Thursday, October 30, 2014

Hellraiser: Inferno (2000)

"It's all a puzzle, isn't it, Joseph? Like a game of chess, perhaps. The pieces move, apparently aimlessly, but always towards one single objective: to kill the king. But who is the king in this game, Joseph? That is the question you must ask yourself."

Hellraiser was one of the more interesting horror movies of the late 1980s. Writer/director Clive Barker created an enduring set of images for the movie, and imbued the story with an interesting moral ambiguity where the audience was encouraged to be more sympathetic towards the villains (a murderous couple driven by a lust for extreme experiences) than the somewhat bland young heroine. The first sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, was more flawed but featured a similar wealth of fascinating, trend-setting S&M imagery. Unfortunately the third movie, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, was an ordinary slasher movie with Freddy-style quips. After the troubled production of the fourth, Hellraiser: Bloodline, Barker (who had produced the sequels to this point and was reasonably hands-on in guiding them) abandoned the series to other hands. Five more sequels were churned out, and now Barker is reportedly writing a remake of the first movie.

In this context, you clearly want to bring low expectations to Hellraiser: Inferno, the first movie made without Barker's involvement. In addition, first time co-writer/director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister) brings a more Christian sensibility to the movie, trading the earlier movies' sadomasochistic Faustian bargains for more traditional ideas of sin and punishment. Even more troubling, Craig Sheffer (probably cast because he was previously the lead in another Clive Barker movie, Nightbreed) is absolutely terrible as the smart but troubled corrupt cop at the centre of the story.

If you're willing to overlook these problems, you might find that Hellraiser: Inferno is a pretty good low-budget horror movie in its own right. I suspect that it may have started out as an unrelated script and been shoehorned into the Hellraiser franchise during rewrites. It never really imitates the earlier movies in the series and except for a few specific scenes, it doesn't just slavishly imitate the imagery of the earlier movies. The striking new monsters are more reminiscent of the creatures from the Silent Hill games than from Hellraiser. The noirish atmosphere lends the movie a similar feel to Angel Heart. It's a nice looking movie, and hints at a promising future for its young writer/director (who went on to The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister, and is currently attached to direct the Doctor Strange movie for Marvel).

The movie opens with Detective Joseph Thorne (Sheffer) playing speed chess against a Professor, and winning easily, while a basketball game rages in the background. Immediately afterwards, Thorne heads to his locker and makes a vial of cocaine appear using sleight of hand, and then disappears it again in the same manner. He uses this technique every time he handles drugs in the movie, including stealing them from crime scenes. The imagery is not subtle, but as this is Hellraiser 5 that is perfectly appropriate. Soon we'll see Thorne amending a police report to reduce the amount of money found at the scene, and then using these appropriated funds to hire a prostitute, justifying this in voice-over as a way of stopping himself from leaving his wife and daughter. He's smug and hypocritical, arrogant about his own intelligence, and he preens in front of the mirror at every opportunity. He's our audience identification figure and it's a while before the movie gives us any reason not to hate him.

I am 100% in agreement with a horror movie that asks us to identify with someone who is morally problematic. In this case, it's softened somewhat by Thorne's affinity for children; he sincerely loves his young daughter, and the moment he realises that a child is caught up in the series of murders he's investigating he becomes obsessive about catching the killer. This doesn't balance out the morally reprehensible things he does in the rest of the movie, but it gives the audience a hook, a reason to hope that he's not beyond redemption.

He's beyond redemption.

When a prostitute he spent the night with is horribly murdered while on the phone to him, Thorne first talks his straight-arrow partner Detective Tony Nenonen (Nicholas Turturro) into helping to cover up his connection with her, and then plants evidence that implicates Nenonen in order to ensure he doesn't renege. Later we discover that Thorne has left his elderly parents to die in a sterile nursing home, and has never once visited them. Although he loves his daughter, it's apparent that he is almost never home and seldom sees her, and not just because of his job. He steals money and drugs from crime scenes, beats up informants and generally acts like a dick. Simply believing that children should not be murdered doesn't really counter any of this.

The Hellraiser lore only comes up sporadically, first when Thorne finds a Lament Configuration at the scene of a particularly gruesome murder. (The Lament Configuration is the puzzle-box that you solve to summon the Cenobites, other-dimensional entities analogous to demons who deal out sadomasochistic torture.) Later, Thorne is sent to mandatory psychiatric counselling with Dr. Paul Gregory (the great James Remar), who is also an Episcopalian priest and who delivers the exposition that explains how everything fits into Hellraiser mythology. Best of all, Pinhead is not overused and in fact only turns up very briefly in a dream sequence and then at the very end to explain Thorne's damnation.

There are flaws to Hellraiser Inferno beyond the Sheffer's weak performance. For example, a continuity error has an element of Thorne's damnation - the severed finger of the child that represents his dying innocence - appear before he opens the Lament Configuration, which is the point in the movie where he is pulled into Hell. A nicely threatening sequence in a cowboy gambling den is spoiled by the incongruous appearance of two long-haired kung-fu cowboy enforcers. The movie also never adequately explains who committed the first murder. Pinhead denies it was him, and it does not seem to be Thorne. All subsequent murders occur within Thorne's torments in Hell, but this first one happens earlier. Perhaps the victim simply summoned the Cenobites and paid the price.

But overall, this is a pretty solid horror B-movie with actual ideas on its mind. It's far better than I expected from the fifth movie in a series that seemed to have lost momentum after the second movie. If you don't mind it swapping out Clive Barker's vision of Hell and replacing it with something more conventionally Christian in conception, you should get some enjoyment from it. Think something closer to Angel Heart or Jacob's Ladder and you'll get the general idea.

No comments:

Post a Comment