Saturday, April 26, 2014

Hellbound: Hellraiser II

(Unrated, New World Pictures, 99 mins., theatrical release date: December 23, 1988)


"Fairy tales. My father didn't believe in fairy tales, either. But some of them come true, Mr. Ronson. Even the bad ones."

Well, that's mighty clever of Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) to recognize one of the many allegorical strands of Clive Barker's sepulchral sex 'n' splatter classic Hellraiser. Having survived the ordeal of the 1987 original, albeit with a few confusing contrivances, this is one of the first lines of dialogue Kirsty relays to a skeptical cop upon waking up at the Channard Institute. It establishes the traumatized ingénue as having more of a level head than the authorities around her, no small feat for a teen girl whose father was skinned in a crime of passion by both her stepmother and rogue spirit uncle, who required the disguise to trick his demon/angel captors, a quartet of undead fetishists known as the Cenobites.

Kirsty's worst fears now involve a blood-stained mattress from the scene of the slaughter, the literal death bed of reluctant murderess Julia Cotton (Clare Higgins). But even though she is smart enough to know she survived a Brothers Grimm nightmare made flesh, Kirsty is powerless to stop the déjà vu which she should have seen coming ("It's not fair"). For her caretaker is the chief of medicine, Dr. Phillip Channard (Kenneth Cranham), and like Uncle Frank (Sean Chapman) before him, his malevolent curiosity will compel him to raise Hell. Only he wants to go even deeper than this...

Hellbound: Hellraiser II saw Clive Barker relinquishing his screenwriting and directorial duties over to a pair of newbies, close friend Peter Atkins and New World Pictures ladder climber Tony Randel. The now-famous novelist and first time filmmaker instead hatched the story idea, which was naturally compromised by issues with budget and casting. Gone was the hope of Andrew Robinson reprising his role as Kirsty's cuckolded carcass of a daddy, so the thread involving Larry reaching out to Kirsty from supposed Hell (which already makes no sense, since the feebly milquetoast Larry Cotton was hardly a sinner) was resolved with a thud. In was the notion that Kirsty and Channard would be driven into the Infernal labyrinth which the Cenobites call their kingdom, and also some back story in regards to their prior human existences, chiefly the central figure of Pinhead (Doug Bradley) and his past life as WWI captain Eliot Spencer. The Black Monday stock market crash of 1987 dealt a blow to such ideas, although these are still realized to a minor degree.

The real crux of the sequel turned out to be an even more sadistic spin on the Mad Scientist trope. A brain surgeon introduced dissecting a conscious patient whilst espousing on "the lure of the labyrinth" that is mind within the gray matter, Phillip Channard is in dogged pursuit of absolute knowledge. He's also a latent sadist with a Ph.D. whose sanitarium is pretty much its own Hell on Earth, with a whole sub-basement wing where he keeps the nuttiest of his charges celled in. Having already pursued the mystery of the Lament Configuration box, Channard tests Kirsty's theory of resurrection by allowing a far-gone inmate called Browning (Oliver Smith), who imagines maggots feasting on his skin, to go at his body with a razorblade atop the cursed mattress.

Out of the gory mess bursts Julia, now in the same half-formed condition as her illicit former lover Frank. But one of the hospital orderlies, Kyle (William Hope), has followed Channard and bears witness, sympathetically freeing Kirsty for further investigation. Also caught in these machinations is teenaged Tiffany (Imogen Boorman), who is mysteriously autistic and spends her time solving puzzles, the perfect key to calling forth the Cenobites and opening the doors to Hell. But Pinhead demands his minions stand down, aware that "It is not hands that call us. It is desire."

Mainly it is the desires of three individuals, including Tiffany, who has repressed her dark past through a possible lobotomy, and Kirsty, who seeks to rescue her father only to be once again taunted by the Cenobites and take part in a rather more unsavory family reunion. Yet it is Dr. Channard who pays the ultimate price, as Julia leads him to Leviathan, the diamond-shaped figurehead cum storage shed for souls, and sacrifices him out of maniacal obligation. The born-again Channard, his brain scrambled not unlike his patients via a demonic tentacle, is freed from all pretense of Hippocratic decorum and relishes his Cenobite status vengefully.

The filmmakers were clearly keen to begin building an intricate mythology, one which would be worth learning more about along the path of subsequent sequels. Alas, the only story line with any intrigue and weight here is Dr. Channard's arc, conveyed mainly thanks to Ken Cranham's jolly professionalism. It is his grotesque Frankenstein-as-monster metamorphosis ("And to think...I hesitated") which helps to humanize the four principal Cenobites, just in time for an impotent showdown. Kirsty remains ingenious as ever in the face of immortal danger, but much of her screen time is spent calling out to either her daddy or to Tiffany. Her confrontations with the Cenobites are also pretty limp and insensible; given that she was right about Frank's escape, the Cenobites go from chaotic neutral to kangaroo court bullies with woeful absurdity. You'd think they'd be wiser to sense Channard's destructive impulses over Kirsty's stubborn naiveté. No wonder they prove so easily vanquished. Julia's newfound nefariousness is also good for a few distractions, as Higgins ably matches Cranham's grandiose commitment, but fizzles out rather unspectacularly.

The first half of Hellbound: Hellraiser II is quite potent in spite of its redundancy, which makes the clichés abundant in the latter section seem unflattering. Returning crew members such as composer Christopher Young and cinematographer Robin Vidgeon have clearly stepped up their game, building upon the style evident in Barker's film. And there is much in the early going, particularly the sick humor of skinless Julia's seduction of Channard, which is as engrossing as it is plain gross. There is a broader yet welcome sense of wit going on when Julia moans "I'm cold" so that Randel can cut to multiple high-burning ventilators and Julia bleeding through white formal clothing. You do appreciate the subtleties more than the hysterics, which sadly end up engulfing the movie's focus.

There's plenty to admire technically, from the grisly make-up effects, handled once again by Bob Keen's team, and set designs teeming with lonely corridors and evocatively doom-laden palaces of pain. Not for nothing is this film's greatest subtext in regards to medical malpractice, as the parallels between the Channard Institute and Hell are ripe for the reaping. Kirsty and Tiffany are confronted with their own past torments in momentary tableaux of exquisite suffering. But these visions are all too fleeting and buttressed by a whole lot of hoariness.

Maybe rushing into this sequel so hastily, as per the opportunism of its American distributor, was like running into the open arms of a succubus. As it stands, Hellbound: Hellraiser II draws tons of blood, but not enough to conceal the lack of real ideas on the drawing board. It's less Clive Barker and more Carnival Barker.

The best release of the film thus far remains Anchor Bay's 2008 anniversary edition of the unrated cut, coming roughly 20 years after its Christmastime theatrical premiere (expect something similar for Wolf Creek in 2025). The package never received a proper Blu-Ray upgrade in time before Image Entertainment took control of the AB catalog, which means their hi-def release is comparably bare-bones. Both the previous cast/crew commentary, vintage EPK reels and 20-minute "Lost in the Labyrinth" retrospective make return appearances where they are joined by several new interview pieces which spotlight director Tony Randel, star Kenneth Cranham and the three peripheral, non-Pinhead ghouls, reprising performers Nicholas Vince and Simon Bamford as well as Barbie Wilde, who took over the Female Cenobite costume from Barker's cousin. Both Wilde and Vince seem to be writing their stories of Hellbound Hearts, so allow me to say this once again with feeling: "I have such sights to show you."

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