Category Archives: 1980s

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.

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Hellraiser (1987)

*. I saw this movie when it was first released in theatres and came away very impressed. I felt like 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.

Dawn of the Mummy (1981)

*. The Mummy genre meets gore. Or: The Mummy genre goes full zombie. Or: The Mummy genre as Eurotrash. Or: The Mummy circa. 1981. Or all of the above.
*. If nothing else at least it’s an eclectic mix. And I don’t think it’s anything else. The individual elements are all familiar and none of them particularly well done. Once the army of the dead start rising out of the desert sand we might be in any bargain-basement sub-Fulci movie, like Oasis of the Zombies (1982) to take an obvious comparison. This is not good company to be in.
*. It’s the sheer dreariness of these movies that gets to me. The muddy photography and colour. The use of crude camera work to inject some sense of urgency into the proceedings. Because really all we have here are some stiff zombies lurching about and falling on top of people. Then there’s the obligatory zombie feast, where the undead always look bored to tears while they’re stuffing their faces.
*. There are a few noteworthy points. It was shot in Egypt by an Egyptian director, which may have been a first for a mummy movie. The dummy heads used for the decaptations and the cleaver-in-the-brain scene are actually pretty good. And there’s one glorious bit of overacting when the head graverobber starts screaming for Sefirama and then finds the doorway to the treasure chamber, unleashing an orgasmic ecstasy of gold.
*. Aside from that it’s pretty dull, despite all of the different plot elements they threw into the mix. A gang of scruffy tomb raiders meeting up with a bevy of American models doing a photo shoot in the Egyptian desert discover a cursed burial site? Flesh-eating mummies? This should have been a lot more fun.
*. Of course there was no budget and no talent involved. Still, there’s nothing here that boosts this one out of the ghetto.

Deathtrap (1982)

*. In my notes on Sleuth, a film that Deathtrap derives at least in part from, I mentioned how the genre of the country estate murder mystery was both historically bound and for all time. As a result, it’s a play (and a film) that hasn’t dated.
*. Deathtrap is slightly less successful in this regard. As Roger Ebert noted in his review, “Deathtrap is not a great film and will not live forever.” I’d concur with both points, though it has managed to hang around longer than I think he might have suspected.
*. There are elements that stand out as dated. The theatrical poster, for example, has the cast popping out of a Rubik’s Cube. We’ll grant them a pass on that, however, as the same conceit was used on the poster for The Cabin in the Woods (2012), where I thought it was kind of witty. Things that haven’t aged as well include Clifford’s boots (which are, alas, mentioned in the script several time) and references to the Merv Griffin Show. I wonder how many people today even know who Merv Griffin was, despite all of his success in creating game shows. Along with most of the other wisecracks from the play, the references to Griffin’s show don’t even bring a smile.

*. Then there is the fact that the two leads — Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve — play a gay couple. This was pretty daring for 1982, and their on-screen kiss even more so (a kiss that isn’t in the play). It was also a big risk for Reeve, who was best (or really only) known as Superman up till then. And here he’s not only gay but a sociopath as well!
*. I wonder how much the gay subplot confused audiences at the time. I mean, it would be clear to most people that Sidney staged the murder of Clifford, but to what end? I think that’s a twist that might have surprised people in 1982, though it doesn’t now.
*. This brings me to the biggest difference between now and then. Today we’re used to complicated plots like this, and movies with several surprise twists. As a result, Deathtrap just doesn’t seem sophisticated or complicated enough. I think modern audiences have an easy time staying on top of it and there really aren’t any big surprises. Even the murder of Myra is no big shocker, being taken directly from Les Diaboliques. I was actually thinking she was going to be coming back at some point.
*. So is it still enjoyable? Not so much. For me, with every twist it became not only more improbable but far less interesting. More than that, however, is that nobody seems to be having any fun. Compare Olivier and Caine in Sleuth, where the two characters they play are obviously both enjoying themselves immensely as they put on a show for one another.
*. Pauline Kael: “What this comes down to is a broad, obvious movie that looks like an ugly play and appears to be a vile vision of life. . . . the actors don’t disgrace themselves. But their skill gives no one pleasure.” No one involved, and few people watching.

Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

*. This movie is sometimes said to be the one where the franchise got back to its roots, meaning it brought Jason literally back from the dead instead of pursuing the possibility of copycat killers. In fact, I find it an even bigger deviation from formula than the previous film, which was (supposedly) A New Beginning.
*. A bigger deviation and a much worse movie. Apparently, however, it enjoys a respectable reputation, with many critics considering it the best film in the series. It is also credited for having influenced the Scream franchise with its self-referential humour. I think this is way overstated and there is nothing remotely clever, witty, or funny about the script at all. I also think this is one of the worst Friday the 13ths.

*. But back to what’s different. In the first place Jason himself is now a supernatural force that cannot be killed by any means. Second: gone is the sleaze and moralizing. There are no tits in this film (the only film in the series, including the reboot, with no nudity), only one scene of casual sex (with the partners partially clothed), and no drug use. So the victims aren’t being killed because they’re bad but just because they’re in Jason’s way.
*. There’s an interesting point on the DVD commentary where writer-director Tom McLoughlin says that one of his big influences was Frank Capra because he wanted the audience to like the characters so that we would care about them when they were in danger. This is very different from what’s standard in these dead teenager movies where you hate the idiots so much you want them to die. In the end I think McLoughlin fell into the middle. I didn’t hate the victims in this movie but I didn’t like or care about them either.
*. Then there is the humour. McLoughlin wanted to make a funny movie and was told he could do so as long as he didn’t make fun of Jason. The results don’t strike me as being funny at all, in large part because there’s nothing scary going on either. For horror-comedy to work I’ve always felt that there has to be a certain amount of real tension or suspense as well, to highlight the humour and have it come as more of a relief. But here absolutely nothing works.
*. I’m not even sure McLoughlin stuck to the rule of not making fun of Jason. The opening credits are introduced by way of a silly nod to the Bond gun-barrel iris and later the deathless one has a paintball pistol fired at him. So he’s set up as at least a semi-comic figure.

*. So: more jokes and no boobs. And very little gore to go with it. Some of this was due to the MPAA still being on the warpath, but based on the deleted scenes included with the DVD I don’t think there was that much splatter in the first place. Audiences were spared the heads hitting the ground in the triple decapitation scene but that’s about it.
*. This is not to say there weren’t a lot of cuts, and additions. The sense I had was that the movie was made in a very slapdash manner. They even had to add one set of kills after the rest of the film was shot because there weren’t enough (according to the commentary, despite the tight budget “there was always money for a new kill”). Also the character of the caretaker at the graveyard was supposed to play a bigger role and not be killed (introducing us at the end to Jason’s father). Though I haven’t heard it discussed, I thought it strange that the deputy is safely locked away from Jason and his pistol with the laser scope is never actually utilized. That seems as though something else was dropped from the script at some point, though McCloughlin says on the commentary that he never thought of putting the red dot on Jason.
*. One of the problems with trying to be funny is that you lose all those magical moments where the movie isn’t trying to be funny but you still have to laugh. These make up a number of the most memorable scenes in this franchise. As, for example, when the two characters sing “Baby, Baby” to each other through the outhouse walls in A New Beginning. There are no moments like that in Jason Lives because all the laughs are written as gags, which means they’re not as funny.
*. I can understand some people liking this one, but I think what they like about it are things that make it different from a traditional Friday the Thirteenth movie. Some of the changes I didn’t mind (the lack of nudity, for example), but turning Jason into an immortal demon from hell, while perhaps inevitable, was a leap into stupidity I’ve never approved of. And as I say, the jokes all fall flat.
*. So while I give them credit for trying to do something different, at the end of the day this one just isn’t scary or funny or even that interesting. It was, however, the shape of things to come.

Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985)

*. Actually not bad, as far as these things go.
*. I wasn’t bored. This despite the fact that Part 5 (as it is sometimes numbered, though this is not how its title appears on screen) is one of the most conventional and thus predictable entries in the series, right down to the stupid jump scare at the end. Plus the gore looks like it was done on the cheap throughout. (Though, in the film’s defence, some of the better kills had to be cut for being too violent. During the DVD commentary director Danny Steinman even remarks at one point “I’m looking at these kills and they are not good.” He’s right. They aren’t.)
*. Still, for some reason I kept watching and wasn’t distracted.
*. Maybe it was just the sheer number of bodies piling up. I believe there are over 20 kills in this instalment. According to Steinmann he was under a directive to give a scare, a jump, or a kill (“preferably a kill”) every seven or eight minutes. That keeps things moving along.
*. Another thing that kept me watching was the plot. Not because the plot is very interesting or original, but . . . it’s a Friday the 13th film with a plot! Meaning they actually try to set up a bit of a mystery as to the killer’s identity. Which in itself is remarkable as I think this is the one movie in the series where the killer in the hockey mask (a slightly different hockey mask, purists will note) is not Jason Voorhees.
*. Perhaps it was just the mix of old and new then. There are all the old, familiar touchstones like the jump scares with animals, the running through the woods in the rain, the discovery of the bodies, and Jason rising from the dead, but there’s also the Tommy Jarvis “is he or isn’t he?” angle.

*. Roger Ebert thought it “more recycled leftover garbage from the last time around” and didn’t see anything that set this movie apart from the first four but I think this is unappreciative of what was a real effort to reboot the series and take it in a slightly different direction. It didn’t work, as the Tommy Jarvis experiment turned into a damp squib, but in a way this movie did reset things and took the franchise in a new direction because in digging Jason back up again in the next film they had to fully enter the world of the supernatural.
*. According to “horror guru” Michael Felsher, interviewed for the “making of” featurette, A New Beginning has the worst reputation of any of the sequels. That’s a judgment he rejects, calling this “a very underrated movie.” This made me wonder how he ranks them. I mean, there does have to be a worst.
*. It had a weird launch. The series had attained a bad reputation and so it was cast under the fake (but nevertheless apt) title Repetition. The actors were unaware that it was going to be another Friday the 13th movie. Meanwhile, the director Danny Steinmann came from a background in exploitation work that censors had a lot of problems with. This is a track record he would continue with A New Beginning, which would be his last film. The MPAA wanted a lot of cuts to give this an R rating.
*. Steinmann had thought he was shooting a porno in the woods what with all the nude scenes he had included. I think that reveals a certain bent in his imagination. I mean, these movies always include some gratuitous nudity, but this one goes a bit further in that regard.
*. I’d be more censorious, but the fact is Deborah Voorhees looks sensational in her brief forest idyll. And how weird is it that she has the same last name as Jason?

*. Why is it that the killer is wearing a mask underneath his mask? Does that make sense? I don’t recall that ever being explained.
*. A final bit of weirdness: Why are the kids watching A Place in the Sun? There’s little thematic relevance I can see and it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing either of them would be into. I thought it telling that none of the four participants on the DVD commentary even knew the name of the movie until one of them looked it up.
*. Gene Siskel didn’t understand why this movie went in for skewering so much. I don’t think there’s any skewering except for the death of Demon. What I did note was how drug use had supplanted casual sex as the chief catalyst for death. For all their sex and violence, these movies were actually quite moralistic.
*. I can’t remember having seen this one before. I think I probably did see it a quarter-century ago but on this most recent viewing I seem to have forgotten it completely. Certainly the absurd plot twist at the end where the identity of the killer and his motivation is revealed took me by surprise. I was sure, however, that I’d seen the outhouse murder. Some things stick in your head. But why didn’t I remember the girl dancing the robot? She’s very good.
*. So there you have it. An oddity in the franchise that opened up several doors that had nothing behind them. Ironically for a new beginning, it was mainly a dead end. Jason, however, was going to prove to be eternal.