Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Our Suffering Is Indeed Legendary...

HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II is one of those incredibly frustrating films. I do love it, and I make no apologies for it. I'd argue it's the only legitimately good Hellraiser sequel in existence, and easily the better film of Tony Randel's I've seen, who's other claim to infamy - the 1995 live action Fist of the North Star - is its' own unique level of Dante inspired Hell that we may have to talk about at a later date. As was so often the case, a friend of mine - a child of the 80s, make no mistake there - suggested I watch the Hellraiser sequel, and being young and stupid I decided to watch it before seeing the first film... didn't matter. In the end I loved it enough to seek out the first film and wallowed in Clive Barker's terrifying vision of extreme masochism, loathing and the breakdown of the family unit; for all the shitty unrelated follow-up movies Doug Bradley would be stuck in for the next 20 years, the original 1987 Hellraiser is a legitimate masterpiece on every level that could possibly matter, with strong leading performances, unsettling acts of violence, and Barker's own lust for the (male) human form made both beautiful and horrifying by the glorification-slash-destruction thereof.

So why is Hellbound a problematic film? It's not the usual "it's not as good as the first movie" excuse; with any due respect Randel's clearly no Barker, but the film's grotesque special effects and clammy atmosphere, at times, eclipse the film which inspired it. The story of the heroine returning to the literal bowels of Hell to rescue her father is an interesting twist on the formula of the first story, and her new friend - an idiot-savant who's perception of reality suggests she may be a Cenobite in training - gives the film a satisfyingly meaty substory that never gets properly explored, but is compelling in its own right (and likely would have made an infinitely better follow-up than Hell on Earth). The new villainous heavy hitter, Doctor Channard allows the fan favorite Cenobite - dubbed 'Pinhead' not by Barker but by his adoring audience - allows us to see that even monsters may possess humanity, and the film's conflict with "Leviathan" keeps the spirit of the first film's finale while literally trumpeting it up ad-nauseum. Even Christopher Young returns to expand the score that drives the first film, crafting a haunting score that's often more in tune with dark fantasy than straight up horror films.

The first two Hellraiser films aren't "scary" in any traditional sense - well, the first one is occasionally, I suppose, but the shuffling deformed ghoul in the attic quickly gives way to the amorphous threat of something sadistic and malevolent coming for your loved ones... but it's something they themselves have to invite. Like a drug addiction, the horrifically scarred Cenobites and their implements of sacrilegious torture are beings that the 'victim' must call out for themselves by playing with an ornate puzzle box. Few who end up with it don't understand the risk it possesses, but it pulls everyone around them down into the cold and clanking doom that consumes all who seek the limits of pleasure and self-satisfaction. Both Frank Cotton in the first film and Doctor Channard in the sequel willingly knock on the Devil's door, and to a large extent they get exactly what they wanted out of it. Hellraiser's terror isn't in the things that lurk in the dark and say "boo!", it's that niggling knowledge that, deep inside, we all want something selfish, something dark and forbidden that we can only have through horrible, destructive means. Pinhead and his followers were not the villain in these first two films, which in turn makes their potency as a means to unnerve the viewer that much more effective. We may not be like Pinhead, a dedicated monk with a warped perception of duty... but what about Frank and Channard? We're probably closer to them in one way or another than we'd ever like to admit.

At face value, the second Hellraiser film isn't bad; it brings back characters with unfinished business, sets the heroines on a quest in a strange land, and most of the journey is a fire-cracker of gruesome entertainment. In broad strokes, everything was done right for a sequel to build on the original while adding new elements to the table, and for what it's worth, it rocks the living shit out of the better parts of its production. Where the film falls apart, however, is in its conflict with one of the principle players from the first film... I'm going to spoil the shit out of the first two films now, so you'd best go watch it and come back later - I'll mark the spoilery bits in red text, so if you keep reading... well, don't blame me. Seriously though, I'd recommend you get that Anchor Bay Blu-ray before it's gone, because man, that Image "Midnight Madness" release is no great shakes. (More on that in a minute, though...)

Larry Cotton's sleazy criminal brother, Frank, seduced his then-fiancée Julia before he was torn to pieces in an alternate dimension populated by masochistic spirits known as Cenobites. When Julia discovers that Frank still exists in their new house as a blood-thirsty skinless ghoul, she seduces men to give him the blood he needs to revive... but in the end, Frank still needs skin, and steals it from his own brother. Kirsty tries to sell Frank out to the Cenobites, but finds that Julia has betrayed him and already taken her father's identity. Much as the Cenobites are bitter about leaving a potential victim behind, they do take Frank back with them, and Julia is tortured to death by "The Box" off-screen during the finale.

First of all, Hellbound opens with the realization that Julia can come back to life because she died on that that mattress, and feeding "it" blood will bring her back to life. Frank himself doesn't seem to know how he was able to come back, so why the hell does Kirtsy know how this crap works? Barker's earlier The Hellbound Heart - a novella that was, essentially, the screenplay for the first film - describes via third person narrative how Frank kept a connection to this world - through sperm, no less! But so what? Kirtsy may have survived the horrors of the Cotton house, but it's not like she's taken the period between this film and the last to read the works of Aleister Crowley and Antoine LeVay or anything. She just "knows", magically.

All right, fine, I guess I can take a logical leap of faith if it'll take me from Point A to Point B. I mean, I'm watching a film about a box that opens a portal to a BDSM themed eternal Hell, so why shouldn't I be able to swallow the above scripted non-sequitur?

The second issue I take with the sequel is that she believes that her father - Larry - is already in Hell. In fact, that was the premise of the shooting script. Far as I can tell, Frank just sucked his organs dry and skinned him - Larry didn't touch The Box, so why is he damned!? Does that mean everyone Frank dry-humped and drank like juice boxes are rotting away on a spiked pole covered in fish hooks, too? Well that doesn't seem very fair...

But the big issue is that the film presents us with a quest which is unobtainable. "Save Larry from Hell" is the premise of why Kirtsy's willing to go back, and is essentially her entire motivation as a character. She sees Larry leaving her messages in her room - which, honestly, makes me wonder why he doesn't just keep on walking if he can get out far enough to write bloody messages on her wall. Seriously, how does Hell work in this flick? Is it an honor system? Do the Cenobites just leave the gate unlocked and only give you a stern talking to if you don't go out accompanied? Yeesh! But anyway, the BIG TWEEST!! is that Larry isn't even in Hell - it was uncle Frank all along! Suck it, good story telling! The film essentially has us walk down this dark and dreary pathway for an hour with the hope that Kirsty can save the remnants of the one person she cared the most for and then gives us a really anticlimactic and horrifically skeezy pseudo-incest game of cat and mouse.

Holding aside the implications that this "trick" ending leaves us with, the reason for it is simpler than I'd always hoped: Andrew Robinson, the actor who played Larry (and Frank in the finale) in the first film, simply thought he was worth more than the producers did. So rather than do something clever like re-cast him or disfigure him, the producers just said "Fuck it, get rid of Larry all together." Don't modify Kirtsy's motivations or anything sensible like that, no, just cut that asshole who wanted a decent wage out and assume the picture holds together without him. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG? The twist does, I suppose, give a rather deafening and brutal feeling of hopelessness and loss in a film that's already a bleak crawl on its belly from start to finish, but the lack of an acceptable resolution for Kirsty's character really does make the final escape feel quite meaningless. Tiffany earns her freedom, but in the end all Kirsty has is the mistaken assumption that her wicked stepmother is dead and gone forever... well, it would have been mistaken if the producers hadn't said "fuck all" and realized that Doug Bradley was the more imposing visage of the two.

Still, even with plot holes you could probably fly a Cessna through Hellbound delivers its fair share of unsettling atmosphere, grotesque gore and tries - however unsuccessfully - to tie up the loose threads of its predocessor while opening the door for something even bigger. What Hellraiser 2 does right it does so well that I can almost forgive what it does wrong... I just can't forgive it to the point where I'll ever acknowledge it as being on a level playing field with the first feature.

So, those Midnight Madness Blu-ray? I hate to say it, but don't fucking bother, people. The following comparison is from the same shot featured at the finale of the first Hellraiser, and as a prologue in Hellbound... yes I know, the sequel would have used a dupe element of lesser quality anyway, but it is sadly representative of pretty much everything that seems to be wrong with the Image Blu-ray of Hellbound, in PNG and gratefully stolen from 'Rathbone' over at the AVS Forum (or HERE and THERE for direct links) - sorry guys, I tried uploading them to the usual filehost, but they seem to be broken. I think it's the gore, hard to say.

Dark, blurry, bluish, cropped... based on every review and screenshot that's appeared so far, there's absolutely nothing good to say for this transfer. I know it sells for about $13, but if you ask me that's still a ripoff. The DVD has a bounty of bonus features, and despite the limitations of DVD as a delivery format, the film is framed properly, has a more neutral color balance and - according to reviewers who have compared both - cleans up a number of emulsion discoloration spots and other issues that crop up "exclusively" on the unrated Blu-ray master.

Having opened my mouth with the word "upscales" an awful lot in the past with varying degrees of accuracy, I'll play this one safe and assume that it is, indeed, from a dated (and quite wretched!) 1080p master. The following comparison between the US and GERMAN release suggests that while that $55 import has slightly better grain retention, it's still from the same extremely soft and ugly master. Word is the Japanese release (only available in a Hellraiser 1-3 box set as of this writing) is from the same source too, and I wouldn't doubt it for a second.

What's especially frustrating is that the HDTV versions of the "R" rated cut are a moderate improvement. You can see a sample of the Image Blu-ray versus the US HDTV broadcasts HERE and THERE. The HDTV version is quite noisy and badly compressed, and I feel that the color balance is too yellow for its own good, but it does show more detail among the thorns. I have little doubt that they were from the same initial film scan, but for whatever reason the "Unrated" master was then blasted with additional DVNR and had its reds crushed into an ugly stew of maroon crap. Even if  the transfer was decent, it's missing the mountain of bonus content from the DVD release and the whole film only takes up about 17 gigs - even with a lossless 5.1 track. There's zero quality control or visible effort put into the presentation, so while it's a little difficult to turn down a Blu-ray release of an old favorite, that's exactly what I'm doing here. I've upgraded to releases that were bare-bones or less than perfect, but at least there was always something "good enough" about the presentation to seem worth justifying the ten or fifteen bucks it'd actually cost... try as I may, I just can't find a reason to upgrade this time.

Word is that the first Hellraiser was given a newer, lower bitrate transfer (28 Mb/s down to 20) as well, though presumably both the Anchor Bay and Image Entertainment BD transfers are based on the same masters. All special features sans trailer have also gone MIA, so with both the US and UK Anchor Bay BD still readily available for peanuts, there's absolutely no reason to buy the Image release, not until supply of those superior editions have been exhausted at the very least. There's yet to be a proper comparison between the two, but if one appears I'll amend this post with details.

What's a real cock slap is that it's not like Image is incapable of producing an okay disc if they're handed the right materials. Seriously, JUST LOOK AT BASKET CASE! How the fuck does that 30 year old 16mm piece of no-budget schlock look like it was shot yesterday, yet an atmospheric wunderkind like Hellbound looks only one step removed from being a fucking DVD!? Nothing against Frank Henenlotter's rubber puppets, but goddamn it, seeing the lesser of two films strictly from a materials standpoint wipe its tumorous ass all over a substantially better looking film just pisses me the fuck off. The $13 that would have gone to Hellbound is probably going to this, just to torment Mrs. Kentai further and show Image that I will give them money only when they don't deliver shit.

Whilst the film has some core issues I can't fully ignore, Hellbound: Hellraiser II is still a mostly worthy follow-up to one of the most fascinating and accomplished horror films of the 1980s. Image's release is marred by a combination of shoddy materials, a probable lack of license clearance on the extras, and a big heaping scoop of They Clearly Don't Give A Fuck. Image has had a pretty spotty reputation ever since they made the switch to Blu-ray, and while this is nowhere near as shocking as their BLATANT UPSCALE of The Hills Have Eyes, it proves that Image is simply going to squat down and push out whatever materials they have without the slightest care into its presentation otherwise. If you love Hellbound maybe you'll be tempted to pick it up just so you can watch the film uncut in (pathetic) HD... I'm not here to judge. I just want you guys to know how much donkey shit this sandwich contains per square inch before you take a big ol' bite.


Anonymous said...

The Japanese BD is the same f-ugly upscale, just as you predicted.

Kentai 拳態 said...

Damn, I hate it when I turn out to be right!

As I said in the piece above, I'll give AB and pals the benefit of the doubt on this one. I don't think it's an upscale - things like the asylum windows are just too well resolved - but it's such a shit transfer in every way I honestly wouldn't blame anyone for assuming the worst.