Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Review: Hellbound: Hellraiser II

Like many horror sequels, Hellbound: Hellraiser II attempts to up the stakes and the scope of its predecessor. In the attempt, it manages to walk the fine line between "expanding the setting" and "explaining too much." All the same, now that we understand a bit more of what to expect from Cenobites and skinless undead, the scariness is diminished—its vacancy filled with extra gore and weirdness.

Hellbound picks up soon after the events of, and includes several flashbacks to, the first Hellraiser (my review is here). I assume the intent was to make the film comprehensible to those who missed the first one, and indeed, so thorough is the recap that this is one case where I doubt you'd miss much if you went straight to the sequel. It might feel more WTF than it already does, though, and plus you'd miss Andrew Robinson (the dad in the first movie), who doesn't reprise his role here. The only other principal who doesn't return is the boyfriend, but maybe he died in the last movie…I didn't care enough to commit that detail to memory.

Our plucky heroine from Hellraiser I, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), is perhaps understandably in a mental hospital following what she endured. Yet we soon learn this isn't just any mental hospital; patients are subjected to invasive brain experiments and lofty philosophizing by the hospital administrator, Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham, whom you might remember as one of the bad guys from Hot Fuzz). Soon enough, we learn that Channard is totally into puzzle-boxes and S&M and forbidden lore. Not that this comes as a huge surprise—it's obvious from the very first shot of his house's interior, which has a distinctly Patrick Bateman aesthetic.

Kirsty escapes certain doom at the hospital with the help of one of the staff (William Hope, AKA Lt. Gorman in Aliens). Naturally, they head into even-more-certain doom at Channard's house, where Julia (Claire Higgins, from the first movie) has come back to score some flesh. A near-catatonic, puzzle-obsessed girl from the institute shows up eventually and helps Kirsty when they both get drawn into the Cenobites' realm—where Pinhead (Doug Bradley) awaits with his friends Chatterer, Butterball, and the rather less memorably named Female Cenobite. Channard turns into a sort of super-Cenobite, we meet the baffling but slightly scary "god" of their realm, the girls narrowly escape, and then the girls go back into Cenobite-land to I guess stop them once and for all, which of course they don't, because there's a sequel tease at the end.

One way in which Hellbound is inarguably superior to the first one is in pacing—this one really moves. About forty minutes in, I found myself marveling that so much plot had already unfolded, and wondering where they could go from here. At times it almost (but not quite) felt overstuffed, as if it could have been two slightly more tedious movies. I'm glad it wasn't, but on the other side of the coin, so much happens in Hellbound that it's sometimes hard to keep track of the wheres and whys. It all feels sort of dizzying after awhile, like "Oh, now here's more stuff that is happening," which I suppose is kind of appropriate for a movie that spends almost half its running time in "Hell." All the same, I found it distancing. (Not that I wanted to get especially close to the Hellraiser universe.)

It's also obvious that somebody had a lot of fun designing both the environments and the inhabitants of the Cenobite realm. At least twice I thought of M. C. Escher, whose style suits not only the pan-planar universe of Hellraiser but also its omnipresent puzzle-boxes. Exotic creature design, though, is the real attraction here, and I suspect is why the franchise endured so long. As with the first film, much of the "fun" here is in beholding the freaky oddities that threaten the hapless human characters. Super-Channard doesn't really make much sense—I assume his implied years of study helped him attain his particularly wacky Cenobite shape and abilities—but he's fun to watch despite Cranham's emotionless performance.

Let me be clear: one mustn't go into these movies with expectations of particularly adept cinematic artistry. Hellbound is the sort of movie where one of the background monsters has no eyes, until his last scene, when he suddenly has eyes—and no explanation is given or even hinted at. Ambitious set-pieces and world-building aside, Hellbound is as gratuitous and shallow as any given Freddy or Jason movie; it's just darker, ickier, and weirder. The first Hellraiser was classier, if I may even be permitted to the word "classy" in conjunction with this franchise.

Like Alien and Aliens, Hellraisers I and II are closely connected, similar in overall quality, yet quite different in feel. Hellbound has more of a "cosmic horror" feel, whereas the first film was more confined and arguably scarier for it. I'll see the third film, but it looks like it departs significantly from the first two installments, from what online scuttlebutt I've seen.

Say, that'd be a good name for a Cenobite: "Scuttlebutt." Eesh, I can envision it now. You just know the "scuttling" would be achieved with unnerving stop-motion.

Star Score: 2 out of 5

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