Saturday, October 31, 2015

i'm not putting her away

Clover (1992) argues,

Certainly, the novelist's (and filmmaker's) target is not the female body, but the transformation that body prompts in the male psyche.

Enmeshed from the outset in Karras's spiritual crisis are issues of intimacy and sexuality. Again, Regan provides the palpable field: she stabs a cross in and out of her vagina, speaks incessantly and crudely of sexual matters, is suspected of desecrating the statue of the Virgin Mary, and so on. ...however, it appears to be Karras's own anxieties that are at stake. The nature of those anxieties is hinted at in an early scene [in Blatty's novel] in which Karras is approached for comfort by a young and lonely priest:

Of all the anxieties that Karras encountered among the community, this one had lately become the most prevalent. Cut off from their families as well as from women, many of the Jesuits were also fearful of expressing affection for fellow priests; of forming deep and loving friendships.

"Like I'd like to put my arm around another guy's shoulder, but right away I'm scared he's going to think I'm queer. I mean, you hear all these theories about so many latents attracted to the priesthood. So I just don't do it. I won't even go to somebody's room just to listen to records; or talk; or smoke. It's not that I'm afraid of him; I'm just worried about him getting worried about me."

Karras felt the weight easing slowly from the other and onto him. He let it come; let the young priest talk. (p. 88, citing Blatty, p. 88)

An odd sidenote before I get into what Clover is arguing: Regan tells her mother about seeing a man "come along on this beautiful grey horse" and Chris interrupts to ask if it was a mare or a gelding. Female or castrated male. Couldn't be a stallion because no old man would have control over a stallion, I guess.

Anyway, Clover is talking about anxieties that a priest like Karras has over being perceived as a closeted homosexual. Or a pedophile, perhaps. Either way, or just as a priest, Karras cannot display sexuality. He must be without. Then here he is faced with, metaphorically, a young girl in the thrall of puberty. Like Carrie White in Carrie or Charlie McGee in Firestarter or Tina Shepard in Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, puberty and telekinesis go hand in hand. (Clover also cites The Fury as an example but I am not sure if I have ever seen that film.) Regan McNeil is not telekinetic, of course, but she's still a portal into something supernatural. Referring specifically to the Carrie White example, Clover suggests, "supernatural and psychosexual intersect: cause a girl enough pain, repress enough of her rage, and--not matter how fundamentally decent she may be--she perforce becomes a witch" (p. 71). This ties into my own interpretation regarding the sexual revolution and films like this one or Rosemary's Baby; treat women, collectively, badly enough, long enough, and they will demand equality. They will burn their bras, destroy their staplers and steno pads, carry picket signs and get in your face. They will get abortions when they do not want to be mothers and stay single well into their adulthood, if not their whole lives, when they decide marriage is an antiquated, patriarchal system meant to suppress the female.

So, in answer to the question I ended with yesterday, what does it cost us--Regan's story? Regan's story serves (arguably) as a metaphor for the chaos that comes with female adolescence. Someone that men just cannot control. The doctors and their tests stand in for all of civilized society. They have their tests and when those tests don't work, they have more tests, and more tests, and then they question the mother about if she has drugs around the house. Man cannot solve this problem, this uncontrollable little girl.

That Regan is portrayed as young and innocent prior to her possession and possessed Regan speaks in obscenities and makes references to sex, tells the doctors "fuck me", grabs the psychiatrist by his genitals, stabs that crucifix into her vagina then pushes her mother's face there and tells her "lick me", and tells Father Merrin, "stick your cock up her ass" and "shove it up your ass, you faggot"--this is not just an easy juxtaposition to demonstrate the corruption at play. It is that, but not just that. It also marks examples of what that corruption actually is. Regan is no longer innocent, no longer a child. She is marked now by sex. And, the obscenities and the violent masturbation are certainly a couple of the most shocking things about this film--what Roger Ebert called "brutal shocks, almost indescribable obscenities." This guy was in college in the 1960s and had already seen plenty of films by this point, and this film still cut into his delicate sensibilities. So to speak.

Roger ends his review:

Even in the extremes of Friedkin's vision there is still a feeling that this is, after all, cinematic escapism and not a confrontation with real life. There is a fine line to be drawn there, and "The Exorcist" finds it and stays a millimeter on this side.

Thing is, I don't agree. I think a provocative film like this provokes deliberately, and is a confrontation with real life. Whether it is about a challenge to Christianity, specifically Catholicism, or budding feminine sexuality--there is something in this film that, watching it, we have to face. Both of these boil down to challenges to the behemoth that bell hooks calls the "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy." Men--Christian Men--their world is what Regan's story challenges.

is there someone inside you?

For some reason, every time I watch The Exorcist, I forget that it starts with that sequence at the excavation in Iraq. Of course, the movie is not called The Possessed (though I am pretty sure that I have seen more than one movie with that title); it is not about Regan (Linda Blair) but about Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) and, even moreso, Father Karras (Jason Miller). Something Clover (1992) tries to explain "this gendered division of narrative labor--to understand what it is about the male crisis that needs harnessing to a narrative of female hysteria or indeed psychosis" (p. 70). While Regan's story drives the narrative, the narrative belongs to those two men (and primarily Karras). Man versus the devil. The girl is just their battleground.

But, what kind of battleground is she?

Kinder and Houston (1987) write about the "psychological interpretation" presented in the film to explain Regan's initial extraordinary behaviour--her parents' divorce and rejection by her father (he didn't call her on her birthday), Regan's jealousy of her mother's director (Regan's mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn) is an actress, in case you are reading this and, for some strange reason, have never seen the film), "her forthcoming thirteenth birthday [and] unusual physical contact between mother and daughter" (p. 47). I assume they mean the wrestling, or Regan sleeping in her mother's bed, but I think it's odd to call either of those things unusual. I also question whether or not Regan is jealous of her mother's relationship with her director Burke (Jack MacGowran); Regan seemed genuine when she suggested her mother could bring him along on their sightseeing venture on her birthday. But, Regan's age is certainly an important detail (especially considering an interview I saw once in which Linda Blair insisted that she had no idea what Regan was supposed to be doing in the scene with the crucifix). She's in the process, as it were, of becoming a woman.

Meanwhile, though, Damian Karras is dealing with a crisis of faith. But, consider the year--Vietnam in full swing, sexual revolution in just as full swing. Early in the film we see Karras boxing and I cannot help but link up his crisis of faith with a crisis of manhood--the same crisis of masculinity central to my discussion of 1980s action movies back in January--for example, on Day 538 - the mind is the best weapon about Rambo. The Exorcist adds in the same crisis of Catholicism that came with Vatican II that ties into The Omen or Rosemary's Baby. A crisis of Catholicism (and Christianity more generally), a crisis of American Hegemony and masculinity, a crisis of the sexual revolution and what it might mean for a girl like Regan coming of age--and all of this gets focused in on this one little girl, and an old man and a weak man are all that stands between this "demon" and the world.

So, to reiterate, this is not Regan's story. Clover says, "Regan's story is finally significant only insofar as it affects the lives of others" (p. 87). But, what really matters is that this story is not just about affecting the lives of the other characters, Chris and Merrin and Karras. I think we forget how powerful this film was in 1973 compared to watching it today. I mean, it's still one of the greatest horror films, but I do not think that we feel the impact of it as much. For example, in his original review of the film, Roger Ebert writes:

Rarely do movies affect us so deeply... [W]e're not escaping from Friedkin's implications, we're shrinking back from the direct emotional experience he's attacking us with. The movie doesn't rest on the screen; it's a frontal assault." We might forget that The Exorcist is "a triumph of special effects," as Roger argues. We are used to special effects, used to believable visuals that draw us in and make everything seem quite real. Roger writes, "Never for a moment--not when the little girl is possessed by the most disgusting of spirits, not when the bed is banging and the furniture flying and the vomit is welling out--are we less than convinced." (Note: the theatrical version did not include the spiderwalk scene, a moment I think detracts from the rest of the effects.). Roger continues: "The film contains brutal shocks, almost indescribable obscenities. That it received an R rating and not the X is stupefying." See, I've been watching movies like this for a few decades now, plus I'm not much for religion, and I've been known to use profanity in my classroom, so admittedly, this film does not shock me. But, I grew up going to church and I see people still flinch at profanity and obscenity today, so objectively I can see that something is (or should be) shocking. The absolute way that Chris insists that her daughter never uses profanity, for example--that is rather... well, not shocking but different from today. Today, I would be surprised if a twelve-year-old girl didn't use obscenities from time to time.

And, there are those who find that last detail depressing and/or horrifying, still.

But, I was talking about how Regan's story affects not just the lives of these other fictional characters but the rest of us. Roger says--and it surprises me from a guy who obviously loved movies--"I am not sure exactly what reasons will have for seeing this movie; surely enjoyment won't be one, because what we get here aren't the delicious chills of a Vincent Price thriller, but raw and painful experience." And, he asks, "Are people so numb they need movies of this intensity in order to feel anything at all? It's hard to say." I actually quoted an article by Ebert in my published piece on the sexual revolution; he edited the Champaign Spectator around the time Professor Leo F. Koch made headlines for allegedly promoting premarital sex in that paper. He should have understood that, yes, people needed such intensity in order to feel something. At least, some people would have. Footage from the Vietnam War was on the news regularly. Riot footage as well. The country was--just like the most conservative among us fear pretty much for a long time before and every day since--going to hell, the New Left tearing at its seams and digging into its cracks. I'm sure it was mindnumbing, just as so much on the news can be today.

And, that last line is the kind of evidence I would mark on a student's essay for vagueness. But, consider: war still in Afghanistan, the conflict left over after war in Iraq, mass shootings, the cop killings that (however you view the reasons) gave us the Black Lives Matter movement, ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the list could go on and on. I don't know the current statistics, but I'm guessing most of us don't watch the news anymore. Not on a regular basis, anyway. It's too much. I figure, for some of us at least, we watch the more graphic horror films, the so-called "torture porn" for example, because of something like cutting--subjecting ourselves to this imagery, to horrible violence and gore, but knowing quite absolutely that it is just special effects, works as a vent for some of the stress, some of the pain, the anger, the fear, the knowledge that horrible things happen around the world every day and we are (mostly) powerless to do anything about it. Consider that line I quoted from Clive Barker the other day about the monsters you cannot destroy, that you just have to figure out how to live with, instead. Then come forward to a recent standout horror film like It Follows, in which the horror cannot be reasoned with and will never stop coming (like a Terminator, only less crushable by machinery). That film is about learning to live with something awful, not about defeating it.

In the film, Regan's story costs three men their lives. The question for tomorrow: what does it cost us?

References

Clover, C.J. (1992). Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Ebert, R. (1973, December 26). The Exorcist [Review]. RogerEbert.com. Retrieved from http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-exorcist-1973

Kinder, M. & Houston, B. (1987). Seeing is believing: The Exorcist and Don't Look Now. In G.A. Waller (Ed.), American Horrors: Essays on the Modern Horror Film ([don't actually have the book handy so don't know the proper page numbers]). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

i didn't want you upsetting yourself, honey

So, take away the Satanists, take away the details of that scene at the end with Rosemary seeing her baby, and what's left? A film about how crazy and hormonal a woman can be when she's pregnant, and how she can have a psychotic break when her child is stillborn. Most of the details that are here still work. People offering advice to a young woman pregnant with her first baby--that's certainly nothing new. A husband making demands on his pregnant wife--not new either.

The idea that this is what Rosemary's Baby is about isn't really anything new, either.

But, I noticed something yesterday while watching the movie. Now, the main guy's name is, well, Guy, which is plenty generic, and a bit obvious. (I have never read Levin's book, but just learned that Guy's name is made up. His name was Sherman Peden, but he changed it. To have more success as an actor, I guess.) But, Rosemary--not so much. Even if you shorten it to Rose, it's not so generic. Common but not generic. Shorten it, inexplicably, to Mary and you get into an extra level of religious symbolism, but Levin's story doesn't do that. Instead of Rose or Mary, Guy calls her, simply, Ro.

Or Roe. Though, don't get it in your head that I'm heading for some Roe vs. Wade reference, as that was years later. But, it is because of that case (and one of my students talking about just yesterday in class had it on my mind) that I know that Jane Roe was a pseudonym, a variation on Jane Doe. (Doe and Roe--both deer.) You don't hear much of Richard and Jane Roe, just John and Jane Doe. Apparently, if you have multiple anonymous parties, you might name the first one Doe, the next Roe, then Poe, and I'm sure there's a list, or a legal standard when it comes to court cases... the best I can find is that John Doe might be the plaintiff, Richard Roe the defendant, and there can also be John Q. Public, John Q Citizen, John Stiles, Richard Miles, or Mary Major. But usually, all we "normal" people ever hear about are the Does, a corpse on our favorite cop show, perhaps, the killer in SE7EN, the lead on that new NBC show, Blindspot, or that 2002 Fox Drama called John Doe. But, anyway. the main couple here is Guy and Ro. Last name--the made up Woodhouse, which seems a little meaningless. I've argued more than once about how Phil Connors is Groundhog Day

(If you've gotten to this particular entry directly, note the name of this blog.)

represents the everyman, anyone who is currently dissatisfied with his or her lot in life. Going with the usual interpretation of Rosemary's Baby then, Guy becomes a different everyman, any guy who wants a subservient wife. Ro becomes the conservative dream--a woman who stays at home and cooks and cleans and bears children. The worst she'll do is gossip with the girls.

So, what makes it a horror film, then?

See, I don't think it is specifically the Satanic elements that do it. Hell, until the end of the film, none of that stuff even need be real. There could simply be something wrong with Ro, or with the baby. Clearly, she's got some health issues. Whether that is because of the herbs and whatnot she's being given or in spite of them--that's debatable until the end of act three.

(One could read the end of this film as more of Ro's imagining, or hallucinating, with no confirmation of anything supernatural... That black mass or whatever it is, all the old Satanists sitting around that black bassinet, that could just be what is in Ro's head after her baby actually was stillborn. She'd rather imagine her baby as some... thing, and her role in the devil's family instead of the reality.)

The problem is that Ro is independent. She has a male friend--Hutch--over when Guy is out. She gets her hair cut short. She eventually rejects her doctor and everyone else. Plus, she's smart--and so is guy; just look at their Scrabble game:

Aside from ALY and REJOGS, they've got some good words going, and someone started the game with either Zoo or Kazoo. Yes, this is the kind of thing I might notice while watching a movie.

There's a classist thing going on, as well. Sapirstein isn't just the recommended obstetrician because he's Satan-friendly but because he's famous--he was on the TV show Open End--and Ro's old doctor is, according to Minnie Castevet, "Dr. Hill nobody ever heard of." Guy later calls Dr. Hill "Charlie Nobody." Ro doesn't just want to associate with new high-class doctors and friends, though.

And, I feel like this entry is all over the place.

Basically, Satan and an independent woman are equally bad--that's the idea here. I am not saying that the film is telling us that this is true, but it is relying on this understanding. The world is in danger not because Satan might be able to have a child but because the woman he gets pregnant might have a mind of her own...

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

in every apartment house

Some of the best horror deals in very down-to-earth details, mundane themes with a twist toward something extraordinary. Rosemary's Baby--today's film--deals in fears about pregnancy and parenthood. The Shining deals in alcoholism and... parenthood. Poltergeist deals in suburbia and... parenthood. I'm sensing a theme. The Omen films also deal with parenthood, and of course, the end of the world (because children are, in a way, the end of the world... Ask any single person.) Ghost stories like Crimson Peak deal in hidden pasts coming back to haunt the present (and that one has almost nothing to do with parenthood). Even the Hellraiser films deal in a sort of fear of the perverse and our own sexual impulses. (And, there's that thing about motherhood.)

And, that's just movies I've watched this past month for this blog. How about some more recent fare? It Follows, for example, takes old slasher-film themes about the dangers of casual sex and updates them with a STD-metaphor. The Babadook deals with parenthood and raising a troubled (and troubling) child. And it's not that horror needs the mundane to focus it. Or that the mundane needs horror to focus it. Though, both of those things are true enough.

What it is, it seems to me, is that the two things are part and parcel of the same thing. There is no mundane without some inherent fears creeping in, and no inherent fears without the mundane surrounding it. I mean, sure, big Omen-style end-of-the-world stuff is scary, but what is scarier? A young boy surrounded by death. A cult of believers willing to act upon that end-of-the-world stuff. What's scarier than a stepmother with whom you don't get along? A stepmother who murders men because the sex she's been having with your father isn't satisfying enough. Hell, the idea that your stepmother has sex at all.

Whether the locale is a summer camp, an isolated highway, a new house, the woods, or your dreams, it is the intrusion of the horrific upon the absolutely normal that frightens us. Too much of the horrific or the supernatural and the effect is not as powerful--take Crimson Peak, for example.

Just now, for instance--Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes) had dinner with Roman (Sidney Blackmer) and Minnie Castavet (Ruth Gordon) and the conversation turned to the Pope visiting New York and none of these people is religious... (well, that isn't quite true, is it? But, SPOILERS.) Rosemary was raised Catholic but isn't anymore. And, I think about when this film came out--1968. Vatican II worried Catholics about the state of their church, and of the world. The sexual revolution, not to mention political revolutions around the globe--especially in '68--worried an older generation about the younger, and here are two generations sitting down together. Subtract the Satan stuff to come and there is still a fascinating thing going on here. Rosemary and Guy are young, seemingly happy--though her line(s) about how Guy "was in Luthor and Nobody Loves an Albatross and he does a lot of TV" seem just a little too rehearsed, repeated almost word-for-word to different people, and I wonder if we're not supposed to think there's something a little off about their relationship.

And, as I type that, they're fighting about the chocolate mousse that Minnie dropped off.

The fight doesn't last, of course. Because, well, they are young and in love, and we only need an inkling of cracks in the veneer to start getting a little fearful. The horror doesn't need to intrude too much. This is 1968. There are cracks in the nightly news all the time--the Tet Offensive, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the assassination of Robert Kennedy just days before Rosemary's Baby was in theaters, rioting in multiple cities, including Chicago where mor riots would come in August. Vietnam. And, what are people afraid of? Hippies and free-love adherents because they're outside the norm.

I imagine that conservative folks figured scenes like Rosemary's dream rape were going on at communes all across America. May 1967, the New York Times called college students "casualties of the sexual revolution" and, with little direct evidence, correlated casual sex to mental health problems among those students." The Packard survey found that, in 1968, 57% of college males (30% with more than two partners) and 43% of college females (14% with more than one partner) had engaged in sexual intercourse. So, an older generation, pretending that they had not engaged in premarital sex, might be horrified by all of these mentally ill sexual deviants. See, it doesn't matter where Rosemary's baby comes from. Just look at her. Farrow was in her early 20s here but looks younger. And, those 60s minidresses echo the dresses of little girls from the 1950s. This is not about the devil impregnating a young woman. This is about that young woman being corrupted.

And, nice timing again, she just got her hair cut off. Meanwhile, Guy's a stage actor--hardly a real job. (Plus, he just called her haircut "awful" and "the worst mistake you ever made." He's kind of a dick.)

Scott Poole, a professor who "teaches courses on Satan and modernity and monsters--as well as religion" at College of Charleston, interviewed by Mary Valle at Religion Dispatches, 14 May 2012, says:

I think that [director Roman] Polanski really played a fairly elaborate joke with [Rosemary's Baby].[Author Ira] Levin had borrowed the trope of the satanic conspiracy that has old roots in Western culture and used it to create a fairly obvious social parable.

He had been asked about a quotation in his book Satan in America, Darryl Jones [the original source for which I cannot find] arguing that "Rosemary's Baby is a film about men controlling women's bodies." Many a horror film relies on a conservative world view to anchor the horror. Poltergeist may have ex-hippies who smoke weed as the parents, but they live in the suburbs, he works and she stays home. The Shining isolates the family unit and dissects it, as does The Omen and Hellraiser in different ways. Poole sides with me, by the way, saying, "Rosemary's Baby may be largely about the efforts of men to constrain women to home and family, but it's part of a landslide of horror films that expressed a lot of anxiety about motherhood and childbearing in the wake of the sexual revolution(s)." He compares the film to It Lives and The Brood but suggests these films are not strictly "about women and men's psychological angst about childbearing [but] structural changes in American society." He adds:

What you had in the '60s, '70s, and '80s was a sea change in gender roles and sex lives that stretched back to the '20s. Let me add that I think that in the post-World War II era, a male-controlled culture seeking to represent the white middle class mom as both constrained and utterly capable, virginal, and fertile, and demure yet available, created an enormous amount of social anxiety about gender that these films made fun of.

Rosemary Woodhouse may be married, but she represents a new generation of women who can have parties like this one on screen now, with pseudo-counterculture folks, dressed like beat poets and hippies but drinking away in a highrise New York apartment.

Rosemary just admitted to three women, isolated from the party, about how much pain she is in. And, it's like the point boiled down to one scene--they tell her to see a different doctor, to make decisions of herself. As we still debate today, after all, it's her body, her decision. She specifically says, though, "I won't have an abortion." But, as one of them points out, "Nobody's telling you to." A scene later, she feels the baby kicking and pulls Guy's hand to her stomach and he seems horrified.

After all, there is a giant parasite growing inside of her...

But, that will have to wait until tomorrow (even though there's close to an hour left of the film).

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

been to a place you couldn't possibly imagine

Now, we move beyond the actual Hellraiser sequels past Bloodline because they are, well, not good.

Instead, the spiritual sequel--Event Horizon.

Let us get the negatives out of the way: as io9 says, "Event Horizon commits many flagrant fouls when it comes to ripping off other, better films (including, but not limited to, Alien, The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Hellraiser, and The Haunting)." Of course, that same io9 article claims that the film "tanked" at the box office. It was #4 its opening weekend, covering $9 million of its $15 million budget. The next weekend, it would drop to #11 but would still make another $4 million, another #3 million its third weekend, another million its fourth. Sure, its not blockbuster numbers, but I'm not sure that quite qualifies as tanking.

Plus, I was there opening weekend, and I think I may have even seen it a second time in the theater. So, regardless of the facts, I just don't feel a tanking here. I had read about this film in Fangoria and was looking forward to it. And, I love this movie. It's mostly horror, but with a nice science fiction skin over the top.

By the time I saw it, I knew that the Event Horizon was designed as a sort of stretched out version of Notre Dame, that religious imagery was going to be all over the place. I did not know that the "meatgrinder" corridor actually messed with the equilibrium of the actors when they had to walk through it, or that the magnetic boots only exist in this film because filming in zero-g for the entire film would have been prohibitively expensive. Might have also looked weird; I just saw The Martian a few days ago and fake zero-g--at least, I hope it was fake--still looks awkward, so if you gotta boot around it, I say go for it. Plus, after the Lewis & Clark ship has trouble and everyone has to get onto the Event Horizon, they've got the artificial gravity on. Got to be practical about this stuff.

The Event Horizon's gravity drive is like a new take on the Lament Configuration, of course. While a third of Hellraiser: Bloodline was Hellrasier-in-Space, this movie is Hellraiser-in-Space. The crawlways with all the green circuit boards the labyrinth of Hellbound. Justin (Jack Noseworthy) is like Frank; he sees what is on the other side of the gateway and comes back... wrong. Weir (Sam Neill) is like Julia in Hellbound, not so much wrong as transformed by the experience. Or maybe he's more of a Cenobite, with his empty eye sockets. And what he does to DJ (Jason Isaacs). Oops, forgot the SPOILER warning.

One thing this film doesn't do is depend on horror tropes like the Final Girl of slasher films. Captain Miller (a pre-Matrix Laurence Fishburne) is not much of a Final Girl. Starck (Joely Richardson) comes closer--and not just because she's female.

In the end, this isn't a slasher film, anyway, so that doesn't matter.

It also isn't a, strictly-speaking, religious/occult horror film either. The other dimension is not really Hell anymore than the other dimension in the Hellraiser films was... even if those films drifted closer and closer to Abrahamic religions' version of Hell and demons as they went. In the reality of either film, you could imagine that this other dimension is where someone, once upon a time, came up with the idea of Hell, but that is not the same thing as being it.

Now, as the credits roll, and I think about how the month is coming to an end in a few days, I realize how many movies I had wanted to get to that I just did not manage. Spent too many days on some films... and not enough on others. And, the month is too short. I am sure that I can find an excuse for a horror film now and then outside this particular month.

But, I also wonder what the point is. When I run with a particular theme, I try to form a specific thesis, a singular argument that ties it all together. This month of horror films has definitely spiraled in around a religious theme, and I've got a couple of the big, obvious, religious horror films left in the next few days. So, going into these last few days, what I am thinking about it that link between religious belief and horror, how one leads to the other and the vice versa. I am reminded of a line from the song "War on Drugs" by Barenaked Ladies:

From the very fear that makes you want to die
Is just the same as what keeps you alive

the remnants of a most unsatisfying victim

What follows may end up as just a play-by-play, so allow an introduction of sorts:

Kevin Yagher was a first-time director when he worked on Hellraiser: Bloodline. The final film is credited to Alan Smithee. If you do not know who Alan Smithee is, that is the name a director puts on a film when he wants his own name taken off. Usually that means studio meddling or something similar has altered the movie so much that the director--Yagher in this case--no longer wants the film to be considered his (or hers). The interesting thing to me, in regards to Hellraiser: Bloodline, is that the director that the studio brought in to finish Yagher's unfinished film was Joe Chapelle, director of Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, the original ending (the so-called Producer's Cut) of which had to be reshot because of bad test screenings. Anyway, Yagher had disagreements with the studio and producers over how Hellraiser: Bloodline should go, he left (READ: was forced off) the production with an unfinished film. The film was supposed to be longer, was supposed to be structured quite distinctly as three separate stories that tied together instead of the flashback setup here. Producers wanted Pinhead to arrive earlier, wanted more gore, and didn't want a film that required an actual attention span. They got Joe Chapelle involved and they got their way.

What I am about to watch, though, is what's known as the "Workprint Reconstruction" version of the film, put together using an unfinished, well, workprint cut together with reworked footage from the final film to adhere closer to Yagher's shooting script. I have never seen this version before, and I've read that one sequence involves some very bad animation to stage a scene that was never filmed. But, I am hoping it makes sense, and I actually expect it to represent a better film...

Though, for the record, I rather like the released version of Hellraiser: Bloodline and think it works far better than Hell on Earth does.

Anyway, Hellraiser: Bloodline, the Workprint version (which you can currently find on YouTube in nine parts):

We don't start in space, of course. There's no framing story. We jump right into the soon-to-be-Angelique being brought to De L'Isle by Jacques. I like the way this opening plays, without explanation, without the box having already been shown in the future sequence. We've got chains and hooks, and a skinless corpse (and corpseless skin), but they were clearly put there by De L'Isle. His chant that opens the doorway to Hell is something new and unexpected in this sequence. We don't know that this is an origin story for the box.

Structurally, I am wary, though, because this puts more emphasis on Angelique and in the theatrical version, the third act barely involves her. I've read there is more of her in the present day sequence in this version, but have heard nothing of more of her in the future sequence. If we take each third as its own thing, its own entity, I suppose this is not a problem. But, taking the film as a whole, that fact that we're a good nine minutes in before we're introduced to Lemarchand... is odd, but not necessarily bad.

Without Paul Merchant's voiceover, the toymaker bit seems... off. But, the reveal of he box--and his wife's unenthusiastic response--is funnier this way. I imagine someone who has seen none of the Hellraiser films and knows nothing about the box watching this bit and thinking Phillip is insane when he calls this thing his "masterpiece."

The first workprint footage (coming from a VHS tape, it's of noticeably lesser quality) arrives after the box is at De L'Isle's house. A bunch of gamblers take turns with the box--which Angelique refers to as a Lament Configuration (cannot remember the previous films actually using that name (much like Return of the Jedi never names the Ewoks as Ewoks; we just know that name from the toys)--as Angelique strips. Something is inside her, spirits that erupt and skin the men alive (part of this is text description because the FX were never completed).

After Phillip imagines the Elysian Configuration comes the animation bit, which looks a lot like something from a Sims game. (The sequence looks odd, of course, but also the linereading is not too great. Angelique calls the Duc "De-Lies-El" instead of "De-Lil"--you'd think they would have gotten a fan to do this part, and a fan would know how to pronounce his name, but no.) Angelique comes to Phillip's house. She tempts him with a greater role in a world where he can have anything he wants. The animation makes it seem like he might go for it.

Continuing with the animation, the guy... I have no idea what the character's name is; in the theatrical version, he's basically in one scene, prompting Lemarchand to come up with the Elysian Configuration idea. Anyway, he goes into the woods and finds a troupe of "comedians" which seem to have something like a demon orgy going on. It makes little sense as is.

(Found his name: Auguste.)

The next bit makes a litlte more sense considering Angelique has already met Lemarchand, as she just walks out and calls him Toymaker a bit casually.

Insert the last sequence from Hell on Earth--starting a bit early, actually, with the arrival of JP and Terri. Not sure if this flashback was part of the shooting script, but I figure they could have simply gone with the bit where Joey puts the box into the cement, cut to the building lobby with Lemarchand motifs all over.

Present sequence gets going basically as in the theatrical bit, without any architecture (from the Hell on Earth ending or from this film). John wakes up from a nightmare--apparently that Hell on Earth ending, though that did not end on a wake-up-screaming note--and then there's a brief scene added with his kid also waking up, something about how dreams cannot hurt you. Apparently, John did not actually see Hell on Earth.

Right before Angelique kills Jacque, the footages switches... He ages (and did they use footage from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade turned sideways for that?) rather than her stabbing him. Poison, I guess. Or he drank from the wrong Grail.

Cut to theatrical version--John's award reception. Angelique appears and we're in workprint footage as John uses a computer to demonstrate some of the lightshow (the Elysian Configuration that doesn't work later) in that room rather than just cut his speech short. So, he doesn't just come across as rushed but actually fails in his demonstration. He leaves more out of embarrassment than just being flustered by Angelique.

Angelique gets the box and gets that balding guy to open it. Sequence plays just as in the theatrical version. When Angelique shows the box motifs in the building to Pinhead, some workprint footage and sound is spliced in--she names the Lament Configuration again.

John dreams of the Cenobites' arrival in Hellbound, Kirsty running into Hell, Tiffany at the carnival, breaking glass and cut to... Angelique instead of John. Are we supposed to think she is causing his dream? Because, a) he said to his wife (as if she didn't already know) that he's been having these dreams all his life and b) there is no logical reason for Angelique to want him to see this sequence.

Angelique comes to John's office, he shows her the concept for the light. Theatrical version stuff.

Then workprint stuff--John as a little boy, some old lady (his grandmother) saying, "you're the one, John. The one they've been waiting for." then she floats away and John wakes up. It's a dream.

More workprint stuff: Angelique looks at the lights in the box motif room. She says the light will "open the gate forever." I don't think she understands what John has in mind, which is strange since she seemed so horrified when she saw the concept on his computer.

Theatrical stuff for a while, Pinhead and Angelique talking, the twins, Pinhead coming for Jack (maybe a little change in the editing). Then, a single cut in from the workprint footage as Pinhead talks to Bobbi. Theatrical version, he says, "Oh what appetites I could teach him." Workprint version, "What endless hungers he could learn." Good line.

Workprint stuff: Angelique hanging out with John again. He refuses her and she puts her hand to his throat. She still thinks the light will open a gate to hell, and she wants to use it to... take over? I don't think she likes Pinhead's "order." So, in the workprint version, we're being set up for some actual conflict between Pinhead and Angelique. Which is good because Angelique's presence becomes increasingly unimportant as the theatrical version goes on.

Workprint footage comes in again when John, Bobbi, and Jack separate. Didn't really catch anything particularly different from the theatrical version, though. Another shot a moment later of Jack in the elevator. And another, intercut with Pinhead talking to John about the bigger version of the box.

John finds an empty elevator shaft, then back to theatrical footage--Angelique has Jack. Some workprint footage intermixed as John sets up the lights. Some extra reaction shots. Pinhead flies up chain and is caught on one of the box panels. Then Angelique is chained and dragged, some theatrical footage and workprint footage mixed. It's confusing because it seems like the light worked then Pinhead wins anyway, and beheads John. Maybe some stuff is still missing. Angelique seems to think the lights are a good thing. Pinhead thinks the box motif room is a good thing. Yet, they are set up in conflict. The lights do and don't work.

Future footage begins with workprint stuff, Paul waking up screaming. He has long hair. He shaves his head. Paul talks to a priest. He wants to be forgiven, wants his family to be forgiven. He names the Elysian Configuration. Priest is either program or communication hologram; not sure which. This priest bit is a useful scene, but wouldn't fit with the framing story setup. Time-wise, there just wouldn't be a place for it.

Theatrical footage comes in with the robot chamber and the "summoning." Intercut with soldiers arriving. Pinhead right away (unlike the first time with this footage in the theatrical version; this is straight to the second time).

Angelique is just there with Pinhead. I was hoping for more with her.

Workprint footage. Soldier knocks Paul out. He wakes up screaming about the demons. Then back to theatrical footage as soldier explains what's going on.

Paul starts his story and the footage flashes back to stuff we already saw, and more of the gears and puzzle box closeup montage. Then, repeat Auguste and Phillip and the Elysian Configuration design. With the three-stories setup, Paul's story, with a couple flashbacks, plays strangely. It's information we already have until an awkward skip of the present-day sequence. Story finishes as before.

In response to Rimmer's "We go together or not at all" Paul doesn't say we go together. He makes no claim in this version to not being crazy enough to die.

Brief workprint shot--Angelique gets a line. But, it's just "Toymaker." Pinhead says no time for games then back to theatrical footage. Even in the workprint, Angelique is unimportant to act three. She's just another Cenobite. And, that's really too bad.

Workprint stuff: Paul says it is his destiny to save the world. Also, he is staying. His hologram trick in the theatrical version is rather amusing, but I like the idea of him planning to stay behind.

Sequence with the soldiers dying seems longer but there's no workprint footage cutting in, so I'm not sure.

The priest hologram actually sets up Paul's trickery. Paul picks up the remote control thingy he used to turn off the priest earlier. Then we get the bit where he tells Rimmer he's not crazy enough to die if he doesn't have to.

Workprint scene: Angelique talks to Paul. Nothing too interesting but at last she's around. Pinhead and the twins arrive as well. They don't think the bloodline ending will end the "game."

Also, Paul compares himself in his obsession to Pinhead.

Paul uses the hologram trick, but not to be gone. Instead, he's behind Pinhead and gets Pinhead by a chain.

Angelique feels the effect of the light first.

Station explodes. We return... again to the Toymaker montage from the beginning of the film. I read online about a supposed draft of the script that had the station turn into a large version of the box, then a giant hand grabs it, cut to something like that final scene of the first film, someone's buying the box and "What's your pleasure, sir?" That would have gotten across the return to the beginning aspect better than showing the Toymaker making the box again.

All in all, the theatrical version's structure actually works better. It makes Paul's story to Rimmer less awkward. But, Angelique's extra stuff in the present-day sequence adds an extra element to the story--something leaning toward an actual conflict with Pinhead. But then, in the future, there is still no conflict. She has simply replaced Female Cenobite.

The existence of this version is intriguing. But, ultimately, I'm not sure there is anything here that needs to exist. Behind-the-scenes drama or not, the changes here don't really change the point of the film significantly.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

i am so exquisitely empty

The thing about the Hellraiser franchise is is started as something different from other horror films. It wasn't just about a string of murders like a slasher film, or some last-minute empowerment of the "Final Girl" to kill the monster. Clive Barker has an interesting take on monsters that he shares with Nigel Floyd of Time Out magazine, September 2-9, 1987:

I write the kind of horror fiction in which the monster has to be made peace with, one way or the other. Within the metaphorical world which I create it's not possible to throw the monster out and assume that one's house has been purged. The house can never be purged, because the monster is part of the texture of our internal workings.

It's the metaphor thing. Like your classic ghost story, Hellraiser is not about the Cenobites but about Julia and her relationship with Frank, what she will do for him. Hellbound is not about the Cenobites or even Leviathan and Hell; it's about (again) Julia and what she was turned into by the events of that first story, and it's about Kirsty and who she has and will become in the face of... well, it is Hell and the Cenobites, but it might as well be anything horrible--the death of her father, the sudden disappearance of her boyfriend, the ire of her stepmother... The key is that there is a story there, about a woman who wants something and will do anything to have it, about a girl who must grow up in the face of being orphaned. This is, arguably, a feminist sort of tale. Julia has the power in the first film until she gets into something she doesn't understand. But it is not because she is female that she doesn't understand it. It is because no one understands it. Frank tried to and, for whatever reason, had to escape. He needs Julia to survive on the outside. But, at that point, it might as well be prison he has escaped. The story is, in its broad strokes, quite mundane. That Julia suffers and dies after having too much power does not mean that it is anti-feminist. Rather, it becomes more of a cautionary tale. Power just isn't the thing you need... exactly.

And I write that as Duc de L'Isle (Mickey Cottrell) summons Angelique (Valentina Vargas) with the recently completed puzzle box. He preyed upon a poor, naive girl and skinned her to make a demon. And she must serve him (and then Jacques (Adam Scott) until he "stands in Hell's way"). But, the franchise drifted away from the (potential) feminist angle two films ago.

I've already argued that Kirsty's role in Hellbound is to replace her stepmother, become a mother to Tiffany. And, some might think that is antifeminist, that she must embrace motherhood. But, she rejects Channard, she rejects Frank, and she (sort of) rejects Pinhead. She does not end up with a man (which she sort of did at the end of the original) but leaves with Tiffany.

Jump ahead to Hellraiser on Earth and Joey and she seems at first blush like a strong female lead... or rather a "strong female lead." She's like the cinematic idea of a strong female, not much of a real strong female. She dreams about her dead father (and then dreams about Elliott Spencer (AKA Pinhead)). She goes after the story, but only barely. She even tries to be a sort of mother to Terri. But, really, there is little to the character of Joey Summers that screams female. She just happens to be female. Which is one way of telling a feminist story, I suppose. Except, how much greater a feminist story to embrace the feminine without embracing the usual idea that feminine means weak. Julia is feminine. Kirsty is feminine. But, neither one is weak. Joey is only feminine in her weakness, her attachment to the father she never knew. Terri, who is maybe the more complex character, is complex because of her weakness and that weakness is her undoing. She ends up sacrificed to act three, becoming one of the many monsters (and not one that gets one-liners).

The worst thing about Hellraiser on Earth in regards to the feminist angle is that Joey is ineffectual except as an agent of the deceased Elliott Spencer. Even then, she solves the puzzle box which has turned out to be easier and easier each time anyone has solved it. Ultimately, Elliott defeats Pinhead. Joey does very little.

And then, there's today's film--Hellraiser Bloodline. Angelique is interesting, especially after she turns on Jacques, but then she gets to America and a) must play the role of seducer with John Merchant (Bruce Ramsay) and b) get talked down to by Pinhead (Doug Bradley). (In the theatrical version) she has very little power. (She may have a bigger role to play in the so-called "workprint" version of the film, but I have not seen that one, just yet.)

The real villain here is Pinhead. (He violates the rules that Elliott said Hell had--taking innocent lives without hesitation but to do a bit of a monologuing.) The hero is Philip/John/Paul Le Marchand/Merchant. John's wife Bobbi (Kim Myers) has her moment, manipulating the box to fend off the Beast (a more dog-like version of Chatterer) and then get rid of Pinhead (and Angelique, who has ineffectively tried to help John Merchant and will now a stand in for Female Cenobite). But, Bobbi has no personality other than mother, wife. We know absolutely nothing about her as an individual.

What then is the metaphor here? Horror offers us metaphor, even if only vaguely, even if only as an excuse to jump in our seats or bite our nails. Here, a family is cursed. In a world where puzzle boxes can open doorways to Hell, the idea that Philip did something worth a long-term curse on his bloodline is... understandable. Sort of. I mean, he did not know what he was making, he did not link it to Hell--that was Duc de L'Isle and his black magic. Plus, as soon as he knew what he had created, he designed a way of reversing it, the Elysian Configuration to combat the Lament Configuration. It just takes a few hundred years for one of his descendants--Paul--to be able to manage it. If the metaphor is specific, it's something like reparations--the idea that it is never too late to be forgiven and make up for one's mistakes. This very idea counters the notion of Hell. So, what Bloodline offers is essentially an argument against the existence of the very thing it invokes--Hell.

Just as Pinhead claims he has no faith, neither does Bloodline. Hell becomes little more than an idea, the Cenobites little more than your usual cinematic monsters. If the series ended here, the "house" would, indeed, be purged. But, the metaphors would continue. There would still be temptation, there would still be seduction, there would still be pain. Pinhead is not wrong when he claims that he cannot die because he is "forever." The idea of him, the idea of a Cenobite, the idea of a demon, the devil, Hell--that can never die, because, well, human nature allows us to do bad things... or rather, it allows us to conceive of the idea of "bad" to apply to some of the things we do. Bloodline may be an atheist film in the end, but it never foregoes morality.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

they're parables, metaphors

No recap as we get into Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth. The plot just gets going. A note as it starts, though: I was surprised to see talk of this film in Shadows in Eden; I hadn't thought that Clive Barker really had anything to do with this film. I have always thought of the first two as a British... thing, and this one the first... American entry in the series.

We're introduced first to JP Monroe (Kevin Burnhardt), who buys a redesigned... the movies never call it this, but apparently, it's called the pillar of souls. That thing with all the faces on it seen at the very end of Hellbound. Anyway, JP buys it for a small bit of cash from an updated version of the creepy homeless guy--who actually isn't all that creepy. Kind of has a Kris Kristofferson vibe.

Then, our lead--Joey Summers (Terry Farrell)--a reporter stuck with a hospital with nothing happening. Boring night, cameraman Doc (Ken Carpenter) leaves to cover a better story and then the Hellraiser bit arrives, a man with chains and hooks. Along with him--Terri (Paula Marshall), who points Joey to a club called The Boiler Room. Oh, and the guy's head explodes. The movie has more... energy than the previous two installments--not that energy was needed.

Vision/dream and Joey sees Vietnam-era soldiers fighting. Her father, left behind. She tells Terri all about it after.

Pinhead (Doug Bradley) is trapped in that pillar--or so we can assume; these films really do not bother explaining much. Twenty minutes in, he gets some blood when a rat bites JP's hand.

More blood from Sandy (Aimee Lee), who JP picks up in the club. And, it is good that pillar Pinhead needed blood and not her acting skill to get things going.

But, nevermind her bad acting. Pinhead is not being very nice here. I mean, considering he ended the previous film by remembering his humanity, why is he so quick to take a life here? Especially, when Sandy solved no puzzle box. He is a stand in for, as he puts it, "appetite sated." Yet, even as he is preaching about how there is no good or evil, "only flesh," he seems more like a demon from a proper religion. He knows that JP killed his own parents, and he tempts JP to do more. (And bonus: JP is wearing a crucifix necklace.)

In the tape of Kirsty that Joey watches, Kirsty refers to the Cenobites simply as "demons." She has gone from knowing too much to knowing little that's useful. Her cameo is kind of pointless. More fan-service than plot-service.

And, now I remember what's going on. It's been a while since I've watched this movie. Elliott Spencer is calling out to Joey (showing up on the screen during Kirsty's tape, and then again later after invading her dreams). The Pinhead in the pillar is like the piece that was yanked out by Leviathan/Channard, the evil part, the force of nature part. There's no humanity there.

Which is interesting, yes. However, it doesn't make sense that it was the bad part trapped in the pillar. Why trap the bad part? It was the humanity part that was in Channard's way

But, the story we're given--the monster that was inside Elliott Spencer is loosed into the world. This movie deals in dreams, in psychological metaphor, and there is room for some serious deconstruction--seriously, Pinhead as a demon's id... except then it jumps into plot-only mode once Pinhead shows up in the club and starts killing people, i.e. the one hour mark. Time for act three. New Cenobites, and they've got one-liners (at least, Doc does).

...

And, it's got a "Hellraiser" song now, too.

Friday, October 23, 2015

i've come for my father

There is at least the one female Cenobite. So, we could assume there's some civil war kind of split in among the denizens of hell, and Julia serves Leviathan and brings him Channard to be his body, in which case the homicidal joy in the last act of this film is not on Channard as much but on Leviathan. Structurally, Channard does serve as a sort of pseudo-Christ-Figure--and, not I'm not about to get into some Cinematic-Christ-Figuring; don't need to. The guy willingly sacrifices himself, quite literally gets himself some stigmata, and has a giant penis attach itself to his head...

Wait, that last one is not part of the Cinematic Christ-Figure.

But, that penis is important to this third discussion of Hellbound: Hellraiser II because--

Actually, I've got to interrupt this entry because Kirsty was just telling Detective Bronson about fairy tales, and rather than thinking she's got no reason to connect the events of the first film to any fairy tale but just says that because of Julia's later bit about not only being the wicked stepmother but also the evil queen--

(It occurs to me that if Julia was just the wicked stepmother, then that fairy tale would be Cinderella, which makes the Cenobites... people at the ball and Pinhead in particular the Prince. Kirsty's glass slipper is her sanity, I suppose, since they throw her into a mental hospital... Ooh, or are the Cenobites the stepsisters who, in the Grimm version, cut off parts of their own feet out of a society-fueled obsession with finding love?)

--and her specific reference to Kirsty as Snow White--

(Which makes the Cenobites the dwarfs?)

--this time I thought less about the stepmother reference and just went with the fairy tale reference, generally, in my head. And, I thought of Little Red Riding Hood. The house in the original film was Kirsty's grandmother's house. She found there a wolf (her Uncle Frank) in, well, not her grandmother's clothing (skin) but her father's, which turns that particular fairy tale into less of a coming-of-age, men-are-dangerous-so-keep-your-legs-together story and something... else. The original Hellraiser becomes, then, a twist on Little Red Riding Hood with an evil stepmother injected into the mix. The Cenobites are just extras.

But, then we come to Hellbound and Kirsty's father is dead, her evil stepmother is (after some machinations) still around. There are no evil stepsisters, though there is one (sort of) stepsister in Tiffany, except I think she fills a different role, which I will get to below. The Cenobites are a dark version of the fairy godmothers from Sleeping Beauty, or a Catholic S&M version of the seven dwarfs from Snow White or, from Cinderella, Gus and Ralph and the other mice (Rita and Larry?) (not that those mice are canon beyond Disney's version). Leviathan/Channard is like the dragon to Julia's Maleficent (putting aside the fact that Maleficent was the dragon). It all gets a little convoluted.

But, it does bring us back around to where I wanted to go with today's entry. See, what Snow White and Cinderella have in common--that stepmother--is what matters here. Kirsty is not a child--Ashley Laurence was 20 when they filmed the first movie, and her character has just gotten herself a "room"--

(a Britishism that made it into a film that claims to be set in America)

--in which to live. These two films together are Kirsty's coming-of-age story. Her biological mother is already gone and (given Kirsty's reaction to her photo in this film) presumably dead. Kirsty's father dies, much like in Snow White or Cinderella, leaving her with the evil stepmother (and pervy Uncle Frank). In Cinematic Freudian terms, Kirsty cannot grow up until there are no parents in her way. And, grow up, she does, literally putting on her stepmother's skin to pretend to be her, interacting with this new (potential) father-figure--Leviathan/Channard. Then, in the end, she leaves with her surrogate daughter/sister Tiffany. (Note: Imogen Boorman is only 5 years younger than Ashley Laurence but Laurence is only 10 years younger than Clare Higgins. In Hollywood (even its British counterpart), actual age is irrelevant.) Tiffany's mom has been taken from her. Kirsty is there to save her (and vice versa).

But then, there is an important element being left out of the equation--the Cenobites.

Or are they just sexual awakening in human form? All the pain and pleasure of relationships, emotional and physical. All the blood, like the red of that riding hood, as a marker of female sexuality.

(An aside: right before Julia loses her skin again, she stands in the hallway with her hands on either wall, both a) moving like the Engineer from the original (who was supposed to make an appearance in this film, but got cut) and b) putting herself in the cruciform pose of the Christ-Figure.)

Thinking as I go, I wonder if the Cenobites make sense, metaphorically, as puberty or menstruation. They are turned back to human and Kirsty must play the part of the mother to trick Leviathan/Channard, who has replaced all her parents. Imagine the chaos of the labyrinth, the pain of what the Cenobites can do--that's all Kirsty going through puberty or PMSing, as it were. Then, she gets her shit together (and reject Leviathan/Channard's advances) and turns back to normal. Not particularly feminist, in this light.

Unless we take Tiffany as an aspect of Kirsty, the control she takes over her own situation.

So much of all this symbolism gets to be a bit on-the-nose, and a little disgusting, in Channard's death scene. He loses his head (literally) after getting stuck between Tiffany's legs (literally), and his decapitated body ejaculates blood (or some dark bodily fluid, anyway) as that giant penis thing moves on, as both Tiffany and Kirsty are now grown up enough to escape the labyrinth. Both marked with blood, now.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

you were all human

Paula Ashe at Ginger Nuts of Horror takes it a little far in saying that, in Hellbound: Hellraiser II, Julia "is no longer working on anyone's behalf but her own, bringing souls back to Leviathan, a god that she has decided to serve." While Julia seems quite willing in all she does here, the murders, pushing Channard into that... thing that transforms him. But, she was willing in the first film as well, even as she operated quite explicitly within the confines of patriarchal society. Paula continues:

Julia's purpose is not just concrete, it is now given a spiritual dimension as well, a philosophical motivation that transgresses the basic moral and ethical codes of not just patriarchal society, but civilization itself.

This is inference on Paula's part, not any implication that comes from the film itself. Consider: why does Julia emerge from the mattress in the first place? Why did Frank emerge from the floor? Does the blood pull them out unwillingly, or is the recruitment Julia makes here the reason Julia (here, and retroactively, the reason Frank before) "escapes." Keep in mind, it is Kirsty, before she knows anything about what's going on, who tells the Cenobites that Frank escaped. And, here in the second film, Kirsty imagines that the skinless man she sees is her father, writing in blood on the wall:

Kirsty presumes the identity of that figure, and she is wrong. Her father is not involved in this story at all. Nor is here mother, but for a photo. Julia is Kirsty's stepmother. Taking the implicit fairy tale angle (made explicit by Julia herself), Julia is the "wicked stepmother." Julia is a stronger figure than she was in the original, as is Kirsty. And, I might be suggesting that this film is feminist by the end of this entry. But, I don't think that the film ever really separates Julia, or Kirsty, from the patriarchal society. Even hell, as seemingly endless and deliberately disorganized as the labyrinth seems here, has an order to it. Cenobite Channard violates that order almost immediately with his homicidal joy. The mythology of the Cenobites is not very clear at this point. But, consider these details from Barker's novella, The Hellbound Heart:

First of all this:

The doorway was even now opening to pleasures no more than a handful of humans had ever known existed, much less tasted--pleasures which would redefine the parameters of sensation, which would release him from the dull round of desire, seduction and disappointment that had dogged him from late adolescence. (p. 5)

The implication there fits with Frank's hell in this film, the women who writhe in pleasure but disappear when you try to get to them. Frank is a womanizer and, seemingly, a misogynist. He has gone through the rounds of "desire, seduction and disappointment" and he seeks something more. In fact, he expects the "theologians of the Order of the Gash" (who he had never bothered to imagine) would arrive with, going with that old Groundhog Day terminology, accessible women:

...he had expected something different. Expected some sign of the numberless splendors they had access to. He had thought they would come with women, at least; oiled women, milked women; women shaved and muscled for the act of love: their lips perfumed, their thighs trembling to spread, their buttocks weighty, the way he liked them. He had expected sighs, and languid bodies spread on the floor underfoot like a living carpet; had expected virgin whores whose every crevice was his for the asking and whose skills would press him--upward, upward--to undreamed-of ecstasies. The world would be forgotten in their arms. He would be exalted by his lust, instead of despised for it. (p. 9)

A hedonist paradise is what Frank expected. Perhaps he did escape because the pain-is-so-close-to-pleasure way of doing things was too much for him. Why, though, does this turn him into a homicidal leech? How does he know that blood brought him back and more blood will bring him... more back? Julia at least has the precedent with Frank to go by when she returns. She has seen this work before.

But then, another question arises. Why does she want skin at all? She claims later she brought Channard in because it (Leviathan, or maybe just the labyrinth itself) wants souls. Did she emerge just to retrieve Channard? Or was Channard's urge inward conveniently timed for her urge outward (if she had such a thing)? Perhaps her "escape" and the murders to follow were actually just a test to see if Channard was worthy of being a denizen of the labyrinth? At this point in the larger story, we do not actually know that anyone has found through Lemarchand's box the pleasure he or she actually sought. Maybe Frank's hell that we see here, with the teasing but unavailable women is exactly what he found after being torn apart in the first film. So, of course, he would want to escape... the mechanics and timing of the blood making that possible is never explained; it simply is.

Frank was not homicidal--as far as we know--until he needed to be in order to survive outside of hell. Julia was homicidal for him, for lust... suggesting a very anti-feminist theme, actually; as Helen (no last name given) at a blog named for Hellraiser, Order of the Gash describes her, she's a "tiresome plot device of a Woman, Ruled by Her Emotions, Who Will do Anything for Her Ne'er-do-well Lover With Whom She Has Hot Sex." Julia describes herself in this film as not just the wicked stepmother but also the "evil queen." She is clearly fine with going back into the labyrinth. But, I have to wonder, if she was supposed to recruit Channard, why does she not open the box for him? Her willing participation does not quite mesh with not simply taking charge and opening the doorway herself.

More on the Cenobites:

Why then was he so distressed to set eyes upon them? Was it the scars that covered every inch of their bodies, the flesh cosmetically punctured and sliced and infibulated, then dusted down with ash? Was it the smell of vanilla they brought with them, the sweetness of which did little to disguise the stench beneath? Or was it that as the light grew, and he scanned them more closely, he saw nothing of joy, or even humanity, in their maimed faces: only desperation, and an appetite that made his bowels ache to be voided. (p. 7)

Of course, Hellbound's climax relies on the idea that the Cenobites are (were) very much human. Pinhead was Elliott Spencer, a soldier. The Female Cenobite was Sister Nikoletta, a nun. (Note: not all of this detail is from the film.) Butterball was a guy named Laslo. Chatterer was just a little boy.

More from the novella:

Frank had difficulty guessing the speaker's gender with any certainty. Its clothes, some of which were sewn to and through its skin, hid its private parts, and there was nothing in the dregs of its voice, or in its willfully disfigured features that offered the least clue. When it spoke, the hooks that transfixed the flaps of its eyes and were wed, by an intricate system of chains passed through flesh and bone alike, to similar hooks through the lower lip, were teased by the motion, exposing the glistening meat beneath. (pp. 7-8)

Also, the Cenobite that would in the films become Pinhead, was described a couple paragraphs later:

Its voice, unlike that of its companion, was light and breath--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. (p. 8)

This film tells us that these Cenobites are humans who took to the pain and pleasure thing. Maybe they do not even serve Leviathan at all. Maybe this is why Pinhead attacks Channard. Maybe that is why Julia is not a Cenobite.

But, then we're getting into serious nerd territory, creating mythology where there is none, when I really just wanted to talk about motherhood and Hellbound as a feminist film. Oh well. Maybe tomorrow.

they changed the rules of the fairy tale

Generally speaking, there are two kinds of nightmares: the kind that you actually have, and the kind they make into movies. - Roger Ebert

Great line.

Of course, he also claims that Hellbound: Hellraiser II "has no plot in a conventional sense." I'm not so sure about that, but, to be fair, it has been a while since I've watched this movie. We'll see soon enough.

Opening with pre-Pinhead solving the box works well. He seems to be opening it more out of boredom than some obsessive desire like Frank. And, the quick montage of the creation of Pinhead sets up the end of this film--Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham) becoming a Cenobite. But, the closeups on the head wounds--

--invoke some of the imagery of the labyrinth we will see later in the film, as well.

On the... agreeing-with-Roger front, Annie Billson wrote in Sky Magazine, February 1989, "This is the kind of film which abandons logic for a non-stop barrage of weird goings-on and ultra-gory special effects."

A reviewer called Phantom of the Movies at the Daily News, 28 December 1988, says, on the other hand, "Hellbound: Hellraiser II represents one of those rare cases wherein a scare sequel actually surpasses the original..." Which, I guess, doesn't technically contradict Roger or Annie. Of course, the Phantom continues: "The real treat for fright fans here is not Hellbound's fragmented narrative but its impressive array of shock tableaux.

On the (supposedly) fragmented narrative, Roger calls the film, "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."

Our heroines include Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), survivor of the first film--and this film picks up only hours later. Police are still on the scene at the Cotton house. And, they find the mattress on which Kirsty found Julia.

(A bit of a plot hole from the original, actually, as Frank drains life from Julia and leaves her apparently dead, but Julia finds her on that mattress, with hooks and chains in her, and Lemarchand's box in her hands. Kirsty had that box last, the Cenobites come to the house without her manipulating the box again. Even if Julia was still alive after we last see her with Frank, there was no reason for her to get and manipulate the box (nor might she have been able to solve it in time).)

Nitpick: did Kirsty see the first film? She knows the mattress needs to be destroyed. She tells the cop, "Julia died on it, and she could come back now, like Frank." Except, Kirsty doesn't actually know how Frank came back, has no information about how or where he died, nor about how or where he came back. She simply knows that he came back.

Then again--something I neglected to write about the last few days with the original film--Kirsty did have that (possibly) prescient dream in the first film, so maybe there's just something more to her than meets the eye. However, to suggests as much, I think it is necessary to interpret Kirsty's dream--the baby crying, the death shroud slowly soaking in blood. If we take it as strict (but vague) premonition, the shroud is her father's, the baby crying is her (Kirsty). (Plus, a baby crying when there's no baby around--that's just creepy. Hence more of the same in this film.)

(And, just now in this second film, she saw her father's skinless corpse (or so she thought) and took it as fact that he was in hell, alone, suffering.

She also seems pretty sure about her mother and Frank having "been with each other." And about her mother bringing him men to make him stronger. Kirsty should not know any of this. Hell, she shouldn't even know the name "Cenobites." Frank only said that name to Julia.)

Sidenote: on the one hand, I do not find women without skin particularly attractive, but on the other hand, if I am witness to a woman emerging from a bloody mattress and killing a guy and she comes on to me, I do not think I would have the guys to refuse.

In case you have not seen the film, Dr. Channard just kissed the recently un-deceased Julia (Clare Higgins), who has no skin and is wrapped in gauze, not the most appealing fabric.

A very brief montage and several dead bodies later and Julia's got skin. Plus, you know, she's evil now--even comes on to Kyle (William Hope) with a "Come to mother"--either because she killed those men in the first film, because she just killed the patients Channard brought over in this one, or... you know, stepmother's gotta be evil. That's just good storytelling.

But, the meat of the story here is Channard. He is even more obsessed than Frank was. He's got three of Lemarchand's boxes, plus diagrams and old photos, and he brings in a semi-catatonic patient--Tiffany (Imogen Boorman)--to solve the puzzle for him. He approaches even his own obsession like a scientist more than a human being capable of actual feeling. He's cold and calculated about it. The four Cenobites from before--Pinhead (Doug Bradley), Butterball (Simon Bamford), Chatterer (Nicholas Vince) and Female (Barbie Wilde) (no Engineer anymore)--arrive and Pinhead proclaims, "No, it is not hands that call us, it is desire." Tiffany is safe. Channard is... Well, he's not safe, but he also doesn't really want to be.

And, into the labyrinth we go. I really do not get the "fragmented narrative" complaint. It's hell (sort of)--it's supposed to be a little confusing. And some of the sequences have a dream-logic to them, but structurally the film is just not confusing. Tiffany opened the doorway to hell and no one closed it. Channard and Julia went in deliberately. Tiffany was curious and went in. Kirsty wants to find her father, so she went in as well.

Interesting call back to Kirsty's bloody shroud dream in the first film--she sees a few orgasmic women under shrouds. But, when she pulls the sheet from one, the woman disappears. There is room for some serious commentary about motherhood and femininity and, especially, female sexuality in these visions. The enshrouded women appear again, bloody like the body in Kirsty's dream before. And the Uncle Frank (Sean Chapman) arrives. Those women are part of his hell, teasing him but never delivering. Like Kirsty, as he sees it, I suppose. But Julia arrives and literally tears his heart out.

This movie (and the first one, for that matter) has a tendency to lean on a sort of girl-power message while specifically utilizing visuals that suggest the opposite. Here, those visuals are at least in Hell and not, strictly speaking in reality.

These movies are so short, there isn't room for too much serious commentary. Though, there seems to be a deliberate evocation of Kirsty as mother-figure in protecting Tiffany.

Channard, of course, took Tiffany from her mother, killed her mother, and rather than help Tiffany used her obsession with puzzles (and even did some sort of surgery on her toward this end) to set her up for this. It's classic mythology building and Freudian cinematic storytelling to have Kirsty reject her own (step-)mother and take the place of Tiffany's mother. The only way to become a man in classic Hollywood is to "kill" the father; the only way to become a woman is to "kill" the mother.

Meanwhile, Channard has gone and turned himself into a very phallic monster. "Hell" seems quite stuck on gender issues.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

an experience beyond the limits

Clive Barker talks with Lisa Tuttle in 1991* about creating good gods and bad gods in fiction and he says,

I think that is so much more interesting than the division into the white hats and the blacks, between human and non-human, where anything that is defined as "non-human," whether it be slug, shark, crab, Woman, is presented as this terrible threat. It's grotesque, and funny, and simple, and what bothers me is its simplicity. I mind it not because it's grotesque, but because it's simple-minded, and that's boring. You know what I mean? If you turn all of nature into something to be repulsed by, you ignore the fact that whatever is read one way as grotesque or frightening can also be read another way, as something beautiful, as a celebration of variegation and paradox.

* original source unknown, but it's reproduced in Clive Barker's Shadows in Eden.

I was thinking about why the producers did not want this film to be named, like its source material, The Hellbound Heart. They thought that would make it sound like a romance. But, it is a romance. It's a romance between a woman and her husband's dead brother. It's a romance between that dead brother and death. It's a romance between pleasure and pain. And, it's a romance between the audience and the darkness that can frighten or enlighten us out of the humdrum existence of our lives.

Barker continues:

And that celebration of variegation and paradox goes back to fantasy, goes back to those imagined worlds. Goes back to that place where our sexuality becomes somehow fluid... the baby an image of the polymorphous perverse... goes back to an image of our bodies as things whose moment-to-moment rebellion we understand and celebrate rather than live in fear of. This excites me all the time. I want to find new ways of saying it. This fiction is all about desiring other experience. It's all about wanting more than what our bodies apparently limit us to. At this point, fantasy and horror fiction completely overlap."

And they overlap with romance. You know, the story where one character imagines an impossibly happy life with someone he or she just met, and suddenly that relationship is the be all, end all of life, nothing else matters. This is fantasy. This is horror. This is romance. This is film. It's a grown up version (most of the time) of childhood pretend. Barker says,

I wonder how much all this comes down to the sense we have as children, the sense that we lose, of infinite possibilities... As we grow up, these seem to become limited and limited and limited... and when we enter the world of fantasy--and I'm talking now about horror fiction and invented world fiction and science fiction too--are we maybe attempting a return...?

I'm reminded of Rob Fleming's query in High Fidelity about which came first, his depression or his listening to pop music? And, I wonder, do we believe in romance because we grow up with stories about it, or are there stories about it because romance is real? And really, if we do believe in romance, why do we put so many obstacles in front of it in those stories, in romantic comedy films, in romantic dramas, in, well, any story that includes romance. Including Hellraiser. Good drama needs obstacles. Whether it's dead lovers in need of blood, or husbands who cannot satisfy. Or incompatible lifestyles. Or just being two different genders (since most romance, especially on screen, is still heterosexual) or, for that matter, two different individuals. The idea that two people can get together and spend the rest of their lives side by side is, frankly, insane when you get right down to it. We're all so damned different, with different interests, different tastes (in art, in books, in movies, in music, in food), different goals, different... sleep schedules, different appetites, different everything.

Seriously, if you think of al the variables, puzzle boxes to other dimensions seem just as likely as a lifetime of happiness with another human being. Superheroes who can fly or turn invisible--these make more sense than romance, than love. As if some cosmically powerful force could twist us together in order to make us happy.

Obsession makes more sense. Obsession, I get. (Oh, in my romantic moments, I get love, too. But, let us step past that for now.) Frank did not buy that puzzle box in search of love or romance. He wanted pleasure, pure and simple... well, maybe not simple. He spent several hours on Lemarchand's box before he happened to find by "chance juxtaposition of thumbs, middle and last fingers... an almost imperceptible click." Julia brings three men into the house just to kill them so that Frank can be alive again--that is the power that sex with Frank has over her. It's not love. It's not romance. Not, strictly speaking, those immeasurable concepts that stories love.

In Twilight Zone Magazine, June 1987, Barker tells Douglas Winter,

I do have an urge to perversity that perhaps is a little more thoroughgoing than that of some of my fellow writers; I mean, if I sniff predictability in what I'm doing, it immediately turns me off and I put down the pen. That makes the stories a little outrageous for some tastes, but it does mean that readers come to the stories knowing they're going to get something that is not quite like anything else.

And isn't that what we want from most any story? Or from life? From the potential we see in romance? The potential we see in our dreams?

Like Phil Connors claiming there's a network interested in him when he's really trapped in a job he think's he's too good for. Like Frank Cotton, for whom "normal" pleasures just weren't enough anymore. Like any of us who want out of deadend jobs, or loveless relationships. Life, love, horror, fantasy, dreams, sex, obsession, pain and pleasure--there really isn't much variety to any of it. We want.

In a way, we're all acolytes of the Order of the Gash. Whether we're looking for sex or a new cellphone, pain or some new TV show to bingewatch--we want.

And, when it comes down to that, all stories are the same. And every one of them is true. The details may be made up, may differ from story to story, but the heart and soul of every story and every character is the same.

Just look at that poster image. Pinhead (or Lead Cenobite back then) is offering up that box like a gift. And, boy do we want what's inside. No matter how much it horrifies us. Or, rather, because of how much it horrifies us.

Monday, October 19, 2015

be gentle with her, okay

In his review of Hellraiser, Roger Ebert asks, "Who goes to see movies like this? What do they get out of them?" Now, he's not (initially) complaining about the despicable content--you know, the sex, the skinless bastard who actively comes on to his niece while pursuing her married stepmother, the Cenobites in all their Catholic priest meets dominatrix garb. He thinks the movie isn't good.

I like good horror movies because I enjoy being surprised (and sometimes even moved), but there are no surprises in "Hellraiser," only a dreary series of scenes that repeat each other. What fun is it watching the movie mark time until the characters discover the obvious? This is a movie without wit, style or reason, and the true horror is that actors were made to portray, and technicians to realize, its bankruptcy of imagination.

A few points:

1. Roger says "the Cottons buy the house" despite a "kitchen sink... full of maggots devouring rotten flesh." Well, no, they kind of inherited it. It was Frank's and Larry's mother's house. And, upon arriving, neither Larry nor Julia is particularly impressed by the place. Julia's first observation is about the smell. But, more importantly, Larry wants to move into the place (which he wanted to sell when his mother died) because his marriage is not going so well. That is not stated explicitly, but it is the point.

2. Roger says Larry and Julia "move in with their daughter" but Kirsty has her own place. Her third line (after "Dad? and "I got through") is "I found a room."

3. #2 matters because that "obvious" thing that Roger is saying everyone takes too long to discover is the fact that a skinless Frank is living in one of the rooms. A few subpoints:

a) Because Kirsty doesn't live there, and finds Frank as soon as she thinks something is up with her stepmom and goes into the house to check.

b) Julia, of course, discovers Frank as soon as he shows up.

c) Larry is off at his "terrific job"--which I would guess is the reason he moved them out of Brooklyn to his mother's old house. Probably also the reason his marriage isn't going so well. He's never home. The first time he hears noise upstairs, he goes to investigate but Julia distracts him with sex.

Plus, we never get a good idea of how big the house is, so Frank hiding in the shadows in one empty room is not that obvious.

4. The movie also doesn't "mark" much time. Julie decides to help Frank the night that she finds him. She starts killing men (presumably) the very next day. She (or Frank) kills three men (before Larry), maybe one a day. The movie does not cover a lot of time.

5. As for that stuff about the film lacking "wit, style or reason" and the "bankruptcy of imagination" (a great line, to be sure, but, I would argue, entirely wrong), let us look to another reviewer--Michael Wilmington of the Los Angeles Times (18 September 1987). He writes: "Clive Barker's Hellraiser is one of the more original and memorable horror movies of the year; a genuinely scary but also nearly stomach-turning experience by a genre specialist who seemingly wallows in excess and pushing conventions to their ghastly limits." Opinions differ. It is inevitable.

Melanie Pitts of the Voice (6 October 1987), says "The plot is difficult to follow and the characters impossible to care about." The plot, I'd say, is one of the simplest in horror outside of a slasher film. Dead guy needs fresh corpses to come back to life because he escaped from a band of pain-is-so-close-to-pleasure demigods. That second part about the characters being "impossible to care about" though--I take serious issue with that.

A woman in a passionless marriage who yearns for her brother-in-law with whom she had a previous affair. What's not to care about? I mean, if you like movies and can find it in yourself to care about any characters, what draws a line here in particular?

A daughter worried about her father, who (the father, not the daughter) lives with a stepmother who is a bit cold and aloof around her. Did you have trouble caring about, say, Cinderella, as well, Melanie?

Melanie continues: "The best scenes between Julia and mucus-man Frank don't make up for the fallacy of assuming that an otherwise normal woman would become a murderer because of her sexual obsession with a formerly dead man." A couple things: 1) if Julia is so "otherwise normal" why can't you care about her? 2) a "fallacy" is a mistake in reasoning, and there is no fallacy to Julia turning to murder because of her sexual obsession. Especially in film--turning to murder because of obsession, that's practically a cliche and far from a fallacy. Plus, Melanie's next line is to say that "Larry is a nonperson" so between the sexual dynamo who seems to be getting his skin back at the cost of a few sleazy guys who want some easy sex with a woman they just met, and the "nonperson" who are you going to choose? Me--I'd go for skinless.

Melanie's next line: "Kirsty's name speaks for itself." I'm not sure how to take that, except that it seems like a blanket insult to all people named Kirsty.

That "nonperson" by the way just demonstrated immediate concern for Julia when she said she felt sick. He may seem a bit absentee, but he also seems to actually care about his wife.

Leonard Maltin said of the film, "Grisly but stylish directorial debut by famed horror novelist Barker; ugly fun all the way."

Robert E G Black--me--calls the film "a gruesome romp into sexual perversion and obsession in the name of romance" but more on that tomorrow.