Tuesday, October 30, 2012


Corrupt aka Corrupt Lieutenant aka Copkiller aka Order of Death (1983)
Dir. Roberto Faenza
Written by Ennio De Concini, Roberto Faenza, Hugh Fleetwood (also novel)
Starring Harvey Keitel, Johnny Lydon, Leonard Mann, Sylvia Sydney

As near as I can tell, there never was a theatrical poster for this one, but this image off an early 1980's VHS release is far and away the only one that looks like it was done by a professional and I kind of like it.

    Before I go any further, I want to take a second to express my pride/shame at the fact that this represents my 100th movie review! Yes, a minimum of 200 hours of my life over the last two years has been devoted to watching and writing about movies, and mostly movies of little note that no one cared about at the time and certainly don’t care about years later. Why I have undertaken this quest, I can’t exactly say. It doesn’t necessarily provide me with any practical benefits, I know almost no one on Earth knows that I do it, and it takes my time away from doing other things in my life that I ought to be keeping up with. Yet somehow, for some reason, I’m compelled to keep doing it.

    I’ve learned enough from doing these essays to know a good segue when I see one, and so I’ll point out that my odd compulsion to review obscure shitty horror movies is reflected in the plot of this one, a truly strange mix of dirty cop film, weird sexual tension, and psychological horror.  It’s very much a film about compulsion, and the things people are driven to do even though it may seem hypocritical, self-destructive, even suicidal. I’m not sure it’s necessarily a film about why people feel these compulsion so much as it’s about the way that their compulsions can slowly but surely push them into weird, disturbing extremes, which is where the horror comes in.

    It doesn’t start that way, though. It starts like a normal police thriller, with Harvey Keitel playing an early version of the bad-lieutenant type character he would play in Abel Ferrara’s 1992 anti-entertainment classic BAD LIEUTENANT (that juggernaut franchise which inevitably spun off a Werner Herzog sequel and a ripoff retitle to this one because lets face it, what fresh-faced young man or woman in that lucrative 18-39 demographic doesn’t know and love that film, watch it a couple times a year, buy the ancillary products and perhaps participate in ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW type festival reenactments). CORRUPT’s Harvey is a little less outrageously, egregiously corrupt, though, or at least he seems to be at first. He’s on the take, and he appears to spend most of his time hanging out in his gigantic NYC apartment (bought with dirty money) smoking pot and listening to a weird country song called “Tchaikovsky’s Destruction” over and over. His apartment (co-owned with his also-corrupt-but-guiltier-about-it partner) is huge but completely empty, with only two armchairs and a record player anywhere in the unfurnished living room. Why bother being a CORRUPT LIEUTENANT if you’re not even going to throw up some black lights and Bob Marley posters? Harvey actually answers this question himself, when his partner ruefully poses it: "You bought it so that you'd have something to feel guilty about.”

    Despite his being such a pot-smoking, evidence-tampering, on-the-take grouch, and a shitty interior decorator to boot, Harvey has some very hard-line conservative notions about the role of the law and the hallowed place of the police as a line between right and wrong. So you’d think he’d be more interested in the increasing paranoia about a mysterious serial copkiller, who we see (masked) stalking and murdering policemen at the start of the film. But instead, he’s far more concerned with an equally mysterious weirdo who’s stalking and obsessively talking to himself about him. That would be Leo Smith, (John Lydon, THE FILTH AND THE FURY) a pushy British freak who shows up at his door one evening claiming to be the copkiller. Harvey doesn’t buy that this swishy eurotrash is murdering hardened beat cops, but he’s plenty freaked out that he knows about the secret apartment (at least he doesn’t have to be embarrassed that the place is a wreck when someone shows up unexpectedly). When Leo volunteers that he’s been stalking him for quite some time, it becomes clear that something has to be done to keep the kid from talking. One thing leads to another, and before long Leo is chained up in his underwear in Harvey’s bathtub.

All this is in the first 30 minutes. What follows is a long, gradual slide from sanity as first one, then the other of them gradually seem to take control and their personalities seem to slide fluidly back and forth. There’s a lot of weird, unmistakable homoeroticism here, as Lydon minces around in Harvey’s bathrobe and eventually the two seem like a codependent married couple more than enemies. But the neatest thing is that their cinematic dynamic is a truly unusual one. Keitel is his usual bristle of intense machismo, but Lydon plays the part of the primary antagonist with almost apathetic malice. The more Harvey rages, the more inert he becomes, always beaten but never going away. You’ve seen Keitel play this role plenty of times, but always with other macho goons who try to match his violence with their own violence. Lydon is no threat to him physically, but manages to completely absorb his rage with a black hole of masochistic indifference. It’s hard to tell if Lydon is a good actor or not from this role -- it reminds me most of Bowie in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, where it doesn’t necessarily matter how well he emotes as much as the part happens to be the perfect blending between his public persona and an unreadable enigma. He barely emotes at all, but it's John Lydon, so there's just the slightest seed of unreadable malevolence in his eyes and it works out to be pretty perfect.

Lydon, of course, was the former lead singer of the Sex Pistols, so even though he’s not going to be able to match Harvey muscle for muscle he knows his way around aggression and playing an unhinged psycho. Here, he completely drops the antagonistic swagger and simply lets Keitel wear himself out trying to intimidate him -- and the results are surprising. Without an opposing force, Keitel collapses in on himself and begins to gradually come apart. It’s striking, because it seems like such a natural extension of the usual Harvey Keitel performance and yet I’ve never seen another film which allows him to carry his aggressive momentum past the intended target into the dark of his own soul in this way. It takes the expected and turns it into something disquieting. In a way, it even harkens to the similarly frightening descent into hedonistic madness of PERFORMANCE -- just as in that film, the weirdly unhinged symbol of hedonism sends our flawed but human protagonist down into a darkness he may not have been imaginative enough to realize was in him all along.

Of course, CORRUPT is nowhere near as stylish and eccentrically made as PERFORMANCE. It’s workmanlike, but aside from some good use of the minimalistic apartment set there’s probably not the same nightmarish lushness you’d really need to make a classic out of this material. Still, it’s not as bad as you might think. The transfer I got looks like complete shit (it’s out of print and I’m assuming my copy came directly from a VHS) but there are some marks of competence; while it’s not especially stylish it’s well-staged, and a few key locations are lovingly decorated and framed. In fact, director Roberto Faenza was not the z-grade giallo director I assumed he was, having gone on to a surprisingly respectable career directing classy book adaptations as recently as 2011. And I know it wasn’t exactly a coup to get Ennio Morricone to score your movie in 1983, but it adds a level of solid professionalism, even if I doubt Morricone would remember that he scored this one if you asked him today (it’s mostly respectably funky but not exactly atmosphere-appropriate keyboard bass and drum machines). Had Nicolas Roeg (who did MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH and PERFORMANCE) directed this one, I think there is a good chance it could have been a legitimate oddball classic instead of just as classic oddity, but even as is, there’s plenty of strange and fascinating things going on here. I guess it never even made it to theaters at all, and only appeared sporadically on VHS in the mid-80s (it was filmed in 1981) with some of the worst graphic art I have ever seen in my life and of course that charming roulette wheel of titles. Still, CORRUPT, COPKILLER, CORRUPT LIEUTENANT, ORDER OR DEATH -- call it what you like. A Harvey Keitel-chaining-John-Lydon-naked-to-a-bathtub scene by any other name will be just as weird.   

By the way, you can stream the whole thing on Dailymotion. It's public domain now in the US, so knock yourself out without feeling guilty. In the meantime, check out Dan P's alternate take in ABBOT AND COSTELLO GET CHAINED NAKED TO A BATHTUB PART 2: COLD BLOODED SHOWER.

Yeah, this is what I was talking about. Not a thing on this DVD knockoff cover is correct. That Harvey is about 20 years older than he is in this one, and although he is CORRUPT he's not a Lieutenant, not a gambler that we know of, nor a junkie and it's debatable as to whether he's a killer. He does smoke cigars, but there is no big pile of 1 dollar bills, and needless to say no flashy sports cars of any kind appear in this movie.


BOOBIES: Lydon spends most of his time in various states of undress, but no ladies, which is odd given that it's an Italian production from the early 80s.
> or = HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS LEVEL GORE: A few slashings, but nothing much.
SEQUEL: No, unless you want to count BAD LIEUTENANT
OBSCURITY LEVEL: Extremely high. Never released in theaters, now out-of-print.
MONSTERS: Only the monsters of our own greed and hubris.
SLASHERS: Yeah, the titular COPKILLER.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Red Lights

Red Lights (2012)
Dir. Rodrigo Cortes
Written by: Rodrigo Cortes
Starring Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Jones, Robert “duh” Niro, Elizabeth Olson

    Man, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Or I guess they do, since it was released this year. But boy, they don’t make ‘em like this very often. What we got here is a gorgeously filmed, consummately well-acted, highly literate, tense, well-paced film which manages to be rich in subtext without becoming overbearing and didactic. It’s original, compelling, constantly surprising, and intellectually honest. What I’m saying basically is that this is one really good film.

    Of course, I may be predisposed to like it. For one thing, it features the first actual acting either Sigourney Weaver or Robert De Niro has done is about two decades of lazy thrillers and cameo riffs on their classic work, and they’re both really great. For another, it’s about two academics (Weaver and Cillian Murphy) who go about debunking fraudulent claims of supernatural ability. At the top of the list is is De Niro as Simon Silver, a flashy psychic who is making a hugely publicized return from retirement, whose arrogance borders on threatening and who may just be the real deal. Can Weaver and Murphy prove that this smug celebrity is a manipulative charlatan, or are they messing with something more dangerous? That’s a setup which plays to my particular prejudices, I admit. Although I’m always open to what Mulder calls “extreme possibilities,”* I’m deeply skeptical of all paranormal claims and deeply angered by the sort of pseudo-religious sleazeballs who prey on people’s emotions and vulnerabilities for a quick buck and a snake-oil cure-all. But how much would it take to convince me that I’m wrong? At what point does it stop being about science and rationality and start becoming a personal holy war to protect your own beliefs about reality? That’s the question at the heart of the film, and it’s a big one.

Oh yeah, acting! I remember doing that.

    To answer it, writer/ director Rodrigo Cortes (BURIED) apparently spent a year and a half researching and studying psychic phenomenon, including both the people who claim it and the people who doubt it. The film never feels like a pedantic synopsis of the topic, but it does manage to naturally include an interesting variety of perspectives, from the inflexible skeptics to the hardcore believers to those who believe in spite of their better instincts to those who simply don’t care if it’s real or not. Having these perspectives represented does more than just offer different paths to the audience -- it eloquently helps to explain exactly how the phenomenon of psychic powers came to find its peculiar and unique place within our society. And, it helps explain what the stakes are for our protagonists.

    I suspect many people will find this movie deeply scary, as Weaver and Murphy begin to encounter frightening and seemingly inexplicable phenomenon the closer they get to Silver. But to me, weird coincidences and dead birds are nothing compared to the fear that somehow they’re wrong, that the kooks and superstitious ninnies are right, that our faith in rational thinking and science has allowed us to miss the forest for the trees. If that’s true, it opens a deep existential dread about what life itself means that a rational atheist is ill-suited to address (what can I say, I went to Catholic school). So this one evoked a particular anxiety in me that has nothing to do with its sumptuously creepy photography and seductively menacing performance from De Niro. It Challenges a guy like me with the question,  “what if everything you think you understand is actually wong?” -- and that had me on the edge of my seat and barely noticing how well-executed the traditional scare scenes are. But lest you be tempted to give up and believe your eyes, Cortes also provides us with Toby Jones’s character: a scientists who makes his career on rationally assessing paranormal phenomenon, but who turns out to not be great at seeing the “red lights” of the title -- little giveaways that someone may be using misdirection and trickery to make sure your eyes are seeing only what they want. And, the film subtlety reminds us, he has a nagging practical reason to allow himself to be tricked. As long as there’s some doubt, he still has a lucrative gig investigating things which are ultimately unprovable. And of course, as filmgoers we suffer from the same slight prejudice of wanting to be shocked. Cortes sadistically refuses to let you forget either point of view, even as he carefully pushes you in one direction after another. 

Who ya gonna call?

    I guess a lot of people, even that old fussbudget Roger Ebert, were annoyed by the end. I suspect it’s because they, like me, genuinely did not see it coming. It seems like the movie sets you up for one of two possible big reveals, and then diabolically goes for a third possibility which I have to concede sort of blew my mind and caused me to reflect back on the rest of the movie to see if it was indeed playing fair (it was, mostly). Twist endings are a tricky thing, because if you twist enough you’ll end up cutting the end off from the themes and narrative momentum of the rest of it and ultimately leave yourself without much substance beyond a well-calculated surprise. But here, I think, Cortes does the impossible and makes a sudden turn which in retrospect causes the rest of the film to feel more meaningful. When you go back to check his logic, you’ll find a whole hidden layer of meaning and emotion to a story which was already plenty filled with both. I believe this is pretty indicative of a piece of art which at the very least flirts with genuine greatness. No, I don’t just believe. The film provides plenty of good evidence to back that up.

PS: And for more evidence, don't forget to check out Dan P's take as part of his Abbot and Costello Prove that Religion is a Lie series.

* By the way, one of the great set decorations is Murphy's office is a reprint of Mulder's famous "I want to believe" poster, retitled something along the lines of "I want to understand."


BOOBIES: I'm afraid I must dash your hopes for some late-career 'Gourney boobage. And even Elizabeth Olson keeps her top on.
> or = HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS LEVEL GORE: No significant gore.
OBSCURITY LEVEL: Got limited release this year, but seemed to attract little attention despite the excellent cast.
MONSTERS: Only the monster of superstition and irrationality.
SATANISTS: No, even though there's an obvious religious subtext here we stay mostly out of specific religious matters.
CURSES: Well, it definitely seems like De Niro puts the whammy on our heroes.
ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: N/A. Sorry Alex, I didn't think it would be this good or I'd have waited.

The Beast Within

The Beast Within (1982)
Dir. Philippe Mora
Written by Tom Holland

Starring Ronny Cox, Bibi Besch, L. Q. Jones

    After the disappointment of a werewolf-free HOUR OF THE WOLF, I thought I’d try to fill the werewolf-shaped hole in my life with this 1982 obscurity, which I thought would have werewolves because A) It’s called THE BEAST INSIDE and B) the cover has a guy (who looks a little like Meat Loaf) obviously transforming into a werewolf. Well, guess what. No werewolf. But it turns out to be OK, because THE BEAST INSIDE is actually much more unique and interesting than you might assume it would be. For one thing, you’ve got Ronny Cox in a rare non-villainous role, and he wears an awesome deerskin jacket most of the movie. For another thing, it’s about the spirit of an insane beastman possessing his rape-spawned son and exacting revenge against a conspiracy of redneck Mississippians. So that’s unusual, I think. I haven’t seen all of Ingmar Bergman’s films but I’m pretty sure he never made one of those.

    It’s the first script by Tom Holland (FRIGHT NIGHT, PSYCHO II, CHILD’S PLAY and jesus, he wrote and directed THE LANGOLIERS and THINNER? Wish I didn’t know that) and the first American film by Aussie weirdo Philippe Mora (HOWLING II and III, MAD DOG MORGAN, and the unofficial STONE COLD sequel BACK IN BUSINESS) so there’s a certain amount of talent behind the production, but no one knew it at the time and the film was unfairly dismissed as trashy (it occasionally is) and exploitative (I would argue it’s not). I suppose there’s something exploitative about an escaped man-beast on a vengeance-fueled rape-and-murder rampage, but it’s actually treated with a good bit of emotional subtlety. Ronny Cox and Bibi Besch are dealing with the unpleasant implication of their son being conceived through rape, and are facing it only uneasily as a last resort to save him, while the kid is completely overwhelmed with confusion at his bizarre turn his life has taken. Considering the subject matter, it’s actually handled with surprising sensitivity (which is found mostly in the nuanced performances by the family). Add to that some genuinely effective horror staging (including a great sequence in a creepy morgue) and a genuinely twisty mystery plot, and you’ve got yourself a honest-to-god underrated horror find. 

    The only thing they stumble on is the design of the monster itself. It’s cool that they avoid the trap of yet another goofy werewolf or bigfoot suit, but, um, once we finally see the monster he looks pretty ridiculous. The makeup on the kid as he gradually changes is top notch, and the excellent physical performance adds another bestial dimension to it. But the total transformation... well, see for yourself. The monster is the guy on the right. He looks like a cross between a chimp and a turtle. Those eyes... who looked at that and thought, “yeah, this looks good”?? Fortunately you only get fleeting glances at him, and the final climactic scene (which is a real heartbreaker, no joke) is completely lost in the shadows so you aren’t distracted by having to look at the tragic result of Razhar and Tokka spending an ill-advised night of passion together. For a twisty and surprisingly well-made forgotten 80’s monster movie, you could do a whole lot worse.


LOVECRAFT ADAPTATION: No, based on a book, though.
BOOBIES: Yeah, but only during some unpleasant ape-man-rape scenes.
> or = HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS LEVEL GORE: Good bit of gore, including an non-consensual embalming and a richly-deserved beheading. 
MONSTERS: A pretty weird beastman.
SLASHERS: No slashing, sorry.
CURSES: The kid is possessed, which is a sort of curse.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Hour of the Wolf

Hour of the Wolf aka Vargtimmen (1968)
Dir. Ingmar Bergman
Written by Ingmar Bergman
Starring Max Von Sydow, Liv Ullman

    Contrary to what I was led to believe before seeing this one, it is not “Ingmar Bergman’s werewolf film,” which I think we can all agree is a global tragedy and probably justifies cloning Bergman back to life and forcing him to shoot such a film. But, it’s not a total loss, because if you can get past the fact that there is no werewolf at all anywhere in here, it’s still one of those brilliant masterpiece sort of films you always hear about. What it actually is, is a frosty Swedish drama which gradually (and sometimes suddenly) dissolves into a surreal hallucinatory horror show.

    The plot concerns Johan (Max Von Sydow) a troubled artist and Alma (Liv Ullman) his quietly supportive wife. What’s troubling him is that he has horrible nightmares which have led to insomnia, which has led to a somewhat disturbed state of mind where he’s not sure what to make of the weird things that have been happening to him. What weird things would those be? Well, for instance, one day while he’s fishing this creepy little kid jumps on his back and tries to eat his face off so he has to smash him against a rock and throw him into the sea. That strike ya as odd enough? 

You light up my eyes

    The coolest thing about the film is it’s pacing. In the early scenes it’s glacial, frequently holding a single shot for an uncomfortably long time as some character walks up towards the camera from a far distance or holding still on the protagonists’ faces as they have a long, quiet conversation. It’s so bleak and sparse that it almost reminds me of Carl Dreyer’s VAMPYR or even JOAN OF ARC’s in its expressionistic minimalism. And it’s deep, creepy quiet. But then, suddenly, Johan and Alma are whisked away the the local castle, where a group of foppish old aristocrats assault them with a nigh-on violent cacophony of chatty entertainment. Johan’s obvious discomfort leads him to drink, which leads the camera on a wild and disorienting whirlwind around the table (I half expected the cast from That 70’s Show to turn up as Bergman oscillates around, staring into laughing faces). From there, things gradually get weirder and weirder and the surroundings get more surreal, until eventually they dress Johan up in women’s clothes and makeup and he feels up his dead girlfriend who’s laying naked on a shroud-covered slab in an empty room while a bunch of laughing freaks watch him and... well, you’ll have to see it. Suffice to say I think this Bergman guy has got some talent, I bet he has a pretty solid werewolf film in him somewhere.

Better keep an eye on it

    What does it all mean? I’m not really sure. It’s interesting that Johan is an artist, and in fact his work is a major plot point, despite the fact that the film deliberately (and frustratingly) never lets us see his actual paintings. I’m sort of leaning towards the film being about the anxiety of creation (with its obvious parallels to art, sexuality and children) but there’s a rich enough stew here that I bet you could come up with many equally valid bullshit explanations as to what it’s “really” about. To me, however, what specifically the symbolism refers to is a minor point next to the film’s enormous success at evoking the feeling of being anxious and alone in the hour of the wolf -- that last hour of night before the dawn, when the mind starts to consider fantastic and terrible things.


LOVECRAFT ADAPTATION: No, but that would be awesome.
BOOBIES: Straight-up-full-frontal.
> or = HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS LEVEL GORE: Von Sydow gets bloodied up by the end, but it's hardly gore.
SEQUEL: Sequel to HOUR OF THE CHIHUAHUA, Bergman's seldom-seen horror comedy classic.
OBSCURITY LEVEL: Well known to pretentious snobs such as myself, little known elsewhere. The fact that I saw it at Washington Psychotronic Film Society probably gives it some obscurity cred.
MONSTERS: We hear about some pretty freaky monsters, but never get to see them.
CURSES: I don't think so.
ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: Easily. For some reason this gorgeous, challenging classic film by one of cinema's greatest directors held her attention longer than, say, SLUGS.

Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated

 Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated (2009)
Dir. George Romero (original) “Curated by” Mike Schneider (NotLV:R)
Written by George Romero, John A. Russo
Starring Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman

    This is a very interesting film experiment, wherein the entirety of George Romero’s genre-defining zombie classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is refilmed (over the unchanged original soundtrack) and replaced with animations by over 150 independent, volunteer artists. I say “interesting” instead of “good,” because the mash-up of styles never really evokes a consistent tone and instead sort of wildly oscillates between amusing, incomprehensible, and genuinely evocative. It’s not quite the elusive bridge between animation and horror that I’d been hoping for since I reviewed CARTOON NOIR, but it’s still a funny, appealingly interesting project for anyone who has a mutual love of animation and the zombie arts.

    When I first heard of this project at the ever-inscrutable Washington Psychotronic Film Society, I assumed that it would basically find the movie divided into sections, where a single artist would take over and animate over a few minutes of film, then move on to the next. Actually this is not the case -- instead, it’s a hodge-podge second-by-second compilation, where in a single scene you’ll see still comic book images, footage created using Half-Life 2, sock puppets, gorgeously rendered traditional animation, and original footage cranked through a bunch of weird filters. Like I said, this means it never finds a consistent tone; but at least it’s rarely boring. If you’re not into what you’re watching this particular second, you can expect to see something radically different in the next.

    Unfortunately, the vast majority of the film skews towards either the comic or the comically incompetent, which is a shame because when a few artists do legitimately make an effort to create something unique and stirring they often find strong results. I mean, I can’t imagine myself personally not being amused by watching key scenes from a seminal horror classic acted out by clumsy Barbie dolls or animated dogs or whatever. But that sort of pleasure is kind of fleeting in the face of some of the more daring visual experiments here. In some ways, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is one of the most interesting films to experiment with exaggerated style on, since the original (like most of Romero’s work) is so overwhelmingly literal in its composition and visualization. It’s this bizarre nightmare, but it’s look is almost documentary realism -- what might happen, then, if we let an artist with a more surreal visual style try his or her hand at the exact same material? Well, occasionally we get something of genuine power and skin-crawling creepiness. Many of the artists visually depict the mostly-suppressed tension between the characters  --depicting Ben as a larger-than-life volcano of rage, Barbara as a barely-present wisp, Harry as a twisted tangle of angry lines-- which intriguingly brings the quiet, underground tension of the original to a howling maelstrom in the forefront. One of the most interesting techniques, however, finds new life in the images by reducing them to a barely-comprehensible geometric abstraction: Zombies approach as angular blobs, relying on their motion and tiny abstract details to convey their menace. This kind of imaginative thinking convinces me more than ever that there’s a wonderful unexplored world out there for animated horror. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: REANIMATED may not penetrate deep into that world, but it’s at the very least an interesting catalog of its surface.

But wait! Don't take my word for it! You can stream it free online and see for yourself!


BOOBIES: No animated Ta-tas. Sorry, Japan.
> or = HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS LEVEL GORE: Good amount of gnarly zombie gore, an obvious love of the artists.
SEQUEL: First of four Romero Dead films, plus two embarrassing found footage Romero Dead movies, and an endless procession of ripoffs.
OBSCURITY LEVEL: Extremely  High.
ZOMBIES: A bunch, although they're never referred to as such.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth

Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth (1992)
Dir. Anthony Hickcox
Written by: Peter Atkins*, Tony Randel
Starring Terry Farrell, Doug Bradley, Paula Marshall, Kevin Bernhardt

This was the original poster for the film, but apparently it was so intense the MPAA banned it. True story.

    I have to say, I was a bit underwhelmed when I watched HELLRAISER 2: HELLBOUND a couple months ago. I had it --I thought-- on good authority that part 2 was the only worthwhile sequel to the excellent Clive-Barker-directed original in a series which rapidly became a ridiculous cliche of itself before spiraling out of control into a mess of DTV sequels they eventually couldn’t even get Doug Bradley to come back for (I hope he took the time off to make more of his awesome “Spinechillers” audiobook series). People were always bitching about the gimmicky new cenobites and how poor Pinhead keeps getting stuck with a bunch of Freddy-esque groaner puns. But, they said, Part 2 was pretty good. Guess what, it ain’t. Apart from its pretty cool matte painting of Hell imagined as a labyrinth presided over by a giant hovering Masonic symbol, the rest of the thing is an almost EXORCIST 2-level plotting clusterfuck which unnecessarily labors to drag back all the main characters from the original for most of the runtime. Pretty weak, even with some good imagery.

    But you know what? Part 3 kinda surprised me. All the people who told me that Part 2 was decent said that Part 3 was where the whole thing jumped the shark. It’s the origin of the gimmicky cenobites, including that CD one that people are still outraged about, and it sort of fucks with the formula a bit, losing all the main characters from part 1 and 2 and even sort of re-imagining who Pinhead is and what he’s doing. Obviously that doesn’t sound too promising, and I probably wouldn’t have bothered at all had it not been for the direction of Anthony Hickox, son of British b-movie magnate Douglas Hickox (THEATRE OF BLOOD, ZULU DAWN) and director of the amiable and unique WAXWORK, WAXWORK 2 and VAMPIRE IN RETREAT. He would later go on to direct SUBMERGED, one of Steven Seagal’s very worst movies (and that’s saying something), but HELLRAISER III came right on the heels of the WAXWORK movies and I thought there was a dim chance there might be some minor value in it.

Iiiiiii'm the maaaaaaahhhn in the box. (guitar) buuuuuriiied innnnn mah shhhiiiiiyt!

    But weirdly, it starts off pretty fucking good. A novice news reporter named Joanne has been sent to an emergency room in search of a story, only to find that it’s a slow night and she’s wasting her time (and her credibility as a serious journalist). Right away, two things are surprising. For one, the blandly attractive young blond reporter is sort of more compelling than you usually get in this sort of thing. She doesn’t exactly give the most convincing line readings ever, but unlike most of the interchangeable flavor-the-week blondes they stick in horror movies she looks like she vaguely has something going on behind the eyes. Turns out it's because she’s Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s Terry Farrell (at the time around 24) exuding a genuine sense of a young woman both capable and a bit naive.

The other surprise, though, is the better one: this whole cliched premise suddenly turns into a damn fine horror scene. While Joanne talks to her surprisingly well-cast cameraman, a nurse behind her wordlessly sets out a bunch of tools in preparation for an incoming patient, starting with mundane things like stethoscopes and slowly drifting towards scalpels and finally a bonesaw. It quietly ratchets up the dread, so when a body covered with chains and fishhooks bursts through the door, we’re already afraid we know what might be under the white sheet. What follows is a genuinely disturbing bloodbath which can hold it’s own next to anything out of the original two HELLRAISERS.

And then the movie stays pretty good. We get introduced to J.P, the sleazeball owner of one of those S & M metal clubs I guess they had in the early 90’s and his girl, a hard-living runaway named Terri (who may be the only witness to the previous bout of Pinhead-related mayhem). These are pretty stock horror characters, but again, they are better played and better developed than they have any real reason to be. Terri particularly is an interesting character; It’s hinted that she’s an abuse survivor, and sort of stuck with Kevin Bernhardt’s asshole club owner even though he treats her like shit. She doesn’t care at all about puzzle boxes or alternate dimensions or experiences beyond limits where pleasure and pain are indivisible, but when she hooks up with Joanne (who is looking into the story behind the little hospital fishbook chain dismemberment incident from before) she’s almost pathetically eager to please her**. Her naked vulnerability and desperately earnest need for companionship makes her an unusually sympathetic character for this kind of movie, and ups the stakes quite a bit. But even that fucker J.P. isn’t quite allowed to be completely one-dimensional. He may be a statutory-raping manipulative asshole who chain-smokes cigarettes during sex with underaged female employees (not exactly a gentlemanly move in my opinion, but what do I know, this isn't Dear Abby) ...but once Pinhead shows up in his pad he’s as horrified as anyone. And when Pinhead goes on to taunt him about his own fucked up childhood, it’s hard to not feel a little bad for the guy.

Worst blue man group show. Ever.

And then there’s Doug Bradley himself, who as you may recall impressed me with his excellent work in PUMPKINHEAD 3: ASHES TO ASHES and his audiobook readings of H.P. Lovecraft. He’s pretty good here as both Pinhead and as Elliott Spencer, the British Military man who descended into madness and cenobitary and medically unnecessary acupuncture after emerging from the horrors of the World Wars. Bradley plays Spencer as a surprisingly warm, deeply sad man who is faced with the horrific physical embodiment of his own darkest traits. Unlike the misguided attempts of Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN remakes and the later NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET movies, this time adding a backstory to the series' central monster actually fleshes out the character and makes him more interesting, rather than demystifying him and adding a bunch of pointless baggage. Because Bradley plays both sides, we can see the way in which Pinhead and Spencer resemble each other both physically and mentally. Spencer’s army training and real-life experiences of bottomless horror find a logical extension in Pinhead’s highly organized, eloquently articulated nihilism and need to find new boundaries of pain. It manages to make Pinhead a sadder, but equally menacing, figure.

Add all that texture, and you’ve got a horror movie with a bunch of familiar tropes but a bit more character than strictly necessary. And if that doesn’t do it for ya, you’ve also got some pretty imaginative gore, a memorable prop in that sculpture thing that Pinhead is stuck in (from the end of Part II) and finally a full-on massacre in the metal club, where Pinhead slaughters everyone in sight. It’s a fun but pretty standard slaughter scene, but again, two details give it unexpected heft. We see the terrified patrons run towards the door, but Pinhead blocks it from inside, and we’re left to hear their tortured screams and watch the blood seep out from under the locked door. A welcomed but pretty conventional touch, until it becomes clear it’s not going away. We’re left to ponder the expanding bloodpool for what seems like an unbearably long time, which slowly shakes you from your familiarity with this shot and makes it seem fresh and disturbing all over again. And then just to get a little more mileage out of it, you also have to have poor Joanne walk through the exquisitely detailed aftermath, looking in horror at the bodies of her slaughtered friends who she knows were only there because she asked them to come help her out. This sequence very nicely ties the emotional tension generated from the better-than-average character work to the imaginative gruesomeness of the contractual HELLRAISER gore, and comes up with something memorable and genuinely good.

This is exactly the sort of thing you just can't really find insurance for.

Unfortunately, despite all of Hickox’s good instincts he fails to stick the landing and the fourth act falls apart as he throws in a bunch of silly gimmicky cenobites (who even Pinhead has to apologize for, explaining “they’re handmade, a shadow of my former troops”) big explosions, iffy early CG effects, and unconvincing attempts at running by Farrell, who, lets face it, was probably a better model than track star. It’s almost astonishing how fast it manages to piss away the good will its built up, but it’s undeniably pretty easy to feel not just unmoved, but outright betrayed by the laziness of the climax. Admittedly it improves at the very end, but the “hand-made” cenobites are pretty unforgivable. The bartender at the metal club becomes “Barbie,” a bar-themed cenobite who mixes cocktails in metal shakers and throws them so they explode like grenades. That’s the kind of crap they give us after tricking us into genuinely being invested in the characters. The cameraman become “Camera head” who has a camera in his head, because of irony. The D.J. at the club... ah jeez, I don’t want to talk about it. This whole sequence screams of studio interference, and sure enough, Hickox would almost disown the finished product just as HELLRAISER IV: BLOODLINES director Kevin Yagher would. But he must have believed in the film enough to put a lot of himself in it, because he appears in not one but two cameos, including a moment where we see him interviewed on TV as himself. He might have kept his face out of it if he’d been able to see the end result, but there’s enough serious effort being put forth on screen for most of its runtime to make it worth your while. And even if the climax is a bit weak, there’s a final twist at the very end which is so out-of-the-blue and audacious that I immediately resolved to watch HELLRAISER IV: BLOODLINES. Talk about pleasure and pain being indivisible.

*As far as I can tell, this is not the famously pugnacious atheist, chemist, and author who, when asked for his opinion of the existence of God, responded "Well it's fairly straightforward: there isn't one. And there's no evidence for one, no reason to believe that there is one, and so I don't believe that there is one. And I think that it is rather foolish that people do think that there is one." Still, I think if they ever met the two Pete Adkins could bond over the scene here where Pinhead goes into a church and crucifies himself while laughing maniacally at the idea that God exists.

**In fact, the way Terri moves into Joanne’s pad and spends most of her time there in varying states of undress makes one sort of wonder if there’s more to this relationship than is explicitly shown.

1: HELLRAISER (1987)


Joanne and Terri have a few significant conversations about the box, their lives, etc.


BOOBIES: Yeah, one nicely gratuitous sex scene between minor characters.
> or = HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS LEVEL GORE: Yes sir, Pinhead ups his body count by about 1,000%.
SEQUEL: Number 3 of a series that's now so numerous and excessive they've stopped giving them numbers.
MONSTERS: Cenobites, but nothing like that weird arm-walking thing. Was that from part 2? I may have to take back some of that shit I talked about it earlier.
SATANISTS: Pinhead seems to scoff at traditional religious notions.
ZOMBIES: For the first time, the dead return as cenobites.