Sunday, November 22, 2009

Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992)

Review #0037

Slightly superior to Hellbound, this second sequel benefits from a far more satisfying storyline that's unfortunately mared by some lazy narrative decisions (such as the gross over-abundance of dream sequences) and a very underwhelming, effects-heavy finale that would feel more at home in an action film. The film features the most elaborate dialogue in the series, a huge part of which belongs to Doug Bradley who hams it up as both Pinhead and his alter-ego Elliot Spencer. There is actually much more of him than I had bargained for. And despite lines after lines of campy demonic lore and ample exposition, he fails to become much more than what he was in the previous films: a boring, one-dimensional character with a phenomenal fashion sense. All in all, Hell on Earth is a more or less successful attempt to transplant the franchise across the Atlantic.

The film begins with shady club-owner J.P. Munroe purchasing a macabre sculpture containing the proeminent outlines of Pinhead and the Box. It's actually just an artsy version of the creaking wood pillar seen at the end of Hellbound. Trapped inside, Pinhead bides his time until blood is splashed on the sculpture's shiny surface in sufficient amount to bring him back. Thanks to gullible J.P., he finally gets his wish then goes on a killing spree, trying to establish his dominion here on Earth. All the while, TV reporter Joey Summerskill is hot on his trail thanks to the helping hand of J.P.'s ex-girlfriend Terri, and the oneiric apparitions of Elliot Spencer. When protagonist and antagonist finally meet, the film has already depleted all its steam, and it's certainly not the ridiculous new Cenobites who will rekindle our interest. In the end, Pinhead is "shot" back to Hell in an unconvincing flurry of special effects that reminds us of this ancient lament heard at the center of the world: "Kiiiiiill the seriiiiiiiies!"

For better or for worse, the franchise has left the Gothic archways of old Europe for the posh slasher scene of NYC. The roomy, split-leveled old homesteads and dark corridors in the bowels of asylums have been replaced by downtown high-rise lofts with large panoramic windows and trendy nightclubs decorated with sculptures of crucified babies. Evil, aristocratic Julia has ceded the lead to a virginal do-gooder with 1/10th of her screen presence (TV actress Terry Farrell). And Pinhead has been absorbed into the massive boogeymen roster of Hollywood, so you can now see him plow through crowds of party-goers, selectively making "home-made" Cenobites with barbed wire, pistons, cameras, CDs and cocktail shakers. As the new incarnation of cool, he now walks the slick city streets ominously with flaming cars and leather-bound henchmen in the background. In typical American fashion, the makers of this film have upped the ante in terms of quantity (more lines for Pinhead, more Cenobites, more corpses) and cranked the coolness factor up a notch. Now that's all and well for the teenage target audience, but older audiences (such as the first two films' fanbase) might feel cheated.

Fortunately, the film is built around a tighter scenario that comes back to the basics and provides some much-needed, gap-filling continuity to Hellbound. J.P., with his slick hairdo and gift roses, is much closer to Frank than the bland, clichéd Dr. Channard, and his motivations are much clearer. Having him convinced by the cunniving Pinhead is a more level-headed, but eventually much more effective way to forward the plot than making him an archetypical character who acts solely on conventions (such as Channard). J.P. is the cool dude you love to hate, and whose greed and lush will drive him to murder. Opposite to him is punkette (and ex-girlfriend) Terri whose lack of self-confidence makes her the ideal prey. She is very much a teenage character, and her demise is actually, genuinely sad.

As for Pinhead, he steals the show. Not because he betters it, but because he mares it with his overwhelming presence. It's actually incredible to see to what lenghts the makers of this film have gone to showcase him. He talks, talks, talks, and it's so tedious that we almost wish that he would go back to the concise, non-obstrusive one-liners of the previous films. Then, there are the flash-backs/Limbo scenes, designed to flesh out Pinhead, the man (i.e. Captain Elliott Spencer, British officer during WWI). These are actually the best-produced, most impressive scenes in the film, yet their relevance is highly questionable. You see, thanks to a loophole in dream law, Joey can actually enter Spencer's dreams through her own. Whether you can buy that stuff or not doesn't change the fact that dreams are dishonest plot devices. In a particularly contrived, convenient sequence, Spencer (in full military garb, walking through elaborate, shifting sets) explains to Joey his entire life story up to the events seen in Hellbound (thus warranting some footage recycling à la Rocky IV). Although I would argue that Hellbound's raggedy scenario is partly to blame, such a sequence sabotages the whole premise. The protagonist is a journalist for God's sake! Why not let her investigate the story instead of offering such resolution on a silver platter! Early on, she boasts about how she wants a career of "tight stories, not tight skirts". But in the final scene, she ends up tied to a pole with leather straps while two men discuss her faith. That's the steel Hell on Earth is made of: an intriguing and well-laid premise that eventually curls on itself and dies while the echos of wise-cracking zombies annoyingly reverberate in our hollowed-out minds. For the film critic, Hell is truly about dudes with head-grafted cameras asking a runaway protagonist: "Ready for your close-up, bitch?"

Hell on Earth has replaced Hellbound's nonsensical, metaphor-heavy scenario with a more straightforward albeit conventional one. It has better, rounder characters instead of the theatrical archetypes of the previous installment, with weaker and less interesting FX, more gore and sets just as uninteresting. Take your pick.

2/5 Campy and wholly watchable teenage film without any real ambition.