Category Archives: 1980s

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.

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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.

Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987)

*. A woman walks through an empty parking garage and is attacked by a gang of masked hoods. She is thrown to the ground and raped. Then, in silhouette, a hero appears who pulls a gun and blows the punks away. Or were they creeps? I’m not sure what the correct word was at the time.
*. And yet, before you can say “Oh shit, here we go again,” Paul Kersey awakes from this (bad?) dream. Has this cliché ever been more welcome?
*. I hadn’t seen Death Wish 4: The Crackdown before now. I’d seen Death Wish 3 around the time it came out and gave up on the series then. Too bad, as this is the best of the movies since the original Death Wish, and in fact is in most ways a far more enjoyable experience than that film. Which just goes to show there’s hope even for the most dismal of franchises.
*. Not that Death Wish 4 is a great movie. It isn’t. But it is a lot better than the dead-cat bounce I was expecting after Death Wish 3.
*. There are several reasons why it’s better. The biggest, however, is that it has an actual story to tell and not just a formula to follow. To be sure, once again Paul Kersey has hooked up with a new woman, who has a daughter, and both will die. There is even the obligatory hospital scene where the doctor comes out to tell him the bad news. I had thought, for just a moment, that the love interest was going to be rescued at the end but . . . no such luck. That much is formula.
*. Also formula, I might add, is the fact that there is the same age gap between Bronson and the actress playing his love interest as there was in the previous movie, a whopping 32 years. What’s even more surprising is that in Deatwh Wish V his new paramour, Lesley-Anne Down, would be a year younger!
*. I can understand the women falling for Kersey’s quiet machismo and professional success, but shouldn’t Kersey know by now that in getting involved with these ladies he’s effectively handing them a death sentence? When do you realize that you’re just never going to be lucky in love, and you owe it to these women to stay single?
*. The story here is not the usual vigilante hunt through the streets of New York or L.A. Instead, Kersey is drawn into a turf war between two rival drug gangs, orchestrated by a third party with his own agenda. They actually had Yojimbo/A Fistful of Dollars in mind as a model. In other words, this is a movie with a real honest-to-goodness plot.

*. Also interesting is the use of new locations. We aren’t in the street any more but visiting a drug lab fronting as a fish processing factory, an oil field overlooking L.A., and finally a disco roller-derby rink. What’s even better is that the gunfights and kills have some imagination too. They actually use squibs, for one thing, instead of just having the bad guys jump in the air when they’re supposedly shot. We also see a bad guy electrocuted on the power grid for a bumper car ride, and another one getting his head shoved into a television. A whole trio of hit men are blown up by an exploding wine bottle in a restaurant. This is almost fun.
*. I wouldn’t say J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear, and, oddly enough, Happy Birthday to Me) does a great job directing, but he’s miles ahead of Michael Winner, who did the first three films. Just the fact that Thompson uses a zoom to some effect on a few occasions is a welcome sign that he at least knows what he’s doing.
*. Great moments in subtitling: When Nathan White asks one of his flunkies where the girl is he’s told that she’s “in the powder room.” At least that’s what the subtitles say. What is actually said, clearly, is that she’s in the power room. That’s sexist subtitling! Or something.
*. Sadly, despite marking a significant improvement on earlier episodes, Death Wish 4 lost money, effectively shutting the franchise down until the belated bomb Death Wish V in 1994, when they were back to using Roman numerals in the title and Bronson was 71. Then, nearly twenty-five years later, it would be Bruce Willis’s turn. At almost the same age Bronson was in this film. The difference? Willis would be only eight years older than Elisabeth Shue, the actress playing his wife.

Death Wish 3 (1985)

*. It took them three movies, but in this instalment of the franchise they hit terminal velocity. And I don’t mean that in any kind of kick-ass way. I mean the series flatlined on its way downhill into irrelevance.
*. No more debating the pros and cons of vigilante justice, or agonizing over taking another life. No, this time Paul Kersey is out for blood from the moment he steps off a bus in Brooklyn (the film was actually shot in London, but if you’ve seen one ghetto I guess you’ve seen them all). With every “creep” he blows away with his Wildey .475 Magnum hand cannon crowds cheer from the windows. Right on, man! One scene even has children running into the street to dance over the corpses of slain bad guys.
*. In case you might not get the point, we also have a couple of scenes where the chief of police (Ed Lauter) crushes cockroaches. Kersey will later make the analogy to exterminating creeps direct: “It’s like killing roaches. If you don’t kill them all then what’s the point?” This is a point of view that the police chief, who makes it clear he has no time for the rule of law, can sympathize with.
*. In his defence, Bronson himself seems to have been disappointed at what his character had become, and was only playing the role for a boatload of money.
*. The plan here was to just cut out anything that looked like it might turn into a story, keep the basic franchise formula intact, and have more things blowing up at the end, comic-book style. This results in some surreal effects. The opening scenes play out so abruptly it almost seems like we’re watching a trailer. Then, because Kersey has to have a love interest who is killed, a sexy young public defender falls for him after seeing him once in a hallway at the police station, driving into the ghetto so she can ask him out to dinner and jump into bed with him. Talk about love at first sight. And Bronson, by the way, was 32 years older than Deborah Raffin. So . . . yeah, weird.
*. Another formula element is rape, and for no reason whatsoever director Michael Winner (who had directed both Death Wish and Death Wish II, and who was described by actor Alex Winter as “a pathologically brutal, strange, sadistic, insecure, egotistical character”) includes two rape scenes in this film. I say “for no reason whatsoever” but I’m inclined to think Winter just liked shooting them. They serve no purpose in the film.
*. Just how stupid is this movie? Well, apparently they stopped using Roman numerals because they did a survey and found out that over half of Americans couldn’t understand them. The next movie would be numbered Death Wish 4 but then they’d revert to Roman numerals for Death Wish V. Go figure.

*. Some people enjoy the battle at the end. I found it repetitive and ridiculous (for example, Bronson holding the .30 cal machine gun while firing it). It’s basically all cars exploding into fireballs and people crashing through windows and falling off roofs and fire escapes. After you see this happening four or five times you don’t care any more.
*. The gang of creeps is unintentionally (I’m sure) comic, sporting silly face paint instead of tattoos. This is one of those elements that lead to people liking Death Wish 3 for being “so bad it’s good.” Maybe.
*. The Taken movies were roundly mocked for following the same script so many times, but they really had nothing on these Death Wish films. Because Raffin is killed off so abruptly (would she not agree to being raped?) they have to introduce a Hispanic man whose wife is raped and later dies in hospital so that the formula from the first two films can be replayed again.
*. I think if you’re interested in what sort of crap Cannon was putting out in the mid-80s this is as good a film to watch as any. And perhaps a little less painful than a Chuck Norris title. But aside from its historical value I don’t think there’s much to see here. Despite being even more cartoonish it still manages to be a nastier piece of work, with fewer redeeming features. Or really any redeeming features, come to think of it. OK, maybe the bad guy getting blown through a wall with a rocket launcher. But aside from that this is just a piece of crap whose only real virtue is its hurry to end.

Death Wish II (1982)

*. The word that came to mind as I was watching Death Wish II was tired. This is a tired movie. Of course it’s formulaic, but it’s worse than that. It’s a movie that’s just going through the motions without energy, originality, or even a sense of conviction in its message, which had grown stale since the release of the original Death Wish eight years earlier.
*. Roger Ebert gave it no stars, and mentioned in his review how the two returning cast members (Charles Bronson and Vincent Gardenia) “seem shell-shocked by weariness in this film.” In his defence, Bronson was 59, which was elderly in 1982. Ebert concludes: “The movie doesn’t contain an ounce of life. It slinks onto the screen and squirms for a while, and is over.”
*. The next step down from Dino De Laurentiis was the Cannon Group (a production company run by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus). I’ve seen this referred to as Cannon’s first Hollywood film. They would go on to put out a ton of similar crap throughout the ’80s, including a lot of Chuck Norris flicks and more Death Wish sequels. I guess they had a good run, but they’re no longer in business.
*. Michael Winner returned because he had nothing better to do. What he brought to the project can be judged by his statement that it was “the same, but different” from the original: “That’s what sequels are — Rocky II, Rocky III — you don’t see Sylvester Stallone move to the Congo and become a nurse. Here the look of LA is what’s different. Besides — rape doesn’t date!”
*. Rape doesn’t date. Ugh. The original screenwriter didn’t like the rape scene and thought Winner had just wanted to put it in out of personal prurience. Ugh.
*. What’s to like? Laurence Fishburne III as a hood, in a role I’m sure he’d like to forget. The sleazy flophouse that Paul Kersey stays in when he goes out on his hunting expeditions. And the groaning guitar work by rocker Jimmy Page (the only part of the score I liked).
*. Aside from that it’s just Bronson hunting down the hoods that killed his daughter. There are a couple of decent kills, set up in the most improbable ways imaginable. Jill Ireland is allowed a classy exit from the series and a sequel is all but announced as we hear gunshots echoing through the streets of L.A.

Rawhead Rex (1986)

*. “Cheesy” is a word that gets used a lot when people talk about bad movies. And more so with movies than when discussing books or other works of art. But what does it mean?
*. The Oxford English Dictionary labels it slang and offers as a definition “inferior, second-rate, cheap and nasty.” To this I think I’d want to add that, like cheese, people like it. Even though you know it’s crap that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it. Also like cheese, it ages well. For some reason, cheese made in the 1980s seems to taste better today than it did thirty years ago.
*. Rawhead Rex is a cheesy horror flick. It’s very bad. Some people consider it one of the worst horror films of the 1980s, which is high praise indeed (and it’s usually meant as praise). It is also a lot of fun.
*. The keynote is the monster Rawhead. The movie opts to show him to us in all his glory as soon as he’s raised from his burial pit at the beginning, not bothering with the suspense of a slow reveal. And he is laughable: a big guy with a stupid, immobile rubber orc mask that has hypnotic red Christmas-tree lights in its eyes. He is, in other words, a total block of cheese.
*. The rest of the movie is just as terrible. Incompetence is demonstrated in every department of the film’s making: wrong-footed editing, terrible sound, stiff acting, and a ludicrous script. And then there are moments of sheer bad-movie hilarity, like the “baptism” in the graveyard (I won’t give this away) and pretty much the entire last ten minutes, which is capped with a predictably nutty final shot.
*. It’s loosely based on a Clive Barker short story and he also wrote the script. Perhaps the one good thing that can be said for Rawhead Rex then is that Barker hated it so much he insisted on making Hellraiser himself.
*. So definitely inferior, second-rate, cheap, and nasty. But also fun. Not a movie you’ll want to watch more than once, but well worth checking out sometime if you get the chance.