Tuesday, December 30, 2008

HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II – 20th Anniversary Edition (1988) d. Tony Randel

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

One of the toughest situations to be placed in is following up a successful act. I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to a club, seen a good opening act, an amazing middle act and then the closing act falls flat on their face trying to eclipse the successes of what came before. In the film world, it is very similar. Even if critics are trying to be fair and impartial, which doesn’t happen too often, most sequels start off life already placed squarely behind the “8 Ball” and while fan interest may provide a sequel with box office bounty, it isn’t too common for a sequel to garner critical acclaim. HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II was the continuation of the surprisingly successful original HELLRAISER (1987) and while the late 1980s tends to be a time that is not well-remembered for outstanding horror titles, HELLRAISER II had several aspects that helped it to garner success. The producers were wise enough to strike while the iron was hot and keep the attention of fans eager for more stories of the Cotton family and their struggles with the Cenobites. In addition, HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II is one of the rare sequels that exists where a concerted effort was made to fire on all the cylinders and make the story, imagery and effects all worthy of the original without going overboard and creating something that was more spectacle than cinema. Anchor Bay Entertainment has put out a 20th Anniversary Edition of HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II where the rabid fan can revel in the film that was as good a follow-up as generally exists and can wallow in a blood bath of extras that makes this DVD a must have for those who prefer to be immersed in “Hellraiser” lore.

HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II is the continuing story of Kirsty Cotton, the young woman who suffered so much and lost nearly everything in her dealings with Pinhead and the other Cenobites in HELLRAISER. Confined to a mental institution after her tribulations, Kirsty makes the acquaintance of Dr. Channard, who at first seems to be nothing more than an overly theatrical and grimly dedicated scientist with a sadistic streak. It becomes increasingly obvious that Dr. Channard has an unholy fascination with the Gateway to Hell and the promise that lies therein and he deviously uses the skills of a young, mute patient named Tiffany to unlock the Puzzle Box and open The Portal. Dr. Channard resurrects Kirsty’s nemesis Julia and the pattern of brutality and barbarity is reenacted. Kirsty must face her darkest fears, uncover mysteries of the past and the present and find a way to work with Tiffany, who has her own dark secrets, before an escape from the Labyrinth of Pain can be discovered.

At a time when horror films were rapidly degenerating into mindless exhibitions of special effects, gaudy makeup and props and had very little to do with story or quality acting, HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II has a little of everything to please most fans of the macabre. HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II has a very patient story that effectively builds on the mythology of both the past film and Clive Barker’s rich story ideas, but eventually after a pair of obligatory rehashes for those who may not have seen the original, the sequel blazes its own trail. As the narrative progresses, suspense and a sense of menace are carefully developed, even as characters are introduced or reintroduced and grisly and ghastly incidents begin to multiply. What is most fascinating about this film is the visual dichotomy between the first and second halves of the movie. In the first half of the story, the film lacks “beauty” per se, as the atmosphere and imagery is dependent upon the contrast between the stark surroundings and the nightmarish appearance of Julia and her victims. It is the gory and shocking scenes rife with blood and other grisly sights that aid in elevating the aura of wickedness that is the backbone of the initial plot. It is only after the Cenobites are released that HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II changes dramatically. The imagery becomes sublime, complex, colorful and rich, conjuring an appalling form of beauty, all of which is tied tightly to a story that still revels in ghastliness but is also just as compelling for its symbolism and for all the questions it raises even as it tries to answer some of what came before. What emerges is a horror movie that has its feet firmly planted in some of the older traditions of storytelling and atmosphere development, but is also very much a product of its time and dependent on some cutting edge effects of the late 1980s. As a result of its efforts to blend past and “present”, HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II succeeds wonderfully, where so many sequels fail.

In addition to a fairly gripping story and some superbly effective imagery, HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II has some other strengths. Ashley Laurence dominates a cast that, while not terribly well known, most of the actors give steady, workmanlike and competent performances. Ms. Laurence however steals the show. Her intensity of facial expressions, emotional delivery of her lines and her eyes that just blaze with feeling are the center of the film and keep it grounded in “reality”. What that means is that Ashley’s performance as Kirsty pulls you into the tale and keeps you from disengaging no matter how outlandish the circumstances or how bizarre the effects. We relate to Kirsty, feel her pain and cheer for her no matter how bad things get. Between her “little girl lost” appeal and her puzzling mix of strength and vulnerability, Ashley Laurence makes Kirsty a character that is pretty unforgettable as horror franchises go, and that is rather impressive considering how forgettable the late 80s was for this genre. Blending beautifully with the sublime imagery and Ashley Laurence’s emotive portrayal is an evocative orchestral score that adds to the grandiose and even melodramatic nature of HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II. The film score has an “old Hollywood” appeal while at the same time mining some of the style of other successful soundtracks like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK or GHOSTBUSTERS. The 1980s was one of the better decades for the return of flamboyant movie music, and the score of HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II fits it perfectly and helps to build that sense that you are watching more than just a sequel, you are watching the next chapter in an epic saga.

Not all is perfectly right with this film and disc, but it is mostly on target. As performances go, there is one acting effort that stands out as being pretty weak, and that is William Hope’s portrayal of Kyle. His woodenness and forced delivery of his lines came close to bringing some of the hard won mood to a screeching halt in the early stretches of the film. The 5.1 audio mix of this disc is also very inconsistent. It is almost always a given that any 5.1 mix is going to have the dialogue too low and the audio effects and music too high. In the case of HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II that problem is very much exacerbated. It also doesn’t help that some of the dialogue has a hollow, almost tinny sound to it that may be the result of the new mix being laid over older stereo or mono tracks. Other than these problems, I found my experience with the feature film to be a real treat.

It isn’t often that I get to rave about a set of bonus features, but the extras on HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II are both deep and wonderful. In addition to an excellent audio commentary track featuring director Tony Randel, writer Peter Atkins and actress Ashley Laurence, there is a sizable poster and stills gallery and trailers/TV spots segment featuring four theatrical trailers and two TV Spots. There is also a 3 minute “on-set interview” with Clive Barker and a 4 ½ “on-set interview” with cast and crew members from HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II. Both of these were on the original DVD release and while very worthwhile, they suffer from video quality issues. There is also a 17 minute featurette from the original release called “Lost in the Labyrnith” that is a series of anecdotes/interviews/comments from cast and crew members. The visual quality of this is excellent and it is certainly worth your time. New to the 20th Anniversary Edition of HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II is a 22 minute featurette called “The Soul Patrol”, which is a series of interviews with Cenobite performers Simon Bamford, Nicholas Vince and Barbie Wilde which was excellent. This is followed by a fascinating 15 minute featurette called “Outside the Box” focusing on director Tony Randel and his recollections on his career before and during the time of HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II. Next up is the 13 ½ minute featurette “The Doctor is in” centering upon actor Kenneth Cranham and his experience as Dr. Channard. All three of these featurettes are totally new to this DVD release. Finally, there is an 11 minute featurette with Doug Bradley (Pinhead), called “Under the Skin”, which is new to the U.S. 20th Anniversary Edition, but has been seen on earlier British releases, and is worth every minute. Finally, there was even a theatrical mini-poster on the inside of the case, which I found to be a charming addition and end to my delvings into this DVD. Such a treasure trove of “Hellraiser” goodies should be enough to delight even the most fanatical of disciples and I certainly found myself enjoying the extras to a degree that is not usual with me. This is probably about as good as DVD extras get on horror releases.

I don’t often rave about DVDs, and I even more infrequently rant about anything post-1980, for my bent tends to be towards older fare. One can’t be a snob, nor can one by prejudiced for it isn’t fair to those who have made a sincere effort to create something worthwhile. HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II is not only time well-spent as a feature film in and of itself, it has a set of bonus features that will provide you with a lengthy day of compelling HELLRAISER explorations. Fire up that DVD player, clear your schedule for the day, pull all the shades tight, damp the lights, watch the original film in its 20th Anniversary form first and then go for broke and do this one too. If you love the HELLRAISER universe and cast of characters, there aren’t many ways you can do better than this.


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