a solid script, and was given enough independence to develop them (something he insisted on after being upset at the “cinematic abominations” made of a couple of previous screenplays he’d written, for Underworld and Rawhead Rex).
*. But where did he go from here? Next up there was Nightbreed, which I remember as being awful. He wrote a lot more, but nothing that I think measures up to his Books of Blood and The Hellbound Heart, the latter being the novella Hellraiser is based on. So he didn’t disappear, but still “the future of horror” title never panned out. I wonder if this was another version of the catastrophe of success.
*. As for the film, it would go on to have a long legacy, with a plethora of sequels that rolled downhill followed by the obligatory franchise reboot. But more on them later, if I ever get around to watching them all.

*. To get back to where I started: in 1987 this movie really was the thing. But I’m impressed seeing it today at how well it’s held up. Yes, it’s still the ’80s, but while the hair is big it isn’t disturbingly so. And yes the puzzle box (“Lemarchand’s Configuration,” for those in the know) is just a fancy Rubik’s Cube. Even at the time I thought the Ghostbusters reject of a demon (apparently called “the Engineer”) was laughable, and the dolly behind it clearly visible. The final animations are lousy, and apparently Barker drew them by hand, while drunk, because there was no money (but then why not just do something simpler?). Grant all of this, but it’s still a darn good movie.
*. I mentioned how being British might have helped it seem even more different. As Kim Newman points out, it was something really new in the U.K.: “In the mid-1980s British horror only existed as an underground tradition. Between Bromley Davenport’s Xtro (1982) and Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987), no British horror film was given a theatrical release.” That gives you another idea of the wasteland out of which this movie arose.
*. Still, as Newman also says, “If there is such a thing as a British horror film for the 1980s, Hellraiser is it.” This despite the fact that the location (London) is never specified and the American production company insisted on some of the actors’ voices being dubbed.
*. Given that the author of the original story was also the screenwriter and director, it’s surprising how many significant changes were made. Chief among these is making Kirsty into Larry’s daughter from a previous marriage instead of a former suitor the same age as Julia. This change makes sense though because it turns our lead into a threatened teenager and also brings in a kinky incest angle.
*. A more mysterious change is adding the bearded homeless man who turns into a winged demon at the end. There’s nothing in the novella like that and I’m not sure the character was necessary here. He seems just a distraction. I think he should have been the Engineer, a figure who is articulate and even somewhat dignified in the novella but appears to be little more than an angry slug in the movie.
*. Since this movie is a personal favourite of mine I don’t want to spend too long on nit-picking at some details, but here’s a quick list. I’m bothered that Frank and Larry don’t seem like brothers. I’m bothered that Larry and Julia don’t seem remotely compatible. I’m bothered at how much of Frank is reconstituted with just a few drops of blood, but there’s hardly any change at all between his second and third victims (and killing Julia doesn’t even heal the cuts on his face). I’m bothered that the recomposing Frank and flashback Frank are played by different actors and I can’t see the former in the latter at all.
*. Also: why does Pinhead follow up his line “This isn’t for your eyes!” with “We have such sights to show you!” He seems to have changed his mind.

*. Barker wanted Kirsty’s dream sequence to be “a moment of pure Argento surrealism,” but why? It’s a sequence I’ve never understood. I’m not even sure who is underneath the blanket. It’s not her father. The boyfriend? And why is it that he wakes up in a sweat?
*. I think the film might have been clearer about such things. Another point I’ll mention is that I never thought, the first few times I saw the movie, that Frank was dying in the house. I thought he’d just flopped there for a while before taking off for Asia or North Africa, buying the box, and then opening it in some seedy opium den or something. It really wasn’t until I read The Hellbound Heart that I realized that all that early stuff had actually taken place in the same house on Ludovico Street (get it?) and that Frank was bound to it in some physical sense.
*. Well, it was a somewhat messy production, shot on the cheap and with a lot of loose ends. But now on to a quick catalogue of what I love about it.
*. In the first place, while kinky it also has an adult attitude toward sex. This isn’t a movie about a bunch of teenagers screwing and then getting killed by a puritanical or voyeuristic slasher. In fact, Kirsty and her boyfriend even sleep in the same room but in separate beds!
*. Instead, the sexual heat is brought by Clare Higgens, who was only 32 but looks slightly older: very much the mature, professional lady with her perfect hair and makeup and nails. This, in turn, makes her turn to depravity all the more compelling. She’s the MILF from hell. Or, to take Barker’s analogy, she and Frank are the Macbeths.

*. The design elements, especially with the Cenobites, are terrific, as are most of the special effects. I’ve already flagged the weak links (the animation at the end and the appearance of the Engineer), but otherwise they got a lot of bang for their buck. The gore holds up really well, especially with that shocking opening sequence. Frank’s jigsaw-puzzle of a face is still disturbing over thirty years later.
*. Barker wanted to start off with something shocking as a way of “taming the audience”: letting the audience know right away that nothing is off the table and keeping them off balance for the rest of the movie. It’s also important to start off with this because the Cenobites don’t actually show up for a while. Barker references Jaws on the DVD commentary as an example of this kind of opening, but it’s a fairly standard part of any horror artist’s toolkit.
*. Sticking with the icky stuff for just a moment I’d also praise the sound effects used for Frank’s feeding. It shoulds like he’s munching and slurping on take-out, which in a way I guess he is. Barker can cut away from such scenes and just show Julia listening in the hallway and it doesn’t lose any of its impact.
*. Then, of course, there are the Cenobites. Barker was afraid that audiences would find Pinhead in particular ridiculous. I think the context of his initial appearance helps here, as it did the first appearance of the apes in the original Planet of the Apes. They might have seemed funny too, just guys dressed up in gorilla suits, but because they’re so terrifying hunting the humans down we aren’t allowed to laugh.
*. By now the whole Cenobite gang (or the Order of the Gash, to use the novella’s crude double entendre) have become not just familiar but iconic. And again I have to stress how strange they were in 1987. Sure there was a leather scene in the ’80s, but piercing wasn’t mainstream at all. These guys were something different.

*. Like all iconic villains, Pinhead gains from the fact that less is more. I’ve talked before about how we remember a lot of great movie villains just for a couple of lines or perhaps even a quirky physical characteristic and that’s it. Fans of this film can, and do, quote Pinhead’s lines because there are so few of them. Which, in turn, magnifies them in our memories.
* Barker nixed the contemporary metal score to go with something more conventional. I like Christopher Young’s score here as it fits a cozy setting that has gone to seed, setting the tone with a campy edge.

*. The cast are all very good. Andrew Robinson, the Scorpio killer in Dirty Harry, stays just this side of overplaying his double role. He’s at his best in that final shot where he’s being hung up on all the hooks and chains and we see what’s more than just a shadow of a smile on his face. At least in some sense, isn’t this what he signed up for? And now he gets to go through it all again. Clare Higgens I’ve mentioned as the icy queen with lava in her veins. And Ashley Laurence in her debut has a really strong turn as Kirsty. Her boyfriend, a character not in the novella, is, as Barker points out on the commentary track, “completely useless throughout the entire movie.” I love the bit of business where he tries to grab the box from her and take charge of the situation at the end but she slaps his hand away. This is serious business! Just let her get on with it.
*. In fact, we might extend that inversion of traditional gender roles to Larry and Julia as well. What gets the ball rolling here is his running to her when he cuts his hand on the nail, instead of going to wash it up in the sink or something useful. And of course Frank has to get Julia to bring home all his victims, and kill them for him as well. It’s the women in this movie who get things done. Meanwhile I’m still wondering why the hell it would take three guys to carry a mattress up a flight of stairs. (One of them is Oliver Parker, who would be back moving the same mattress in Hellbound: Hellraiser II, only this time with even worse results.)
*. I guess I could go on but there doesn’t seem much point adding more words to a movie that has had more than enough said about it already. In the featurette included with the DVD Barker mentions his being exhausted by talking about the film, and that anything he has to say is pretty much by the way now anyway since it’s a movie that belongs to its fans. Certainly the basic mythology and the character of Pinhead would proceed to take on a life of their own. I’m not sure at this point how many Hellraiser movies there have been, but it’s a lot and they’re still going.
*. Personally, I don’t quite rank this as one of my personal favourites of all time but it is a movie that, for various reasons, I have near the top of such lists. It’s interesting that despite all the sequels and the reboots it still stands pretty much alone. There was nothing quite like it when it came out and as far as I know there hasn’t been anything quite like it since. It has its flaws, some of which you’d expect given the budget. And yet through the right alignment of talent, the moment, and a bit of luck it all still works. After thirty years I think we have to admit that it’s gone beyond cult status and can be considered a classic.