Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Hellraiser VIII: Hellworld

Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005)
Dir. Rick Bota
Written by Carl V. Dupre
Starring Kathryn Winnick, Christopher Jacot, Henry Cavill, Lance Henriksen, Doug Bradley

Evil does not go online, it's not the newest, and certainly not the most horrifying. Other than that, the cover checks out.

Boys and girls of Puzzlebox land, there’s no easy way to say this. We’ve been on this Hellraiser journey for some time now, and even though we haven’t talked about it much, we all know there’s a very good reason we’ve been suffering through the HELLSEEKERS and DEADERS and so on. That reason has a name. You know who I mean. I’ll give you a hint: if they were going to make a series of DTV HELLRAISER movies, you could basically assume he’d eventually be in one even if you hadn’t checked ahead. But not like this. Dear god, not like this.

The last time we saw the dream team of Lance Henriksen and Doug Bradley, they were dusting it up in the surprisingly decent PUMPKINHEAD 3: ASHES TO ASHES. Henriksen only had a small role in that one and Bradley was the primary antagonist, so it’s nice to know that here, a year earlier, their roles were reversed: now, Henriksen is the primary antagonist and gets a good bit of screen time, while Bradley is... well, you know who he’s playing, and given the trend these DTV HELLRAISERS are taking, you have a pretty good idea how little of him you’ll see.

Alas, the HELLBABIES spin-off never materialized.

Unfortunately, Bradley must have gotten the bigger half of the wishbone, because even with Henriksen in a slightly bigger role, HELLWORLD is a spectacularly, awe-inducingly idiotic piece of eye-glazing, mind-numbing unwatchable garbage. It makes me realize that even though the last three sequels were listless, lazy, convoluted retreads of each other, they weren’t really aggressively bad pieces of art. More like disappointing works of incompetence. But they had their moments, in general they weren’t outright embarrassing, they at least seems like they were trying to maintain their general low level of dignity. HELLWORLD isn’t like that. HELLWORLD is bad, bad, bad. Everything about it is garishly bad, unmistakably, conspicuously, glaringly, blatantly, brazenly, audaciously bad. The kind of bad you can’t ignore. The kind of bad that comes to your house and knocks on your door to give you the good news about Jesus just as you’re about to sit down and spend some quality time with some nun-themed pornography. Debt-ceiling debate bad. The kind of bad that’s so egregious and obvious that you can hardly believe it, let alone ignore it.

Let’s start this postmortem with a general outline. There are many layers to the badness of HELLWORLD, but the first and maybe the most damning is also the most fundamental. They decided to make HELLRAISER meta. You know those movies like FAT ALBERT or THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE or ENCHANTED where fictional character somehow come into the real world so we can see how hi-larious it is to watch them walk through the cynical world of modern man? Well, to that list you can now add HELLRAISER: HELLWORD. The movie inhabits a world where HELLRAISER: THE VIDEO GAME is a huge cultural phenomenon that our group of typical video game-playing co-ed attractive teenage 30-something protagonists are obsessed with. Everyone knows Pinhead, but they think of him as a campy video game mascot more than a supernatural S&M enthusiast/life coach so they’re always saying cheeky, postmodern things like, “what are you gonna do, rip off your face and become some franchise icon?” Good plan, HELLWORLD, make fun of the one character that gives your movie even a faint prayer of being watched by someone, somewhere. Oddly, although the entire cast is intimately familiar with the HELLRAISER VIDEO GAME (guess what? It’s called “Hellworld!” Now I’m just confused) they’re curiously silent on the subject of the HELLRAISER movie series. In what may be the film’s only vague concession to good taste, they elect not to invite you to compare this entry with the rest of the series. Suddenly not feeling so cocky, are we HELLWORLD?

I don't see how this could be a bad idea.
Now I know you’re starting to panic that this is going to involve our plucky crew of attractive misfits getting trapped in a video game virtual reality a la TRON. The idea of a game you can go "too deep" into combined with Bota's apparent desire to make everything scary in these movies some kind of weird dream, combined with the tagline ("evil goes online") written in MATRIX font... it seems like there's only one place this could be going. Don’t worry, it’s nowhere near that interesting. Instead, one of their number gets “too deep” in the game, and decides to off himself by taking a gasoline bath (seems like a real HELLRAISER fan would have used hooks, but maybe the video game is different). His friends (including pre-MAN OF STEEL Henry Cavill) are divided as to whether or not they blame themselves, but they’re shocked enough to abandon their addiction and go seek other entertainment elsewhere. It’s funny, because this Hellworld game and their apparent problems with going “too deep” play a central role in the plot, but we never really learn anything about what they were up to. We see a brief glimpse of the Hellraiser game, which looks like a combination of text-based adventure and that Windows 95 Maze screensaver (keep in mind that this movie was made in fucking 2005) but nothing to indicate what the game entails or exactly how one might get “too deep” into it, or what his friends could possibly have to feel responsible for. Actually, upon seeing what a shitty game it is it’s hard not to imagine that the kid woke up one day, realized he wasted his youth in a windowless basement playing a Doom knockoff while his peers were out in the world getting handjobs and drinking Boone’s Farm, and just decided life wasn’t worth living anymore.

Anyway, flash forward to two years later. The gang has broken up, everyone is moving on with their lives, no one is playing Hellworld much these days, but out of the blue they get an invite to attend a mysterious Hellraiser-themed party at a spooky mansion. So the gang reassembles -- the horny girl, the douchebag, the mopey guy, the blonde, and the black guy, back together at last! Their host turns out to be Lance Henriksen, sporting a flashy earring and, for the first time ever, a look of unmistakable shame in his eye. This guy did two Sasquatch movies in one year and still managed to keep his dignity, but HELLWORLD finally managed to embarrass him. The movie seems to be playing it like he’s a hip, eccentric rich guy, but since the movie’s idea of hipness is to have a 65-year-old man wearing a stud earring, this does not come off especially convincingly. At least they didn’t give him a pony tail, but I’m betting that was more an issue of affording a wig than wanting to avoid looking like jackasses. You can practically see Henriksen trying to sneak out of the camera’s line of sight. Obviously he’s always gonna give it his best shot, but jesus,a piece of shit with a bow on it is still a piece of shit. If Alec Guinness took this role he’d still come away with about as much class as a particularly disheveled Flava Flav impersonator.

Remember when I was Bishop? That was cool.

A movie this inept is virtually guaranteed to have an adorably circuitous plot, and Henriksen’s character gets the unenviable task of spouting the biggest pile of expository nonsense you’ve ever heard, all while trying to act casual like none of this will later turn out to be important. He invites our heroes into the bowels of his sprawling mansion, where he offers them drinks in a room filled with Hellraiser memorabilia. Henricksen mentions the building is “Lemarchand’s second greatest architectural marvel” and for a second you’re kind of excited thinking that they’re gonna reference that crazy building from part III and IV as the first. But no, he points to a giant spinning model of the puzzlebox, which is not, in my opinion, an architectural anything, let alone a marvel. And if adding a few pillars to a large-two-story house qualifies as a “marvel” I’m not sure it’s really worth bragging about, but Lance seems pretty into it. It seems like he’s kinda putting out feelers for a Hellraiser-themed 5-way, but these clueless kids don’t pick up on it and and eventually wander back to the party. There, a bunch of other aggressively attractive 30-something teenage video game enthusiasts (?) are dancing to techno, getting wasted, and fucking each other in every possible combination all over the antique furniture. Also for some reason everyone is OK with the idea that at this particular party everyone has to wear a creepy mask and must communicate with cell phones, haha, not that this will affect the plot in any way, not even sure why I mentioned it.

At some point, the naive teens wander apart and they start being killed and tormented in various mundane ways, and occasionally Pinhead shows up and stabs them or something. It is a testament to this film’s utter lack of imagination that Pinhead actually lowers himself to stabbing someone with a butcher knife here. It’s not even like he’s pressed for time or anything, it’s just that he doesn’t give a shit anymore, fuck it, let’s kill the guy and get outta here, the game’s gonna be on in a few hours. I mean, we know that when he gets creative things don’t always turn out so good (see his attempt at MacGyvering* up some new cenobites in HELLRAISER III) but this just looks like not even bothering to go through the motions. There is one kill I can’t believe it took them eight whole movies to come up with, where Pinhead finally (finally!) gets to skewer a guy with one of those giant loading hooks, a nice update on the traditional hooks scene in a movie which is generally lacking in hooks.

Yeah, it's called acting, you should really try it sometime.

Just like Part VII, this one also bills itself as “the newest, most horrific tale,” a real slap in the face to poor Part VII and also a laughably misleading promise as it is no longer the newest and not even in the top 7 most horrific. Fortunately, its incompetence is spectacular enough that it does provide a few amusing moments. At one point Future-Superman (who’s so over-the-top awful in this that he stands out amidst a decadent banquet of terrible acting) goes into a room with an eeeevil computer that lets him talk to his dead friend. But it’s a big bulky box computer and next to it there’s an eeeevil printer. Keep up with the times, Henriksen. (You’d think he’d be able to afford a flatscreen if he lives in a giant mansion like this, but maybe he blew all his cash on cell phones and masks). There's a fun bit where the dumbest character happily settles into a buzzsaw-laden murder chair and lets a sinister stranger strap her in, and seems genuinely puzzled by the subsequent downturn her night takes. I don't want to blame the victim here, but lady, that's on you. 

It’s not like the actors have a lot to work with, (sample dialogue: “Whoooo! Let’s party!”) but the bad acting in this movie is of the more agreeably hammy, hilarious kind instead of the glum non-acting that defined HELLRAISER V-VII, so if you’re looking to get hammered and mercilessly mock a bunch of teenagers as they get slaughtered, this is clearly the superior choice out of the whole series. I mean, it’s just littered with stunning errors in judgement, and at least a few are egregious enough to elicit a laugh. At one point, a character actually says “game over!” knowing that they are in a movie with Lance Henriksen. I mean, why not invite people to compare your horror sequel to ALIENS? Oh, and I can’t think of too many movies which center around a community’s grief and guilt over a child’s suicide that end with hilarious hair-metal power ballads. Sample lyrics: “Look Who’s laughing now / look who’s standing tall.” Wait, not sample. That’s pretty much all of them. This song would sound like an outrageous parody if it played in AMERICA: WORLD POLICE, so what better to way to leave this chapter of the HELLRAISER saga?

Now would probably be a good time to mention that writer Carl Dupre (HELLRAISER VI: HELLSEEKER, DETROIT ROCK CITY) has a cameo as the bartender, a ballsy move in a movie this terrible, since now I’ll be able to pick him out of a crowd.

If you can make it to the end of the movie --and that’s a big if-- there’s a really wonderfully boneheaded twist ending which I’m about to SPOIL SPOIL SPOIL for you, since it’s really better you hear it from me first. Turns out that not only is Pinhead meta now, he’s imaginary. But wait, who’s been slashing up these teens then? See, what really happened is that Henriksen’s character drugged our heroes, buried them alive (with cell phones and air holes) and fed them a bunch of bullshit to make them hallucinate, and for some reason they all hallucinated the same thing, and in fact shared a hallucination wherein one person’s hallucinatory experience affected the others. And he would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids. Since this makes no sense at all, I’m going to assume the original plan was to actually pull the trigger on the threatened TRON-style virtual reality gimmick, but for some reason they dropped that and instead did something even stupider and less sensical. Meaning you’re left with a movie which centers around an immersive video game it’s possible to go “too deep” into, and everyone is constantly talking about this game and how immersive it is, and also again, the tagline is "evil goes online"... but then it becomes about a drug trip. Anyway they’re saved when a mysterious phone call from their dead friend summons the cops, because you know, closure. 

I suggest a drinking game where you take a shot everytime the camera isn't looking directly at him and Henriksen gets this far away look in his eye, like he's thinking about the capriciousness of fate. Two drinks if he does this in a scene with Henry Cavill, whose performance here is so bad I think it actually made me dumber, and who will go on to be far, far wealthier and more famous than Henriksen.

So it was all in their heads, Pinhead is just a fictional character (although I guess Lemarchand is real?) Henriksen’s evil plot is thwarted, and the characters go back to being gorgeous 30-something teenage outcast video game enthusiasts, except for the ones who managed to get themselves killed while unconscious in a box. That wraps everything up pretty neatly, I’d say, except there’s one catch: Pinhead IS real, after all! He shows up at Lance Henriksen’s motel room in total defiance of all logic and reason, and chops him in half (although at least we can be grateful he didn’t try to teach him a lesson about how to be a nicer person again). And then he says, “how’s that for a wake up call?” and you can hear Freddy Krueger groan somewhere off-camera. And then, just because the movie refuses to end, Henriksen also shows up for no reason as a ghost to scare our surviving heroes. Cue power ballad.

Make no mistake, this movie is the very definition of unwatchable garbage, but in a weird kind of way I think it’s sort of good for the series, kind of the way a drug addict has to finally reach rock bottom before they can confront their addiction. Sometimes you wake up next to the frigid corpse of a teenage hooker in a burned-out basement in Tijuana, naked and hurting with not a penny to your name anywhere in the world, and suddenly you realize you can’t remember your son’s face anymore and don’t even know if he’s alive or dead after you abandoned him in that crack house somewhere in the Midwest. Sometimes you make and/or watch HELLRAISER VIII: HELLWORLD. Either way, the shame and horror of it all suddenly washes over you like a salty wave, you fall to you hands and knees and weep, begging for forgiveness from god, the universe, your fellow man. And then you get help.

Hey, Chatterer! And is that Cannard? Are they friends now?

This is about as far as Pinhead could have fallen. He’s been reduced to a postmodern joke, and then to something even worse, a generic disposable killer. His franchise has degenerated from a tense, mind-shattering exploration of the darker side of desire to a SyFy channel-quality teen slasher. Literally nothing that was once good about the franchise and the character remain in HELLWORLD. But maybe that’s for the best; after coasting on the pretty-bad-but-not-quite-disastrous run of V, VI, and VII, this one finally did it, it finally got bad enough that something had to give. It checked off a number of major things a horror franchise needs to accomplish: it made the inevitable plunge into postmodernism, starred Lance Henriksen, had an embarrassing attempt to incorporate then-current technological gimmicks, featured a terrible performance from a then-unknown who would go on to be a big star, and provided work for the DP of BARB WIRE. They already went to space in part IV, so that about covers it. And if it had to end like this, at least it’s in a DTV seventh sequel and not somewhere that kids might accidentally watch it.

I don’t know if it’s really better to burn than to fade away; I do know it would be better to burn this move and have it fade from our memories. But it’s here, and it marks the end. Yes, I know there’s a new one which has some other joker as Pinhead, but you know as well as I do that it doesn’t count. HELLWORLD embraced a new standard of shittiness, and it’s not surprising that they ran with it somewhere. But really, HELLWORLD provides the franchise with a good starting ground for something new. They can’t go home again, but maybe they can take this as an opportunity to go some of the crazy places that Parts I-IV were exploring. For a while Pascal Laugier (MARTYRS, TALL MAN) was attached to a remake; that didn’t work out, but if they get someone of his caliber I won’t complain, and it shows that they’re interested in making something legitimately good again, not just coasting on their beloved icon. And best of all, while we wait, Doug Bradley has more time to narrate those public-domain audiobooks that I love so much. So really, a desperate rationalization in disguise. I’m sorry, I meant to say, “so really, a blessing in disguise.” Twist ending!

*Wow, google docs recognizes “MacGyvering” as a real word, what an age we live it!

1: HELLRAISER (1987)

1 comment:

  1. To be fair, I think Henriksen wears that earring in real life.