Guest Post: The Hellbound Heart (1986); Hellraiser (1987)

Hello, Mike again, here to report on the more lucid ravings of the one-eyed madman I keep chained in my storage space. After my last piece for this blog I have decided to keep up the trend of writing on horror stories/novellas/novels that have been turned in to movies. And boy howdy, does it turn out that a lot of bad stories have been turned in to worse movies.

Speaking of both of those things: Clive Barker.

Barker almost has his own corollary to Rule 34: If it exists, Clive Barker has written a sadomasochistic short story about it. Barker came to prominence in the mid-80’s writing a series of short horror stories, many of which have been turned in to very shitty movies. OK, and one pretty awesome one, which may be a topic for another day.

His most enduring work in terms of cultural influence, and the one I’m here to talk about today, is The Hellbound Heart, first published as part of the anthology Night Visions in 1986. You probably know it better by the 1987 movie version Hellraiser. Hellbound would later be the subtitle of the second Hellraiser movie, but we’ll get to the sequels in a bit.

The story opens to a fellow named Frank Cotton, a hedonist who has traveled the world fulfilling every carnal desire imaginable, leaving him incapable of feeling pleasure. We know by page 2 that this story doesn’t make any sense in today’s age, because I don’t care what depraved stuff he’s into, a Craigslist account would keep him busy until he dies from chafing and dehydration. Anyway, rather than go to Thailand like a normal white guy suffering from a midlife crisis, he hears rumors about something called the Lament Configuration, an artifact said to bring infinite pleasure. Protip: Anything with “Lament” in the name probably isn’t out for your best interests. Also, he finds it in Germany. Just sayin’.

Frank opens the box, and for some reason is surprised when it unleashes the Cenobites instead of… I don’t know exactly WHAT he was expecting to come out of the box, but what he got was this:

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I know he was going for scary, but what he achieved was Human Plinko Board.

…And he said sure, sign me up. I mean, I tell people I’m up for anything, but if this thing tried to pick me up at a bar and asked if I was looking for a good time I would politely decline, go home and seriously reexamine my life. The Cenobites try and tell Frank that what he gets may not be what he expects, and that once he signs on the dotted line he’s theirs, lock, stock and blood-filled barrel. But this is a horror novel, so he takes one look at the horrifically disfigured creature covered in severed tongues and can’t wait to drop his pants. The rest of the novel is iron-hooked, skin-wearing demonic torture for all. Rule 34 indeed.

Like some kind of deranged hipster, Barker was in to torture porn before it was cool. The man practically invented schlock horror. Almost all his stories are over-the-top violent and gruesome. Hardly a page goes by without someone getting skinned alive or their eyes pierced or having their children eaten while they watch. The bitch of it is that this is what makes them all virtually unfilmable. The gore is so extreme that any attempt to film them with a straight face is laughably inadequate. Seriously, go watch Rawhead Rex. I’ll wait.

Back? Will you ever unsee the prosthetic wobbling penis-y monster? No? Awesome. Welcome to my hell.

So is Hellraiser really any better than the rest of Barker’s cinematic abortions? Yes, but only because the bar is so low it’s buried under the continental shelf and the mole people keep whacking their shins on it. Most of the monsters in Clive Barker’s other movies are just generic heaps of hilariously bad prop parts and teeth. With the Cenobites (which is a word for religious people who live together in a community) the monster design people let themselves go wild and twist the human form into things that were both disturbing and interesting.

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Pictured: A great disguise, apparently.

Also, the demons (at least in the short story) weren’t really the bad guys at all, Frank was. They were more like facilitators: they came when Frank called, warned him before they gave him exactly what they said they would, and only attacked the protagonist because Frank was wearing his brother’s skin as a disguise. Once Frank was exposed, the Cenobites took his body and soul and went away and left the others alone. And they were kind of idiots. They’re supposed to be trans-dimensional demi-gods of pain and suffering, but they’re fooled by Frank wearing a meat suit. All this time it turns out that Leatherface was a master of disguise.

Oh, and the movie sequels. The sequels that cemented Hellraiser as a horror franchise. The sequels that put Pinhead in the pantheon of horror movie legends like Jason, Freddy and Mike Myers. The sequels that are so bad Clive Barker himself has disavowed them. Think about that. The man who wrote, produced and directed Lord of Illusions thought Hellraiser: Inferno and its successors violated his sense of artistic decency. That technically makes them a war crime. I won’t delve any further into them here, but the last 5 have been direct to DVD, so I think that’s all that needs to be said.

So how does The Hellbound Heart stack up? It’s OK, I guess. By Barker standards it’s kind of tame. Some good visual imagery, but amongst his flayed body of work it’s really stock. It did give us Pinhead, even if he was barely mentioned in passing in the actual story. No, seriously, he’s in three sentences in the beginning: “Its voice, unlike that of its companion, was light and breathy-the voice of an excited girl. Every inch of its head had been tattooed with an intricate grid, and at every intersection of horizontal and vertical axes a jeweled pin driven through to the bone. Its tongue was similarly decorated.” Hard stop, cut the checks. The actor who played Pinhead in 8 of the 9 movies was given the choice of playing either him or the Engineer, who was the leader of the Cenobites in the novel and just looked kind of shiny. He eventually got so good at putting on the makeup himself he got credit in some of the films as an assistant make-up artist.

And Pinhead really is the lasting legacy. Amongst the jokey villains of other ’80’s slashers like Freddy, Chucky and the Leprechaun, Pinhead was a refreshingly no-nonsense character. He wasn’t there to crack jokes and kill pot-smoking teenagers, he was there to drag your sorry ass off into an alternate dimension filled with 31 flavors of pain. Pinhead existed solely to look terrifying while standing next to increasingly bizarre-looking sidekicks. His tone was calm and businesslike. It’s as if you were up against Satan’s lawyer. Which, to be fair, is way more horrifying than anything Wes Craven ever did.

Also, and this is an absolutely true statement that my wife will confirm, to this day I avoid puzzle boxes just in case.

I’d give it 3 ice cream cones pierced with hooks and screaming in unending agony out of 5.

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Guest Post: Demon Knight (1995)

Recently, I received a voice mail from the Angry Scholar.  He was frantically driving to the airport in order to catch a plane to Chicago for the annual Perfect Strangers convention.  He said he’d forgotten to write a post to cover the time he’d be gone and was devastated that he’d be letting his readers down.  I know this is something they are used to, but rather than have him worry through the only week of the year he can acceptably cosplay “Cousin Larry” Appleton, I stepped up to the plate and wrote a movie review for him.

Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight is not well-remembered today.  It certainly wasn’t well received when it came out in 1995.  Born as an offshoot of the schlocky, tongue in cheek TV show Tales From The Crypt, and cast with character actors and C to F list actors, it shouldn’t have stood much of a chance.  Somehow though, the movie was able to transcend its limitations and become a surprisingly watchable, even enjoyable horror movie.

The short plot synopsis goes like this: A mysterious drifter is chased by another mysterious drifter to a middle of nowhere motel populated by a rag-tag team of stock characters.  It becomes known that the first drifter is a guardian of a relic filled with the blood of Jesus Christ, an artifact the second drifter, a demon, needs to help demons take the world back.  Luckily, the motel is a renovated church, thus on consecrated ground, and a standoff commences.

The movie is a decent mix of action and character work, led by the always reliable character actor William Sadler, and the rarely reliable Billy Zane.  Sadler give the guardian Brayker a well characterized world-weariness, and easily gives the audience someone to root for.  Billy Zane, B movie actor extraordinaire, somehow passes through the barrier that separates “awful hamminess” from “delightfully unhinged performance”.  Coupled with forgettable early roles from Jada Pinkett Smith and Thomas Hayden Church, and adding in a dash of the excellent CCH Pounder to round things out, and casting didn’t do too bad of a job.

While the main credit for watch-worthiness goes to the performances onscreen of Sadler and Zane, I personally thank the director Ernest Dickerson for making the movie as acceptable as it is.  He was a relatively new face on the scene when he was hired, having only done the Tupac Shakur vehicle Juice and the horrible Ice T movie Surviving the Game.  Since then, he’s gone on to direct several episodes of high-profile television series such as The Wire, Dexter, The Walking Dead, ER, and Treme, among others.  He somehow manages to bring a very distinct look and feel to the movie, bordering on the neon schlockiness of a Joel Schumaker movie without going too far and the static, desolate solitude of a Don Cascarele movie.  He does an admirable job using POV camerawork as well as effect camera sweeps and zooms to convey the terror and paranoia of the situation.  Most of all, the movie employs a very good use of practical effects.  The demon costumes are well made, and fairly scary even by 1995 standards.  The blood seal effect used throughout the movie looks plausible enough, and by the end becomes an expected and welcome part of the in-movie world.

Overall, if you haven’t seen it, I would recommend the movie.  It never deserved an Oscar, but it is an enjoyably fun and sometimes scary way to spend an evening, much like a date with the Angry Scholar.

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