Friday, March 2, 2018

Worth Mentioning - Sadomasochists from Beyond the Grave

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Heaven and Hell, angels and demons, spiders and vigilantes.


After seeing a couple of his stories get turned into a pair of rather lackluster films, films which I have trouble even sitting through, author Clive Barker decided that the director who could really do his material justice while bringing it to the screen was himself. So he made his feature directorial debut with an adaptation of a novella he had written titled The Hellbound Heart. He wanted to call the movie Hellbound, with the fallback working title of Sadomasochists from Beyond the Grave. Thankfully, it ended up being called Hellraiser. I'm not sure we'd still be talking about Hellraiser if it had been released as Sadomasochists from Beyond the Grave, although I would like to think the content of the film would be able to overcome that clunky B-movie title. It would have a shot, because Barker's decision to make a movie based on The Hellbound Heart turned out to be a wise one. With this film, he contributed to the horror genre one of its great classics.

Barker's story stacks multiple creepy, disturbing concepts on top of each other. It all starts with a puzzle box, which is acquired by a sleazy guy named Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman), someone who practically oozes slime and makes you feel dirty just looking at him. Frank has been hanging out in his childhood home, living in filth, and he solves the puzzle box in the attic of the house. Solving the box opens a gateway to a hellish dimension, through which a group of supernatural beings called Cenobites and described as "demons to some, angels to others" enter our world to give Frank his reward - a deadly, mutilating experience of pleasure and pain (this is where the idea of sadomasochism comes in) involving hooked chains and sharp implements that tear Frank to pieces.

The Cenobites are what Hellraiser is primarily known for, and Barker makes the surprising choice to show a couple of them right up front, within the first 5 minutes, walking among the remains of Frank's body. One of these Cenobites, the leader, is a being who has come to be known as Pinhead. Played by Doug Bradley, Pinhead has such a striking look that it pretty much guaranteed his place as a horror icon from the moment he appears on screen. The captivating, almost regal performance Bradley delivers in the role is what cements the character in place on the icons list.

Some time later, Frank's brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) decides to move into the house with his wife Julia (Clare Higgins), who is not happy about this situation... until they spot signs that Frank has been there recently. She seems to get some kind of barely concealed thrill out of that idea. The flashbacks that flood her mind reveal why - back when Julia and Larry were getting married, Frank showed up at their door and was able to quickly seduce his brother's bride-to-be. She didn't find him to be nearly as off-putting as I do; in fact, their brief affair (which included having sex on top of her wedding dress) was an intensely passionate one.

During the moving process, Larry accidentally cuts his hand. When his blood drips on the attic floor, it allows Frank to escape from Hell, his body regenerating in an impressive special effects sequence similar to Freddy Krueger's regeneration in the next year's A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. He doesn't completely regenerate, though. He needs to feed on more blood to fully get back to himself - at this point, he doesn't even have skin. There you have one seriously unnerving concept: a skinless escapee from Hell lurking in the attic of a home while a married couple goes about their lives in the rooms below.

Julia is a cold and distant woman, but her passion for Frank burns hot - she's so into this guy that she's willing to kill for him. She goes out on the town and picks up men that she brings back to her attic, where the men are murdered so Frank can get his skin back.

While Frank and Julia go about their killing spree, that puzzle box is still around. In ends up in the hands of Frank's niece, Larry's daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), who is smart enough not to want to be around her stepmother. When the Cottons move into the old home together, Kirsty gets her own place. For most of the film, there's not much to Kirsty other than the fact that she doesn't like Julia and loves her father, even calling to check on him after she has a nightmare about him. She gets tipsy at a dinner party, she hooks up with a guy after he impresses her with a cigarette trick, she throws a homeless man out of the pet shop she works in when she catches him eating crickets. But it's at the point when Kirsty has an encounter with her skinless uncle that she steps up and becomes a true heroine.

Kirsty fights off her uncle and takes away his puzzle box, realizing it means something to him. Then she solves it herself, and when faced with the Cenobites she's able to deduce that Frank escaped from them. She offers a deal: she'll lead them to Frank if they'll spare her life. It's a deal Pinhead considers making. He's not an unreasonable guy. Despite becoming a horror icon, Pinhead (and his Cenobite crew - Nicholas Vince as Chatterer, Simon Bamford as Butterball, Grace Kirby as Deep Throat) is actually the lesser of three evils. Frank and Julia are more evil and more dangerous than the Cenobites are. At least the Cenobites have something of a code of honor.

To save herself and her father, Kirsty enters a house she knows is inhabited by murderers, bringing sadomasochists from beyond the grave with her. That's a heroine worth looking up to.

I first watched Hellraiser during my childhood mission to watch as much horror as I could. I became a full-fledged horror fan in 1987, so this would have been one of the earlier viewings for me... and I didn't take to it as much as some of the other horror films I was watching. This was something different, more intense, more extreme. Nearly everything about this film troubled me in some way. The gore, the infidelity, the sleaziness of Frank. The film is enveloped in a thick atmosphere of dread and it features some seriously screwed up characters. It feels dirty to me, and off-puttingly weird.

As a kid, I was even put off by the oddly out-of-place feeling of the setting, and that wasn't even intentional. Hellraiser was shot in England and Barker meant for it to be set in England - I suppose this was before the casting process, because you don't cast Andrew Robinson as a man returning to a childhood home in England. The financiers said the film should be set in America, believing it would have a better chance of having success in the U.S. if it was set there. But just casting a couple Americans in lead roles doesn't make the movie feel like it's happening in the U.S. Even when I was a child, I could tell this wasn't America. Especially since most of the supporting cast is obviously from the U.K. While Higgins gets to keep her own British accent as Julia, other characters (like Frank) were dubbed - and this was another thing that made me want to keep the film at arms length.

Hellraiser is a great film and I have a lot of respect for it, but I have never lost that feeling of being put off by it. It's not a movie I have a desire to watch very often, it's just too grotty and uncomfortable. That's actually a good thing, when a horror movie can make you as uneasy as Hellraiser makes me. It just hinders its rewatchability. Still, I do return to Hellraiser from time to time and marvel at what Barker was able to accomplish - it's a fascinating story, and he managed to bring it to the screen perfectly on a small budget, making horror history his first time putting together a feature.

A DARK SONG (2016)

By the time A Dark Song had reached the end of its 100 minute running time, I felt like writer/director Liam Gavin had taken me on one hell of a journey. Part of this is due to the fact that the film is quite deliberately paced, so it actually felt longer than its 100 minutes - and while that would usually be a negative thing to say, I didn't mind it in this case.

Catherine Walker stars as a woman named Sophia, who has hired occultist Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram) to perform rituals that will allow her to speak to her late son and to her guardian angel, who she will be able to ask a favor from. This isn't just any simple séance that could be over in a matter of minutes, though. The rituals that need to be performed will be extremely demanding, and could take up to eight months of intense round-the-clock work to complete. During this time, Sophia and Solomon will not be able to leave Sophia's house for any reason. No matter what happens, they cannot cross the line of salt that has been laid around the property until the rituals are complete, otherwise they could become trapped in the house forever.

Sophia is driven by a mother's love and the loss of her child, so it's easy to understand why she would put herself through the torture of these rituals in hopes of accomplishing her goal. Solomon, on the other hand... it's not so clear whether or not we should trust him at all. This film first came to my attention while I was writing up news articles for Arrow in the Head and watched its trailer. I was instantly intrigued, because I couldn't tell from the preview whether Solomon really was an expert occultist trying to do actual rituals, or if he was just a pervert who was putting Sophia through this ordeal for his own sick pleasure. The uncertainty displayed in the trailer is also in the film, and a long time went by before I could decide if Solomon's rituals were really doing anything or not.

These rituals take up the majority of the film, which is why I felt the minutes ticking by. The movie is carried by just two people, who do strange things and then take a break now and then for some chit-chat. This is not a movie to turn to in hopes of great excitement.

It does, however, get stranger and stranger as it goes along. This is also part of why I felt like A Dark Song had taken me on a journey - it showed me some really weird visuals that I did not expect to see.

This film was quite different from the norm, and I liked it for that. It was troubling, involving, and surprising, and I was glad I went on this journey.


7 Guardians of the Tomb is a new entry in the "nature run amok" thriller sub-genre from Kimble Rendall, the director of the 2012 "sharks in a flooded supermarket" film Bait. I was very interested in seeing this one, solely due to the presence of a certain actor in the cast. That actor is Kelsey Grammer, who played psychiatrist Frasier Crane through twenty years of great television comedy, first on Cheers and then on his own spin-off Frasier. I never expected to see Grammer in a killer spider movie, but that's the opportunity 7 Guardians of the Tomb is giving us, and there's no way I was going to let this chance pass me by.

If, like me, you'll be watching this film only to see Grammer and killer spiders share the screen, you're likely to get a higher level of enjoyment out of it than any other viewer who decides to check it out. It's Frasier and killer spiders! That delivers a certain degree of baseline fun, and Grammer plays exactly the sort of character you'd hope he would play in a movie like this - the questionable businessman who turns out to be a traitor who will trap his fellow characters to cover his own ass and tell them to "Go to Hell!" while sending them (or attempting to send them) to their doom. But that's the most 7 Guardians has to offer.

The story involves a search and rescue team trekking out into the middle of the Gobi Desert in China in hopes of saving a couple men who were exploring a spider-infested underground tomb for Biotech, the pharmaceutical company co-founded by Grammer's character. In this team there's an archaeologist to provide exposition once the group is down in the tomb, an amusingly clueless and irreverent driver, a logistics specialist whose most memorable trait is that she's diabetic, Grammer's Expendables 3 co-star Kellan Lutz as the search and rescue specialist with a dark past (we find out all about it whether you care or not - and you won't), and producer Li Bingbing as our heroine, Jia. Rendall and his three co-writers tried very hard to establish an emotional connection with Jia, piling on the personal issues: one of the missing men is her brother; her father co-founded Biotech, so she has known Grammer all her life; and she lost both parents in a plane crash when she was very young. Rendall even tries to drive home how tragic her life has been by showing flashbacks to her childhood, around the time her parents died. And yet, despite all this effort, I didn't feel any more strongly about Jia than I did about the characters who were predictably spider fodder.

Along the way, the group also ends up taking care of a little girl whose family has been killed by the spiders from the tomb. This little girl knows how the spiders come after their victims, she has survived an attack before - her inclusion in this story was very obviously inspired by Aliens, but she's no Newt.

For more than half of the film, we follow these characters through this vast underground tomb that's crawling with funnel web spiders, which are only supposed to be found in Australia. 7 Guardians was a Chinese and Australian co-production, so it is kind of cute that the arachnids carrying the film on their exoskeletons happen to be an Australian species that turns up in China - and the filmmakers make sure to explain why these spiders are on the wrong continent. It's all part of an ancient search for the key to eternal life and an elixir made from the enzyme the spiders produce during mating season. As if being trapped in an underground tomb with spiders that have exceptionally strong venom (the typical funnel web bite can kill a person in under 12 hours, and these particular funnel web spiders are even more deadly than that) weren't enough, the characters also have to navigate secret passageways and bypass traps that were put in the tomb because the emperor who had the place built thought these would help him escape from death. This allows for the usual things like slowly lowering ceilings and crumbling bridges over molten lava.

Problem is, nothing that occurs in the tomb is presented in a thrilling way, and there was nothing interesting to me about watching a bunch of people I didn't give a damn about making their way through dark rooms. When Grammer wasn't on the screen, I could only sit there and hope he'd be back soon. The best bit of action happens before the film gets to the underwhelming stuff in the tomb of the title, a notable sequence I wasn't expecting at all. As the search and rescue team makes their way toward the tomb, a huge dust storm hits, putting out electrical discharge that happens to ignite gas that's seeping through the desert floor from old coal mines. I was not prepared to see a storm of CG explosions in a killer spider movie.

7 Guardians of the Tomb has never had a good title; when it was first announced, it had quite a bland one, The Nest. Since the only thing that makes it worth seeing is the man who used to play Frasier Crane, I like to call it "Frasier vs. Spiders"... and now that Kelsey Grammer has made his entrance into nature run amok movies, I'm hoping he'll turn up in another one someday. A killer reptile movie I can refer to as "Snakes on a Crane".

I'd also hope the movie would be better than that nickname. 7 Guardians of the Tomb isn't.

The 7 Guardians of the Tomb review originally appeared on


Saw / Insidious / The ConjuringThe Conjuring 2 director James Wan is best known for his work in the horror genre, but lately he has been branching out in a big way with projects like Furious 7 and the upcoming Aquaman movie. Before he started getting these big non-horror projects, he made an attempt to branch out of the genre, an attempt that didn't stick, with the revenge thriller Death Sentence.

Death Sentence started out as a Brian Garfield novel that the author wrote as a sequel to his earlier novel Death Wish, and in reaction to the cinematic adaptation of that novel. The main character is the man Death Wish was centered on, and the story deals with his continuing mission of vigilantism. It would have been very interesting if the film version had actually been based on the novel, interesting to see a sort of "alternative sequel" to Death Wish that had never been filmed. But that's not the case. The film uses the title of the novel and gives Garfield credit, but has nothing to do with his story. It's one of those "why the hell even say it was based on that book?" situations, and Death Sentence is really more a remake of Death Wish.

The story here was crafted by writer Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (who would go on to co-write The Grey), and the film stars Kevin Bacon not as Death Wish character Paul Kersey (or Paul Benjamin, as he was named in the novels), but as family man / office worker Nick Hume. When we first meet him, Nick has a nice-but-hectic life with his wife Helen (Kelly Preston) and two teenage sons Brendan and Lucas (Stuart Lafferty and Jordan Garrett). Things fall apart for them really quickly when Nick and Brendan venture out of the suburbs and into the city for a hockey game Brendan is playing in.

A simple gas stop is disrupted by a hold-up pulled off by a gang that has another, more twisted objective for raiding this place: Joe Darley (Matt O'Leary) is trying to join the gang, which is older brother Billy (Garrett Hedlund) is in, and he has to commit a murder to get in. Commit a machete he does, slashing Brendan with a machete.

Joe is arrested, and Nick is the only witness that saw his face. But when he hears there's a deal in place to give Joe a short prison sentence, Nick decides to take matters in his own hands. Joe is set free, Nick tracks him down and kills him.

In the typical revenge film, the death of Joe would be the ultimate goal, and it wouldn't happen until the end of the movie. Here, it happens quite early... and it happens early because things are going to get much worse for Nick. Billy and his gang retaliate with the intention of destroying what remains of Nick's life. So then he has to get more revenge himself, building up to a climactic confrontation between Nick and the gang in an abandoned mental hospital.

There are a lot of revenge films that I enjoy, but I don't get much enjoyment out of Death Sentence. This is a dark, relentlessly bleak movie. It's not really a surprise that Wan didn't break away from horror quite yet with this one; he tried to break out with a film that's a total downer. This movie makes you feel worse than most horror movies do.

There is a sign of things to come for Wan in Death Sentence, though. The highlight of the film comes just under halfway in, when the gang attacks Nick on the sidewalk outside his office. A chase ensues, leading a multi-story parking garage. Nick ends up fighting a gang member inside a car on the top level, and the car starts rolling off of the structure. Nick has to scramble through the car and out the busted windshield just as the vehicle goes off the edge. Wan would repeat this idea in Furious 7, with Kevin Bacon, the car, and the parking garage replaced by Paul Walker, a bus, and a mountain.

Death Sentence is decent, and earns bonus points for having John Goodman in there as a guy called "Bones", the arms-dealing father of the Darley boys who cares more about paying customers than about his offspring, but it's really unpleasant.

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