Sunday, August 25, 2013

Hellraiser (1987)

... aka: Clive Barker's Hellraiser
... aka: Hellbound Heart, The
... aka: Sadomasochists from Beyond the Grave

Directed by:
Clive Barker

Highly dissatisfied with the previous adaptations of his work; the dreary subway-set mutant saga TRANSMUTATIONS (1985; originally titled Underworld) and the gory monster movie RAWHEAD REX (1986), which I somewhat enjoy but not always from the right reasons, Barker decided to finally take the helm himself and bring his novel "The Hellbound Heart" to the big screen. The end product was a more mature, serious horror film that became a hit (grossing over 14 million in the U.S. alone on a 1 million dollar budget). Critics and audiences both responded well to the grim, bloody, creative and unpredictable story and the film helped boost Barker's reputation as a darker, edgier figure to contrast the more mainstream appeal of the massively popular Stephen King. The film also introduced audiences to a brand new genre icon: Pinhead. Doug Bradley's mannered, S&M-clad, well-spoken, nail-faced centerpiece to the eventual long-running series (dubbed simply "Lead Cenobite" in this first film) represented a much more intellectual evil to contrast personality-free slasher maniacs like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, and juvenile one-liner-spouting fiends like Chucky and Freddy Krueger.

Unhappily married couple Larry (Andrew Robinson) and Julia (Clare Higgins) Cotton, along with their teenage daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), move into a new house in the UK that had previously been occupied by Larry's estranged (and criminal) brother Frank (Sean Chapman) whom Julia had a brief yet exciting and passionate affair with years earlier. Little does anyone know, but Frank's remains are actually underneath the floorboards in the attic. Larry cuts himself while moving furniture, bleeds onto the floor and manages to somehow revive the brother in the process. The problem Frank now faces is that he's in some sort of bloody skeletal state and needs more blood to gain back his entire body. After some coercion, Julia - who's still in love with her brother-in-law all these years later - starts seducing and then murdering men to provide the needed blood. Not too happy about losing a hell-bound soul are a group of fetishistic demons from hell who can be summoned using an ancient puzzle box.

After the film proved highly profitable, Barker was given several more opportunities to direct; though neither of his efforts would match the success of his first. NIGHTBREED (1990), based on Barker's novel Cabal, was a flawed, intricate production that involved both a masked serial killing psychiatrist (played by soft-spoken Canadian director David Cronenberg) and a bunch of mythical, individually unique, once-human mutant outcasts living in their own isolated world underneath a cemetery. The film was somewhat neutered by producers after they re-edited the film and removed many of the scenes. Barker's final stint in the director's chair to date - Lord of Illusions (1995) - fared even worse, financially and otherwise. The Bernard Rose-directed Candyman (1992), based on Barker's The Forbidden, was actually the big Barker hit of the decade.

Hellraiser's success also meant that mass sequelization was the order of the day. Bradley and the Pinhead character were the only real constants though Barker was himself directly involved with the series for awhile, producing the first three sequels before bowing out. HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II (1989), directed by Tony Randel, was an oppressive, murky follow-up set in a mental asylum with Higgins, Laurence and Bradley all reprising their roles. Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992), directed by Anthony Hickox and featuring a Laurence cameo, went a more mainstream horror sequel route complete with one-liners and more gimmicky Cenobites (including one that shoots CDs out of its mouth). Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996), an ambitious, muddled, troubled production, had three distinct settings (past - present - future), including scenes aboard a spaceship. It turned out so well that its director - special effects master Kevin Yagher, opted to hide behind the notorious "Alan Smithee" pseudonym.

After Bloodline was slated by critics and sorely under-performed at the box office, the series then went direct-to-video, where it prospered. Scott Derrickson's Hellraiser: Inferno (2000) was the first of these releases. Rick Bota directed the next three entries: Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002), which brought Laurence back again as Kirsty, Hellraiser: Deader (2005), which wasn't even conceived as a Hellraiser film until some slight alterations were made last minute, and Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005), which again had little to do with Barker's original vision. The 9th and so far final entry was the Bradley-free Hellraiser: Revelations (2011), which was so terrible that it's been denounced by not only fans, but also by Barker and Bradley themselves.


Aliens (1986)

... aka: Alien 2
... aka: Alien II
... aka: Alien: The Return
... aka: Aliens: The Return

Directed by:
James Cameron

In the film-reference-filled, Kevin Williamson-penned slasher sequel Scream 2 (1997) there's a scene where know-it-all film students discuss sequels. When one student opines that all sequels are inferior to the original, another chimes in that that's not always the case and cites Aliens as an exception to this rule. The remark goes unchallenged by both the professor and the other students, almost as if it's so obviously true that it would be foolish to even argue. I, however, will argue it. Aliens is not a better film than ALIEN. I have always, and will always, find directly comparing these two films to be not only unfair but also somewhat foolish. While it's not quite apples and oranges, preference of one over the other is just as likely to be dictated by one's expectations going in as it does the actual quality of either film. While I can understand a younger audience weened on superhero movies gravitating more toward this one as it's faster-paced, more thrilling and more action-oriented, the original's atmosphere and measured shocks may actually be more appealing to most classic horror fans.

Despite obvious similarities (the same lead character, the same alien(s), similar production design, etc.), the two films set out to accomplish entirely different things. Futuristic trappings / setting aside, Ridley Scott's film is pretty much a straight-up horror flick. It is dark, moody, tense, unpredictable, extremely atmospheric and designed primarily to shock and scare. While Aliens also works some of the same avenues, enough so that is can be considered a horror, sci-fi and action blend, its chief goal is clearly to excite audiences; to thrill them. Extremely bleak and gloomy, Alien doesn't make you feel "good" when you watch it and it wasn't intended to. Aliens, however, was designed to get audiences cheering. It's a loud, fast, rousing, action-and-special-effects-packed popcorn flick with a more personable heroine and better-defined supporting characters (even if most fall into the "gross stereotype" category). So to put an end to the debate once and for all, I'll simply put it this way: Alien is a better horror film. Aliens is a better action film.

Lt. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), sole human survivor of the cargo ship Nostromo, has been floating out in space for decades (57 years to be exact) in a sustained deep sleep chamber. She's finally discovered, brought back to civilization and then attempts to adjust back to a 'normal' everyday life. Nobody seems to believe her story about what happened on her last mission and she's plagued by nightmares featuring an alien monster bursting from her stomach. Ripley also learns that the same desolate planet where she and the rest of the ill-fated Nostromo crew picked up the unwanted alien creature has since been colonized. When communication with the colony is lost, the company responsible for putting them there organizes a mission to check up on them. Reluctantly, Ripley decides to accompany a group of gruff "space marines" there to investigate. They formulate a safe, supposedly fool proof plan of action, which naturally doesn't go quite as expected; stranding Ripley and surviving company on the planet... along with countless acid-blooded killer aliens and their "bitch" mother.

Among those along for the ride are handsome Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn), annoying jokester Pvt. Hudson (Bill Paxton), butch Pvt. Vasquez  (Jenette Goldstein), inept Lt. Gorman (William Hope), mild-mannered android Bishop (a wonderful Lance Henriksen) and duplicitous corporate slimeball Carter Burke (Paul Reiser). Carrie Henn portrays young Newt, the only surviving member of the decimated colony who's managed to stay alive all this time by hiding in air ducts. Despite them, this is clearly Weaver's show all the way and the actress wonderfully embodies the character and creates a heroine truly worth celebrating. Ripley, who - let's face it - was a bit of a blank in the first film - is very nicely fleshed out here; always ensuring we have someone worth rooting for. Weaver was even awarded with a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her work. Though she didn't end up winning, the nod itself was a rare accolade awarded to a genre film that few others have managed to achieve. (The film ended up taking home two well-deserved technical Oscars [sound effects editing and visual effects] and countless other awards from various critic's groups).

Combined with his previous hit The Terminator (1984), Aliens (the seventh highest grossing U.S. film of its year) solidified James Cameron's position as one of Hollywood's top directors. It's certainly much "bigger" than the previous film in regards to the amount of action, high-tech machinery, explosions, aliens and violence on display. The run-time is even bigger at 2 hours 17 minutes, though that fluctuates depending on which version you watch. Some cuts include an additional 15 minutes excised from the original theatrical release print. Stan Winston and company were responsible for many of the highly impressive fx; which have held up brilliantly over the years.

Subsequent follow-ups - none of which come anywhere close to the quality of the first two - include Alien 3 (1992), Alien: Resurrection (1997), AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004) and the awkwardly-titled AVPR: Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007). 2012's Prometheus was a sort-of "prequel" to the series.


Alien (1979)

... aka: Alien: The Eighth Passenger
... aka: Star Beast

Directed by:
Ridley Scott

Other than being one of the most influential and important horror / science fiction movies ever produced, Alien was also a box office smash hit (the sixth highest grosser of its year) that the stuffy Academy Awards couldn't even ignore (it was nominated for two Oscars and took home one for the impressive visual effects). A string of sequels (each progressively worse than the previous entry as it goes) and endless copycats haven't diminished its impact much either. Alien stills holds up incredibly well all these years later. Much like Carpenter's gory, effects-heavy take on THE THING (1982), this continues to impress younger viewers weaned on blockbuster sci-fi and fantasy extravaganzas and manages to pick up legions of new fans each and every year. A big reason for its staying power is the care and intricate detail that went into the art direction and production design. Time, place and the feeling of complete desolation are extremely well established. The future is coldly clinical in its steely and metallic, grey and blue, visage. Blending in all-too-well with the surroundings is another chief component to the film's enduring popularity; its titular menace: a tall, fanged, somewhat lanky - though sneaky and stealthy - acid-blooded fiend designed by H.R. Giger and brought to life by Nick Allder, Dennis Ayling, Brian Johnson and Carlo Rambaldi (all of whom won Oscars). Like the production design, this unique and threatening presentation of alien life helped to elevate the sub-genre and instantly set the film apart.

While traveling through space, the seven-member crew of the freight ship Nostromo receive a faint S.O.S. call from a nearby planet. There they find a crashed spaceship and, inside of it, some unusual and rather large pods. When one of the pods erupts, Kane (John Hurt) is the unlucky recipient of a parasitic lizard-like creature that attaches to his face and won't loosen its grip around his neck. He's brought back aboard for further investigation and the ship takes off. Eventually, the creature lets go and Kane emerges from the ordeal seemingly unharmed. That is until everyone's eating dinner and he suddenly starts having some major indigestion issues. The parasite wasn't just there for a free ride, it had actually implanted an alien embryo into a host body. After Kane's chest erupts, a tiny alien creature pops out and manages to run off. This creature won't be little for much longer however: it grows at a rapid and alarming rate into a large, ruthless creature whose only clear objective is to kill. Now trapped on the ship with nowhere else to run, the survivors are thrust into a kill-or-be-killed scenario with the unwanted stowaway.

Though executed with far more skill on a much higher budget, Alien still owes a certain debt of gratitude to Edward L. Cahn's set-bound low-budget 'B' picture IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958). It! not only featured an almost-unstoppable alien creature aboard a traveling spaceship, but also had a subplot involving an alien "bacteria" that causes stomach cramps and had a tense scene of an astronaut crawling through the ventilation shafts and suddenly encountering the creature (repeated - and one of the key jump-outta-your-seat moments - in Alien). Both films also make use of an air lock system during the finale. There are enough obvious similarities between the two films to draw the conclusion that script-writer Dan O'Bannon (who'd later direct the excellent horror-comedy THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) was indeed influenced by Jerome Bixby's It! script.

Top-billed Tom Skerritt plays Dallas, the ship's captain, Ian Holm is Ash, a science officer who has a major secret of his own, and grown-up former child actress Veronica Cartwright (from Hitchcock's THE BIRDS) and veteran character actors Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton help to round out the crew. It was, however, relative newcomer Sigourney Weaver (as warrant officer Ripley) who'd emerge as the film's breakout star; not to mention sole survivor. Well, unless you count Jonesy the cat. Some found it novel that Weaver was not only smart, resilient and strong, but also not required to be in any kind of romantic scenes with her male co-stars.

Alien has never been out of circulation since its initial release. It's always been easy to find, easy to see and is one of the best-distributed and most popular titles on this blog. There have been numerous cuts and re-issues of the film over the years, including ones featuring footage cut from the original theatrical release version. Ridley Scott was less commercially successful with his next venture into sci-fi territory; 1982's Blade Runner didn't fare too well with critics or audiences upon release. Since then it's picked up a huge following; numerous critics who initially trashed it ate their words and many have issued new (and glowingly positive) reviews for the film since.

The string of sequels began strongly with ALIENS (1986), the hit follow-up from James Cameron. Though it concentrated more on loud action set-pieces than the chilly, claustrophobic, scary mood established in the original film, it improved upon its predecessor in other ways; namely by effectively elaborating on the Ripley persona; turning her into a more three-dimensional heroine audiences enjoyed cheering on. Weaver was even recognized with an extremely rare (for a genre film) Best Actress Oscar nomination for it. Weaver was back again in Alien 3 (1992), David Fincher's grim, dreary third chapter, and again in even less interesting Alien: Resurrection (1997). Weaver bowed out after and diminishing returns on the saga meant they'd have to do something slightly different; mix two franchises into one. AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004) and AVPR: Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007) were the resulting films and few were pleased with the results. Scott himself returned to try to breathe new life into the series with a (sort of) prequel: Prometheus (2012).

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