Some franchises have a leisurely descent from greatness, each film decreasing in quality gradually but inexorably. Other series, well, they take a dramatic left turn into Shitsville and land face first in the town square. Hellraiser is one such franchise. While the original is an undeniable classic, Hellbound is an unusually strong sequel and pretty great film in its own right and Hell on Earth is a slick, polished and accessible Hollywoodization of the series, the fourth installment, Bloodline, is a jumbled mess of interesting ideas, good intentions and conflicting visions. Hellraiser: Bloodline is ambitious, no doubt, and its heart is in the right place, but its ambitions would eventually turn sour and irreparably break the franchise forever. This is the beginning of the endÖ the point of no return.
In the year 2127, Dr. Paul Merchant (Bruce Ramsay) has illegally commandeered the space station he designed, Space Station Minos, and sent its entire crew away in lifepods. A team of soldiers arrives and successfully retakes the station, Merchant too occupied with other matters to offer much resistance. In captivity, Merchant is debriefed by female soldier Rimmer (Christine Harnos). His explanation of why he had to commandeer the station is an unusual one, to say the least.
Merchantís tale begins in France in the late 1700s. His ancestor, a toymaker named Phillip Le Marchand (play also by Ramsay), is commissioned by a wealthy patron, Duc De Líisle (Mickey Cottrell) to create a familiar looking puzzle box that fans by now know as the Lament Configuration. When Le Marchand arrives to deliver his commission and collect his fee, he inadvertently witnesses De LíIsle and his young assistant (lover?) Jacque (Adam Scott, who likely doesnít put this film on his resume anymore) sacrificing a young woman, Angelique (Valentina Vargas). They skin her corpse and conjure a demon that uses her skin as a faÁade while under De LíIsleís control. Jacque and the demonic Angelique betray De Líisle and Le Marchand is killed while trying to recover the box from De LíIsleís estate.
Flash forward to New York City in the 1990s. Le Marchandís descendant, architect John Merchant (played by, you guessed it, Bruce Ramsay), is haunted by dreams of Angelique. John, working from plans that have been passed down through his family for generations, has been incorporating elements of the Lament Configuration into his building designs. Angelique arrives in America from Paris and, in a clunky attempt to tie this film into the end of Hellraiser III, recovers the box that was hidden in the foundation at the end of Hell on Earth. She summons Cenobite Pinhead (Doug Bradley, one of the few bright spots in this mess), who immediately sees the potential of a building-sized Configuration. He captures Johnís wife (Nightmare on Elm Street 2`s Kim Meyers, making a welcome Ė if brief- return to the genre) and son (Courtland Mead) to blackmail him into creating something that will open the gates of hell and keep them open permanently.
Concluding his story in the 22nd century, Dr. Merchant reveals that the space station he designed is the realization of his familyís legacy: a giant device inspired by the Lament Configuration and designed to capture and concentrate light in the hope that it can be used to burn Pinhead and his minions away forever.
Or something like that.
In pre-release interviews Clive Barker said he has always seen the box, not Pinhead, as the star of the series and with Bloodline he was finally going to make a movie that told the story of the Lament Configuration. It was an ambitious plan that would simultaneously end Pinheadís dominance of the series and open up the mythology to explore different types of stories set in the Hellraiser universe (much like the comic books were doing around the same time). The studio, however, wasnít happy with the director`s cut delivered by first time director and FX guru Kevin Yagher. Against Barker`s wishes and without his or Yagher`s involvement, Halloween 6 director Joe Chapelle was brought on board to reshoot existing scenes and shoot new material featuring Pinhead and the cenobites (Yagher had his name removed from the picture and Chapelle didnít direct enough to get credit, so the credited director is the pseudonymous Alan Smithee) . The structure of the film was also altered from being a linear biopic of the puzzle box to the flashback structure the film now has. The idea, I gather, was to bring Pinhead into the picture sooner and make him a more central character. Ultimately, the goal was to movie the series away from Barker`s ambitious but esoteric ambitions and try to craft the next Freddy Krueger. Pinhead had become a minor pop cultural icon and the Hellraiser films, while profitable, never quite found the same kind of audience that the Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street series had in the 1980s. With the popularity of those characters diminished and their franchises all but mothballed by the mid 90s, itís understandable that the studio would want to have Pinhead step in to fill the void. I`m not sure Bloodline was the vehicle to help the character make that leap, though. Even in the beefed up, studio version of the movie Pinheadís still barely a supporting character and his presence has no reasonable explanation beyond ďItís a Hellraiser movie.Ē
Compared to the writing in most competing franchises, the Hellraiser series up to this point was a cut above its competitors. Clive Barker gave real sophistication to the original and Peter Atkinsí dialogue was one of the highlights of the second and third films. Making Pinhead articulate and giving him literate dialogue helped to distinguish him in a field of monosyllabic horror icons. Of course, having that dialogue delivered by an actor as commanding (and sadly pigeonholed and underutilized) as Doug Bradley didnít hurt, either. Although Atkins is the sole credited writer for 4 a lot of scenes in the final version of the film were hastily rewritten by hired guns. Watching it again after so many years I realized that oftentimes I couldnít really tell the difference. Franchise fatigue had likely already set in before the film was taken out of Barkerís hands.
To this day I still canít believe that Barker, even in his wildest flight of fancy, thought that bringing Hellraiser into a sci-fi setting would be a good idea. From both a story and production perspective, the idea is a miserable fail. Hellraiser: Bloodline is a dreadfully cheap looking movie, with the budget for the futuristic space station sets and CGI spaceships and robots being stretched exceptionally thin. When youíre so wrapped up in sci-fi trappings, itís difficult to explore Hellraiserís themes of desire and its highly sexualized and fetishistic visual motifs. They may be a snore to watch but at least the scenes in the 1700s are consistent with those in the original film.
To be fair to the film there are a few small pleasures to be had while watching. Bradley takes it on the chin like a pro; despite his characterís diminished importance and the lack of sharp dialogue he comes out of this one dignity intact. Sharing screen time with him are Gary Tunnicliffeís gore effects, which are literally ladled on the screen with reckless abandon. There are one or two genuinely inspired gags (Merchantís decapitation is the highlight of the movie) even if the design of the new cenobites leaves a something to be desired. After Chatterer, Butterball and the strangely erotic Female, Angelique and the two wacky twin brothers donít cut it. The consistent motif of maggots and grubs is far more disturbing than Bloodlineís pedestrian cenobites.
This is the point where Barker washed his hands of the franchise (in cinematic form, at least) and within half a decade we were treated to a yearly succession of direct to video ďsequels,Ē each worse than the last. In this context, reviewing Bloodline seems kind of pointless. It`s damaged goods, through and through. About the best thing that can be said for Bloodline is that it compares favorably to the direct to video sequels that followed it. While it was universally derided even by the hardest of hardcore Barker fans in 1996, in light of train wrecks like Hellworld or Revelations, itís definitely the better film. Thatís not really saying much Ö but in this instance, ďnot muchĒ is exactly as much praise as Bloodline deserves.
The movie may be a pile of garbage, but at least it looks relatively good. Unlike a lot of Echo Bridgeís Miramax pick-ups, Bloodline is graced with a full 1080p transfer and the result is by far the best presentation Hellraiser Bloodline has seen, for what itís worth. The visual palette of the movie is wildly inconsistent and, as a result, so is the Blu-ray. From shiny, entirely CG generated space scenes to atmospheric 18th Century French settings, to barely in focus pickup shots (there are a few scenes that look like the focus puller was taking a bathroom break while they were shooting), thereís nary a low rent visual texture not seen in Bloodline. Grain is present throughout but detail is still strong where you would expect it to be. The red, orange and green-drenched scenes in De LíIsleís mansion donít show smearing, bleeding or artifacting. Itís a little bit brighter and a little harsher looking than the DVD, as well, and it displays a bit more of the bluish tint that was so prevalent in mid-90s genre films but is usually omitted from their high-def releases (See: Halloween 6). Itís no award winner but itís a lot better than Iíd anticipated it would be.
Sure to give pause to fans considering an upgrade, Hellraiser: Bloodline hits Blu-ray sporting a 2.0 DTS-HD track, whereas the DVD has a full-on 5.1 Dolby Digital track. Itís an odd choice and would seem at first to be a huge detriment but, honestly, thereís very little difference between the two. The 5.1 track on the DVD has some very sparse surround effects but most of the time the back channels are entirely silent. The 2.0 track on the Blu-ray is perfectly fine in all the ways that matter, the balance of dialogue, music and effects, and hitting the artificial surround setting on my receiver gave me an audio experience entirely on par with the 5.1 DVD audio. If the 2.0 track on the Blu-ray is what`s standing in the way of you upgrading, donít let it.
No supplements are included, but that`s hardly surprising. Dimension didn`t even bother to anamorphically enhance the film or put the trailer on the disc when they were distributing this title. I wouldnít expect a budget house like Echo Bridge to do more.
Hellraiser: Bloodline is doubly disappointing; it`s a bad movie in its own right, but it also signals the tragic decline of a once-promising series. It`s almost morbidly fascinating to watch Bloodline and see how quickly and dramatically a franchise can stumble. The best that can be said compares favorably to the later, direct-to-video sequels but that doesnít earn it a pass. Echo Bridgeís Blu-ray is likely as good a presentation as weíre ever going to see and with such a low sticker price it feels a bit pompous to complain too loudly, regardless of its shortcomings. Itís a budget release for a low rent sequel in a now totally ruined and irrelevant franchise. I`d recommend everybody skip Bloodline altogetherÖ but if you just have to have all the Hellraiser movies, this Blu-ray is as good a deal as you`re going to find.
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