Category: Comics

Capes and superpowers, grit and cultural shifts…

Man of Steel I: “Some time ago a friend asked me a question…”

MOS1

Prologue

SOME TIME AGO A FRIEND ASKED ME A QUESTION…
            I say a friend… It was what you might call an interview of sorts, held once a week, often in the same room.  The walls of that room were half wet brick, half new stone and where they met dark pools stole the corners.  In an ocean of dark, in the middle of an impossible room, a bright white light fell in a spiralling cone onto a circular table from a cord lamp.  The long electric twine sneaked up to the ceiling, presumably…  Lost as it was in the dark and wrapped in a barbed wire of crisp dead leaves.   Below I sat patiently and immobile as always, as in front of me long, thin, white hands laid playing cards on the table.  One by one the cards went down, the bony wrists snaking purposefully from loose orange cuffs.  Within three cards the question was asked.

Chapter I

It was a question that had long trod many a scattered page of Action Comics #1 into the dust ground.
            “Batman vs Superman? Everyone says Batman…  why?! For the sake of argument, let us assume that Superman is not playing nice anymore…  Maybe Batman killed Lois to piss him off …  So we have, bloodthirsty Superman vs Batman ….  who’d win?”
            My response wasn’t circumspect in the swirling light.  The comic traditions are quite clear and I said it:
            “It’s Batman! It’s Batman! It’s always Batman!”
            I paused.
            “Look at Dark Knight Returns…” I continued, quickly rejecting the idea that Batman would kill Lois Lane to, er, piss Superman off – “The stories are more likely to show a dystopian tilt (or exacerbation) of the American state, sufficient enough to bring the two opposing super-ideologies to blows.”  I pointed out that Batman is “the most dangerous man on Earth” as a Jack of Diamonds was laid flat.
            In return I laid out some proof.  I referred to the late twentieth century JLA, a series that began with Grant Morisson’s freshening up of the Justice League.  Not only did this hark back to the League’s original line up, but injected reverence and hard sci-fi back into the League itself with excellently plotted and seminal stories.  It was particularly impressive as that run started out with the Transformed ‘Lectric Superman of the ‘90s, a storyline that was red, external, pants.
            “Heh”.

Chapter II

Early in that JLA relaunch, one story was the oft told tale of benevolent aliens who hide a sinister plan: New World Order.  It was simple and derivative to a point, but sold on its climax.  The powerful aliens’ takedown of the JLA was a great, concise reintroduction to the core League members: Atlantean Prince Aquaman and Amazon Goddess Wonder Woman, imaginative power ring wielder Green Lantern (at the time the inexperienced Kyle Rayner) and Scarlet Speedster the Flash , Enigmatic telepath J’onn J’onzz the Martian Manhunter and of course heavy hitters Superman and Batman.  In New World Order, Having subdued the metahumans of the League, the villainous aliens dismissed the escaped Caped Crusader as a mere mortal, failing to abide Superman’s stern warnings to the contrary.
            Inevitably, the puny flying rodent man takes them all down with extreme prejudice.  Grant Morrison’s gleeful storytelling was realised in Howard Porter’s sublime artwork, and it just got better – typically deeper, mythic, sprawling and metaphysical.  Later stories such as Mark Waid’s brilliant Tower of Babel continued the good work on the Dark Knight, channelling Batman’s personality (disorders) through the centre of the League’s stories – an un-galactic, City focussed philosophy is not easy to reconcile with a moon-headquartered global superteam.
            Tower of Babel was recently adapted as the animated film Doom, where Batman’s measured but paranoid, pre-prepared defensive strategies to take down each of his team mates if they turn ‘rogue’ were stolen and used with devastating consequences.  It split the League in the comics (Divided they Fall) – and it’s that moral approach to life, the tension between the Alien, the Goddess and the Man (the trinity) that powers the Justice League concept.  That’s where Batman vs Superman originally comes from, two ideologies.  Two ideologies that often end in a punch up.
            This time the lean white fingers lay down a King of Clubs.
            And Batman often wins.
            “So there’s the answer,” I said. 
There’s a long history of Batman trashing Superman in the comics – Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns is a key example.  The recent videogame Injustice: Gods Among Us brought the same argument into living rooms – and the result of Batman victorious brought disbelief, surprise, umbrage and bewilderment – but the fact remains that Batman does often win.  And he often wins because he cheats. What else is Batman but a cheater?  A cheater with good reason he may be, but a cheater he is.  “Supes may be the most powerful being on the planet, but Bats is the most dangerous human.”
            The lamp had stopped swirling, the hands had stopped moving.

Chapter III

Across from me, each white hand lay palm down to the table, sequential Royal Clubs laid out in front.   The hands’ owner had a follow-up.
            “I was hoping you’d have some argument for Superman but I suppose… It is Batman then.”  I had won, was it as easy as that?  No, of course not.
            “How about this – who do you like more …  Batman or Superman?”
            The opening line was loaded like a joke gun.  In the calming light I saw the hint of a spreading grin.  This I knew: Batman may be the most dangerous mortal on Earth, but Superman is still the one to which all superheroes aspire.  And with good reason.
            Superman, last son of Krypton is a multi-layered enigma that has gradually built up over 80 years…  A myth mist that defines him as the greatest and definitive invention in superherodom, but has also consigned him to an irrelevant, and unfashionable sometime box-office mope in the past.
            The first returns of Man of Steel seem to have washed away the cobwebs of apathy that have surrounded the figure for too long.  With a Nietzschean nickname hanging precariously over an overgrown boy scout persona – with a generally mainstream repellent ‘alien’ origin to boot – the 21st century hasn’t been kind to Superman.
            I was broken from my reverie by a white blur.
            A King of Diamonds had joined its cousins on the table.
            It was time for a change of location.

(to be continued…)

Batman: The Lite Knight (The Dark Knight Rises part one)

Batman and Superman - Public Enemies

Batman (alone) cartoon

As the final part of the Dark Knight Trilogy rises into homes, the first of two posts on the most successful superhero trilogy of all time.  First, a look at how much of Batman was in the Dark Knight.

LIKE MOST OF A TIME-CONSTRAINED POPULATION who didn’t see The Dark Knight Rises nine times on the big screen, I’m still a little conflicted about whether Return of the Dark Knight is quite as good as The Joker Strikes Back.

In a year of many faint praise reviews, most critics tussled with rewarding The Dark Knight Rises (DKR) as a film in its own right or as the end of a rather impressive trilogy.  Most went with the latter.  The same happened with the final part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy of course, but I doubt DKR will challenge that on the Oscar front.  However, as with The Return of the King, if DKR does come up a little short in its own right, then it doesn’t by much.  Because an impressive trilogy it is.

The Dark Knight trilogy differed from other Batman films in one crucial respect

Seldom has such a fully formed universe been realised consistently on celluloid, regardless of genre – especially 15 short years since the franchise was creatively bankrupted.  In fact, what Chris Nolan has achieved is incredible.  Until The Avengers, his Dark Knight saga was the superhero franchise to emulate.  In the last few years, many new films have sought to describe where they sit on the Dark Knight scale as part of their publicity splurge.  Only Marvel’s Avengers were collectively strong enough to swim against those ‘darker’ waters.  But while The Dark Knight made billions, Batman had already been making millions in his other iterations in the preceding decades.  Upon it’s release, Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman had a similar influence, albeit in a less superhero saturated market, on many films such as Russell Mulcahy’s Shadow five years later.

Now the Nolan trilogy has concluded, Batman will again be rebooted and repackaged by another creative team for further assaults on the box office.  In 20 years, a complete Batman box set may well include UV copies of the Dark Knight trilogy with four other films either side of it.  Even if the imminent reboot proves disappointing, it will still be unclear how significant the seven year reign of this Dark Knight will prove to be.  There is however, one real problem which was not so much acknowledged in the DKR, but integral to it.  As successful, deep and even epic as the films are, they differed from other Batman films in one crucial respect.  They weren’t really about Batman.

The Bat Begins

To be clear, the Dark Knight trilogy is a great achievement and a fitting chapter for a deservedly cultural icon.  Countless comparisons that can be made to other trilogies, both better and far worse, illustrate that.  However, while many may struggle to decide which their favourite part is, one thing is clear: I still remember how I felt when I walked out of Batman Begins (BB) in 2005.  That feeling marks me apart from many who’re tussling with the question of favourites: I didn’t think it was all that.

Seven years and one concluded trilogy later, that feeling has abated slightly.  A few of my apprehensions dwindled and actually a lot of them were blown completely out of the Bat cave.  But still, a few niggles remained.  Something wasn’t quite right.

I was partly to blame and some of my reasoning was clearly restrictive: I perhaps didn’t want to like BB because there were already good Batman films in existence, particularly the Burton duo, and there will undoubtedly be more good versions in the future.  This was reinforced by the fact that it didn’t really feel like a Chris Nolan film.  I was already quite a fan of Nolan’s work.  Memento and Following were wonderful and his Insomnia remake even better.  In BB Nolan’s touch seemed very light.  There was a typical Nolan totem true, here in the form of Wayne senior’s stethoscope, but nothing so personal as those that appeared in the director’s previous films or would be subsequently developed in the sublime Prestige and perhaps reach their ultimate form in the incredible Inception (both of which fed considerably into The Dark Knight (TDK) and DKR respectively).  But it wasn’t so much that Nolan’s hand was lessened as much as perhaps both his hands were tied.  It was a massive studio IP…  And it was an origin film to begin with.

No Batman fan should have any problem with another retelling of the Caped Crusader’s origin.  I probably read the Bob Kane original twice a year or so – it’s only two pages, so I can generally stretch to it – but in BB, as integral as it was, it fell a little flat.  BB was the third celluloid retelling of Batman’s origin in 16 years, and while repetition may contribute to a malaise, it rather its mishandling by multiple previous creative teams that cast a long shadow.

The otherwise sublime 1989 Batman was ruined by one thing: once the Burton/Keaton Batman had killed the man who killed his parents, the character’s motivation was gone.  There my still be crime in Gotham, but on a personal level the Waynes’ murder had been avenged: Bruce may well have just moved to the Med with Catwoman.  The Bat franchise, no matter how loosely connected, struggled on with this pretty significant problem for the best part of a decade.  It prompted a virtual remake in Batman Returns (1991), a laboured origin flashback in Batman Forever(1995) and then, well… Maybe it would have helped with Batman and Robin (1997).  It was hardly a problem that dogged the 1940s or 1960s films which concentrated on crime rather than the psychology of the character but of course, that treatment  was no longer acceptable in the 21st century (outside cartoons).  The Nolan-machine duly made sure that the same problem wouldn’t surface in BB and in fact this facet and its open ended-complications fed into the film and its sequels at every level.  Indeed, Nolan’s recent comments confirm that it was linked to the overall and concluding theme of the trilogy.

In the Dark Knight Trilogy Batman never stopped beginning

But for all the acceptance of the Batman origin being paramount, and requiring constant reinforcement, there are times where it has to develop.  The comics have battled with this for years and necessarily come up with all sort of answers.  Among them have been the introduction of Robin (several times), faceted villains (the al Ghul’s) and an extended Bat family (all the way to the Justice League).  In the Dark Knight Trilogy however, Batman never stopped beginning.

War of Attrition

The Tumbler was never going to streamline into the Tim-Burton-mobile…  Hits you like a grappling hook

BatpullThere were aggravating factors in BB’s version of Batman’s origin that were easier to dismiss.  If so inclined, you could buy into the Tumbler as the first of a long lineage of Batmobiles which would eventually become the Tim-Burton-Mobile when Batman grew up.  But that Batman never came.  The Tumbler was never going to streamline into the Tim-Burton-mobile.  A fact that can hit you like a grappling hook.

Personally, I always found far more interest in the mature Batman locked in his role as guardian of Gotham City, rather than the many accounts of his origins. The guardian Batman is one built into the fabric of his city, locked into an unending fight against crime not by just one tragedy, but many and constant tragedies which continue to curse him to endlessly paper over an abyss he could fall into at any time.  It’s a war of attrition and there is always the possibility that he might not win.  Melodramatic and gothic it may be, buy many of those ideas surface in every iteration of Batman.  While the Nolan films did tap into those elements, the attrition and the multiple tragedies, in the course of the trilogy they served to stop him beginning.

Time should be as inconsequential as plot holes when it comes to works of fiction, but in the Dark Knight Trilogy, it’s an integral part of the story.  BB covers the longest stretch of time, even disregarding the flashbacks to young Bruce, as the 20s Wayne develops his Kevlar persona.  Then, despite a great sequel hint, TDK certainly doesn’t take place immediately after BB.  The world’s greatest detective clearly thought a playing card call sign bank robber quite inconsequential.  Gotham Knight, the canonical animated film that led into TDK bridged the gap by showing a still fresh faced Batman tackling comic mainstay Killer Croc in the sewers.  It was a minor miracle to fit that villain into the Nolanverse, but it’s only real contribution to the ongoing story was to establish Arkham as an island.  It surely can’t have been too long following that before Batman faced the Joker, and Two-Face’s cameo (but really, what else can you do with that character on film)  and then immediately take an eight year hiatus, or as he saw it, retirement.  Instead of operating as a vigilante, DKR reveals that Batman just disappeared, the main cause being the second great tragedy of his life rather than the GCPD.  In DKR, we catch up with Wayne in his 30s, but after eight years out of the game, he isn’t the iconic and controlling force the comics show at that stage of his life.  The fact he’s still beginning is something DKR’s plot reinforces.  The cop chase resembles those against a young vigilante, he’s still meeting and greeting villains and crucially, one consequence of a Batman stuck as a rookie is inescapable.  He has a great need for father figures, something Nolan provides in plenty.

Each father figure in the Dark Knight trilogy carryies a virtue of Batman

Those father figures are hardly new in Batman, in fact they’ve been rather integral over the last 70 years.  But here they are extended to the maximum, with each father figure carrying a virtue of Batman: Alfred is Bruce’s wisdom and conscience.  Ra’s provides drive and revelation that lasts the trilogy.  Gordon is the inspiration, clarity and motivation.  Then of course there’s Lucius Fox.  The gadgets and toys that once invoked jealousy in the Joker take on a different role in the Nolanverse.  They are a visceral definition of Batman, Bruce Wayne and Wayne Enterprises.  In fact, they so define Batman that he can’t function without Fox, even when he’s lost Alfred and Gordon.  The Wayne legacy of money can be easily disposed of on the stock market, but Thomas Wayne bestrides the trilogy in forms far beyond that incident int hat alley.  It’s not an ineffective take on Batman by any means, and it certainly creates a nuanced and layered hero for Nolan to work with.  In fact, it’s also neat get out of the Robin issue.  You can’t have a Robin mentored by a Batman, when the Dark Knight himself is still Robin.

But of course, when you share Batman out among a load of different characters, there is little left of Bruce Wayne.  And perhaps that’s the point.  Nolan has recently stated that the intended conclusion was to develop the concept that anyone can be a Batman (also neatly quashing the rumours of Gordon-Levitt taking on the mantle in the future).  It’s effectively realised in the trilogy, but again ensures the Batman of prolonged attrition would never appear.  It could be argued that in film’s natural narrative shortening, Bane’s impressive isolation of Gotham condenses decades of that attritional war from the comics – it certainly references several story lines.  But it was crucially Nolan’s decision to remove Batman from the frame for eight years and allow Gotham to naturally thrive that ensured he could never become a guardian with longevity.

It was also a deliberate step to draw villains into Batman’s origin.  This is not unprecedented in the comics, and BB drew on some characters from the printed stories, but is certainly enhanced in the trilogy.  In fact, each of the villains really draw out the impact of the Bat’s extended origin.

A Serious Punch line

The Joker is the greatest villain ever created

While it may not be the deciding factor in itself, it was immediately evident that the villains of BB were untouched by the previous four Batman films.  Not so coincidentally, they were also villains who, though not household names, could neatly lay out the new realistic take of the Dark Knight trilogy.  They were in effect, untarnished but also disposable.  If BB had failed, then there would have been another relaunch a few years down the line which would have been even better placed to reboot the 1992 Penguin.  Conversely, if BB was a success, the path was laid down for villains to return by one simple playing card.  And that is a trump card that many sequels would die for.

The Joker, frankly, is the greatest villain ever created.  Not only conceptually brilliant, he draws on cultural references and fears from the dawn of civilisation, politics and phobia.  He’s as versatile, empty, complex, dark and comic as you want him to be – and many different writers have provided many different takes.  Surfacing from very little, six decades have sculpted him into a brilliantly realised yet constantly enigmatic foe.  Not only is he a character perfect for reinvention, but also a palette that can lift and elevate a story or deliver the savages twist.  In the comics he’s killed a Robin, paralysed a Batgirl, and had the greatest number of different origin stories and yet, none (as TDK referenced).  Some proof comes from Grant Morrison’s late 2000s piece The Clown at Midnight.  Not many comic book villains can sustain a completely prose newsstand comic book.  And then, as inevitably as that clown on your doorstep at midnight means the worst… And at the end of BB, Batman gets handed that playing card.  It was enough to dispel any other trifling concerns.  It was serious: How could any variant on the Joker fit into that realistic universe?

Of course, TDK dispelled those concerns.  Heath Ledger’s Joker was brilliantly realised.  True to the producers’ words, he sprung from the first comic stories and from then the script gleefully and haphazardly straddled every compelling character point.  He was a bank robber who was an anarchist who was a nothing… Without the Batman.  The eternal joke, the unstoppable force.  Further proof of the verity of this Harlequin of Hate was Azarrello and Bermejo’s Joker graphic novel.  That developed a very similar version of the character at the same time as the film, but had the misfortune to come out afterwards.

The Joker booted Bruce Wayne back out of the cowl

But while I was pleasantly, horrifically surprised by how pencil-blindingly great TDK was, it brought the concerns of BB to fruition.  Like a good Joker, he’d banished the silly problems and highlighted some large ones.  Nolan’s focus on origin in BB continued to overcome his hand.  In TDK, the Joker is introduced with an adaptation of his first appearance in the comic, but soon becomes the film’s anarchic metaphor made flesh.  He didn’t develop Bruce Wayne into Batman, his actions booted him back out of the cowl.

A film later, Nolan would again draw heavily from early villain origins, particularly the 1970s Batman wonder stories, where Denny O’Neill’s script and Neal Adam’s art rebooted, reframed and elevated Batman above the recent and mercifully short-lived 60s period.  It was O’Neill who created Ra’s al Ghul, aiming for a villain who posed a modern and intellectual challenge to a Knight in desperate need of darkening.  O’Neill also brought globetrotting to Batman, something Nolan has drawn heavily into each film.  In the Nolanverse, the al Ghul and Bane stories wrap around Bruce Wayne like (Poison) Ivy.

In Batman, Nolan not only drew on the 1930s origins, but the constant ongoing explorations of Batman’s early years: Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s wonderfully recent additions to the myth The Long Halloween and Dark Victory.  These comics were less reboots than gentle massagings of retconning; eking out character traits and sticking manure in the shoes of background characters.  That’s necessary in a medium where so many characters – Catwoman, Batman and the best rogue’s gallery int he business – exist in the cultural consciousness and so deserve and require constant re-exploration.  This is generally why you can’t begrudge a retelling of any comic origin.

But so strong were the trilogy’s leanings toward Batman’s beginning that when Catwoman was confirmed for DKR, speculation focussed on tales of Batman’s origin to find her role.  The irony of this entangled origin was the intangibility of each villain that appears in the trilogy (bar Dent, although ‘villain’ is probably a little strong.  Most of the villains in the Nolanverse have little approaching an origin in the classical sense.  DKR comes the closest, but arguably only for the sake of a twist.  The difference to the Caped Crusader’s extended origin, to which many of them relate, is stark.  Throughout the decades, the arrival of new villains constantly provided new challenges for the Dark knight, alongside the chance to explore different facets of his character: a quest for The Grail every time.  But it was crucial to the Dark Knight trilogy that these built on each other.  The attritional war was actually one of the villains versus Wayne psyche.  And this struggle was set against the real, constant, major player in the Batman myth as the franchise crept further towards reality: Gotham City.

Two Tales of One City

The last of the trilogy enabled the emperor’s cloak to fall

In the first decade of the 21st century, Nolan had created the superhero film of to which all others aspired.  And it’s a big field.  In the days following DKR I recklessly bought a ticket to see The Amazing Spiderman.  It was a nice solid film, well made and engagingly acted.  That said, in the end I wasn’t surprised at the lesser box office this iteration generated in comparison to Same Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy; after all it followed hot on the heels of that successful trilogy and for all its faults, Spiderman 3 was no Batman and Robin.  But following a couple of hours of light plot and re-origins, my overall impression was that it had terribly bad luck to be the worst New York-set superhero film in Summer 2012.

Gotham from the Anglo-Saxon for Goat’s Town

Long before DKR, Gotham was a rather blunt metaphor.  But after three films, Nolan had abandoned any pretence that Gotham wasn’t New York itself.  In the comics the dark industrial East Coast port town of Gotham has been constantly abandoned by America, its name piercing the ear alongside other DC Comics fictional cities such as Star and Central City.  However, removed from those other fictional metropolises, Gotham has always carried a grain of truth.  It’s not just an important character in the Batman universe in its own right, but a fine Dickensian caricature.  The name Gotham was in fact coined as a nickname for New York in ever disparaging terms by Washington Irving in 1807; from the Anglo-Saxon for Goat’s Town.

And when the last of the trilogy enabled the emperor’s cloak to fall, Nolan’s vision of Manhattan were stunning.  Few films have shown off the city better, and New York is filmed often.  That is also in acknowledgement that the film was directed by Chris Nolan, not the most visually pioneering of directors it’s fair to say.  His shots are often stunning in their clinical precision, functionality and mechanics and that’s not at all faint praise.  His love of IMAX is natural – tailored to the scope of the action and all its contributing elements rather that simply the 25 or so paintings that appear on screen per second.  Nolan’s films are never simply big fake robot smash big fake robot.  You get what few blockbuster director’s can deliver: all parts of the film working in unison.  In DKR this worked brilliantly from the outset; though more than reminiscent of the opening to License to Kill, the plane hijack combines menace, character introduction and stunt on the IMAX screen like few other films could.

The reality of the trilogy is a huge contributing factor to its overall success.  It doesn’t matter that Gotham has a bridge that is Manhattan Bridge or that Gotham’s financial district is in fact Wall Street.  The city metaphor had shortened since BB’s Gotham of monorails and Kowloon, just as the villain metaphor, interestingly, had stretched it.  Bane’s motivation may seem the most far-fetched, but it feeds directly into contemporary concerns of the western world in a way that Ra’s or the Joker couldn’t.  In comparison, The Amazing Spiderman’s main problem was that despite a confident reboot with excellent casting and superb chemistry, it focussed on a bland, completely CGI villain.  Quite a mistake considering Spiderman hardly had less time in development than DKR and, as with other Marvel properties, it has a far longer run of direct comics continuity to draw from (albeit dragged down by the unnecessary decision to include an origin).  While Spiderman had some narrative and plot faults which it carried right next to its web slingers, so did DKR (just a little less sticky).  The real difference is that The Amazing Spiderman is incredibly light froth compared to the shaded complexity and sheer scope of DKR.  Some may highlight this as a fundamental difference between Marvel and DC Comic, but I’d never be so downright incendiary…

The Wrong Cape

The themes and focus of the Dark Knight trilogy are one franchise out

To reveal Batman’s city to be bona fide New York but under it’s 19th century nickname was a necessary one.  While at various points it was patrolled by the Batmobile, Batpod and then The Bat it was always a novice behind the wheel.

Despite all the little things that have ebbed and flowed over the last seven years, adding and building on a familiar character, this Batman never lost his Begins.  And the true effect of this concentration on origin was really drawn out by DKR.  While not a fundamental problem to the films themselves, their themes or function, it is a fundamental problem for Batman.  It’s not that the Batman Begins title lasted the series, but that the last two films’ titles are mischievous.  In making the characters origins so crucial, yet showing the ‘rise’ of a legend that could fall to anyone meant the Dark Knight never appeared.  In fact, while it hits close, the themes and focus of the Dark Knight trilogy are one franchise out.  Nolan actually made a damn near perfect Superman film.

Next: The Dark Knight Rises: How Christopher Nolan made the perfect Superman film…

Public Enemies

Horror Films: Pleasure and Pain Indivisible – The Hellraiser Saga

Hellraiser Pinhead and the Lament Configuration

Angels to some, demons to others.  All Hallows and its Eve may be the perfect time for them. If only those Cenobites would have just fitted in…

THIS PAST HALLOWEEN-TIDE I found myself compiling a list of the horror icons of film as residing in this crypt.  You know the deal: the big guys at the top of the Evil Dead tree with some sort of especially horrific MO that, like a Bond villain, sets them apart from the wolf pack.  The genre’s broad, even when reduced to those figureheads, but soon enough the usual suspects fell into the main camps of cinematic horror.

First the classic, early, and mostly literary adaptations, popularized by Universal Studios and then Hammer:  In my example, Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula made the cut, with added Jekyll and Hyde for variety.

Second there were the slashers: those descendents of Norman Bates, who sprang up with a vengeance after the first Halloween movie with a variety of knives, machetes and cleavers.  These guys reached their peak in the 1980s and have never really disappeared.  While they can’t rival the adaptive quality of their forebears, these slashers often sustained franchises of eight films or more, ensuring them a place in popular culture.  Thirdly, there was just a little room for the inbetweeners of the monster world:  the Oscar winning Hannibal Lecter and very 21st century Jigsaw Killer made the cut.  These fellows are often, but not always, set apart from the others by their lack of supernatural.  Their ranks often swelled by countless generic slashers.  Occasionally, a latter-day supernatural spin on a classic may also swing round and bolster them – Lestat for example.

With a scope spanning two centuries, I was fairly pleased with my final list of (had to be) 13, but there was an omission: sadly the one icon whose name I wrote down first, just didn’t fit despite my best efforts.  He’s the 130 or so year old owner of a perforated face: Hellraiser’s Pinhead.

He’s the 130 or so year old owner of a perforated face

Hellraiser’s been a major horror franchise for almost 30 years, and its poster boy has been referenced in all sorts of popular media during that time.  Pinhead is lodged in popular culture, despite slipping into trashy straight to DVD hell in the last decade, but it remains rather difficult to, er, pin him down.  It’s bad enough in a franchise which has little regard to Pinner’s motivation from film to film, but especially when he turns up fashionably late to a party with his fellow icons.  At least they can’t punch him in the face… not that this is their normal MO.

Lecter slashes his victims just the same as Michael Myers…

While some may turn their unbitten noses towards a good Dante paperback rather than see Lecter bundled in with Freddy Krueger, I think they’re fair game.  Many a great genre film actually crosses multiple genres, and horror is no different.  There’s barely a horror film which doesn’t have some form of romantic, domestic, classically tragic of other element; in fact a good horror demands it.  The dreams of a hermit are hardly an interesting stomping ground for Freddy Krueger; the angelic nine to five jobsworth doesn’t warrant Jigsaw’s attention. There has to be the semblance of a back story as light as it may be.  Even Jason Voorhees, owner of one of the most tenuous horror franchises, was more than giant machete-wielding ambassador for marriage.  His Friday the 13th franchise is an interesting example of multi-entry horror series: the infamous slasher wasn’t even intended to carry the franchise and didn’t gain his hockey mask until Part III.  While the Lecter back-story may be rooted in meticulous historical fact and draw on some particularly high-level culture, thanks to its source material, every Frankenstein adaptation isn’t far off.  James Whale’s classic 1931 adaptation, barely faithful to that source, was aiming at the same populist level in its time as the Saw or Friday the 13th movies are today.  Cinema is a business, and horror sells.  If it (rarely) has the support, talent and source material to overcome prejudice and win an Oscar or two, so much the better.  But on a base level, Lecter slashes his victims just the same as Michael Myers.  He’s just a little more talkative.

Franchise is both a wonderful catch-all term and relatively critic proof

Similarly with any franchise that approaches double-digits, there are inevitably purists and selective fans.  Hellraiser has these in abundance – and to some extent that’s a mark its creator and generally higher than average concept.  Some purists who will just about stretch to the first three films but baulk at the straight to DVD continuations.  Franchise is both a wonderful catch-all term and relatively critic proof.  Once rolling it can force its creator out or even lose its brand name – as The Wolverine will eventually prove.  A franchise sometimes springs from nowhere, but is almost immediately at the whim of many internal and external factors.  With regard to the creator aspect, as with many cultural greats – Star Wars being a pertinent example – it is seldom that it stays exclusively in their hands of its creator.  Even if it does, while fans may have many reasons to thank that originator, it’s almost impossible to keep a fan base happy – again: Star Wars.  With Hellraiser, a number of films fall under the Hellraiser brand and completely legitimately, although it irritates many, it’s a franchise of the purest type.  While the constituent elements unsurprisingly vary, like it or not, as of 2012 the Hellraiser film franchise crosses nine canonical films.

In case there’s any doubt about reception to new Hellraiser films, it’s worth remembering creator Clive Barker’s response to the eighth sequel, 2011’s Hellraiser: Revelations – fairly roundly considered to be a rush job to retain the film rights:

Hello, my friends. I want to put on record that the flic out there using the word Hellraiser IS NO FUCKIN’ CHILD OF MINE!” “I have NOTHING to do with the fuckin’ thing. If they claim its from the mind of Clive Barker, it’s a lie. It’s not even from my butt-hole.”

Okay then.  Not even… Never mind.  And fair enough: it’s not the best set of affairs. Not even Pinhead’s mum would have expected the ‘latest Hellraiser film’ to be a classic, partly because of the road much travelled since the purity and definitive Barker of the original films.  Fans are separated from fair-weather horror fans over their response to the ongoing franchise, whether they were there in the cinema in 1986 or have subsequently found them online…  A lot is made of the latter half of the franchise, generally marked by the division between parts four and five.  From there. rights holder Dimension Films was not averse to pinning the brand onto spec scripts that guaranteed a production that in turn guaranteed that they retained the rights.

But behind the rights and machinations, there were surely some noble-hearted creators behind Revelations who would probably have attempted the Lament Configuration for the chance to play their part in widening the Hellraiser universe (no tears please, it’s a waste of good suffering).  In that spirit, I’m considering the film franchise as a whole.   While not condoning the perpetuation of an increasingly diluted idea, as a rule I don’t believe that any work can be damaged by association.  Once released, it’s unchangeable.  Even in the grip of creator’s or other’s perpetual tinkering, the original remains.  Rightly or wrongly a saga here has grown and each film bears the Hellraiser name.  It’s for the viewer to decide and certainly in this case, there is no lack of evidence on either side.

I must admit that I haven’t seen that ninth installment, less from partisanship, more the fact that it stays resolutely shy of Region 2 (banned from its ‘creator’s homeland’!?).  Still, in parallel with the burgeoning films, there are many other parts of the franchise from merchandise to fan-art that are more agreeable and maintain the author’s original.  While the films may falter, the wonderful Hellraiser comic resurgence and the brewing novel The Scarlet Gospels continue.

I can hardly play Devil’s Advocate here – for reasons I’ll explain later – but in applying a non-fan objectivity, despite the horror of it all, the eight film sequence that preceded Revelations throws up some interesting patterns of order among the inevitable dross of chaos.

While the depictions of hell and the motivation of the Cenobites changed as new creators came on board, the cynical attempt to keep the franchise going created an oddly neatly framed sequence of films.  Regardless of views on the motivation and end the result, they fall into two trilogies, each bookended by a genre anomaly, as demonstrated in this here Hellpie configuration:

Sure there’s dross, but again, it’s all about angels to some, demons to others; pain and pleasure indivisible.

The Hell Trilogy:  LON-NY

 


Cinematically, it all began in 1987: Hellraiser, directed by Clive Barker, adapted from his 1986 novella The Hellbound Heart.  In part, Barker’s film was a response to the wise-cracking antagonists of ‘80s slashers.  True, many were the silent, masked types, but Freddy Krueger sat atop the genre with a line for every slaying – whether that be his own or that of his victims.  Also, it must be said that those same victims – often a ragtag of hormonal students – were a homogenous lump of whimpering anti-charisma.  Barker also had some background with Frankenstein and would later executively produce the 1998 James Whale biopic Gods and Monsters.   In Hellraiser, the Cenobites were simultaneously a different proposition and a neat cross with their variation of the undead and slash horror.  Also different were the films ‘sufferers’.  In Hellraiser, there are barely any victims in any conventional sense.  Most humans call for a fate that they deserve; at the same time, Cenobites are not necessarily the human’s punishers nor vengeful Angels.  Certainly that is the case in the first sequence of films: when called they come.  They had such sights to show them – mentors as much as gaolers.  Later films would fall far more cleanly into morality tales.

A hierarchy of sorts is established in the opening films: the hell domain, a vagary of recent revolution and new (or rejuvenated) order of hedonism, and it that the order of Cenobites, ‘designed’ by the engineer and headed by the lead Cenobite affectionally called ‘Pinhead’.

That lead Cenobite emerged from the pages of Barker’s novella.  There, he was an ambiguous figure – a rather inauspicious start for a horror icon who has spanned not only the full nine films, but also further books and comics.  Never properly named – something Barker’s pending book, The Scarlet Gospels promises to resolve – he was simply the voice among the legion Cenobites.  It was not just all about his rather iconic, punctured profile.

The Cenobites have retained an ambiguity throughout the franchise, partly because of their treatment at the hands of different creators, regardless of the early films’ mythology.  Sometimes they’re ambivalent, sometimes open to deals, sometimes they seem to be simple agents of a moral universe.  All three murk the argument the films have thrown up: where do Cenobites come from?  Do they come from an Abrahamic hell or simply another dimension?  While some of the script and the films’ most visceral elements – such as Frank’s resurrection and death – suggest a form of death and a form of hell, it’s never clear if these aren’t metaphorical.  In human terms, it could be that the transfer to the Cenobite plain can only be perceived as death, and existence there as hell.  The ties of the Cenobites to their victims is certainly much more than death by fallen angels followed by imprisonment in a classical Hell – as catchy as those terms may be seem for the film titles.  It is clear that the constructs of the Cenobite’s Labyrinth sits in parallel with the infrastructure of Earth.  It is also clear that Cenobites are former humans, certainly those we see, but now have abilities gifted by the physical rules of their plain that they can bring to our world.  While the morality tales of the later films portray Pinhead as a far more overt punisher or Pin reaper, there remains the sense through all the films that the Lament Configuration portal is as much a giant con as a reward for those who seek the box; those who have always owned it.

You can read my review of the first Hellraiser here.

The brilliance of the first film was to instill the Cenobites with ambiguity while dwelling on those humans who must escape or join it; that’s where the main interest should lie.  Indeed, while the Cenobites are undoubtedly Hellraiser’s most iconic, brilliantly realized and significant contribution, it does the film a disservice to consider them alone.  Hellraiser the first is a domestic tragedy as much as anything.  In part II, this gave way to The Labyrinth/Hell itself in the second installment – quite possibly a match to its prequel.  Seen in possibly all its glory, the Labyrinth is more Escher than Dore, and a powerful image for it; Leviathan sits all-seeing above it like an angled Eye of Sauron.  Throughout, the patchwork of references in the Hellraiser fabric grew, whether that hell is order in its purest sense or corrupted.  The main protagonist of the second film, Channard, takes the idea of Cenobites as surgeons to its height.  His fight with the Cenobites complies nicely with the Aliens-esque rule of sequel expansion.

Barker’s involvement fizzled away by the third film, his Executive Producer credit falling off by part IV – a journey that had seen the Cenobites in Britain, Hell and the streets of America.  Part III, Hell on Earth nominally jumped a few sharks, albeit with the explanation of Channard’s actions in the previous film.  The efforts of the powerful Channard Cenobite abomination meant that come Part III, Pinhead needed some new acolytes, but the template for the creation of Cenobites without due-cause not only broke the Dantean/classical ironic punishment perspective but set an unfortunate license for the Cenobites to come.  Part IV and the twin Cenobites a particularly bad example of design and make-up overcoming script and casting.    Mainly, the Pinhead of Part III, unchained from his human side and creating Cenobites for fun, combined with a very literal attachment to club culture shreds the nuance of earlier films for in your face gore.    Part III also brought more infernal politics – further expanded in Part IV – with the suggestion of a revolt in hell; the restoration or corruption of order.  It could be a revolution an Abrahamic Hell, but Part III also contains the franchises’ most religiously unsettling scene.  That church sequence – Pinhead behind the alter in top discretionary form – has always sat quite uneasily with me.  But even an unusually unrestrained Pinhead leaves room for ambiguity.  He could be a disdain for any religion rather than a deliberate desecration of a Christian temple, and the hierarchy to which his demon belongs.

There is a strong link between the first three films, in tone, casting and sense, even remarkably Part III.  This is exacerbated by the fact that they are always linked on DVD.

hellraiser pullThe Bloodline Anomaly: Space and Time Indivisible

 


Following the initial trilogy came the franchises’ most ambitious entry, and undoubtedly its most flawed.  Bloodline had a grand scope, reaching from Philip Le Marchand’s creation of his ultimate puzzle box, the Lament configuration – ‘portal’ to and invite for the Cenobites – in 18th century France through to his descendents eventual defeat of Pinhead and co in the 22nd century. Oh, and in space.  Jumping into space for a fourth installment was fairly novel: it took Jason until Part X.  It was also a nifty way to ensure longevity: this is the ultimate Hellraiser story.  Unfortunately casting, budget problems and really, the lack of character continuity did in for the film.

It’s a mess, and a dull one in parts, although the ambition cannot be dismissed.  However, there’s still a nice creep to the robot opened Configuration and Cenobites roaming the corridors of a deserted space station, glimpsed on CCTV.

Narrative and stylistic links remain from the opening trilogy, but as a definite end for the Cenobites, it certainly wasn’t setting up things afresh, so what followed needed to be new.

The Morality Trilogy:  Dead, Deading, Deader

 


From the generally badly received Part IV, critical appraisal didn’t rise.  Hellraiser was still a brand strong and profitable enough to pursue, but the films that follows took a far different tack, visually and thematically departing from the previous four.  The three that follow each form a morality tale.

The main change, and in fact problem, was the characters.  The first two films had Clare, Channard and Frank.  Acting quality varied, but the films dwelt on their motivations.  Each had their own level of biblical sin propelling them to hell and their just punishment waiting for them: gaoling or mentorship of Pinhead.  By the fifth entry, Hellraiser: Inferno, the Cenobites quarry were one dimensional characters who may pull the wool over their fellow human’s eyes but are just lining their place in hell.  Previous devious and hedonistic enigmas were now just figures of easy vice.  And it’s not easy to hang a film off those.  So, while they navigate simple morality tales, they also role out detection to the audience.  In each one the tricks about guessing if and when you are in reality or hell.  It’s not a great drinking game.  In each case, the hell is an elaborately personalized one, far removed from Frank’s fate in the first film.

I’ve been fairly robustly heckled for calling out the noir aspect of Inferno.  True it can be overused to cover a magnitude of shadows.  There is little noir in the film by design, but as a definition of tough characters and danger in the bleakest setting it’s a neat fit for the Hellraiser as a whole.  As its less than subtle title infers, this film, like the sub- trilogy, doesn’t examine the character of Pinhead and his tribe so much as humans trapped in their own hell.  The result of the morality bolting becomes rather repetitive, but there are some plus sides.  The sixth film, Hellseeker, is generally the best received of the latter films, marking as it does a return of Kirsty from the first film.  She brings with her the Faustian pacts that gfeatured heavily int he first trilogy but despite this, the plot and Pinhead’s role are very similar to Inferno.  Part seven is slightly more interesting than it’s name suggests: Deader. The franchise had sunk deeply into Americana over the previous two films, but while the Eastern European setting and return to grunge may be cynical and budget saving, it’s also quite refreshing.  This is after all, the heartland of Dracula and the home continent of the Lament Configuration.  Deader is the most classically hell focused of the three, with a clear step-up in acting quality and Frankenstein connotations.  It has a protagonist and an antagonist, both full of interest.  Winter, the Le Marchand descendent antagonist is kept in the shadows for large part sof the films, but has the substance to rival the Clares and Channards of the earlier films, unsurprisingly inspiring one of the many Hellraiser fan films.  Deader also features a nice coda, stressing the transient futility of the main character’s choices on an oh-so cynical and cyclical Earth.

This sub-trilogy’s main fault is the reduction of the strength of Cenobites.  Its’ not all MTV, and the retreat of the hellfiends to the shadows could be admirable, but the bolted together scripts often lead to poor, repetitive reveals while pushing the focus onto weak characters.  The lead Cenobite, often appearing in disguise and alone is not strengthened as a result.  Pinhead may remain his philosophical self – Doug Bradley seemingly incapable of a bad performance – but he is reduced to a bit part.  The unearthly distance he had from Earth, the amoral, ambiguous order to which he belongs at the start of the franchise is long gone.

The Hellworld Anomaly: A New Nightmare

 


Sitting at the end of the morality trilogy’ is its variant of the Bloodline anomaly, but this time the spaceploitation is shunned in favour of New Nightmare irony.  Set as it is in the ‘real’ world, rather than the Hellraiser world.  Its’ to be assumed that is ‘reality’ and not a Cenobite construct of another ‘reality’ but can you ever be sure?  In this world, Hellraiser is certainly better appreciated than our own.  Amongst much merchandising and bandying around of the term ‘Cenobite’ the franchise (number of films not named) is an addictive and deadly MMORPG.  It’s an interesting distraction, and a complete turnabout – for the most part.  Oddly, it also signifies a full circle: whether imagined or otherwise, we follow a bunch of students being picked off one by one by Pinhead and his cronies.  One of them may be future Superman Henry Cavill, but we’re in a slasher film of the 1980s.  Emerging from a short story, Hellworld’s absolute nonsensical nonsense for the most part, and that sadly doesn’t cancel out, but it is strangely odd fun in the canon.  Plus, and it’s a big one, Lance Henriksen’s in it.  That’s a big plus – just see Aliens vs Predators.

There’s an endless amount of people a certain puzzle box is calling for…

hellraiser pull2Overall, the Hellraiser falls apart – or rather – is less interesting the further it moves from its literary and liturgy.  The early entries and subsequent comics mix its new, modern type of horror with an examination of the human condition and Faust, Dante and Paradise Lost.  Predating Saw, the victims for the most part shape their own punishment.  In addition, they draw on the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein and Hyde with moral conundrums, God analogies, the undead and double lives.  And then, with a ‘snikt’ of chains and hooks, there’s the most fundamental slaying of all: the law of diminishing returns.  The franchise, despite off references, struggles to find a new place in the horror pantheon.  The moral punishers in the latter films could be seen as misinterpretations of the Cenobites, but in fact are just far too one dimensional.  The mystery and ambiguity of their motives are crucial.  They may be partial to a Faustian pact or two because they hang around with Mephistopheles during their down-time or simply because it’s currency in their different dimension.  By portraying them as captors of those unfit for society, the Cenobites really do become those demons of an Abrahamic God, abiding by celestial rules.

In it’s 25th year, the Hellraiser franchise is productive if not coherent.  Clive Barker has the final book brewing, Dimension films are continually struggling to finalise a remake of the first film and the comic book rights remain in demand.  At least one thing’s for sure: there’s an endless amount of people a certain puzzle box is calling for.

‘Take it, it’s yours, it has always been yours’

Hopefully in the not-too-distant future we’ll again hear ‘Jesus Wept’ for the right reasons during a Hellraiser film.

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