Tag: Horror

Frankenstein: “We Will Need New Material” – AD 2014 (Part Two)

Penny Dreadful Frankenstein Puppet

Frank II

The concluding look at how the legacy of Frankenstein is faring 196 years on from his creation…And his creation’s creation.  Read the first part for tales of Angelic I Frankensteins, Missing Munsters and Intriguing Igors… Part Two is dedicated to Penny Dreadful, and full of spoilers


That’s nothing new, and the current cultural canvas stretching from demon bashing comic books to misfiring Munsters, proves that it’s still a powerful metaphor ripe for appropriation.  And this isn’t an exhaustive list, barely touching on the Frankenstein who’s been testing DC Comics since the late 1940s up to the current Young Frankenstein toying with the Teen Titans.  Then there’s the continual references propping up Doctor Who, doctorish twists on the thriving zombie genre …

As a statement of intent however, the strongest contender must be the darkly ambitious Showtime series Penny Dreadful. Immaculately cast, inspirationally created, veins pumping with horror, at the mid-point of the series UK broadcast it’s clear that this is the Frankenstein to beat…

Penny Dreadful (2014 – )

“Who is the child, Frankenstein? Thee or me?” – Caliban

For a chance to expand the myth and give a little more screen time to the eponymous doctors, where better to look than the brave new world of television. Into the breach stepped the fascinating Penny Dreadful with a gloomy, rancid and often brilliant blend of 19th century literary and gothic icons. In the first episodes, it was striking how this new iteration of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen had crept up on prime time. By the end of the second it’s clear that it’s attempting  something different to Alan Moore’s sublime opus.  It doesn’t take much more than a consumptive Billy Piper spitting blood mid-coitus over Dorian Gray of Eve Green’s foul mouth bending Simon Russell-Beale’s frazzled tache to make the truth of the Penny Dreadful moniker clear.

There’s lots at play in this series; necessary when it turns its full focus to mystery and the dark underground of 19th century London.  With origins and explanations destined to appear later, surely, it’s the key enjoyment is watching significant talent take on these characters and win.  Masterminded by the brilliant John Logan and Sam Mendes, fresh from their revitalization of British 20th century icon James Bond, the input of consultants of the pedigree of Dr Matthew Sweet and ambitious casting makes for something special.

Amid a mix, or clash and blur of creations, familiar storylines vie for attention.  What must be  Dracula provides the main motivation while arguably Frankenstein makes for the most engrossing plotline.  In the first episode, there’s a point that divides those prime storylines neatly.

Point of No Return

It’s the meeting of the as yet un-named Frankenstein with Timothy Dalton’s obsessed Sir Malcolm Murray, African explorer, Alan Quatermain comparator and nemesis of Dracula.  They meet in what may as well be the Diogenes Club, the gentleman’s sanctuary and necessary catalyst.  The two great explorers, one of land and human experience, the other of science and human endeavour, meet and pique each other’s interest – although it’s Murray who takes the lead in summoning the younger Doctor to his cause.  We learn his insights on to his rag tag band of acolytes later (“not for the weak or the kind”), but after that meeting the great explorer returns to ramp up the vampire storyline while Frankenstein returns to his hidden laboratory, previously only seen as a secret door.

As is befitting, the end of episode one is brilliantly played down. The accidental awakening as Frankenstein’s return to a plain but classical laboratory sees him first strip away the clothing of society and – perhaps buoyed by an income boost or drunk on his passionate quest –tinkers to trigger an electric surge.  He’s walked past a finely realised copper bench, a prone form giving the director ample scope for misdirection.  There’s no hint of lightening in London, here electricity is man wrought.  That’s a crucial theme in this meshing of gothic icons, even the Alan Quatermain styled Sir Malcolm Murray; how their world is being encroached by the fast-developing world of Victorian rationalism and mechanics.

Quiet and tender, the meeting of this father and son is far more successful than the traditional one.  It forms the episode climax as Frankenstein teaches his creation his name.  Some reviews decried that, suggesting that it played down to a sophisticated audience.  In the climax however, I thought it neat.  This is an intensely intimate moment, one where the audience is clearly eavesdropping.  It’s awkward and chilling I thought… With these two, it’s not so much acquiescing to the common denominator, but an imprinting of a name that would become the focus for total vengeance.

This creature, allowed to name himself after the Shakespearean Proteus, is the product of Frankenstein’s devout romanticism and thirst to rationalise it with his science and deep felt experience of death, against that same industrial expansion.  Although it takes a while to explore that fully…

Out on the Town

“Death is not serene” – Frankenstein

Episode Two plays a little fast and loose with the fun of this new, scared but joyous father and his curious son.  When naming him, there’s the wry dismissal of the theological connotations of ‘Adam’ and then the vibrant scenes of the monster discovering the world, intercut with Frankenstein’s involvement in the Murray plot.  That provides a chance for Ives and Frankenstein to bond over Wordsworth, leaving the psychic to inform the main players correctly; this doctor has secrets.

And after a day of magical discovery, father and son return to their house of secrets and Penny Dreadful plays one of its mean tricks, expertly dishing and manipulating literary roots to spin and twist chronologically earlier plot points.  After exploring the unnatural creation going well, through emotion, aspiration, recollection…  Frankenstein’s world is literally torn apart.

“Your first born has returned father” – Caliban

The creature’s appearance is so good, the next episode near steals it with Fenton and his master…

However, that Episode Three is so far the highlight of the series for revealing an authentic Frankenstein and the first born son he abandoned.  It’s a surprise that shouldn’t be.  That savage twist should have been obvious, but this creature is more the tortured, long-haired creation of the book than vicious killer.  The roots of these characters immense hatred of each other is well laid, yet through few words on the Doctor’s part and many from his creation.  This episode starts with the brutal lessons of life and death that the young Frankenstein was forced to learn.  We see him walking through daffodils and quoting not only Wordsworth, but the poet’s Intimations on Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.  A neat if not subtle reference to the character’s literary origins, this retelling promises so much more alongside broad slabs of fidelity.

Alongside the weak doctor, this ‘normal’ sized creature is not horrifically violent, though it can evidently spring to action with resolve when required.  It’s a fine line to the ham fisted mechanic of I Frankenstein. No matter if the creature is as abnormally tall as Shelley’s, was awakened with enough volts to power its indestructibility… The real fuel for the creature must come from those first few minutes of imprinted rejection.  This creature is as articulate and learned as his source.  The recap of his birth, in “terrified agony” is gripping and faithful, and the script plays with it well, even name-checking in opposition PB Shelley’s  Lyrical Adonais.


“Do not test me Frankenstein. You do not know horror until I have shown it to you” – Caliban

Still, it’s the two that are rooted in turbulence.  “Death is not serene” observes the Doctor early on while his creation promises that he would have pursued him through the “blackest tempest of the darkest night”.

We also see the origins of the Doctor of course and how death set him on an inevitable route.  The creature narrates what we’ve seen so far, the Doctor who favoured Wordsworth and the Romantics’ view of the world who creates something that is “modernity personified” in the age of the industrial.  It’s no wonder that Frankenstein fundamentally cannot stand his creation, and is incapable of making any effort to make up for his abandonment.  It shouldn’t fit quite so well with the other son we’ve seen, not quite, but it does.  That’s perhaps due to the quality of the creature’s argument.  Tellingly, Frankenstein doesn’t speak for minutes as his firstborn addresses him.  When told by his son that they are the Janus mask, “inseparable” his first words, “how could you do that?’  The response that it is a mercy for the tragic Proteus – “you put me through nothing but pain”.

As the creature continues its insightful psychoanalysis, it sums up what may as well be Penny Dreadful’s main remit.  Following the father who could only be “surgeon and the butcher”, he comes to London.  Rightfully not the creature’s birth place, but the perfect hub for these stories.  A rather pretentious ‘Hellmouth’.

That reference to the Janus mask is a neat plant.  The ever reliable Alun Armstrong soon appears as Brand in the creature’s story, dragging him to his natural home: the theatre, the Grand Guignol no less.  Big puppet indeed, this may not bring universal acceptance but does bring him a name, again Shakespearean: Caliban.  It’s a neat trick, blending the creature into the shadows as the Phantom of the Opera of the hunchback in the real-life and enduring legacy of a theatre infamous for naturalistic horror shows. It’s unlikely such a literally concerned show will bring in a variant of wolf men beyond that stage, and perhaps that’s another reason for it.  The Grand Guignol stage allows the freedom to include fictional cameos, while behind the scenes the creature pulls the strings (literally, the grand guignol that’s not the buffoon, but the marionnettiste) and front of house, Penny Dreadful’s other players gather to watch events unfold.

There’s time for a quick bit of literary fun of course.  “It’s all Ibsen nowadays” laments Brand at one point, crew sniggering behind the camera I’m sure.  But the show’s main tool is this self-aware creature.  He knocks on the real fourth wall as he draws the comparison between these actors and the undying – creatures of perpetual resurrection.  And there on a stage we first see before it hosts the old ‘Penny Dreadful’ Sweeney Todd, the pale skin and red eyes make him appear more like a traditional vampire than ever.  He lacks the taught translucent, taught skin and adds sutures to Shelley’s creation, but some hair growth later and some things are inevitable.  When he tells his father “I’ll show you what I want’ ‘a collective sigh rises: what could that be..?

Frank II cu

The Monster’s Shadow

“If you seek to threaten me, threaten me with life” – Caliban

With Frankenstein in the pre-eminence, the other plot lines can only pale. It’s made clear that Mina is indeed the Mina, attached to one Jonathan Harker and falling under the spell of this other creature, never named.    Again it’s twisted, with a doomed Fenton a little more horrid than the fly obsessive in Stoker’s original and the marvellous setting of the London Zoo showing how Twilight could have done far better.

While these rattle on, the Frankenstein story settles into the classic amateur Faustian pact, playing out on the streets while the vampires occupy the night, interiors and underground.  “What do you want from me demon?’ asks Frankenstein of his firstborn, his cool arrogance brought more steel by the arrival.  He still feels fairly justified or perhaps is finding good reason to reach for it.

The streets of London were also the backdrop where his younger ‘brother’ found discovery.  While that relationship was about teaching and learning, here it’s one of constant misunderstanding.  It’s amusing when Frankenstein admits he does not love his son, but not for the creature; of course, it’s the love of one like him he craves.

Frankenstein is as much about loss as love of course, it’s a relationship built on the negation that intertwine the two until death is the only option. That’s negation of parenting, knowledge, hope.   The creature is brutalized by that loss, Frankenstein strengthened.

Love, Love, Love…

“Do not temporize demon, be at it” – Caliban

Love as is only right, is at the heart of much of Penny Dreadful, and never as simple as that of a father for his missing daughter or another father lacking it for his unwanted son…

We see Frankenstein enlisted into a super-gang of course, and that necessarily weights the other end of the relationship spectrum.   By the middle of the series, Murray’s similarities become more relevant as the search for the source of the Nile adds mystery on mystery and Frankenstein is cast as his son.  A neat balance to Frankenstein’s own son just returning.  Although, who on Earth would trust Murray…

Gray is the last major figure to give up his secrets… But seems a neat foil as an immortal and cat amongst other mortals.  Each character has their own implication on Frankenstein’s.  By episode Four, and the intensity of the creature’s quest for a bride, the short, shocking creation talks of mortals and touches on some of the more delicate pangs of 19th century politics.  “Future belongs to the strong, the immortal races” he says, “To me and my kind”.  In an echo, Gray later extols Wagner as he seduces Chandler with Tristan & Isolde‘s ‘Love Death’.

It’s Josh Hartnett’s Chandler who seems the real oddity.   Particularly with the neat addition of haematologist Abraham Van Helsing working alongside Frankenstein in the fourth episode.  Surely Quincey Morris is Chandler’s template, and one with a pre-built destiny to finish off Dracula.  That he isn’t Morris can only promise something else, that deep secret he’s running from.

And at the centre. Elsewhere, it’s clear that Vanessa Ives, with her mysterious arachnophobia is the key or indeed as Dorian Gray put it “The most mysterious thing in London”.  Her spin on Frankenstein? As her master first observed, Vanessa Ives has to name something to make it live before he seduces her with Keats….. And it’s surely no coincidence that the example we see twice is Shakespeare’s Ariel.   The stunning Ives-centric episode establishes that the tremor of something lay in the Murray family well before Penny Dreadful picks up the reigns, and also that this team is very, very finite.

With the Dracula storyline advanced, Penny Dreadful leaves Frankenstein as the main vehicle to bring the theme of love to the gothic horror.  And perhaps the horror of gothic love.

2014 AD

Despite losing and stalling adaptations on each side of the Atlantic, it’s clear that The Modern Prometheus is in fine form.  Quality and quantity will always vary, but that’s something the good Doctor himself is only too aware of.  Madman, explorer and scientist.  As DNA and medicine reality continues to keep Frankenstein relevant, the various facets of Frankenstein have no reason to be too stitched back together any time soon.  3,000 volts or not, immortality is assured.

To paraphrase a victim of Hammer’s Baron “I fancy that we are the spider and you are the fly, Frankenstein”.

Frankenstein: “We Will Need New Material” – AD 2014 (Part One)

Frankenstein's Monster in the 21st Century

Frankenstein AD 2014 Fresh Material

A decade on from the Van Helsing misfire and 20 years on from Kenneth Branagh’s earnestly romantic take, the legacy of Frankenstein is in better health than ever, even if it‘s a little more comfortable in its patchwork…

The Modern Prometheus.  Scientific progress will always play its part in keeping Frankenstein relevant, or rather the human response to it.  While Mary Shelley’s novel may have been a romantic answer to industrialization and even temporary climate change, the raw power of electricity in the early 19th century was revolutionary enough to question how far man could progress if he was able to harness such power.  And when that question’s asked, there’s a short list of comparators.

Frankenstein was published three years prior to Faraday unveiling the electric motor.  196 years on, that Modern Prometheus won’t go away, constantly fuelled by scientific progress.  In the 21st century, whether genetically modifying a crop, cloning stem cells or creating life from three donors, “playing Frankenstein” is a line easily brought to bear. Playing Frankenstein. A great phrase, keeping its fictional and manipulative connotations while posing its own challenge and sanity check.  Frankenstein has been presented in multiple ways over the past two centuries of course, from visionary saviour to arrogant savant, mad man to psychopathic Baron (who’s single-minded determination gifted the above title).  And by constantly maintaining this diversity, it looks as though the Doctor and his creations are faring better than ever in 2014…

In this first check-up, a look at January’s I Frankenstein, two aborted television shows that should have rocked the laboratory and the promise of a big screen revolution in 2015…

I Frankenstein (2014)

…Without Abbot and Costello…

“You go talk to the Gargoyle Queen; I’ll meet you back here in an hour”

So says Dr Frankenstein’s blonde spiritual successor to his original creation just before things kick off.  The creature of I Frankenstein is named Adam by Leonore, that same Queen of the Gargoyles and that’s pretty much all you need to know.

It’s no surprise that I Frankenstein is a graphic novel adaptation, nor that it comes from the same creator as the Underworld series.  Here however, a little disappointingly, the creature is thrust into the eternal and Christian-centric war between demons and gargoyles (the slightly stony Angelic lineage of St Michael).  Vampires and werewolves would have been a step far too much without Abbot and Costello…

As with Underworld, CGI and odd character design is the order of the day in a plot of simply decimated good, morally conflicted scientists, an impossibly empty international city and a broadly realised McGuffin which spells peril for the human race.  Of course, it manages to magic up some Romeo and Juliet moments, haphazard threat and a few digs into Frankenstein’s literary past as well.  Although, amid its cluttered, character-led plot bashing, there’s little reason to care or develop the creature’s relationship with his creator as he follows his strict path of redemption.

Father and Son

The journal changes hand more times than magic cups on Westminster Bridge

The creature is pure antihero.  From the beginning the monster’s journey is defined and justified– apart from a few outbursts – by the unnature of his creation.  The Frankenstein story is broadly present and correct, though covered within the first three minutes of the film.  That the creature is christened Adam suggests at best an oversimplification of the text, at worst a misreading.  This Victor Frankenstein is a “Mad man, terrified by what he created”.   His death may come in the tundra of the north, but the irony of this creature returning his father’s corpse to be buried in the family graveyard is a little lost: “It was more than he deserved”. And as soon as that story’s buried, his creation is immediately thrust into the film’s sub-theological plot.  No wonder he looks so surprised when having just seen his father off…  He’s attacked by descending demons then saved by ascending gargoyles.

No, as might be expected, all subtlety has been deanimated.  The MacGuffin in question is the mythical Diary of Frankenstein – hidden away in a vault while the creature conveniently mans up to a sort-of modern day – the key to the forces of evil discovering immortality. Or perhaps that’s not quite right; to reanimate demons who are surely mildly immortal anyway? They certainly don’t decompose.  In one of the few bits of profound scripting, the Gargoyle Queen prefaces Adam’s sabbatical by labelling him “Written proof that God is no longer the sole creator of man”.  Fortunately, it’s not to his jagged little face.  Sadly, some time away doesn’t improve this monster’s knowledge or ability.  In fact, having the majority of his life spent in the surety that God, angels and demons exist above the world of man can only belittle Frankenstein’s core essence.

But core essence and subtlety isn’t what I Frankenstein’s all about, nor the creature mad old Frankenstein’s only genius.  He can also write the secret of immortal reanimation neatly into a small journal that lasts 200 years.  His creation cannot age, can’t easily be destroyed and possesses supernatural strength.  This is all put down to the 3,000 volts that the diary states brought the creature to life (Volta’s first battery appeared in 1800 electro-fact fans).  All details are laid out in neat writing and sketches for the crème of modern British scientific research to purloin.  Well two of them at least, in much the same way as they might have written down Blue Peter building materials when they popped up briefly onscreen pre-internet.

The journal changes hand more times than magic cups on Westminster Bridge and there’s not even a single mention of a photocopier.  Perhaps, coincidentally, electro-magnetism hasn’t been developed in this time stream.

Body Parts

…This monster could have tried harder in those nightclubs.

Character-wise, we’re a supernaturally long throw from Shelley.  The modern successor to Frankenstein takes the form of blonde and sceptical Dr Wade – effectively Rosamund Pike in Doom – here working for big bad Bill Nighy.  The monster though, for all its lack of authentic physiognomy is rather well done. Aaron Eckhart is fine casting but given little to play with. He’s been hacked up for sure, but typically it’s difficult to portray that he’s “A dozen used parts from eight different corpses”. Perhaps truest in intent, his main scars come from the psychological battle with himself and his creator. Perhaps the weakest part is he didn’t gain any insight into his father before his death.  “He hunted me. I would have killed him too but he froze to death” Adam growls at one point, inadvertently making it sound wonderfully like “haunted”.  This Creature, possessing the long hair of his literary forbear, although not nearly as articulate, is constantly told why he’s so screwed up.  That’s a little mean, especially considering how the fact of his origin proves far more important that the why or hows.  Cue the Bill Nighy master plan: “Niberius has been planning this for centuries, Frankenstein just made it possible”.

When a Faustian pack is suggested at one point, the bride’s promised, adding an interesting tie between the scientist and creation – but really, this monster could have tried harder in those nightclubs. It’s unlikely that a sequel will happen let alone examine those missed opportunities.

Still, by the end he’s come to terms with his lot and continues along the selfless path that has earned him a demon-shocking soul.  Yes, by the end he is Batman. Sorry, no, He Frankenstein.

On a side note, the title – among its many other references to I Claudius, I Robot, er, Disney’s I-Man etc – was almost shared with the second Hammer Frankenstein film in 1958. That film, ultimately titled The Revenge of Frankenstein and featuring the late Francis Matthews who sadly passed away this week, proved to be a chilling and excellently produced addition to the franchise. It was always unlikely that its almost-namesake would be so lucky.

Frank I cu

Stitches in time (2012 – 2014)

…Frankenstein lives on in a far more thematically just way…

It’s worth noting the almost-Frankensteins; those Doctors whom, in a parallel universe, are furthering the scientific mastermind’s agenda on television.  Here they fell quickly with little chance of resurrection.  First was the quickly dismissed Gothica on ABC.  Albeit modern day, it saw a mashing of horror icons including Tom Ellis as a Victor Frankenstein, a hospital lead desperate to bring his dead daughter Anna back to life… Possibly with the help of ex Grace van Helsing.  Also dragging Dorian Gray and Dr Jekyll into the mix, it was dashed at pilot stage.

As forming gothic leagues seems to be the done thing, it’s no surprise that networks looked to their back catalogue.  Bryan Fuller’s Mockingbird Lane an update of 1960s classic The Munsters and its spin-offs did see its pilot air in Halloween 2012, but proved too complex an entity for the NBC network to commission.

A natural extension of Bryan Fuller’s excellent Pushing Daisies, the pilot was also directed and produced by Bryan Singer. That’s a great deal of talented Bryans for your buck.

Fuller’s dialogue is typically witty, picking out the heritage and black humour of suburbia as reverentially as you might expect.  NBC seems to have struggled with the simplistic dark sitcom leanings amid the peak of True Blood, and it’s true that the pilot doesn’t quite project the weight of story-wealth that it should. What it does have is some wise casting and scintillating banter, especially thanks to Eddie Izzard’s Grandpa. A far more malicious and less scatter-brained scientific trickster than the originals, he’s properly the Frankenstein here, pragmatically rejuvenating his son-in-law, not through any means necessary as much as the Munster way.  Jerry O’Connell’s rather unorthodox Herman Munster is similarly changed.  The sly, familiar silhouette joke at his introduction makes way for the creature who just “loves too hard”.  In comparison to the fellas, the female characters Lily and Marilyn seem hardly changed.

If picked up, Frankenstein would certainly be more prevalent this year in suggestion alone, but its sad and quick demise has undoubtedly allowed Frankenstein to live on in a far more thematically just way.  Bryan Fuller moved on to develop the former surgeon, psychiatrist and psychopath just intrigued by what will happen… Hannibal Lecter.  Pumped full of the Frankenstein themes, it’s certainly one of the best things on television at the moment.

Elsewhere, there’s always the resurgent Hammer studios.  With winning new material and fresh adaptations it looks as though Steven Thompson’s Quatermass reboot will be the first jewel plundered from their back catalogue.  As befits Hammer, the production house is always on a lookout for a way to present a fresh return for the Baron though…   While waiting for that spark of inspiration it’s over to another British outfit for the next big screen outing…

Frankenstein (2015)

“Let’s just say I’m Frankenstein’s Monster. And I’m looking for my creator” – Magneto, X-Men: First Class

No, X-Men aside, Frankenstein will next return in a more direct, but not necessarily faithful way.  The upcoming film adaptation from Paul McGuigan is perhaps the most interesting Frankenstein property around. Fresh from his startling and stylish hand in bringing Sherlock back to the masses, he’s a gifted powerhouse director who promises something quite different.  Details are scarce so far, but during its recent and current filming some images have come to light.

James McAvoy takes the role of Frankenstein and it’s well documented that classic film assistant Igor will be not only present, but intriguingly a key focus of the film.  Portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe, early images show a dapper, long-haired version who’s not at first glance the Igor of popular culture.  As what appears to be the third prong of a moral piece, Moriarty Andrew Scott takes the role of the film’s  ‘religious head’.  It’s clear there are many dynamics at play here, just as there should be in a Frankenstein adaptation worth its copper.  The recent delay from January to October 2015 can only bode well considering I Frankenstein’s fate this past January.

With over a year until Frankenstein soars on the big screen again, it’s down to the Idiot’s Lantern to carry it on…

And on that note, time to dim the electric lanterns and blow out the candles on tonight’s experiments.  Coming soon, the concluding part of Frankenstein 2014 AD will herald a trip to possibly Frankenstein’s finest hour this year…  Penny Dreadful

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.

Horror Films: ‘What’s your pleasure, sir?’ Archive Hellraiser Review

Dir. Clive Barker, 1987, UK, 93 mins, cert 18.

Cast: Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Doug Bradley, Ashley Laurence, Sean Chapman, Robert Hines.

Almost ten years after Halloween invented the modern slasher film and three after Freddy first got fingered, Clive Barker opened up a small, cubed puzzle box and unleashed a world of horror opportunities…

That box promised Frank Cotton (Chapman) pain and pleasure indivisible, but ultimately brought him eternal hell. Later, reanimated by his brother’s blood, Frank reawakens an old affair with his sister-in-law Julia (Higgins) enlisting her to murderously complete his regeneration and escape damnation. However, “slipping” Hell is never easy, especially when his niece (Laurence) puts the demonic Cenobites on his tail.

In place of the flippant ‘Pinhead’ of the franchise, here you get ‘Lead Cenobite’, one of a legion; demons to some, angels to others

By adapting his 1986 novel The Hellbound Heart for the screen, first time director Barker changed what 80s horror films could do. To discuss the Cenobites first almost does Hellraiser a disservice, but they are undoubtedly the film’s most iconic and brilliantly realized element. That the director’s deft hand keeps them to a minimum only made their over-exploitation in the film’s sequels more inevitable. Here, however, in place of the flippant ‘Pinhead’ of the franchise, you just get ‘Lead Cenobite’, one of a legion; demons to some, angels to others.

It’s no wonder that Barker’s old school friend Doug Bradley gained fame as the Lead Cenobite. His unearthly menace behind a face of pins is helped by the film’s best lines. Alongside him, ever-present, are his demonic acolytes.  The rotund Butterball, mouthy Chatterer and more vocal ‘female’.  Each carries a unique appearance, which later expansions would signify are directed by their order’s leader, The Engineer  However, the Cenobites’ appearance in the film is matched by their promise. Unlike other horror icons, they are long removed from Earth, from an amoral universe of different physical laws.  They’ve no need to be remembered on Elm Street; they simply wait for humans to be drawn inevitably to them, only becoming hunters when someone escapes them. It’s no surprise they first bridge our world in a grey hospital room and then a grey suburban house – theirs is a haze of white fades and blurs far removed from the dark of the real world.

Frank’s house itself is the large puzzle box where the mysteries unfold

Frank’s house itself is the large puzzle box where the mysteries unfold.  Barker allows us inside a few seconds before new owners Larry and Julia clumsily arrive, and then implicates us in its dark secret. Within these walls Barker unfolds a domestic tension. In fact, such is the psychological dimension of the first act, that Frank’s incredible reanimation wakes us to the potential threat and violence with a jolt. Barker constantly puts us one step ahead of the characters, but never lets too much tension build before reeling us back in with a jump. Mostly this works – particularly in a climactic game of cat and mouse – but he adds so many levels of threat that maggots bursting from the shadows can be an unwelcome intrusion.

That said, any slips in plot and pacing are held together by some fine performances in what are mostly unlikeable roles, particularly Robinson as the pathetic Larry. Unfortunately, his position as the main comic relief leads to a very forced distinction with his brother and that is Hellraiser’s main weakness. The brotherly contrast is Julia’s motivation to help Frank but – as her needs are essentially the same as those that first lead Frank to hell – the fact she is finally prompted by Larry’s snoring is quite a letdown.  Also  Frank doesn’t really seem to be that much of a catch, even when he’s ‘fleshed out’.

It’s in the distinctions between what man has and what he wants that Hellraiser really excels

While gorier than some of its contemporaries, Hellraiser outshone most with its imagination and the general quality, especially in make-up. The British and American cultures don’t clash on screen, but it’s in the distinctions between what man has and what he wants that Hellraiser really excels; as the Puzzle box seller tells Frank, “take it, it’s yours, it has always been yours.” There is no doubt this is groundbreaking horror and certainly exceeds its original working title: Sadomasochists From Beyond the Grave!

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