Sunday, March 29, 2009


The first burden of anyone telling a haunted house story is to invent some excuse for their characters not to haul ass out the door at the first demonic whisper heard coming from the cellar or the first time black ooze churns up from the toilet and, for the most part, these are always lame contrivances. You know 'em all - bad weather, physical instability, sometimes just stubborn disbelief. Director Renny Harlin's Prison, however, hits on the perfect rationale - all its characters are locked in.

Based on a story by producer Irwin Yablans (Halloween) with reliable Empire and Full Moon scribe C. Courtney Joyner penning the screenplay (Joyner's name will be familiar to fans of '90s direct-to-video fare, with Trancers III, Lurking Fear, Doctor Mordrid as well as many of the Puppet Master sequels all to his credit), Prison is best described as The Shawshank Redemption meets The Shining, replete with an array of pre-CG splatter FX.

When a prisoner named Charlie Forsythe is wrongly executed in the Wyoming State Penitentiary in 1968, the facility is closed for years. But when overcrowding in surrounding prisons force it to be re-opened to relieve congested conditions, merciless warden Ethan Sharpe (Lane Smith) - a man who was intimately involved with that unjust death in '68 - finds that bars and cells can't keep old ghosts at bay. The new crop of arriving inmates, sent to the prison early to serve as a work crew to ready the prison for its official re-opening, will have to contend with both Sharpe's sadism and the malevolent force that haunts the prison grounds.

Representing one of the best 'guy' casts to be found in a genre film (along with Carpenter's The Thing and 1999's predominantly male cannibal opus Ravenous), Prison is stocked with seasoned character actors. The late Lane Smith is a stand-out as Sharpe, as is Lincoln Kilpatrick (familiar from hours of episodic TV in the '70s an '80s) as longtime inmate Cresus. Tom Everett of Texas Chainsaw III is the wily, escape-bound Rabbit; '80s wrestling superstar Tommy 'Tiny' Lister plays the hulking but good-intentioned Tiny; and Viggo Mortensen is Prison's lead in an early role as the brooding, newly incarcerated car thief Burke (even horror fave Kane Hodder is here under heavy make-up as the resurrected form of Charlie Forsythe).

Chelsea Field (Dust Devil) appears as the lone female of the cast, in a superfluous role as an official advocating penal reform. Field does the best she can with her part but whenever Harlin cuts away from events at the prison to continue her character's subplot, the film's tension is undermined. Harlin and co. should've stuck strictly to their male roster and kept the audience behind bars for the duration of the film.

Harlin foreshadows his work on the fourth Nightmare on Elm Street film here (an assignment which this film landed him) by staging a number of elaborate supernatural set-pieces, slaying characters by a variety of surreal, inventive means. One character finds himself impaled multiple times by steel rods that emerge from the walls of a shaft the hopeful escapee is crawling through. Another is burned alive when the cell he's in suddenly becomes a red-hot death trap; yet another victim is dispatched when yards of barbed wire wraps itself around them.

These gruesome deaths are all vivid and unpredictable - enough to mostly distract from the fact that Joyner's screenplay leaves too much unexplained to ever gel as a story. The vengeful spirit goes after prisoners as well as guards - but why is that? Why would it not just go directly for Sharpe? Joyner also suggests that Burke might be the reincarnation of the wrongly executed man but drops that possibility just as quickly. And for all its loose-ends, the film ends on a frustratingly abrupt note.

But yet Joyner's script supplies Harlin with the necessary framework to make Prison an effectively stylish work, filled with enough blue backlighting to rival Michael Mann's 1983 The Keep (ironically, Harlin's new film, 12 Rounds, opened this past weekend against the staunch competition of another ghost tale, The Haunting in Connecticut). Empire Productions wasn't known for its high success rate (outside of their collaborations with Stuart Gordon - though I will admit to having an affection for 1986's Zone Troopers) but thanks to its unique location, Harlin's artsy direction (that balances gloss and grit), bursts of grisly, garish FX and an appealing cast, this jailhouse rocks. It's just a crime that Prison hasn't been released to DVD yet.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Haunting In Connecticut

The phrase 'based on true events' has been so overused in the name of hyping horror movies for so long now that I believe it needs to be permanently banned. And what's really galling is that few, if any, of these films are ever actually based on true events. I mean, there might be a germ of truth in there (as with Texas Chainsaw Massacre) but to these jaded, unbelieving eyes, when the claim 'based on true events' is used in conjunction with a tale of the supernatural, it shouldn't be taken as anything but a fabrication. People can tell all the stories they want about how ghosts chased them out of their house but I can't buy it as real. However, as a movie-goer, my skepticism doesn't prevent me from enjoying a good haunted house yarn. In fact, sometimes I even kind of like the lousy ones, like The Haunting in Connecticut.

Directed by Peter Cornwell (his first feature), The Haunting in Connecticut purports to be the real-life tale of, well, something involving ghosts. When a family starts renting a house in Connecticut in order to be closer to the hospital where their oldest son's cancer treatments are being administered, it isn't long before they realize - in true haunted house movie fashion - why the rent was so cheap on this property. As it happens, long ago this house was once a funeral home. Not just that, but seances were held there as well. If ever a house was likely to be haunted, it's this.

At first it's only Matt, the sick teen (Kyle Gallner), that witnesses the apparitions that populate his family's new home, and it's suggested that it's his treatments that are leading to vivid hallucinations. But pretty soon even the non-cancer patients in the house are in on the fun, too. Outside of his mother Sara (Virginia Madsen), though, the other residents of the house are on the forgettable side. They're so forgettable, in fact, that they may slip from your mind even while you're looking at them. For the record, the rest of the haunted clan are Martin Donovan as Peter Campbell, the overworked dad who may or may not be tempted to fall off the wagon; Amanda Crews as Wendy, the Campbell's teenaged niece, and Sophi Knight and Ty Wood as Mary and Billy Campbell, Matt's younger siblings. Even though this may reflect the make-up of the real family in question, for the purposes of the film, it makes the story feel overloaded with undistinguished characters who have no real function to the plot other than to stand around. Even Matt's fellow cancer patient, Reverend Popescu (Elias Koteas), who eventually gets roped in to put the restless spirits to bed doesn't really serve the story as much as he might initially appear to.

In Haunting's favor, Cornwell has enough of a feel for horror to create a mood of menace that offsets the clunkiness of the screenplay by Tim Metcalfe and Adam Simon. The cinematography of Adam Swica and production design by Alicia Keywan are ace contributions to the film and Haunting avoids the slickness of most modern horror without purposely affecting a retro look. For older horror fans, raised on '70s fear fare, the muted, washed-out frames of this film will feel a lot like, well, home.

Fans will also feel right at home with all the cliches included in the screenplay. Even casual horror fans will easily spot influences ranging from The Amityville Horror to Poltergeist to The Exorcist, among others. But what The Haunting in Connecticut lacks in originality or surprises, it makes up for in, well, it really doesn't make up for much (it has some great ghouls walking around, though, with blank eyes and writing inscribed on their ashen skin). But yet even though I wasn't that enthusiastic about The Haunting in Connecticut, I didn't mind this movie. One specific thing that endeared it to me is that this is the rare horror movie to feature a middle-to-lower class family. Horror used to be a genre that, as a rule, would align itself with the working class, blue-collar audience. In recent years, that's changed drastically.

I first noticed this with the 2006 remake of When A Stranger Calls in which instead of being set in a common suburban neighborhood, the new film took place in a remote home that few people outside of Bill Gates could possibly afford. Too many American horror films lately are set in homes of enormous wealth and I think that's an alienating trend. I don't know about you, but most of the people I know live pretty modestly - even the home owners I know don't live in anything close to being described as palatial. And judging by the economy, I think it's safe to say that most people are in the same boat. The characters in films like The Haunting of Molly Hartley, The Unborn, The Uninvited, and The Last House on the Left, however, all seem to be living awfully prosperous lives. Even the recent Friday the 13th remake had one of its characters putting his buddies up for the weekend at his rich family's pad. And the upcoming killer kid flick Orphan features a family living in an impossibly gorgeous home as well. It's become a real distraction to me so I appreciated seeing a more financially strapped American family represented in The Haunting in Connecticut. Obviously big, lavish homes are more cinematic to look at but what happened to the days of Halloween, Poltergeist, or A Nightmare on Elm Street where the characters in horror movies could be seen in homes and neighborhoods that looked like the ones you were familiar with? Horror ideally should hit us where we live, not be a window into a world that's out of our reach.

Maybe that's the saving grace of The Haunting in Connecticut being based on a 'true' story - even with its supernatural baggage, it can't run too far from reality.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


Director Alex Proyas' latest genre foray doesn't follow the usual math, displaying an appreciable non-conformist streak. Maybe what's most unusual about Knowing is that Proyas affords his outlandish premise such serious consideration. There's no attempt to use irony to acknowledge or deflect the ludicrousness of the material. If anything, there's a real message that Proyas is preaching here. Whether you agree with that message or not is irrelevant - the fact that it evidences a point of view separates Knowing from what, say, Michael Bay might've done with this same story. Knowing feels personal in a way that big budget genre pieces seldom do.

The story that Knowing offers, passed through a succession of screenwriters and finally rewritten by the team of Stiles White and Juliet Snowden, is an equation for the End Times. When a time capsule filled with the drawings of elementary school children in the '50s is unearthed today, one entry falls into the hands of young Caleb Koestler (Chandler Canterbury), son to John Koestler (Nicholas Cage), a MIT professor and Astrophysicist. Unlike all the other capsule entries, which are all drawings, this one is a series of seemingly unrelated numbers. When John believes that he's divined a startling purpose to these numbers, the movie becomes a race against time to stop the disastrous events that they predict.

Along the way, Proyas puts Cage's character in the middle of two spectacular disasters that, even with his foreknowledge, he can't avert. Most notable of the two being an airplane crashing on a crowded highway that's stunningly staged by Proyas and, in its fiery aftermath, belies Knowing's PG-13 rating. For a modern science fiction film, though, Knowing is far from being heavy on action or special effects and when such elements are employed here they don't seem there to spike the audiences' attention - they just seem there because the story demanded it. While Knowing is a visually stunning movie, Proyas doesn't go for cool shots that only serve to distract - he takes an assured, straight-forward approach that is unfashionable today. Even most dramas have more jittery camerawork than this does. Knowing seems cut from a cloth of an earlier age of filmmaking (even down to the wonderful score by Marco Beltrami, which harkens back to Bernard Herrmann).

In the later half of Knowing, as events escalate, the overriding question is as much how to accept the inevitable as to how to avert it. Do we choose our time or is the end already an immutable event? Is everything that happens in the universe part of an intelligent design or is it random occurrence? The threat of doomsday always looms in genre films - from The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) to Armageddon (1998) - but no matter how dire the situation is, no matter how huge a rock is headed through space to pummel us, most are quick to end on the up note that our cards came up lucky and the Earth is safe again for another day. More brazen films, like Miracle Mile (1988) and The Rapture (1991) give their protagonists no recourse - except in their ideologies and in their dying dreams.

The beliefs in regards to our purpose on this planet and our place in the cosmic order that Knowing expresses are not universally shared - what beliefs are? - but even though they don't jibe with my personal philosophies, I appreciated the earnest presentation that Proyas gives them. Some might find the conclusion of Knowing too corny for words but putting my cynicism aside, I thought it was satisfying and true to itself. I think it's also true that any other resolution wouldn't have gone through in a movie of this size (reported budget: $50 million). But what some might perceive as a compromise feels like a genuine nod to spirituality to me. The epiphanies of the final stretch of Knowing would be come across as unbearable if they weren't played with the proper sincerity - and Proyas is successful in making a film with a certain set of convictions that is able to bear the merits of speculative entertainment rather than propoganda.

I don't know what kind of audience Knowing will find but I think it's a genre film worth attention and a confirmation of Proyas as director who possesses his own uncommon knowledge of how to avoid artistic catastrophes.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

2009: Year Of the Tire Iron

If the kick-ass trailer for the remake of 1983's House on Sorority Row is a fair indication of the movie's quality, then 2009 will be the year the tire iron will become the weapon that slasher fans can't stop talking about. It's the new machete!

Seriously, though, I'm shocked at how promising this looks. I understand that to some it might look like a formula slasher picture, not worth getting excited over. But if you're the type of person who gets excited about slasher films in the first place, then this trailer is more than likely going to give you a new reason to live. I didn't expect that the remake of House on Sorority Row would look capable of blowing the remakes of My Bloody Valentine and Friday the 13th out of the water but I think we've got a real contender on our hands. The only thing that could tank my enthusiasm is if it wasn't R. PG-13 is fine for some projects but slasher films should always be R, otherwise they're a waste of time. And in the eyes of this old-school slasher fanatic, this looks like anything but a waste of time.

SORORITY ROW trailer in HD

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Last House on The Left (2009)

There's something undeniably odd in seeing the most notorious horror films of the '70s - films that were once controversial staples of drive-ins and grindhouse theaters - brought back decades later as slick entertainment for the multiplexes. It's difficult for horror to be transgressive when films that were once examples of entertainment going beyond the pale are now regarded as venerable brands to be exploited and I belive Last House on the Left is hands-down the strangest choice of a remake so far. Dawn of the Dead, The Hills Have Eyes, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween...while I questioned the wisdom in trying to give any of these films a contemporary make-over, at least I could understand the commercial potential in each case. If you want to immediately have an audience for your zombie film, your slasher film, or your survivalist horror film...those titles are the ones you'd want to go after. Last House, however, is such an ugly tale that I have to wonder why Wes Craven and his fellow producers thought that the world was clamoring to see an updated tale of rape and revenge with better production values. You know, was this really the kind of thrill ride that was worth recreating? It was a milestone for its time, yes, but does the audience of 2009 need their own version? Based on the new film and its initial box office reception, I guess the answer is 'kind of'.

I'll be explictly discussing the ending of this film later in this review so if that's something you care to avoid, you should stop reading after this paragraph. The short answer for me on Last House '09 is that it was generally about as good as a remake of Craven's classic could be. It doesn't do much to try and improve on what Craven and Sean Cunningham did (except for making the film's tone more consistent - there's no moments of awkward comic relief here), it just tells the same age-old story with minor alterations (courtesy of writer Carl Ellsworth). A pair of girls still run afoul of heinous criminals, they're still cruelly violated, and although one girl lives through this ordeal where her character did not in the '72 version, the gang of dirtbags still unknowingly seek refuge in the household of the girl's parents and by the end of the night, the truth of their deeds is out and a vicious payback is served. It's a storyline that's hard to fuck up as long as it's played with conviction and director Dennis Iliadis and his cast don't disappoint on that count.

Among the cast of Last House '09, Garret Dillahunt is a real standout as the despicable Krug. The original film's David Hess left a lasting impression as a scumbag for the ages but Dillahunt is a memorable Krug in his own right. All the performances here are strong and this is easily the best ensemble cast for a horror film in some time - definitely since Frank Darabont's adaptation of The Mist (2007). As the daughter who survives Krug and co.'s abuse, Sara Paxton is very good, showing a sense of resiliency even when she's been as degraded by her attackers as she can get. There's been some consternation in fan circles about having this character live but I think for the purposes of this film it works and the dramatic way that Monica Potter and Tony Goldwyn play their reactions to their daughter's condition and their urgent need not just to avenge her violation but to protect her from further harm and safely get her medical attention adds a layer of drama and suspense missing from the original.

As a director, Iliadis goes in the opposite direction of Craven's raw approach. This is a much more polished production - befitting its $10 million budget - and I think that was a wise move. It'd be disingenuous to try and purposely recreate the grainy, guerrilla filmmaking vibe of the first film. In tandem with cinematographer Sharone Meir, Iliadis creates many strikingly pretty moments amid the nasty events that unfold. But when the violence comes in, it's full-on.

My main complaint with the new Last House as it moves into its second half and the gang of criminals receive their comeuppance one-by-one is that I thought there could've been more thought into how these characters are dispatched. I missed the sense of planning and preparation that went into the parent's revenge in the original film. Here, it just seems like a lot a flailing around as the parents get into prolonged struggles with the individual gang members and that isn't as impactful as seeing the parents showing some cunning. I also think that an opportunity to make this film more troubling and morally complicated was forfeited. The presence of Krug's teenaged son Justin (Spencer Treat Clark) offered a chance to have a character who wasn't evil and who committed no crime himself have to suffer for his inaction. Although Justin never does anything to harm Mari or her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac), I thought it would've been dramatic to have him be included in the parent's retribution - that the parents are so enraged to know that this character did nothing to intervene while their daughter was being raped (and while her friend was killed) that this would be enough to make them unload on him. To kill Justin in cold blood would be something that the Collingwood's would surely instantly regret, but it would be an act that was committed out of pure anger and instinct - just a gut impulse to cleanse the world of everyone who was involved in what was done to their daughter. I believe that should've been the last scene, rather than the microwave kill which is prominently featured in the film's ads (not that I don't appreciate a film closing on a shot of a head exploding!). To see Emma Collingwood suddenly shoot Justin point blank just as the audience thinks the movie's over as the surviving characters are all on their way to safety wouldn't be an act of revenge that everyone in the audience would agree on (and it might even be one that the father would've been surprised by) but I think that's an element this film needed - some moral ambiguity and a chance to question how far the audience believes these parents are allowed to go. It would've allowed the ending of the film to resonate, rather than just go out on a crowd-pleasing moment.

As is, this is well acted, well directed, but uncomplicated - making the parent's revenge out to be unambiguously gratifying. For what it is, though, it's good. I'm not sure who I'd recommend it to but if you have to see one movie this year where a young girl suffers a prolonged rape and the people responsible for this crime are made to pay the ultimate price for it, then Last House on the Left is second to none.

Friday, March 13, 2009

There's Something Wrong With Esther

I love killer kid movies (my long-standing favorite being 1993's The Good Son starring Macaulay Culkin) and the new trailer for Dark Castle's Orphan makes this upcoming film (due July 24th) look like a winner in that category. I had high hopes for Joshua (2007) but that one didn't do much for me. Orphan was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who's last film was 2005's House of Wax remake, also for Dark Castle.

I loved the job Collet-Serra did on House of Wax and although it underperformed at the box office in May '05, I think it's a better 'body count' film than either the new My Bloody Valentine or Friday the 13th (and it boasted a genuinely spectacular climax as its surviving characters fought to escape a literal house of wax as it was consumed by flames). Since House of Wax I've been eagerly waiting for Collet-Serra to follow up on his debut and, at first glance, it looks like Orphan will be worth the wait.

ORPHAN trailer in HD

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Return of True Horror

I love the trailer for Sam Raimi's upcoming supernatural thriller Drag Me To Hell (click here to see it). Besides the fact that visually it looks like classic Raimi, I like the fable-like vibe its story carries wherein a young bank employee (Alison Lohman) looking to prove to herself to her boss denies a loan extension to a wizened old lady and subsequently finds herself on the receiving end of a gypsy curse - destined to be dragged to hell by "the most feared of all demons."

I suspect, though, that some fans will take umbrage to the trailer's boast that this is "the return of true horror". One, because fans like to take umbrage at everything. And also because of Drag Me To Hell's PG-13 rating, some will believe it can't really be "true" horror. Why anyone would have that perception baffles me - aren't Carnival of Souls, Robert Wise's The Haunting, The Others, or The Sixth Sense much more deserving of being referred to as "true horror" than the likes of Hostel or Saw? But besides the issue of gore, I think what Drag Me To Hell is promising to bring back to the genre is the spirit of supernatural fun and that would be a welcome move to me. This has been described by Raimi and producer Robert Tapert as a "spook-a-blast" and judging by the sight of a scary old gypsy, demonic apparitions, a seance-gone-wrong, and a nighttime trip to a graveyard during a rainstorm, it looks like Drag Me To Hell looks to be stoked with tried and true horror elements.

Advanced word has been extremely positive so I hope that come May 29th, Raimi's return to horror will prove to be cause for celebration.

Friday, March 6, 2009


In advance, I expected that I'd be giving the Watchmen adaptation all kinds of leeway to please me. After all, everyone agrees that the book isn't the most adaptation-friendly material so for it even to get Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' classic partly right would seem like a really neat feat. But while the first sight of a black Warner Bros. logo against a yellow background had me feeling that I was in for something special, as it turns out whatever slack I was willing to cut director Zack Synder and co. evaporated awfully quick - like by about the twenty five minute mark. There's so much I disliked about this movie, it's hard to pinpoint what turned me off the most but ultimately I just never felt involved with anything happening on screen. It felt more like a comic book than the comic book itself, a work so artificial and stylized that it was impossible to see its characters as real. And in condensing the comic's sprawling storyline, Watchmen the movie becomes too cramped with incidents to have a natural flow to its narrative and because of that, nothing that happens ever has any weight to it - not even the threat of doomsday.

Among the bigger issues I had with the movie was its violence. I'm all for gratuitous cinematic bloodshed but the adolescent glee that Zack Synder shows here for bone-breaking and meat cleavers to the head only points to why he was the altogether wrong choice for this film. He gets off on the fight scenes (every hero here is some kind of kung fu master, by the way - which might make some viewers unfamiliar with the comic wonder if all of these costumed characters are supposed to have superpowers) and the gore - but whenever someone isn't being beaten, dismembered or scalded, there's a lack of conviction. Even worse, for all the violence in the film he's unable to portray any of it as being truly harrowing. Rorschach's origin, which should close on a true heart of darkness moment, instead ends with a splatter gag that belongs in a Friday the 13th movie (a damn good Friday the 13th movie, yes, but a Friday the 13th movie nonetheless). Synder even caps the climatic death of a major character with a gore punchline. Several reviewers have cited the reflective Dr. Manhattan on Mars sequence as proving that Synder has more up his sleeve than just an eye for stylized violence but outside of the fact that this sequence is recreated almost verbatim from the comic - leaving little room for Synder to contribute his own vision - I feel that sequence missed capturing the original life-affirming poetry of that celebrated issue. Like the rest of the film (save for Jackie Earle Haley's indelible performance as Rorschach and Jeffrey Dean Morgan's equally strong turn as The Comedian), it feels wooden.

And although one of Moore's key points with Watchmen was that these self-styled superheroes were actually pathetic (as Dr. Manhattan remarks at one point: "...friendly middle-aged men who like to dress up..."), Synder is unwilling to be totally true to that. It may be hip to love Watchmen now but it's always been a story about uncool people and I don't think Synder understands how to do uncool. Under Synder's direction, a character like Laurie Juspeczyk aka Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) is portrayed as being what her comic book counterpart can only imagine she is - slick, sexy, dangerous. As Moore wrote these characters, they didn't turn into conventional superheroes when they put their costumes on. Moore showed psychological acuity, revealing his characters to be ridiculous in how they used their super ID's to compensate for their (sometimes literal) shortcomings. One of the lines of the comic that always stuck with me was the observation of a policemen while Rorschach was being arrested that "the runt wears elevator shoes!" - it showed Rorschach's arrest to be a personal humiliation, tearing away his mystique as a fearsome vigilante. It's those moments that made the book and it's the absence of them that keeps the movie from coming to life.

Before seeing the movie, I thought everything about it looked terrific, that Synder clearly understood the book. But his take on the material is a limited one - the work of someone who is in love with the surface of Watchmen as a book that was racier and more violent than other comics of its era. While the graphic novel was a leap forward in maturity for the comic medium, the movie - for all its technical proficiency - is a case of arrested development.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth

Now that horror franchises are an even bigger deal than ever with series like Halloween and Friday the 13th drawing massive crowds and smashing box office records, I can't help but look back fondly on the days of the late '80s, early '90s when no one made horror sequels for anyone but the diehard fans. More often than not, they may have been making them badly but I liked the fact that films like Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth or Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare weren't made for anyone but the same group of gullible gorehounds who would turn out opening weekend to support any horror movie.

In reality, it was a lousy time for the genre but what I miss is the feeling that when you went to a horror movie back then, you were part of a loyal club who still cared about these films long after the horror boom of the '80s had faded out. You had to put up with the fact that the new films were invariably disappointing but your affection for the genre kept you coming back, hoping for a break. To an extent, that ratio of crap to quality is how it still is but at least horror is a thriving business these days whereas it often seemed in danger of extinction during the early '90s. The amount of genre films that have already hit theaters in just the first two months of '09 would've constituted an incredible windfall for an entire year in the early '90s when horror was at such a low ebb that you looked forward to a Freddy or Chucky film just because, well, at least it was something to see on the big screen. Lousy or not, these movies gave horror-starved fans something to check out and when a movie was halfway decent, like Hellraiser III, you could definitely take that as a win.

Today, horror fans scoff at this third Hellraiser film and, really, they scoffed at it plenty during its 1993 release but while this did mark the downturn of the franchise, it's notable as the most lavishly budgeted Hellraiser to date (while still being low budget), lending this entry a bigger 'Hollywood' feel than any other entry in the series.

Directed by Anthony Hickox, who had already made a minor name for himself in horror circles thanks to the flawed but entertaining likes of Waxwork and Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat, Hellraiser III was his biggest movie to date. There was a lot of worry at the time that - given the tongue-in-cheek tone of his previous films - that Hickox wouldn't be able to carry on the atmosphere established in the first two Hellraisers by Clive Barker and Tony Randel. Ultimately that turned out to be true - even with Hellbound: Hellraiser II writer Peter Atkins returning to pen the Hell On Earth screenplay - but this still ranked as Hickox's most serious outing to date. Next to Waxwork and Sundown, at least, this was pretty bad-ass. Hickox went for a more commercial tone, though, delivering large scale action, snazzy (and then still-novel) morphing FX, and a few one-liners (some even coming from Cenobites themselves). It's all very goofy but yet because he seems to be having fun with the material rather than just making a mockery out of it, Hickox makes it work.

This was also the first Hellraiser to really exploit Pinhead's status as a horror superstar. Whereas in the first film he had just been the Lead Cenobite and in the second film they tried to humanize Pinhead and make Dr. Channard into the main villain, in Hell On Earth, it's finally Pinhead's movie all the way (this is also the first Hellraiser where the character is actually referred to as Pinhead in the movie itself). This remains Doug Bradley's best showcase in the role, with more dialogue and screentime than in any other Hellraiser. Sure, Pinhead is so long-winded he makes Freddy Krueger look like Teller of Penn & Teller but if you've got to have a brimstone boogeyman who'll talk your ear off, be glad it's Bradley who's charged with delivering lines like "There is a secret song at the center of the world, Joey, and its sound is like razors through flesh!"

In tandem with Pinhead's promotion to scenery-chewing arch-villain, more than any of the Hellraisers before or since, Hellraiser III embraces a comic book sensibility. The new Cenobites trade in the nightmarishness of their predecessors for super power-like capabilities such as a DJ being transformed into a Cenobite able to hurl deadly CD's that slice their victims and a TV cameraman fused with his camera, using the extending lens embedded in his eye to penetrate people's skulls (of course they give this character one-liners like "Ready for your close-up?" and "That's a wrap!"). These are villains straight out of a comic and like any good gang of comic book villains, they go on a climatic rampage in the middle of the city with the police doing their best to slow them down. This is the Superman II moment for Hellraiser III. It's General Zod and his gang trashing downtown Metropolis. How you feel about Hellraiser III I guess comes down to how you feel about this scene. It'll either strike you as being ridiculous and you'll love it or it'll strike you as ridiculous and you'll hate it. I'm in the former camp, clearly. I just love seeing these Rent-A-Cenobites striding down the middle of a street like the winners of a Hellraiser Idol contest, using their gimmicky weapons to cause mayhem. I guarantee that if the Hellraiser franchise gets up and running again that a scene like this will never appear in any future installments. Even if the new movies are bad, they'll be bad in the boring way that movies tend to be bad these days in which they suck but they suck in a very grim, humorless way. If I've got to watch a bad Hellraiser movie, I'd rather it be one where a CD Head Cenobite is running loose in the streets.

I happily saw this twice in the theater, for all the reasons listed above. Plus, I've got to credit Hickox for casting Terry Farrell as investigative reporter Joey Summerskill. Great horror heroines are hard to find but Hickox found a winner with Farrell (and a bonus shout-out to co-star Paula Marshall, another favorite of mine who Hickox went on to cast in Warlock: The Armageddon and Full Eclipse). For me, Farrell is the Amy Steel of the Hellraiser series. Farrell went on to find even greater geek fame as a cast member of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine but I didn't care for seeing her with leopard spots on her temples or whatever they had going on there so it's always been about Hellraiser for me. I kept hoping for her to return to horror but so far it hasn't happened. At least Hickox himself is back in genre territory with the psychological thriller Knife Edge, due sometime this year. I expect that it might not be the best movie, but I'm looking forward to it nonetheless. After all, the bonds forged in Hell aren't easily forgotten.