Friday, December 30, 2011

My top 10 non-2011 movies of 2011

Each year for the last few years, I've been compiling an extra top 10 list, a supplement to my main list of my favorite new movies of the year. It's a list of my favorite movies from other years that I saw for the first time this year (check out the lists from 2010, 2009 and 2008). Here are the best movies I saw for the first time in 2011 that were released in previous years.

1. Smiley Face (Gregg Araki, 2007) I don't get stoned, but I love stoner movies, even though most of them are pretty dumb and just good for some cheap laughs. Smiley Face has plenty of laughs, both cheap and otherwise, but it's also just gleefully inventive, strangely profound and wonderfully acted by Anna Faris, who gives her absolute best comedic performance here. It's also a completely human, sympathetic performance. One thing I love about stoner movies is how they marvel at the simple things in life, and Faris pulls that off extremely well here. Even as things spiral out of control for Jane, there's this sense that the world is magical and everything will work out (although it doesn't, really). Far more than I ever thought I would get from a comedy about a slacker who eats too many pot brownies.

2. Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) I watched this in preparation for writing about Todd Haynes' HBO miniseries version, which I ended up not really liking. Even though Haynes sticks closer to James M. Cain's novel, I preferred Curtiz's movie version that adds in a murder mystery and changes the plot to structure it around a lengthy flashback. It's more self-consciously a film noir, and that works really well for the story, especially in depicting the animosity between Mildred (Joan Crawford) and her reprehensible daughter Veda (Ann Blyth). The heightened style fits their viciousness better, and even though I generally love ambiguous, downbeat endings, I much preferred seeing Veda go off the edge and then get her comeuppance. It's still a tragedy for Mildred in the end, but it's tinged more with nastiness than sadness, and I found that more entertaining.

3. Beeswax (Andrew Bujalski, 2009) After being a little underwhelmed with Bujalski's second film, Mutual Appreciation, I really enjoyed this third effort of his, which features a tiny bit more plot but is still mostly just about aimless young people figuring out their careers and relationships. Tilly and Maggie Hatcher are great as twin sisters who are equally lost in different ways, and I love the matter-of-fact portrayal of disability, which becomes an issue at unexpected moments but is mostly just an unacknowledged, normal thing. Bujalski is a master of depicting realistically uncomfortable interactions; there's one scene here with an employee asking her "laid-back" boss for time off that's an absolute masterpiece of passive-aggressiveness. This movie is full of funny, real, quietly dazzling moments like that, and it once again makes me eager to see what Bujalski does next.

4. Christine (John Carpenter, 1983) I wasn't sure what to expect from a Carpenter adaptation of a middling Stephen King novel, but this turned out to be the most pleasant surprise of the month I spent writing about King movies. I enjoyed it more than the novel; Carpenter's version of the story is more enigmatic and menacing, and he does a great job of making the car into a recognizable force of evil even though it can't speak and doesn't have any facial expressions. The acting is solid, establishing characters to care about before the horrors start unfolding, and Carpenter is at his visually inventive height with the shot composition. It's just a very satisfying, well-crafted horror movie. Read more in my original post.

5. Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978) Malick's new The Tree of Life left me disappointed, but in preparation for a podcast on Malick with Tony Macklin, I watched the only other Malick movie I hadn't already seen, and it reminded me of what I loved about his work and what seemed missing to me in The Tree of Life. Days of Heaven is ethereal and abstract and hushed just like The Tree of Life, but it's grounded in a real story and real characters that can connect to the audience, so that Malick's musing aren't just anchorless pondering. Richard Gere and Brooke Adams are moving as the lovers trying to hold on to their connection in the face of an impossible situation, and having the narration come from Linda Manz's young, naive character gives it a purpose and point of view that The Tree of Life is missing. It's mesmerizing in its style and its visual poetry, certainly, but it's also a wonderfully human, often heartbreaking story.

6. The Baby (Ted Post, 1973) This is one of those random discoveries that turned out to be totally serendipitous; usually deciding to see a movie based on the DVD cover and description is a bad idea. But the promotional copy of this movie that came in the mail caught my eye, and it turned out to be a totally weird and insane horror movie/psychodrama. The title character is a full-grown man who acts and speaks like an infant; it's not entirely clear whether he's mentally challenged or just brutally conditioned by his bitch of a mother. Either way, a social worker takes on his case and gets way too attached, attempting to save him from the clutches of his evil family -- or so it seems until the final twist. Post and screenwriter Abe Polsky take the premise to every extreme possible, including some very messed-up sexuality. It's the kind of out-there exploitation movie that would have been tacked to the bottom of a drive-in bill and totally captivated the few people who actually stuck around to see it.

7. The Rich Are Always With Us (Alfred E. Green, 1932) Last year, I watched 30-plus Bette Davis movies, and my project to see her entire filmography is still ongoing. I saw much fewer Davis movies this year, and by now most of the ones I still haven't seen are forgettable quickies in which Davis plays a small part. So this random offering from TCM was a pleasant surprise, a sharp and sparkling pre-Code comedy with entertaining performances from Davis and Ruth Chatterton as a couple of socialites engaged in various romantic rivalries. It's stylish and silly (sometimes a little too silly) and a lot of fun to watch; a worthwhile gem among Davis' early work. Read more in my original post.

8. City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931) Silent comedies aren't my favorite things to watch, even if I can appreciate the talent and artistry of people like Chaplin and Buster Keaton. But I had a great time seeing this movie accompanied by a full orchestra, at a really cool event put on by the Henderson Symphony Orchestra here in Vegas, featuring a beautiful print of the movie shipped over from France. Chaplin's gentle, endearing comedy has some very well-crafted set pieces and a touching love story, and it made me smile all the way through even though I don't think I ever laughed. It was definitely enhanced by the live soundtrack, which included sound effects and a conductor dressed as Chaplin. It's the kind of all-encompassing, immersive moviegoing experience that we rarely get to have anymore, and I hope the Henderson Symphony Orchestra puts on more events like it in the future. (Check out Leila Navidi's lovely photo gallery from the event, including one picture with me in it.)

9. Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953) Last year, I had an Audrey Hepburn romance at the top of this list, and although I didn't enjoy Roman Holiday quite as much as Breakfast at Tiffany's, I still had a lot of fun with it. It's probably the prototype for a lot of lame romantic comedies and mistaken-identity stories, but it handles the contrivances well, and Hepburn has a lot of energy and genuine emotion as the sheltered princess who wants to cut loose and be an average person. Gregory Peck is nicely world-weary as the cynical journalist who falls in love with her, and the melancholy ending avoids the predictable rom-com result.

10. Hellraiser (Clive Barker, 1987) I think my appreciation for the original Hellraiser increased over the course of my week watching the entire series, although I still think Hellbound: Hellraiser II is the best of the series (but it isn't eligible for this list since I had already seen it before 2011). As the series got cheaper and more generic, Barker's original personal vision stood out more, with his twisted and strangely alluring combination of sex and death in a horror movie about carnal pleasures more than violence and gore. Hellraiser does some predictable horror-movie stuff, but it also takes a lot of unexpected routes, and its S&M-flavored design sense has become an indelible part of horror iconography. Read more in my original post.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

2011 catch-up, part three

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey (documentary, dir. Constance Marks)
Maybe I just don't have the same affinity for Elmo that other people do, but I thought this documentary about the puppeteer who performs as Elmo, Kevin Clash, was seriously bland and dull. Clash is clearly a very nice and talented guy, but this movie traces his completely uninteresting journey in a flat, TV-special style, with cheesy music and uninspiring visuals. Other than Clash's fairly humble origins, there's no conflict or adversity to his story; this is a movie about a guy who achieved everything he ever wanted with relative ease. That's great for him and great for the millions who love Elmo, but it makes for a pretty boring movie.

Bill Cunningham New York (documentary, dir. Richard Press)
This is a nice complement to (and improvement upon) Page One: Inside the New York Times, which suffered from a lack of focus and a superficial approach to the interesting personalities it showcased. Cunningham is a Times staffer who didn't appear in Page One, but his story is more affecting and fascinating than anything in that movie. The 80-year-old Cunningham is still vibrantly engaged in his work, photographing fashion in New York from the streets to society parties to runway shows. His enthusiasm and passion infuse the film, which is beautifully joyous. There's a small undercurrent of sadness in Cunningham's relative solitude, his tiny apartment and lack of romantic relationships, but it's overshadowed by the sheer pleasure that Cunningham takes in his work and in sharing the wonder of fashion with others. Press perfectly captures all of that joy and wonder, with Cunningham as his gleeful, endlessly knowledgeable guide. The result is my favorite documentary of the year.

Like Crazy (Anton Yelchin, Felicity Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, dir. Drake Doremus)
It's love story as jeans commercial in this pretty but entirely superficial romance about two cardboard young people who face contrived obstacles to their generic relationship. I've always found Yelchin to be a charisma vacuum, and although Jones can be charming (and is quite lovely), I never really bought into the central relationship. Doremus offers up almost no information about the two young lovers as people, so almost all we know about them is that they're really into each other, and even that is covered mostly in montages (this is a very montage-y movie). Doremus has some visually inventive ways of illustrating the passage of time, and some of the shot composition is gorgeous in a magazine-spread sort of way, but the overall look is more like an ad than an engaging drama. As another critic noted, this is like a romantic comedy with all the comedy taken out.

Poetry (Yun Jeong-hie, Lee Da-wit, Ahn Nae-sang, dir. Lee Chang-dong)
I remember finding Lee's 2002 film Oasis deliberately off-putting and unpleasant, but Poetry has a lot more beauty and dignity, even if Lee can't resist throwing in at least one self-consciously grotesque sex scene. But he has a lot of affection for his main character, a well-meaning older woman who's struggling with the early stages of Alzheimer's while trying to take care of her ungrateful teenage grandson. As her mind is slowly starting to deteriorate, she decides to take a poetry class, and she struggles throughout the movie to compose the first and only poem of her life. That effort is given equal weight as the woman's troubles with her grandson, who's accused of being part of a group of boys whose repeated rapes of a local girl drove her to suicide. Despite the heavy subject matter, Poetry has a sort of sweetness to it, and the woman's determination to create one beautiful work of art before her life ends is touching. It can be a chore at times, especially in the scenes that involve the main character taking care of a disabled elderly man, but Poetry is far more life-affirming than it might at first appear to be.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Assault on Precinct 13' (1976)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

I was sort of underwhelmed by John Carpenter's B-movie thriller Assault on Precinct 13 when I first saw it a few years ago, so maybe my diminished expectations helped me to appreciate it more this time around. I still think it suffers from some awkward dialogue and questionable plotting, but it's so tense and claustrophobic that it completely drew me in, and I felt the menace from the implacable gang members surrounding the deserted police station much more palpably than I remember from last time. The performances are mostly just functional, but Austin Stoker captures the sense of decency in the police lieutenant who's determined to hold his ground against the seemingly endless onslaught of gang members, and the weird sexual tension between Darwin Joston as a convicted killer and Laurie Zimmer as the station's surprisingly steely secretary keeps things nicely off balance.

I also like that Carpenter hints at complicated backstories for the lead characters but leaves the details out; it's the lieutenant's "first day" back from something, but we never find out what, and the killer bound for death row keeps promising to reveal the motives behind his crimes, but never does. We get the impression that there's some darkness behind the lieutenant's dedication to duty, or some solid moral code inside the seemingly misunderstood killer, but we never find out why. The bare-bones story doesn't have time for that kind of character development; Carpenter gives us a quick sense of who these people are, and then he throws them right into a terrible situation and watches how they react.

The influences Carpenter took from Rio Bravo (the siege of the law-enforcement stronghold) and Night of the Living Dead (the zombie-like gang members, who never stop coming and almost never speak) work well together to create a sense of dread, and I like the way Carpenter portrays the station's isolation even in the middle of a supposedly teeming city. The shock of seeing a little girl (played by future Real Housewife Kim Richards) getting shot and killed as she tries to buy an ice cream cone felt fresh again even though I knew it was coming, and that feeling of danger and unpredictability is the movie's greatest strength.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

2011 catch-up, part two

Cold Weather (Cris Lankenau, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Raul Castillo, dir. Aaron Katz)
This isn't one of the most acclaimed movies of the year, but I had high hopes for it since I really liked Katz's last feature, Quiet City. Cold Weather isn't as good as Quiet City, but it has a lot of the same ease at depicting relationships among aimless 20-somethings, and the same visual beauty that Katz brought to his depiction of New York City (here applied to Portland). Unlike Quiet City, it also has a fairly involved plot, albeit one that doesn't really get going until almost 40 minutes into the movie. Before then, Katz establishes a trio of engaging characters, including college dropout and wannabe detective Doug (Lankenau). When Doug's ex-girlfriend goes missing, Cold Weather turns into a mystery of sorts, but Katz never loses sight of his character dynamics, and those are always more important (and more entertaining) than figuring out what's going on with Doug's ex. The problem is that Katz actually creates a fairly engrossing mystery, so the abrupt ending, while perfect for a movie about slackers whose lives just kind of trudge on, feels like a bit of a cheat. Cold Weather doesn't have Quiet City's emotional impact, but it keeps me eager to see what Katz does next.

Margin Call (Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, dir. J.C. Chandor)
Taking on a still-current event like the financial crisis in a narrative film is a tricky proposition, and Chandor does a better job than Oliver Stone did in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps or Curtis Hanson did in Too Big to Fail. Stone's film was too Hollywood flashy, too concerned with being a thriller, while Hanson's often drowned in dry true-life details. Chandor splits the difference, telling a fictionalized story about one unnamed financial firm's role in precipitating the 2008 market crash. There's suspense in the story, set over a single 24-hour period, but it's not overblown, and Chandor works to create characters we can understand and care about, rather than just mouthpieces for a political viewpoint. There's still too much heavy-handed dramatic irony and on-the-nose prophetic dialogue for it to be completely immersive (at one point two characters discuss serious financial matters in an elevator as a maid, literally the average person, stands silently between them), but it's easily the best movie so far about the culture and outlook that led to the stock-market meltdown.

Meek's Cutoff (Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Paul Dano, dir. Kelly Reichardt)
I was one of the few people who was unimpressed with Reichardt's Old Joy, and I never ended up seeing her 2008 follow-up, Wendy and Lucy. I found this movie to be more substantial than Old Joy, although still often frustratingly aloof, with Reichardt doing everything possible to distance the audience from her characters and their circumstances. Instead of identifying with the plight of the 19th-century settlers lost in the Oregon desert, I felt like I was observing them through a telescope (sometimes literally, as Reichardt likes to shoot seemingly important moments from very far away). Although the story could be suspenseful and moving, it's instead clinical and dry (much like the desert), which makes it sometimes impressively austere but just as often simply dull, and it ends by just puttering to a stop. There's real emotion in some of the performances, which is a step forward, although Greenwood perhaps goes too far in his hammy performance as the group's guide, who talks like Foghorn Leghorn and looks like a member of ZZ Top.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee, dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Honestly, I was a little intimidated at watching this movie, which has been talked up so heavily as an obtuse but moving experience that I was worried I'd just find it baffling. And I did find a lot of it baffling, though some of it is baffling in a beautiful and haunting way, while some of it is far more frustrating. I liked the combination of grounded everyday details (the workings of Boonmee's farm, the management of his illness) with mystical elements (the ghost of Boonmee's wife, his transformed long-lost son) in a magical-realist way that's very reminiscent of the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. When the movie strays from the relaxed, naturalist dynamics of Boonmee and his family members and becomes more of an abstract fable, as when the characters venture into the cave where Boonmee takes his final rest, it's a little harder to grasp. I'm not sure I understood the relevance of the seemingly unrelated segment about the princess having sex with the talking catfish, but it's certainly unlike anything else I've seen in any movie this year, and that's worth something.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

2011 catch-up, part one

With end-of-year list-making and awards-voting rapidly approaching, I'm trying to catch up on some notable movies of 2011 that I missed.

Heartbeats (Monia Chokri, Xavier Dolan, Niels Schneider, dir. Xavier Dolan)
Dolan is a bit of a film-fest wunderkind; he made his acclaimed first feature, I Killed My Mother, at 20, and was only 21 when he wrote, directed, edited, costume-designed and starred in Heartbeats. It's quite self-assured for someone so young, but it's also a little overly enthusiastic, so in love with its own sensual visuals that it sometimes forgets to be about anything. Dolan and Chokri play two friends (one male, one female) who fall for the same guy and engage in a passive-aggressive rivalry for his affections (which he clearly has no intention of giving to either one). The characters are pretty shallow, and the movie sort of celebrates that, shooting them in vibrant colors and lush slow-motion, with wall-to-wall pop songs and classical concertos on the soundtrack. It makes for a luxurious but sometimes frustrating viewing experience; the interludes featuring unrelated characters monologuing about their own romantic troubles are often far more incisive than the movie's main thread, but Dolan does capture a sense of how it feels to be young and pointlessly in love.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, John Hawkes, dir. Sean Durkin)
I've been reading and hearing about this movie since it played Sundance back in January, so it was probably inevitable that I wouldn't be blown away when finally seeing it. But even if I wasn't wowed to the degree I might have been if I had experienced the movie without any hype, I was still substantially impressed, both with Olsen's acclaimed performance and with Durkin's filmmaking. This is an impeccably written, directed, shot and edited film, creating a mounting sense of disorientation and unease perfectly in line with its title character, who's physically escaped from a cult but clearly hasn't freed herself mentally from the group's influence. I like the unsettling ambiguity, although sometimes things are so vague that it's hard to figure out what Durkin is going for. But the confusion helps to align the audience with Martha's distressed mental state, and Durkin keeps you on edge all the way through the end.

Point Blank (Gilles Lellouche, Roschdy Zem, Elena Anaya, dir. Fred Cavaye)
This is the kind of movie that would star Gerard Butler and get dismissive reviews if it were made in the U.S., but because it's French it has an air of respectability that seems to have blinded some to the fact that it's just another ludicrous thriller with giant plot holes and no character development. Cavaye was behind the French movie that was remade in the U.S. as The Next Three Days, and Point Blank is similarly melodramatic and manipulative, with the main character's pregnant wife constantly in peril. There are a number of really contrived fake-outs, and while some of the chase scenes are exciting, the whole thing is completely hollow and forgettable. I expect a Hollywood remake shortly.

Win Win (Paul Giamatti, Alex Shaffer, Amy Ryan, dir. Tom McCarthy)
I liked McCarthy's first movie, 2003's The Station Agent, but despite their acclaim his next two haven't really impressed me. I thought The Visitor was predictable and preachy, and Win Win has the same problems, presenting a low-key version of a familiar inspirational story, about a troubled guy who learns what's important in life thanks to his relationship with a wayward kid. It's clear that Giamatti's lawyer/wrestling coach is going to take in his elderly client's teenage grandson, and it's clear that the kid's going to be a star wrestler. McCarthy's approach lacks broad sentimental moments, but it also keeps things so subdued that it lacks all passion and excitement. It's too restrained to be rousing, and too obvious to be challenging.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Triskaidekaphilia: 'The Woman on Pier 13' (1949)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

It's kind of hilarious to watch this ridiculous piece of Red Scare propaganda, until you realize how seriously some people took the material. Supposedly producer Howard Hughes offered this project (originally titled I Married a Communist, until the studio changed the title to The Woman on Pier 13 thanks to poor audience response) to directors as a test of their patriotism, and he was turned down an appropriate 13 times before finally finding someone (British director Robert Stevenson, who went on to make family classics like Old Yeller, Mary Poppins and The Absent-Minded Professor) to take it on. Those various other filmmakers were right to pass on Hughes' offer, since Pier 13 is a laughable piece of hysterics that envisions the American Communist party as a group of thugs who are essentially interchangeable with any other 1940s movie gangsters.

The stolid Robert Ryan plays a San Francisco shipping executive who's changed his name to escape his shameful past as a Communist Party member, but here the Commies are like the mob: Just when you thought you were out, they pull you back in. Janis Carter is pretty entertaining as the Commie femme fatale, who returns to help blackmail Ryan's Brad Collins (or Frank Johnson the Commie) into sabotaging labor negotiations at the San Francisco pier (hence the retooled title, I guess, even though no pier numbers are ever mentioned). Carter's Christine Norman also seduces Brad's brother-in-law for good measure, providing an important lesson about avoiding hot Commie seductresses who will indoctrinate you with sex (or something).

The whole thing resolves in a lame shoot-out, with the Commies getting what's coming to them, of course (although not before a series of overwrought murders). Thanks to Carter and a few hammy thugs, Pier 13 could be an okay second-rate noir, but the noxious politics really push it over the edge and make it sort of uncomfortable to watch. It's not quite inept enough to be obviously comical along the lines of something like Reefer Madness, and although reviewers at the time dismissed it as obvious propaganda, some audiences presumably took the message at face value. The actors do their best to imbue the absurd material with some semblance of reality, but it's pretty much a lost cause. Thankfully, the movie's hoped-for witch hunt became a lost cause, too.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Hell Week: 'Hellraiser: Hellworld' (2005)

Yes, you read that right: Hellraiser: Hellworld, the eighth installment in the series and the last to feature Doug Bradley as Pinhead, was released the same year as Hellraiser: Deader; the two came out on DVD just three months apart in 2005, and were filmed back to back. It's strange, then, that they share no characters (other than Pinhead, of course) or thematic concerns, and the only real continuity between the two is that both were obviously shot in Romania, although Hellworld awkwardly takes place in the U.S. Director Rick Bota did a semi-decent job of creating a dark, subdued atmosphere for Deader and Hellseeker, but Hellworld is pure cheese, a lame slasher movie dressed up with Hellraiser connections that turn out to be almost entirely specious.

Hellworld starts out seeming like it's going to engage with the series mythology far more than the other post-Bloodline installments, giving it a bit of a meta twist along the lines of Wes Craven's New Nightmare. Although it doesn't take place in the "real" world where Pinhead is a movie character, Hellworld does feature the Hellraiser mythology as something people are generally aware of; the main characters play an online game called Hellworld that features Cenobites and the puzzle box as key elements, and they discuss the concepts of the series openly (this is the first movie since Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth to feature someone actually saying the word "Pinhead"). But that turns out to be window dressing for a rote slasher movie, as those characters (all vapid, pretty teenagers) get invited to a Hellworld party at a creepy, secluded mansion overseen by a mysterious host (Lance Henriksen, seriously phoning it in, sometimes literally) and started getting killed one by one.

We don't even get to see anyone playing Hellworld for more than a few seconds (possibly because there wasn't a budget to create a virtual-reality world), so I'm not sure what the point of the party is; it's a video-game party at which no one plays any video games. Anyway, Henriksen's creepy host has sinister motives for wanting to off all the annoying characters (although they don't really make much sense), and Pinhead's brief appearances are explained away as hallucinations, so he's not even responsible for any of the carnage (although he shows up at the very end to give the villain his comeuppance). Henriksen's performance is incredibly lazy, and the teens are pretty much interchangeable. After a bit of creativity (even if seriously compromised) in Hellseeker and Deader, Hellworld is a step backward into generic horror nonsense, and a sad way for Bradley to end his tenure as Pinhead.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Hell Week: 'Hellraiser: Deader' (2005)

With its seventh installment, Hellraiser: Deader, the Hellraiser franchise reaches the "starring Kari Wuhrer" phase of its straight-to-video existence, surely a notable low point. The former MTV VJ and star of Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time (which I totally saw in theaters) unconvincingly plays a hardened, chain-smoking journalist for an "edgy" London newspaper, who specializes in stories like the firsthand account of a crack den that she's working on as the movie opens. Wuhrer's Amy Klein gets a hot tip from her editor about a sort of death cult in Bucharest, whose creepy leader has people kill themselves and then seemingly brings them back to life. Amy heads to Romania to investigate, and she's quickly caught up in the cult's madness, which vaguely connects to the puzzle box and Pinhead.

Based on an unrelated horror script that was rewritten to fit into the Hellraiser franchise, Deader continues the psychological-thriller approach of the previous two sequels, again focusing on one main character's descent into a personal hell. Amy's situation isn't quite the same as the circumstances faced by the main characters in Inferno and Hellseeker, and the cult angle and foreign setting give it more active momentum, but tonally it follows the same template (it helps that director Rick Bota was also behind Hellseeker). The problem is that Wuhrer is clearly out of her depth with the serious material, and the plot itself doesn't really make sense. The ability to resurrect the dead has never been a part of the series mythology, and it's never clear how cult leader Winter (Paul Rhys) has acquired this ability, or why Pinhead's so mad about it.

The movie's final act picks up on some ideas from Bloodline but never clarifies them enough to be meaningful. Winter is posited as a descendant of Lemarchand, the original designer of the puzzle box, although it's sort of tossed off in a couple of lines by Pinhead and never fully explored. And there's no real reason other than throwing a bone to fans for Winter to have any relation to Lemarchand, since what he does has never been a function of the box or its makers. In the end Pinhead just does his standard thing and shoots hooks into everybody, dismembers them and calls it a day. Amy doesn't actually defeat him, but she seemingly avoids his grasp, although even that is left unclear. As he did in Hellseeker, Bota brings a welcome stylistic restraint to the movie, and there are even a few creepy moments. But those occasional effective scares don't mean much amid the nonsensical plotting and indifferent acting.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Hell Week: 'Hellraiser: Hellseeker' (2002)

After the completely unrelated story of Hellraiser: Inferno, the franchise brings back Ashley Laurence as Kirsty for the first time since Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth for the sixth installment, Hellraiser: Hellseeker. But despite having a more substantial role than her brief cameo in Hell on Earth, Laurence isn't exactly as prominent as her second billing in the opening credits would attest; Kirsty dies (or appears to die) in the first five minutes of the movie, and up until the climax she appears only in brief flashbacks, as the real main character is her grieving, tortured husband Trevor (Dean Winters). Like Inferno, Hellseeker is essentially about one man's descent into his own personal hell, aided by Pinhead and the Cenobites, although it's more restrained and modulated (at least for a Hellraiser movie), with a much better lead performance.

While Craig Sheffer overacted every moment of his character's anguish in Inferno, Winters plays things a little more internally, emphasizing the confusion and helplessness that Trevor feels after recovering from a car crash that seems to have killed his wife. Trevor experiences painful headaches and what appear to be hallucinations, which include flashbacks to his troubled marriage to Kirsty and the discovery of a certain familiar puzzle box. The women in his life are constantly seducing him and then turning violent (or becoming victims of his violence against them), and the cops are hounding him with suspicions that he deliberately killed Kirsty in the accident. He can never tell what's real and what isn't, which gets a little tedious and repetitive after a while since it's impossible to piece together an actual story (I've never seen a movie with so many scenes of a character waking up suddenly from a nightmare).

Although Winters does a decent job of making Trevor both sympathetic and sort of slimy (something Sheffer was never able to do in Inferno), the confusion and mental torture get old pretty quickly, and Pinhead's periodic appearances (more than in Inferno, but still pretty minimal) aren't enough to carry it along. It's fairly obvious early on that the movie is doing a riff on the whole "he was dead the whole time" device, and the only question is how and why Trevor got that way. Just as the movie seems to have entirely wasted Laurence on a role that could have been a completely different character with no relation to the franchise (there's a brief mention of Kirsty having an inheritance from her late father and uncle, but that's about it), the ending ties together Kirsty and Pinhead's history with Trevor's fate in a way that is almost sort of satisfying. Hellseeker is too drawn-out and dull to be a worthy successor to the early Hellraiser movies, but as a second-rate follow-up, it at least makes a semi-respectable showing.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Hell Week: 'Hellraiser: Inferno' (2000)

The Hellraiser series enters its straight-to-video phase with a classic straight-to-video move: Basically tacking the series title and imagery onto a completely unrelated story. Pinhead appears for maybe three minutes of Hellraiser: Inferno, in contrast to his dominant roles in the third and fourth movies, and the whole mythology is barely mentioned and could easily be replaced without changing anything about the movie. For some fans, this seems to be a plus, and I agree that Pinhead had gotten cartoonish over his last two appearances. If he had shown up to add menace and atmosphere to an otherwise effective and unsettling horror story (as he did in the first two movies), then his relative absence would have been forgivable.

But the way that director and co-writer Scott Derrickson (who later went on to make the underrated The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the not-at-all-underrated The Day the Earth Stood Still remake) either ignores or dismisses the majority of the series' distinctive elements indicates a lack of interest in what makes something a Hellraiser movie and not just some generic, cheap thriller. Inferno is absolutely a generic, cheap thriller, a bad movie with or without its Hellraiser elements. Doug Bradley returns as Pinhead and tones down the camp of Hell on Earth and Bloodline for his handful of scenes, and he is effectively evil. But the rest of the acting in the movie is pretty terrible, especially from lead Craig Sheffer, who plays a sleazy Denver police detective.

Sheffer's Det. Thorne is a pretty big douchebag: He cheats on his wife with prostitutes, snorts cocaine constantly, thinks nothing of blackmailing his upstanding partner (Nicholas Turturro, doing what he can) and beats up informants for information. Sheffer's manic performance makes the guy even more nasty, as his constant sneer and raised eyebrows make him look like he's always leering at something or someone. After discovering the puzzle box (the one familiar element that gets any real screen time) at a crime scene, Thorne finds himself haunted by disturbing visions and pursued by a mysterious killer and criminal mastermind known as the Engineer. As Thorne tries to track down the Engineer, he occasionally encounters a few cool new Cenobites (including a modified, torso-only version of the chatterer from the first two movies) but barely ever runs into Pinhead until the very end of the movie.

Derrickson throws in all sorts of surreal, nonsensical touches, including a roadside bar that is inexplicably full of old-timey cowboys playing poker and a psychiatrist/priest (James Remar) who gives Thorne the worst advice ever. Thorne is so creepy that you kind of just want Pinhead to rip off his flesh already, and thus the movie has no sympathetic or interesting characters. It goes light on the gore and apparently has a slight Christian subtext, which is the biggest possible inversion of Clive Barker's vision. The annoying twist ending tries to say something deep about the way that we construct our own hells, or something (I guess this is the spiritual message), but it succeeds only in making the previous 90 minutes seem even more pointless. Inferno is a terrible thriller, a terrible horror movie and a terrible continuation of the Hellraiser series, a thoroughly inauspicious start to the franchise's post-Barker years.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Hell Week: 'Hellraiser: Bloodline' (1996)

Setting a trend that would later be followed by horror-movie villains Jason Voorhees and the leprechaun, Hellraiser: Bloodline sends Pinhead to the final frontier, where no one can hear you scream. Yes, it takes place (partially) in outer space, about 130 years in the future aboard a dingy-looking space station. The future sequence is used mainly as a framing device, though, at least until the movie's climax, setting up an era-spanning tale with segments taking place in 18th-century France and modern-day New York City. While Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth expanded on Pinhead's back story, Bloodline is all about exploring the background of the puzzle box, created by a French master toymaker in the 1700s.

Bruce Ramsay plays three different generations of Lemarchands/Merchants, all without much impact. The scenes set in the past are the silliest, with florid period dialogue and actors who look uncomfortable in their old-fashioned costumes (future comedy star Adam Scott is especially awkward as a depraved nobleman). Once Lemarchand creates the box, it's used to conjure forth a demon from hell, but not Pinhead (surprisingly). Instead it's Angelique (Valentina Vargas), who inhabits the body of a beautiful young woman and is at first bonded to Scott's snotty aristocrat. In 1996, Angelique ditches her beau (after disemboweling him, of course) and sets out to find Lemarchand's descendant John Merchant, an architect who designed the puzzle box-themed building seen briefly in the stinger at the end of Hell on Earth.

The contemporary segment is the longest, with Pinhead showing up after being called forth by Angelique, and sort of taking over the proceedings. Although Bloodline ditches the slasher-movie template of Hell on Earth, Doug Bradley still chews plenty of scenery as the one-dimensionally evil Pinhead, and I honestly preferred the more insidious and seductive Angelique as the villain (she's more in line with Frank and Julia from the first two movies). Vargas is the best thing about the movie, and it's too bad that she gets sidelined and turned into another anonymous Cenobite to stand behind Pinhead in the final segment. John is kind of an ineffectual hero, although that's partially the point, as he has to leave Pinhead undefeated for his future descendant Paul Merchant to destroy in space.

The resolution of John's 1996 battle against Pinhead is unclear, but obviously the demon lived to fight another day, because he shows up in 2127 on the space station for Paul's realization of what I guess could be called the antidote to the original puzzle box, which sends Pinhead back to hell, or whatever. Once again written by Peter Atkins, Bloodline doesn't make any more sense than the last two movies, although it at least has much grander ambitions than Hell on Earth, and is consequently more enjoyable. Special-effects artist Kevin Yagher, in his directorial debut, clashed with producers and had his name taken off the film, and allegedly his version of the movie is much more coherent, although it holds back on Pinhead's debut much longer (presumably including more of the silly 18th-century stuff).

Joe Chappelle, who had his own disputes with producers on a horror sequel (Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers) the year before, came on board for studio-mandated reshoots, and apparently much of the original script was never even filmed. Other than an extremely abrupt ending, though, the movie doesn't seem any more incoherent than the last installment, so I wonder if the fan-constructed versions of Yagher's director's cut are actually an improvement in any way. This is the only movie I've ever seen that's actually credited to Alan Smithee, a red flag right at the beginning that it's going to be a disaster. The surprise is that it's only a partial disaster, but that didn't matter; Bloodline was the final Hellraiser movie to be released in theaters.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Hell Week: 'Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth' (1992)

Despite the involvement of Clive Barker as executive producer and a screenplay by Hellbound: Hellraiser II screenwriter Peter Atkins, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth marks the franchise's transition into generic bullshit slasher-movie territory, with Pinhead as a lame Freddy Krueger-style villain instead of the mysterious, menacing enigma he was in the first two movies. Even with the bit of back story parceled out in Hellbound, Pinhead still stood outside and above humanity, only enforcing the ill-advised bargains made by the selfish, deviant human characters. Frank and Julia, not Pinhead, were the villains in the first two movies, and Pinhead's motivation was to possess their souls and delight in their flesh, not to go out and slaughter a bunch of people. But here his motives are as pedestrian as any psycho killer's: He just wants to kill people indiscriminately.

Hell on Earth also pretty much abandons the original characters; Ashley Laurence, credited with "special appearance by," shows up for a cameo in a video of Kirsty ranting about the puzzle box at the mental institution, but there's no indication of what has become of her since then. Instead the main character is bland TV reporter Joey Summerskill (Terry Farrell), who accidentally stumbles on Pinhead's plan to escape from hell and come to Earth for the aforementioned slaughter. Never mind that he's never wanted to do that before, or that the rules of his existence seem to have changed, or that all the other Cenobites have disappeared. It's just annoying Joey against Pinhead, aided by the Cenobite's alter ego Elliott Spencer (also played by Doug Bradley), who was revealed in the prologue to Hellbound.

Somehow Spencer and Pinhead have become separated, and Spencer needs to trap Pinhead in some limbo dimension in order to bring him back to hell. Whatever. The plot to Hellbound didn't make a lot of sense either, but it at least had striking visuals and creative set pieces and interesting characters. This movie has none of that. Pinhead gets way more lines, but he just turns into a hammy monster spouting stupid one-liners (he also gets called "Pinhead" for the first time, when Joey is taunting him). The movie is full of gimmicky kills reminiscent of cheesy horror B-movies, including a DJ killed by razor-sharp CDs. Some of the victims then become Pinhead's new Cenobites, with laughable powers derived from their silly deaths.

No matter how ridiculous it all gets, there's almost no sense of camp or fun, even from Bradley, who does seem to relish getting a bigger part. Farrell is terrible as the heroine, delivering her lines flatly and never once exhibiting the fortitude that would be required to take on the forces of hell. The movie's conception of underground nightclub culture is of course absurd (dig the young Paula Marshall as an uncomfortable-looking goth girl!), and the supporting characters are all broad stereotypes. Hell on Earth is a victim of the franchise's success, with a higher profile forcing the filmmakers to iron out the sexual kinks and cater to a more mainstream horror audience, thus losing what made the series interesting in the first place.