Saturday, August 22, 2015


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological*

FIRESTARTER the novel was published roughly six years after CARRIE, the book that made Stephen King a bestseller celebrity. When I recently reread the 1980 book, I thought of it as "CARRIE lite"-- not in terms of its seriousness, but in terms of its symbolic richness. CARRIE remains a deep exploration of feminine fears and anxieties, given mythic resonance by its combination of an "ugly duckling" story with one of Poe-esque vengeance. FIRESTARTER's grade-school heroine Charlie McGee, however, read to me as a flat, uninteresting character. Her whole reason for being is simply her anxiety over using her fire-kindling power to defend herself and her father against the manipulative agents of the evil "Shop." The anxiety is formed at a younger age, when she almost burns her mother with a careless use of her power, and from then on, little Charlie is largely defined by her reluctance to use her power again. Further, it seemed to me that King was actually more interested in the chief villain of the story; John Rainbird, a Cherokee Shop-agent who cherishes the desire to kill the young psychic and spiritually take his power for his own after death. Still, though Rainbird has more symbolic depth than Charlie, he isn't much better realized.

The 1984 film, directed Mark L, Lester, is probably one of the more faithful adaptations of a King work-- and this may be because the original novel lacks a lot of the deeper psychological issues found in the best Stephen King prose. Most films are, by their nature, forced to leave out many of the subtler details of prose works, partly for reasons of time, partly due to the cinema's general inability to "go into the heads" of characters. But since King didn't put much into the heads of his novel's characters, I didn't feel the lack, as I did, say, with the adaptation of DEAD ZONE.

Lester and his FX-team do an admirable job with the fires and explosions, and young Drew Barrymore's intensity enlivens the static character of Charlie. The script minimizes Rainbird's Native American associations, so it seems that his desire to kill Charlie is no more than a strange fetish. The other actors turn in decent if unexceptional work.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological*

If there's one thing one can uniformly praise about the last three HELLRAISER films to feature Doug Bradley's Pinhead, it's that they all abandoned a particular bankrupt idea introduced in the third film and carried into the fourth; the idea that Pinhead and his fellow demons had to be prevented from busting out of Hell and invading the modern world. IMO Barker's Hell functions best not as a clear and present danger to temporal reality, as seen in 1999's clunky END OF DAYS, but as a domain of transgressive temptation. In most films it's asserted that Pinhead can't menace those who are innocent of summoning him for evil reasons, though HELL ON EARTH bends that rule to the point of near-breaking. So the later films' shift to using Pinhead as a source of sado-Satanic temptation was certainly an improvement on the idea of hell not just being raised, but breaking loose.

The fifth HELLRAISER film initiated this shift, and in my previous review I praised HELLRAISER: INFERNO for plunging its possibly-sinful protagonist into a noir-like world of sex, sin and corruption. HELLRAISER: HELLSEEKER unfortunately reprises almost the same basic idea, but telegraphs the plot-twist without a trace of the subtlety employed by the creators of INFERNO. Director Rick Bota, who would also helm the next two franchise-entries back-to-back during the same year, shows a total lack of the visual style that's so important to the franchise, while leading man Dean Winters turns in a workmanlike performance as Trevor, a man accused of murdering his wife. The twist, despite being telegraphed, is muddled and confusing, and the only reason the film stands out is that it marks the return of Kirsty Cotton, again played by Ashley Laurence and last seen stuck in an asylum as a side-point within HELL ON EARTH.

Unfortunately, though I admire Laurence's acting and I'm sure she was glad to get the work, the role itself is crap. The few lines that recapitulate the relationship between Kirsty and Pinhead, the demon she managed to escape, are poorly written and capture none of the tension present in the first two films. Kirsty might as well have been "Generic Lifetime Movie Wife," for all the difference her character makes. This is without question the worst entry in the series.

HELLRAISER: DEADER isn't much better, though the audience gets a protagonist who's somewhat sympathetic. It's another lady reporter this time, Amy Klein (Kari Wuhrer), out to investigate a European cult, "the Deaders," rumored to kill their members and then resurrect them. If I had not read online that both this film and the subsequent HELLWORLD came from re-purposed scripts that originally had nothing to do with the franchise, I would assume that the scripters were deriving this idea from HELL ON EARTH's use of the zombie-raising trope. (I must admit that there is a prevalent association between hell and the illegitimate raising of the dead-- the trope shows up in one of the surviving stories of Sumerian Ishtar-- but "dead people walking" just doesn't fit the sadomasochistic mythos of HELLRAISER.) The writers at least do as much as possible to make this look like a Hellraiser entry: the head of the Deader cult is a descendant of the man who created the Lament Configuration, and, as shown in the still above, the box even serves to unleash those nasty infernal chains on Amy, though this deviation from canon is proved to be a short-lived nightmare. But though Wuhrer is good, she can't do much with the incoherent script. At the eleventh hour it's suggested that Amy has some molestation issues with her dead father, apparently for no reason but to ratchet up the heroine's agonies.

Next to HELLSEEKER and DEADER, HELLWORLD is at least modesty entertaining, partly because it suckers the mythos-devotee into thinking that it's gone totally off the rails, showing the urbane Pinhead in scenes like the one above: chopping someone's head off with a mundane axe. However, fans of the franchise may be pleased that the canon is in the end preserved, and in a much more involved manner than a simple bad dream.

I suspect that HELLWORLD's original script was patterned upon 1980s slasher-flicks like BLOODY NEW YEAR and KILLER PARTY, in that the Bota flick deals with a quintet of American teens being systematically knocked off during a lavish party. The party celebrates the success of the online game "Hellworld," which, by some murky plot-contrivance, has channeled the real names and associations of Pinhead into aspects of the game. The five youngsters are all devotees of the game, as was their former sixth member Adam, who committed suicide two years previous.  The host of the party is billed only as "the Host," and played by Lance Henriksen, who was reputedly offered the role of Pinhead for the first film. Pinhead and some of his fellow demons show up during the festivities, using tried-and-true slasher-methods to murder the friends of the late Adam. But are the Cenobites the real source of the evil, or is it-- someone or something else?

The five protagonists are as flat and uninvolving as are most slasher-victims, but that's almost become a standard in the genre. The resolution regarding Pinhead's uncharacteristic actions isn't any masterpiece of puzzle-solving, but at least it isn't telegraphed as in HELLSEEKER. The production values are better than the previous Bota pictures, which isn't saying a lot. Doug Bradley gets more stuff to do on-camera rather than just standing around, though his dialogue is dull in the extreme. If this is, as I expect, his last perfomance as Pinhead, he could have found worse final outings.

Saturday, August 15, 2015


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1, 2) *poor,* (3) *fair*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological*

After reviewing the first two films in the HELLRAISER franchise months ago-- the first one here, and the second one here-- I'm currently trying to work my way through the following six films, which will put me up to date on all but the 2011 HELLRAISER: REVELATIONS, which alone does not feature the highly iconic Cenobite "Pinhead."  The results so far have been mixed. Though I gave the first two films "good" ratings re: mythicity, I tend to think that the franchise, like that of HALLOWEEN, has an extremely limited range of expression, so that it's difficult-- though not impossible-- to execute a decent series by diverse hands.

In my review for HELLBOUND I had no small praise for the way director Tony Randel and writer Peter Atkins created a mythology for Clive Barker's somewhat sketchy short-story concept. Since writing that review I've linked that infernal mythology to Atkins' enthusiasm for the British horror-author Arthur Machen. However, though Atkins is the credited scripter for both the third and fourth films, he doesn't adequately explore the mythology of Pinhead, Hell and Leviathan in his next outings that he helped create.

HELL ON EARTH was directed by Anthony Hickox, whom one might have thought to be a good match, given his previous success with the two WAXWORK films, which mixed surrealism and sadism in equal measures. Unfortunately EARTH, as if to fit its subtitle, is a mundane and workmanlike letdown. Plainly the film's script wanted to get away from the first two films' emphasis on the convoluted "family romance" of Kirsty Cotton, and this in itself was a creditable idea, since Kirsty's involvement in the Cenobite saga was played out. But Hickox and Atkins chose for their new viewpoint character one of the most routine types possible: the ambitious lady reporter. Struggling telejournalist Joey accidentally witnesses an unbelievable event: the sight of Cenobite chains, tearing apart one of their victims in plain sight. Joey senses a story in this bizarre event, and investigates various people who either witnessed the event-- street-girl Terri-- or who were involved in similar events in the past. At one point Joey watches a videotape of an interview with Kirsty, who's been condemned to an asylum for trying to tell the truth about the Cenobites. Nothing further is done with Kirsty in the film, so for me the interview accomplishes little except to make this viewer want to see something more done with her character.

Both Joey and Terri, the principal viewpoint characters, are achingly dull, and the film only comes alive when Pinhead (Doug Bradley) shows up. He has a strong scene where he parodies the Christian resurrection, but his overall mythology is corrupted by a terrible conceit. This version of Pinhead can re-animate dead bodies and magically equip them with super-weapons, suggesting that Hickox's film might've been better named ZOMBIE TERMINATOR. The idea of a Cenobite who can shoot deadly CDs from his mouth demonstrates that the filmmakers had totally lost touch with the original idea.

HELLRAISER: BLOODLINE is at least better than HELL ON EARTH in that it attempts to expand on the Cenobite mythology, in particular by telling the story of who created the demon-unleashing box known as the Lament Configuration. However, BLOODLINE, like EARTH, also suffers from a careless appropriation of tropes from the domain of science fiction. Originally, the storyline was supposed to evolve chronologically, showing the demon-box from its creation in 1700s France to its recrudescence on a space station in the twenty-second century. The studio reputedly interfered, insisting that the film needed a sequence with Pinhead toward the beginning to help sell the film. Thus the narrative opens with one of the space-station scenes, uses sequences in 1700s France and 20th-century America for the "body" of the film, and then returns to the 22nd century for a big finish. I can't say whether the original order of events would have worked for me any better than the finished product, which was completed by Don Chapelle when original director Jeff Yagher walked off the project. However, even allowing for the interference, none of the characters in any time-period are particularly memorable, and Pinhead doesn't get much in the way of memorable lines or action. There's an attempt to create a new female demoness, Angelique. This development might be regarded as a partial return to a discarded idea, since at the time of HELLBOUND's production one idea was that future installments might be built around the remorseless Julia Cotton. However, though Angelique gets a few lively scenes of torture and mayhem, she doesn't rate as any sort of rival to Pinhead. The pincushioned one even apparently perishes in the far future, though the script's assertion that he's suddenly vulnerable to light sounds like yet another impoverished idea-recycling.

Just when I'm thinking that the franchise can't offer any more pleasures aside from listening to Doug Bradley's orotund speaking-voice, along comes HELLRAISER: INFERNO, directed by Scott Derrickson, who also co-wrote the film with Paul Boardman. One review faulted the script because Pinhead's physical appearance is minimal. But INFERNO succeeds just where the previous two installments failed. Clive Barker created in his short story and original film a vision of Hell concocted out of images of modern-day pain and anxiety, as opposed to the medieval images that still inform the popular image of the Judeo-Christian "inferno."

Derrickson accomplishes this by organizing his narrative around a tough yet possibly corrupt police detective named Thorne (insert obvious Christian symbolism here).  Thorne is brought in to investigate the horrific murder of a victim slightly known by the detective. On the scene he finds a mysterious puzzle-box and opens it, partly because he himself is "good with puzzles" (Thorne's own self-characterization, and one that strongly implicates him in all that follows). Thorne seems to be the archetypal dedicated cop, willing to "march into hell" to save the innocent, but the deeper his investigations go, the more he's dragged into a world that merges the grunge of real life (tattoo parlors, prostitutes) with the chittering and capering of semi-human creatures.

Anyone who knows the oeuvre of Cornell Woolrich will probably guess where the narrative is going, but it's to Derrickson's credit that he never does give the audience an explicit "Big Reveal." Even at the end, Thorne's fate, like his guilt, is ambivalent. The noir conceit works here thanks to an intense, dynamic performance by the underrated Craig Sheffer, who also gets good support from Nicholas Turturro as the detective's partner. The only false step in the script appears toward the climax, when Pinhead shows up to lecture Thorne on how he's allowed his "flesh" to conquer his "spirit." I know that the Cenobite's cassock-like attire makes him look a little like a Catholic priest-- but I don't think Pinhead, denizen of a sadomasochistic hell, ought to SOUND Catholic.

Thursday, August 13, 2015



I've not read the novel on which THE DEADLY BEES was based, but Wikipedia asserts that the original shooting script by Robert Bloch was greatly modified during the film's troubled production. What emerges is a rather low-wattage thriller, perhaps noteworthy only for being one of the first "killer bee" movies, a subgenre that really took off in the 1970s.

One of the film's story problems is attempting to generate a "whodunnit" as to the identity of the person unleashing a strain of killer bees upon a small English town. Given that there are only two suspects, obviously one is the red herring and the other is supposed to be the less likely suspect, but the flaccid quality of the "mystery" results in nothing beyond a lot of shots of viewpoint character Vicki (Suzannah Leigh) meandering about trying to find clues.

Leigh is appealing enough, but her character is grossly underwritten, even though there's potential in the fact that she's a big-time singer who's come to the English countryside to get away from the big-city noise. But she's a cipher next to Bloch's archetypal heroine Marion Crane, or even Carol Harbin from 1964's STRAIT-JACKET. Nor do the local bee-fanciers manage to communicate to the audience any sound reasons for their fascination with bees.

The original game-plan for the film was to team Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff as the two antagonistic apiologists, but that bit of casting fell through. The presence of stars might have helped the film at the box office, but it wouldn't have improved the film's marked lack of tension and its inability to mount impressive bee-attacks on its low budget.

DEADLY BEES is an adequate time-killer, but nothing more.



Though I read Herman Melville's novel OMOO-- sequel to his bestseller TYPEE-- back in college, I remember nothing about it, except that said sequel also involved Polynesian culture. Even without any clear recolletions, though, I doubt that Leon Leonard's film really has anything more than that in common with the Melville novel. A quick quote from the author at the film's beginning is probably the only Melville work here.

OMOO OMOO is nothing but a cheapjack take on a popular trope in horror fiction: a curse that results when Western unbelievers pilfer the treasures of a pagan idol. As the film begins, this theft has already taken place, possibly by one Bardette, captain of a European ship. His ship is returning "to the scene of the crime" as it were because Bardette has become deathly ill, and he seeks to recover the pearls of a Polynesian idol and return them to their rightful place. It was never clear to me whether or not Bardette himself stole the pearls or simply knew that one of his crew did so. It's also not clear whether or not there is a real supernatural curse at work, for at one point a Polynesian holy man comes aboard the ship and essentially heals the captain with his techniques. Again, since it's not clear that the shaman is using magic or psychology, I can't really say that he's a source of marvels either. When the story's villain is slain, it's through the mundane means of a Bengal tiger.

There's really just one distinction about OMOO OMOO. Whereas Hollywood made reams of naturalistic films about the Edenic pleasures of Polynesia, this is one of the few that dwells on the islanders' exoticism to the extent that the film moves into the domain of the uncanny. The presence of the pearl-eyed "shark god" is the main source of the uncanny exoticism, even if there's no proof that either the god or the film named after him have any power-- except the power to make viewers wonder why anyone would choose to reference a Melville novel that no one reads any more.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

ANT-MAN (2015)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological*

At a 2015 convention, a fan asked Stan Lee if there were any little-known Marvel characters he wanted to see adapted to the cinema. Lee didn't really seem to understand the question, because he merely started talking about Marvel characters already in the development pipeline, like the Black Panther. It's most likely that the fan was someone who had enjoyed how Marvel Studios had managed to generate huge success with a conglomeration of obscure characters in 2014's GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. Perhaps the same fan looked forward to seeing what Marvel would do with Ant-Man come summer, and hoped to see more such miracles of adaptation performed in future.

I don't imagine Stan Lee nurtured any deep nostalgia for Ant-Man, or for his subsequent incarnation Giant-Man, for both of these identities for size-shifting scientist Henry Pym came a cropper in sales. The Ant-Man/Giant-Man franchise was the first major failure of the Marvel Comics line, and the character only became important in Marvel history when he became part of the Avengers franchise-- though during that tenure Henry Pym spent much more time under the sobriquets of Goliath and Yellowjacket (his third and fourth re-namings, respectively).  Later there was an attempt to revive Pym's Ant-Man in a sort of INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN format, and still later Marvel took a shot at putting a new and younger face under the ant-helmet, one Scott Lang.

The 1979 storyline which introduced Lang serves as the template for the Marvel Studios film. Henry Pym's participation in that storyline was only minimal, but here, Pym is the "older, wiser hero" who initiates the younger man into the ways of heroism. This Pym has never been connected with the Avengers, but to keep him in the Marvel Studios continuity, a flashback establishes that he was once associated with Howard Stark (father of Tony ("Iron Man") Stark. Both he and his wife Janet (aka "The Wasp") were not public superheroes as they were in the comics, but apparently served the U.S. government as covert operatives, using Pym's shrinking-formula to accomplish special missions. One of those missions claims the life of Pym's wife, so he hangs it up in typical "mourning hero" fashion, though the flashback teases the comics-insider with the possibility that Janet might have suffered some darker fate, in keeping with the complicated history of the comics-characters.

As in the comics feature, Lang is an ex-con who was sent up for burglary, and his primary mission upon getting out is to find gainful employment in order to get visitation rights to his small daughter Cassie, who is currently being raised by his ex-wife and her new cop-husband.  Henry Pym and his daughter Hope lure Lang into their own agenda, which has to do with stopping Pym's former protege, industrialist Darren Cross, who plans to weaponize Pym's shrinking process into a miniature armor-suit styled "Yellowjacket" (a cute shout-out to one of Pym's multiple identities). Cross also plans to sell the armor to the evil folks at Hydra, which, as Pym tells Lang, will lead to evilness, chaos, and lotsa bad stuff. Lang is more or less dragooned into taking on the Ant-Man identity-- part of the "persuasion process" involves Lang getting convicted for burglary-- and to my recollection, not a lot is said about what sort of "gainful employment" he obtains as a result of playing hero. Of course, by the film's end, he's not only saved his daughter's life and impressed her stepfather, it's hinted that Avenger-hood may be around for both Lang and possibly for Hope, who's set up to assume the persona of a "new Wasp." Thus it may be expected that at that point the mundane problems of earning one's daily bread will go out the window.

The plot-material regarding Cross' weapons-threat is easily the most pedestrian aspect of ANT-MAN, though it's certainly in line with many of Marvel Studios' criticisms of the multi-national arms race.  Cross as a villain isn't much better: he's largely a cipher who is defined, as is Hope, by "daddy issues." Pym even admits that at one point Cross was like the son Pym never had-- so does that mean that when Cross tries to cozy up to Hope, he's actually trying to have sex with his symbolic sister?  If this had been played up, Cross would have come closer to the Oedipal territory suggested by the comics-version of the villainous Ultron-- Pym's Frankenstein-monster creation-- than anything audiences got from the cinematic Ultron. The more things change, etc.

By far the film's strongest scenes are those involving Lang's mastery of the many talents of the Ant-Man-- fighting, jumping through keyholes, and commanding ants. Easily the best comics-stories of the original Ant-Man were those by Lee, Larry Leiber and Jack Kirby, which placed great emphasis on placing the mini-hero in strange situations with sewers and popsicle sticks. Director Peyton Reed and the four writers of the script get lots of mileage out of analogous situations, and it's to their credit that the many, many scenes of Ant-Man contending with Very Big Things never become tedious. Perhaps this is because the cinematic Ant-Man is more powerful than the comics-version, for while the latter had the strength of a human being despite his ant-size, he didn't have much in the way of mobility, being dependent on flying ants and the like. The film's Ant-Man can leap around like a miniature version of the Hulk-- which actually would have made just as much sense in the comics. After all, if Pym had a man's normal strength at his diminished size, why *wouldn't * he have been able to jump around? Maybe the comics-creators were afraid readers might comment that he acted more like a "Flea-Man?"  Still, with that extra bit of power the comic-book Ant-Man might have survived the decade in his own feature-- or at least, he might not have become the joke he became when Garrett Morris (who has a cameo in the film) played him on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

The psychological aspects of ANT-MAN are minor at best, but the cosmological content is quite good, including Lang's accidental journey into the subatomic realm, for all that the film telegraphs that This is Sure to Happen. Principal players Michael Douglas (Pym0, Evangeline Lilly (Hope), and Corey Stoll (Cross) all do pretty well with their roles. Rudd, primarily known as a comic actor, assumes a basic "self-effacing dork" persona that gets boring at times, and I would hope that if there is a second Ant-Man film, the writers will expand on his rather two-dimensional personality.

Friday, August 7, 2015


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*

KISS OF THE VAMPIRE wasn't by any means the last time Hammer tried to put out a vampire movie without Christopher Lee, but it was the last vamp-film for producer Anthony Hinds, who sat in the producer's chair for the film that started the company's mix of fangs and cleavage, HORROR OF DRACULA. Hinds had also helmed BRIDES OF DRACULA, the company's most memorable attempt to make a Lee-less vampire-film, and it's common knowledge in horror-fandom that part of KISS was recycled from BRIDES. The story goes that BRIDES' original script was set up to have vampire hunter Van Helsing destroy the Meinster cultus by unleashing on them a horde of killer bats conjured via black magic. BRIDES reigning star Peter Cushing didn't think that his Van Helsing would muck about with magic, so a new-- and arguably better-- climax was devised for BRIDES. However, someone in the Hammer hierarchy, possibly Hinds, decided to use the discarded ending for the next vampire film on the roster, which by accident or design happened to be Cushing-less.

A British man and wife, Gerald and Marianne, venture into Bavaria for their honeymoon, and almost immediately receive a cordial invitation to dine with a local luminary named Doctor Ravna. The good doctor inhabits his own mansion and has both servants and three grown children, though no wife, and though he doesn't seem to be any sort of aristocrat, the locals in the Bavarian village defer to him as if he were some feudal lord. During dinner, it becomes evident that Ravna has taken a shine to Marianne, though Gerald doesn't see it coming until it's too late. Ravna is a vampire who uses his powers to steal Marianne away, and Gerald can find no one to help him, except an eccentric professor named Zimmer. 

Since Hinds wrote both BRIDES and KISS under the psuedonym John Elder, it's tempting to believe that he produced the later movie simply to take advantage of what he deemed a killer ending-- and one even more in line with Hammer's anti-aristocracy attitude than BRIDES. Professor Zimmer has come to Ravna's territory because the vampire-lord seduced Zimmer's daughter not with fangs but with the lure of decadent pleasures, thus forcing Zimmer to destroy his own offspring. When Gerald invades the mansion to bring out Marianne, he gets a good look at the bacchanale Ravna has going with his children and various other vampire hangers-on-- though, to be sure, the audience doesn't actually see all that much, even with the restoration of brief scenes of bloody violence that were clipped from the U.S. TV version of KISS. Gerald manages to rescue Marianne and Zimmer unleashes the killer bats. The end.

KISS is a decent enough vampire film, but none of the characters have much presence. Gerald probably comes off best for his type of character; while his wife is antsy about the way the doctor looked at her, Gerald is seen blithely doing morning calisthenics, the very picture of the positive-minded type. Considering that the climax hinges on the opposition of Ravna and Zimmer, neither is more than a cipher, and so the killer ending doesn't have the kick it might have.