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.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hell Week: 'Hellbound: Hellraiser II' (1988)

Rushed into production quickly on the heels of the success of the original Hellraiser, Hellbound: Hellraiser II suffers from some narrative confusion (blamed mainly on Andrew Robinson's refusal to reprise his role as Larry Cotton), but it also has a striking visual style and some truly gruesome set pieces, and its comparatively larger budget allows for Clive Barker's twisted visions to come to life more effectively. Barker steps back here, credited only with the screen story and as executive producer, but his stamp is still all over the themes and look of the movie, albeit smoothed out a bit from the S&M-focused original. Robinson isn't back, but Ashley Laurence (as Kirsty) and Clare Higgins (as Julia) both are, despite Julia's having been killed in the last movie. That's not really a big stumbling block for this series, since the border between the afterlife and the realm of the living is pretty easily breached.

Kirsty begins the movie where so many final survivors of horror movies find themselves in sequels: in a mental institution. This particular establishment is run by the twisted and sadistic Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham), who just so happens to be obsessed with Cenobites and the puzzle box and all that stuff. He manages to resurrect Julia in much the same manner that Julia resurrected Frank in the first movie, and Kirsty breaks out of the hospital to stop them. She's also determined to rescue her father from hell, but that particular storyline just sort of disappears at some point, since Robinson decided not to appear in the movie. Instead Kirsty teams up with a fellow mental patient who's a puzzle-solving genius and follows Julia and Channard into hell itself.

Pretty much the entire second half of the movie takes place in hell, which allows director Tony Randel (an editor on the first movie) all sorts of creative license, and he puts together an impressively disorienting and nasty landscape, influenced strongly by the mind-bending artwork of M.C. Escher. Thanks to Pinhead's rising popularity, the Cenobites get a much larger role here, and the movie opens with a prologue hinting at Pinhead's origins. Julia also evolves from a whiny codependent into a deviously evil villain, and Higgins does a much better job with the role this time around. She's a more interesting antagonist than Pinhead (who's credited with that name for the first time, although never referred to that way onscreen), and her team-up with Channard is wonderfully nasty.

That pairing allows for the film's most significant dose of deviant sexuality, but it's not quite as twisted as the Julia/Frank dynamic in the original. The Cenobites are also presented more as unwitting victims who've been transformed into monsters than as pleasure/pain-seeking hedonists, and while that works for the more conventional horror-movie vibe, it loses a little of Barker's unique perspective. With its expanded scope, larger budget and more intense scares, Hellbound is a better movie overall than the original, and a more effective horror film. But Hellraiser still stands out for Barker's personal connection, which only gets more diluted as the series wears on.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Hell Week: 'Hellraiser' (1987)

In the week leading up to Halloween last year, I wrote about all eight movies in the original Halloween series, and this year I'm taking on another iconic horror franchise that fell on hard times, Clive Barker's Hellraiser series. The ninth movie in the series just came out on DVD last week (check out my review here), and now I'm looking back on the original eight. It's sort of fascinating to realize that this cheap, bottom-of-the-barrel horror series evolved from what is essentially a very personal art film by writer-director Barker (who based the first movie on his novella The Hellbound Heart). Hellraiser was Barker's first feature as a director, and it definitely shows signs of its low budget and Barker's inexperience. But it also has a disturbing intensity that transcends its limitations and a creative, demented design sense for its horrors that's reflective of Barker's background as a painter.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks here is the acting, which is almost universally awkward. Andrew Robinson, who was a great, underrated recurring player on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine for years, seems uncomfortable as the bland, smarmy Larry Cotton, who moves with his brittle wife Julia (Clare Higgins) into his creepy old family home. Julia is meant to be cold and distant, but Higgins plays her as aloof and alienated even when she's in the throes of passion with Larry's brother Frank, a sleazy lowlife who's managed to open a portal to hell thanks to a mysterious puzzle box (which would become one of the series' central elements). From that portal spew forth the Cenobites, sadistic creatures who torture and pleasure anyone who calls them via the box.

Despite the dominance of Pinhead (Doug Bradley) as the iconic figure of the series, its version of Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger, the Cenobites aren't really the villains here, and Pinhead isn't all that prominent (he's credited only as "lead Cenobite," and has just a handful of lines). Frank, who escapes from hell and must replenish his flesh via the blood of the living, is the main bad guy, using Julia's sexual obsession with him to procure victims for his resurrection. Barker's always incorporated themes of sexual deviance into his work, and the Cenobites' promises to provide both pain and pleasure to their summoners make them like the world's most extreme BDSM practitioners. People seek out these sadistic hell demons because they totally get off on it.

But this is still a mainstream horror movie, so wholesome niceness prevails, as Larry's daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) takes on Frank and the Cenobites and banishes them back to hell. Although Laurence is the best actor in the movie, Kirsty's kind of a boring character compared to the depraved Frank and Julia, who gleefully mix sex and violence in their volatile couplings. The psychosexual aspects of Barker's world got stripped out as the series progressed into generic horror nonsense, but Hellraiser shows an intriguing embrace of the dark side of sexuality, even if the craftsmanship is often lacking.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Frightened Girls'

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

William Castle is best known for his gimmicky B-horror pictures like House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler and 13 Ghosts (an inevitable future subject for this feature), but the prolific filmmaker worked in a number of genres, churning out whatever cheap quickies he thought could reach impressionable moviegoers. His 1963 film 13 Frightened Girls is clearly aimed at a younger audience than his horror movies, but it's just as hokey and ridiculous. In a grating performance, Kathy Dunn plays bratty teenager Candy, the daughter of an American diplomat in London. On break from her posh boarding school (whose students are all the daughters of international diplomats), Candy finds herself caught up in a nonsensical web of intrigue when she decides to become an amateur spy. Her clumsy antics set off a frenzy among the international espionage community, attracting the unwanted attention of some dangerous Chinese spies.

Despite a climax that puts Candy in danger of getting killed by the Chinese, Girls is goofy and innocuous, with a Disney-movie feel and a childish understanding of the workings of the spy world. Candy is loud and obnoxious and completely conspicuous, yet somehow no one picks up on her devious spy tactics until the very end of the movie. Dunn plays the character with an irritating mix of brattiness and sultriness, so that her "seduction" scenes with young secret agents come off as gross and inappropriate, and her obsession with her father's middle-aged co-worker (including a scene in which she essentially throws herself at him) is uncomfortably off-putting. The adult actors kind of muddle through their moronic scenes as best they can, but the teenage performers (including Lynne Sue Moon as Candy's Chinese best friend) are universally terrible.

Of course, a bunch of them came from one of Castle's gimmicks, in which he launched a contest to find the most beautiful girls from various countries to play the diplomats' children. He even shot different versions of the movie's opening scene (in which Candy is inexplicably thrilled at the prospect of driving the school's bus) showcasing actresses from different countries to cater to international markets. The eye-catching title is a gimmick, too, since it has nothing to do with the story (there are 15 girls at the school, not 13, and only Candy is ever really frightened) but sounds quite exciting. The trailers on the DVD advertise the movie under an earlier title (The Candy Web) that's more accurate but less titillating. Attention-grabbing gimmickry backed up by mediocre filmmaking was Castle's stock in trade, and 13 Frightened Girls is a perfect example of it.

Monday, October 03, 2011

'The Horrors of Stephen King'

Even as his novels have become increasingly hit-or-miss, one thing Stephen King has remained good at is being an advocate for the horror genre. He's articulated his love for horror in his nonfiction books Danse Macabre and On Writing, and would regularly promote examples of the genre (including stuff dismissed by critics and fans) in his now-defunct Entertainment Weekly column. So he's on solid ground for the new Turner Classic Movies special The Horrors of Stephen King, which features King talking about his favorite horror movies and why he likes them. It's a more superficial take than what King offered in Danse Macabre, which makes sense for TV, although some of the segments seem like little more than King naming a movie while we watch a clip from it.

The best parts of the special feature King talking about the movies that scared him as a child or influenced his work, when you can see his real passion shine through. He's less convincing when talking about subgenres outside his main area of expertise (the treatment of Japanese horror films is especially shallow) or pretty much anything made after the 1980s. Director Laurent Bouzereau also gives King a relatively short time to talk about the movies based on his own work, which should probably either have been expanded to its own special or left out altogether. As it is, King barely gets going on that subject before Bouzereau moves on to another. Horror fans probably won't discover anything new here, but King's enthusiasm is, as always, infectious, and TCM could probably do better to just hire him to introduce horror classics, like the ghoulish version of Robert Osborne. That way he'd get to fully share his passions; here, what we get is mostly a bullet-pointed list.

Premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on Turner Classic Movies.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

DC's New 52

DC has been going all-out to push its universe-wide relaunch/reboot/re-whatever, including sending the first issues of every single one of its 52 new/relaunched titles to the mainstream press. So although I had been considering picking up just a handful of new DC titles that caught my eye, I found myself with a stack of all 52. I ended up reading 15 of them, including the ones that I was already interested in and a few others that have been getting the most buzz, and I may end up getting through the rest at some point in the future. For now, the ones I'm looking to continue reading are pretty much the same as the ones I had been interested in from the start, although if I had more time and money I might give a few other series a little more time to impress me.

I don't read a whole lot of superhero comics anymore, so it takes a lot to win me over on a played-out corporate icon like Superman or Batman, especially since those characters always end up dragged into giant crossovers or tossed from one creative team to another. Already writer/artist George Perez has stepped down from Superman, which he's leaving after the sixth issue. Not that his debut impressed me much: It's a serviceable old-school Superman story with somewhat awkward and superficial references to modern technology, and its biggest status quo change is that Clark Kent and Lois Lane are no longer romantically linked. Perez has a nice old-school density to his storytelling, both in the art (which Jesus Merino pencils and inks over Perez's breakdowns) and in the text, which is much more extensive than in typical modern superhero comics. But it's in service of a ho-hum story that doesn't entice me back for another month.

Grant Morrison's take on Superman in Action Comics is also old-school in a way, hearkening back to Superman's Golden Age roots as a populist hero taking on corruption, a little more of a loose-cannon vigilante. Morrison's explorations of classic superhero tropes don't really grab my attention (I'm probably the only person who was unimpressed with All-Star Superman), and his take on Superman strikes me as a little off-balance while not really adding anything new to the character. Ultimately it's a slightly skewed take on a familiar set-up, and while it's more intriguing than Perez's vision, it still doesn't grab me enough to stick around for a second issue.

I was more impressed with the Batman family books that I tried, especially J.H. Williams III's Batwoman, which I had already been planning to get following Williams' run on the character with writer Greg Rucka in Detective Comics two years ago. This book has also been in the works since then, which means that the creators have had more time to develop and produce it, and hopefully Williams will be able to complete each issue without having any fill-ins (aside from artist Amy Reeder, who's already scheduled to alternate arcs with Williams). There also isn't any kind of relaunch here -- the story continues directly from Williams and Rucka's work on Detective, with Williams taking over as co-writer (along with W. Haden Blackman) in addition to his art duties. Still, the first issue catches readers up well, and the art (the main draw for me) is still phenomenal, with Williams depicting haunting suspense, fluid action and personal drama equally skillfully. I'm mainly on board for the amazing visuals, but I do like Kate Kane as a character, and I'm curious to see where Williams and Blackman take the story.

I thought that Batman by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo and Batgirl by Gail Simone and Ardian Syaf were also solid superhero comics, although I doubt I'll be following either one any further. I like Snyder, but his Batman is still basically the same character doing the same things, even if the first issue does set up a pretty intriguing cliffhanger. And Simone does a decent job with a crappy assignment, taking Barbara Gordon out of her wheelchair as Oracle and returning her to action as Batgirl. Given how angry fans have been about the switch (not without reason), it's smart and a little brave of Simone to tackle the transition as part of her story, rather than pretending it never happened. Still, one book about a female Bat-themed vigilante is probably enough for me, and I'm going with Batwoman.

Outside of the big names, I liked some of the scrappier, lower-tier titles, which are what I tend to follow more consistently anyway. I never read Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning's original Resurrection Man series in the '90s, but I like their solid, character-driven superhero work on Marvel books like Guardians of the Galaxy and Heroes for Hire, and the new Resurrection Man is in that same vein, setting up an interesting underdog hero, some menacing villains and a decent cliffhanger (although I'm a little concerned that it seems to connect to Justice League Dark, which I found muddled and unimpressive). Similarly unpretentious and fun were Paul Cornell's two books, Stormwatch and Demon Knights, both team books with oddball assortments of characters. The mystical themes of Demon Knights remind me a little of Cornell's underappreciated work on Marvel's Captain Britain and MI13, and Stormwatch does a nice job of balancing Warren Ellis' twisted sensibilities from his work on that series (and The Authority) with a more mainstream DC feel.

Justice League Dark didn't work for me, but two other Vertigo imports, Animal Man and Swamp Thing, definitely did. Swamp Thing is a little more in line with writer Scott Snyder's horror sensibilities (from American Vampire and Severed) than Batman is, and like Cornell in Stormwatch he nicely balances the character's off-kilter past with a firm grounding back in the DC superhero universe. Jeff Lemire does the same with Animal Man, much better than his goofy Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. There are some genuinely creepy moments in both books, thanks to great work from artists Yanick Paquette (on Swamp Thing) and Travel Foreman (on Animal Man). Along with Batwoman, those two are probably the books that impressed me most (although maybe I'll discover more as I work my way through the rest of the pile). I just hope that DC can keep these creative teams together long enough to tell complete stories, because that kind of turnover is the surest way to lose the renewed interest they've garnered from me.