Sunday, 11 September 2011

Lamentation


This entry’s a little outside of the usual subject matter for this blog as it has pretty much nothing to do with animation. It is, however, something that has been on my mind from the perspective of storytelling and the ways in which intellectual properties, once out of their creator’s hands, can develop for better or worse.

I saw a rather disconcerting tweet the other week from my hero and good pal (in my head) Clive Barker – author/artist/creator of “Hellraiser” – which read thusly:
I was kinda surprised, as I’d figured they’d finally hung up the “Hellraiser” socks in 2005 with the unsurprisingly lacklustre eighth entry “Hellworld”. A ninth Hellraiser, or remake of the original perhaps, would at this point only be of value if from the mind of – or at least endorsed by – Clive Barker himself. The only straight-to-DVD sequel he allegedly had anything positive to say about was part 6, “Hellseeker” (2002), which is certainly not without its flaws. So the above Twitter condemnation, along with the whimper the series had supposedly died out on, did not see my expectations raised for this new entry. In truth, I expected it to be hacky trash. How would it be possible, then, to be disappointed by the trailer when, in my head, the bar was already so low? Well, kids, here’s how:

This. Is. Fucking. GARBAGE.
If the above footage somehow managed to make use of untapped computer technology and have YouTube literally urinate directly into my mouth, ears and eyes I’d be less affronted. I’m not even sure who to direct my anger at as there are too many reasons why it’s awful to even begin to count. The recycled dialogue, the dreadful acting, the disorientingly lazy sound mix or the fact that it appears to have been filmed on a flip-cam are all vying for the crown of this film’s shittiness.
Some YouTube comments, along with the film’s Wikipedia entry, have theorised that this is a move by the studio to retain the franchise rights as cheaply (an estimated $300,000) and, in turn, disrespectfully as possible. That explanation makes sense and the silver lining would be that maybe their long game is to put together a more considered reboot of the franchise. If that is indeed the case, then my impulse should be to ignore it completely and let it be the proverbial soundless tree falling in an unpopulated forest.
I guess that’s the real issue – I can’t. I’m genuinely bothered by it. On an intellectual level I can strip the process down and acknowledge it’s an economical solution to a long-term, intellectual property ownership issue. But on a deeper level, one that rationalising has no control over, it’s disrespectful and irresponsible and artistically barren.
“Sure, Ben. Now you’re gonna tell me that a low-budget 80s horror flick constitutes ‘art’?”
How about this - yes, it fucking does. Get them apples down ya.
Clive Barker is an artist, in absolutely no uncertain terms, and the value of art is just as crucially measured by its reception as by its intent. Sure, I’ll admit that a lot of the film adaptations of his books and short stories have been patchy, but the first “Hellraiser”, made in 1987, is a legitimate cultural achievement: An independent British horror film that became a mainstream, international success, while bearing none of the hallmarks or clichés of the genre, then or today.
In true Clive Barker form, the story at its heart is actually quite domestic and relatable. It’s a film about lust for life, human relationships, experience and the torturous nature of boredom; the most common misconception is that it’s about a guy with pins in his head going around massacring people (they saved that for part 3). In fact, it’s fundamentally a love triangle between an austere, bored housewife, her milquetoast husband and his swarthy, dangerous brother with whom she’d had a pre-marital shagathon. So bowled over by his abilities as a master-cocksman, when she meets him again as a skeletal escapee from hell she doesn’t bat an eyelid.
She’s also more than happy to let loose her repressed murderess side and kill a string of horny barflies that her reanimated lover can feed on to become a whole person again. What gives the film its uniqueness is its focus on realistic, human issues juxtaposed against the darker, surreal visuals and concepts. These two scenes are a nice little glimpse into that overall vibe:
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That the ‘horror’ elements are so casually incorporated into the story gives them a lot more weight and even legitimacy. The villainess (or antiheroine) Julia isn’t a one-dimensional hacker-upper, her motives to self-servingly indulge the sociopath within aren’t so far-fetched when you consider the despicable behaviour of real-life nutjobs; next to the Tracey Connellys of the world she actually comes off as fairly tame.
Fleshing out the story further are elements good, bad and ‘meh’ – the reluctant, unlikely stepdaughter heroine (good), her completely ineffectual boyfriend (meh), the cenobites, a kind of underworld, S&M-inspired mafia/clergy, of which the then-unnamed Pinhead is don/high priest (superb) and...well, there’s this bit with a giant scorpion thing being wheeled down a hallway...yeah, I’m not too wild about that.
Another big gripe is that, presumably for reasons relating to marketing the film internationally, a lot of the British actors have their lines overdubbed with American accents. So, as with everything in life, it isn’t perfect, but there’s so much to it that works so well and, frankly, puts it on a higher plane than other genre movies of the era. This virtue is, ironically, what limits its audience somewhat – it’s just easier to sell a brainless slasher flick if you’re going under the horror label.

"For the most part, the reviews have been extremely kind. The audiences seem to have been having a good time with it, which is a major satisfaction. So I would have to say yes, I'm satisfied. I think it would be great if some of the images from the movie become images which recur in people's heads and stick with them. I would really like to see a Hellraiser series get going. I'd like Julia to be the first running character in a horror series who's a woman, like a female Freddy Kreuger.”
- Clive Barker (Fall 1987), justifiably ambitious and hopeful.

Naturally enough, the film’s unprecedented success spawned a more or less immediate sequel “Hellbound” (1988), which Barker was less involved with but was penned by his former theatre troupe co-founder Peter Atkins (who would also write parts 3 and 4).
As the film goes on, Atkins’s grand vision starts to work against it, the budget just not sufficient enough to accommodate the spectacle of hell he’d envisioned. The first act of the film is superb, though (aside from the bizarre presence of cornball US detectives further confusing the geography of the films), echoing Barker’s explorations of human obsession. The scenes that really stand out deal with the relationship between a psychiatric doctor and the reborn villainess Julia:
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Another standout moment of all the films takes place toward the end of “Hellbound”, where the cenobites acknowledge their own origins and face-off against the doctor, himself now cenobitised and looking to oust them (just to let you know - MONUMENTAL spoilers in this clip, in case you plan on giving the films a proper watch):
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“To catch the momentum and consciously carry on the mythological development was a challenge I found irresistibly exciting. Hellbound illuminates many of the concepts I was happy to leave as mysteries in Hellraiser while continuing on a spiral of weirdness I can develop even more in a third film.”
- Clive Barker (01/1988), excited enough about the sequel to already be aiming for a trilogy.

At this point the films had developed a pretty sizable audience who’d embraced Pinhead more than the human villains of the film (this essentially put the kibosh on Barker’s aforementioned vision of Julia, the housewife-turned-Queen-of-Hell from the first two movies, becoming the series’ main antagonist). An ambitious comic series was spawned (separate entry for that coming soon) and, after several variants on a storyline were developed, a third film was pushed out in 1992.
“Hell On Earth” takes a pretty gigantic turn as an unashamed slasher movie, wherein the former cenobite leader (he with the nails in the ol’ noggin) goes into the freelance business of pretty much slaughtering everyone in his path. As a viewer, it’s fun in the vein of shamefully wolfing down an entire box of chocolates, yet despite going against the M.O. of the first film by retreating to a more conventional type of horror flick, it’s still peppered by wonderfully incongruous moments of Atkins-scripted dialogue that are so well-written they almost seem as though they’re from a different film altogether. These mainly center on a series of ‘seduction’ monologues Pinhead (Doug Bradley) delivers, the clip below being, in all seriousness, probably one of my favourite scenes in a movie ever:
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Also to Atkins’ credit is that the contradictory character Pinhead has in this movie does make perfect sense, story-wise. Having been stripped of his humanity in the previous film, he now exists purely as impulsive evil, hence a somewhat Krueger-ised persona. This concept I will happily admit to being my main inspiration for Erica, the villainess of “Mitchells In England” (in fact a whole heap of the story elements were more or less lifted directly from “Hell On Earth” in, y’know, loving homage). At this point in the series, though, Barker himself had been elbowed out, only really being brought on for reshoots to fix the somewhat anticlimactic ending.

"From the start it was clear the production company [Trans Atlantic Entertainment] wanted their stamp on it more than mine. While they had to pay me because the original ideas and characters were my creation, they already had the pivotal elements in place, so they didn't need me. As it didn't reflect my vision of the Hellraiser mythos, I had no desire to be associated with it in any way.”
-Clive Barker (03/1993) on the reality of the third movie.

The film is a cringefest, full of one-liners, gratuitous tit shots and questionable VFX – and I do indeed love it. While the first “Hellraiser” nourishes my craving for well-crafted, story-driven cinema, the third equally satisfies my guilty penchant for brainless cheese (with the second pretty much bang in the middle). As a trilogy these films are solid, thoughtful at times and joyfully macabre.
Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered that a fourth was coming out, pretty much exactly when I was getting into Barker and the “Hellraiser” series. Thus began the descent of the franchise into a succession of production nightmares. My fascination shifted from the stories of the films themselves to the real-life, behind-the-scenes woes that were being reported.
The heartbreaking thing is that “Hellraiser: Bloodline” (1996), in screenplay form, had the makings of being the best one of the lot, irrefutably concluding the largely unexplored mythology of the films by bringing it full circle to its origins in the 18th century. The evidence of Atkins’s work as a quality writer previously glimpsed in moments of parts 2 and 3 was this time laid on thick. Fortunately some of these scenes made it to the final version, albeit framed in a misrepresented context – the film as released is a confusing, detached patchwork with gaping continuity issues and inconsistencies. This one surviving exposition scene from an entirely excised subplot just about works in its own right, and more importantly shows the potential the film could have had:
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It has to be said that, for the most part, only after reading the original screenplay do certain scenes or lines of dialogue make any sense whatsoever. This film was also my introduction to the concept of the Alan Smithee pseudonym, put to use after director Kevin Yagher had the film he was trying to realise wrenched away from him to be bombarded with script revisions and reshoots.

“When a filmmaker wants to make a movie based on my work, I can't say, "Well, I'm not going to become involved." Instead I keep my finger in the pie and try to create a better movie. However, as the series goes on, it becomes harder and harder to scare audiences with images that they've seen in the three previous films…Hollywood is built on pure profit and, provided there's a profit, the concept will continue - even if there isn't a brand spanking new story to tell."
- Clive Barker (02/1995), wearied industry veteran.

I have absolutely no qualms with admitting that, as far as I can tell, in the hall of fame of shitty horror movie sequels there have been far worse than “Bloodline”. Its main problem is simple – it isn’t finished. There are still a lot of strong moments and cool concepts buried beneath the mishmash plot.
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The ending is irredeemable though, inexplicably sudden with no epilogue or explanation, the consequence I assume of a rushed rewrite so that the hero survives. Workprints of earlier versions of the film exist, some containing scenes from the screenplay that were filmed but left out of the released movie. One of these is an earlier version of the ending (in which the hero makes the far more poetic and justified move of sacrificing himself), which is not only better, it honestly gave me chills – no mean feat given how much harder an onscreen timecode and the absence of VFX, music and sound make suspension of disbelief. When I finally watched it a couple years ago I actually felt like I was at peace with the film; it’s how things should have ended.

"Hellraiser 4 has been released in the States. It's not very good. I think they are making another one. Oh God!"
- Clive Barker (07/1996), candid realist.

1-4: The more profitable, theatrical-run days...

So, in the wake of the clusterfuck that was the fourth “Hellraiser” (which made it into cinemas in the US but was the first straight-to-video entry in the UK), the series’ future on the home video market was pretty much set in stone. I made a point of keeping expectations low for the fifth (2000’s “Inferno”), which proved to be the right move as it was something of a poor man’s “Jacob’s Ladder” and the first to no longer involve Atkins. The aforementioned “Hellseeker” was similar, story-wise, but redeemed by its atmosphere and performances. Its main problem is a jarring and disconnected storytelling style, where events constantly jump forward and backward. The explanation at the end justifies this device well enough, but frankly it gets pretty irritating to sit through. All told, however, it’s the most commendable stab at a “Hellraiser” movie out of the final four.
5-8: Straight-to-DVD hell

The seventh (“Deader”, 2005) and eighth are uniquely fascinating – in their own rights they are inoffensive-yet-mediocre horror flicks. Here’s the thing, though – they aren’t “Hellraiser” movies. Curiously, and rather lazily, the studio made the move of optioning screenplays for films that were never intended to be part of the franchise, and it’s glaringly obvious that any “Hellraiser” story/mythology elements are awkwardly crowbarred in, conflicting with their intended plotlines. But I suppose if you’re an aspiring screenwriter and you’re desperate to get a film made, you’ll happily slap “Hellraiser” on the title and give Pinhead a cameo if not doing so is the deal-breaker. So, for that reason, I have no real issue with them, because they really don’t count. Also, Kari Wührer is in one of them and she’s hot.

“It's painful, because I loved making this movie; I loved making the second movie; I actually had a good time at the third one, and then it started to fall apart. The reason it falls apart is because of certain people who are not creative, who are pencil pushers, the people who went to business school, who went to law school, who have absolutely nothing to do with the creative process who think they know better than creators. And this town is full of them!”
- Clive Barker (08/2000), at this point really kinda bumming me out.

I think what is more aggravating with the new one about to be released is that it was commissioned as a “Hellraiser” movie from the outset, but with none of the time, money or respect such a film deserved. Thankfully Doug Bradley turned it down, but I’m staggered that they would make the horribly misjudged move of including a version of a character as iconic as his played by another actor. The timing is also atrocious, given that in a couple other respects the franchise on the whole is going through something of a resurgence. This year’s series of new “Hellraiser” comics have been flying off the shelves (at least they are here in Bristol) and, being co-written by Barker himself, are going to places far darker and ambitious than the generic fare we've been subjected to of late.Also my hopes are still high for the mythical Barker novel “Scarlet Gospels” which will reportedly close the door on the “Hellraiser” universe in his own way, one that he was unable to do via the films themselves.
What began as a venting session has, as it turns out, become something of an essay so I’ll try and make some kind of point out of my concerns. Nearly three years ago, my thesis film “House Guest” was picked up for development by a Canadian production company, one which has yet to set the world alight. The hope was to rework elements of the film, extending it into a twenty minute pilot that would be the basis for a thirteen-part miniseries, and go from there. What ensued was six months of the most disenchanting back and forth BS I’ve experienced, where every note from them kicked what I was trying to achieve square in the solar plexus of the balls (I appreciate that doesn’t quite pan out anatomically, but work with me here). At the point where they had redesigned the characters to look like an infant’s Chibi doodles I took the first window of opportunity and bailed the fuck out of it. And thankfully the film, untampered with, went on to perform well enough. I had virtually the same exact experience last year while attempting to develop a separate property with a fairly high-profile UK children’s book publisher. That ended on far better terms and with significantly more hope for a future working relationship, but still the issue remained that, over time, it morphed into something I barely had any association with. In all likelihood, this is gonna happen a lot over the next few years. And I’m not entirely sure how to feel about that.
So instead I’m going to ignore it for now, break out a certain DVD boxset, get a shitload of cheap Grigio down me and fall asleep listening to the commentary tracks. G’night.


Props to Phil & Sarah Stokes's official Barker site "Revelations", from which I pilfered the quotes. Also to Paul Kane's thorough and fascinating book "The Hellraiser Films & Their Legacy" which was pretty eye-opening.

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