Tuesday, 20 October 2015

October Nightmares #20: Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)


You know me, being a contrarian brings me more joy than a Mr. Tickle themed 'happy ending' massage machine. Two-thirds of the way through my Halloween marathon, my propensity to favour lesser-known or marginalized horror films should now be apparent to all. So when I say that (Hellbound) Hellraiser II is my favourite film in the franchise, even over its more popular predecessor, it probably comes as no great surprise. Not that it's particularly difficult to pick your favourite Hellraiser film. Between 1987 and 2011, the franchise spawned nine entries and thirteen comic book series. And just like a houseguest who just won't fucking leave, the enamouring halcyon days quickly ended once the food started to go missing and stray pubic hair began gathering on the bathroom floor. Rather condemningly, only 9.09090909091% of the franchise is actually considered worthwhile.

This degeneration into slimy despair came around the time Hellraiser 3:  Hello Kitty Hell on Earth was shat out and introduced us to CD themed Cenobites, like my future daughter sheepishly bringing her BrokeNCYDE fan boyfriend home to meet me. Hellraiser 3 was obviously the studio's attempt to transition Clive Barker's exploration of hellish sadomasochism at the heart suburbia, into a larger horror franchise. One where they could repurpose Pinhead as the boring, pun-spouting mascot - á la Freddy Kruger - and insert awkwardly themed Cenobites into increasingly contrived situations. The whole sorry saga was about as comfortable as a colonoscopy in a Cronenberg film. After Three, the franchise went into space, early 2000's Internet (shudder), and most terrifyingly of all - Romania.

Hellbound takes the same route as Halloween II (1981), in that it is a direct continuation that builds on the foundations left by its predecessor - taking place mere hours later. One might not think that is worth noting, but it's rarer than you'd think - after all we live in a world where every Spider-Man film has to retread his origin story in a laborious fashion. The previous film, a weird claustrophobic affair based on Barker's novella The Hellbound Heart, dealt with a sort of necromantic blood ritual secretly taking place in the protagonist's family home. In his quest for new highs, Frank (Sean Chapman), a sexual deviant of the highest order, buys a strange puzzle box (the Lament Configuration) while in the Far East. When he gets back home to quasi-London/New York (seriously, where on Earth was that movie actually set?) he manages to solve the puzzle, only for chains and S&M freaks to escape it and tear him asunder. The kinky bastard.

Frank's remains somehow become one with the house. And when his brother and sister in law/former lover move in, a minor accident leads to Frank's remains getting doused in blood and kick-starting his bizarre revival process. The sequel follows Hellraiser's bloody climax: Frank is reduced to giblets again, his lover Julia (Clare Higgins) dead, and the Cenobites are back in the puzzle box after failing to take protagonist Kirsty's (Ashley Laurence) soul. Kirsty begins the movie in the only logical place one could end up after almost being raped by a crazy uncle wearing the skin of her father - the fucking nut house. This must be how the West family celebrated Christmas. By building on events from the first movie, Hellbound is able to expand the concept beyond the confines of the personal and into a deeper exploration of its vision of Hell. 

The Channard Institute, a psychiatric hospital, makes the perfect vehicle for expanding the concept. Before we even arrive at the inevitable splatterfest, there's a feeling of 'wrongness' pervading the hospital. Mostly these vibes emanate from Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham) himself - he delights in his weird methods of brain surgery, has research on the Lament Configuration, and runs a hidden Victorian era mental asylum within his hospital. Channard is a genuinely disturbing character - unlike Frank, who started off as merely depraved before becoming a sociopathic hard-ass out of necessity. He exploits mentally disturbed girls into solving his puzzle boxes for him, hands a razor blade to a guy who is convinced he has maggots under his flesh; he even tries to raise the dead through ritual murder. Basically the guy is so awful that Hell literally recruits and transmogrifies him into a Cenobite. The real world equivalent to that is being headhunted by Exxon. Julia makes a surprise return appearance, having been brought back by Channard through the blood-soaked mattress on which she was killed in the first movie.

I actually saw Hellbound long before I saw the first film, and what struck me when comparing the two is just how horrifically brutal the sequel actually is. Don't get me wrong, Hellraiser was an especially gruesome movie - Uncle Frank walks around without any skin, the hedonist - but I felt Hellbound pushed the boundaries further. Julia's glistening fleshless form, slowly seeping out of the mattress, is every bit of disgusting as it is awesome. As are the transformations of Captain Elliot Spencer (Pinhead - Doug Bradley) and Channard, with their depictions of skin slicing, head mutilating and strange biological machinery. Peter Atkins and Tony Randel's vision of Hell is odd - like something out of Labyrinth or Dark Crystal - but I appreciate that they didn't go for the obvious religious iconography of fire, brimstone and little men with pointy pitchforks. And it's still less strange, perhaps, than Barker's own vision some twenty-seven years later in The Scarlet Gospels. Also, Christopher Young's unique dark fantasy-esque soundtrack is the perfect complement to the dreamy madness in the film's maze-like Hell.

But Hellbound's real strength is that it expands on an already strong cast of characters. Randel's directing is decidedly average, almost nothing about it stands out aside from his occasional use of unusual angles and dolly shots. It's the characters that drive the film. Laurence, Higgins, Bradley and Chapman all return in their respective roles, allowing writer Atkins to build on their development from the previous film's events. Kirsty undergoes a metamorphosis into a powerful figure - spurred on by her haunting experiences and determination to protect vulnerable Tiffany (Imogen Boorman) from Channard. Returning villains Frank and Julia are still a delight to watch: Frank becoming this figure of repressed sexuality for Kirsty, whereas Julia is a more tangible threat who has come into her own now she carries out her diabolic plans independent of Frank's influence. The only character who doesn't return is Kirsty's boyfriend Steve (Robert Hines) though I'm sure a strand of wet lettuce might have been on screen at one point so who knows. His role is replaced by Kyle MacRae (William Hope) who, despite being played by Lt. Gorman himself, is a dippy medical assistant who falls for Kirsty even as she catatonically recounts her father's horrible murder.

Speaking of which, one thing that stood out for me as being rather odd is an early sequence where Kirsty quickly sums the events from the first movie and adds in all these fallacious details. She suddenly tells the police that they must destroy the mattress to stop Julia from coming back - a fact she couldn't possibly have known. Did she simply divine that piece of information? Most people upon seeing a blood soaked mattress wouldn't immediately conclude "it's a gateway to Hell, destroy it," they'd likely think "for fuck's sake, has there been a tampon shortage again?"