Blu-ray Review: HELLRAISER: The Scarlet Box

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SHOCK scribe Owen Williams opens the box, The Scarlet Box that is, and give us a full report.

Arriving slightly early for the 30th anniversary (2016 for the original novella, 2017 for the first film), Arrow’s four-disc Blu-ray box-set is a lavish tribute to the first three films in the unexpectedly protracted franchise (otherwise known as the non-Miramax entries). THE SCARLET BOX is just that: a sturdy package with a lid, comprising newly commissioned artwork by Gilles Vranckx, four individual inner sleeves, and a hardback book by Clive Barker archivists Phil and Sarah Stokes. On the discs themselves are HELLRAISER, HELLBOUND and HELL ON EARTH given new 2k makeovers, and copious extra features including re-edits of the massive crowdfunded LEVIATHAN documentary and Barker’s two early short films SALOME and THE FORBIDDEN. Such sights to show you? Read on…

 

HELLRAISER

It’s hard to remember now just how different HELLRAISER was when it arrived in the late ‘80s. In a horror landscape of teens getting slashed, Clive Barker’s debut as a director was an adult domestic drama, albeit with supernatural underpinnings, violence, gore and glimpses of a fascinating larger universe, the rules of which arrived almost fully formed. The sequel would dive deep into that, but here, at core, we have a love triangle and a Faustian pact: a sort of weird mashup of Marlowe and Chekhov. Frank (Sean Chapman), on a personal crusade for ever more esoteric erotic experience, has come into possession of a puzzle box that opens up a gateway to Hell, the realm seemingly policed by Barker’s deadpan S&M demons the Cenobites. Larry (Andrew Robinson), Frank’s conservative brother, is married to Julia (Clare Higgins), who seems unhappy from the beginning and, as it turns out, has cheated on her husband with her brother-in-law on their wedding day. Moving into Frank and Larry’s family home, the site of Frank’s “death”, Frank’s remains are disturbed and reanimated: he returns to life, layer of flesh by layer, as the infatuated Julia brings him murder victims to feed on. But when Larry’s daughter Kirsty (Ashley Lawrence) stumbles upon the puzzle box herself, she does her own deal with the devil(s) to save her skin and send Frank back where he came from.

It’s a fascinating, involving tale, told with visual panache and excellent performances: although several are dubbed with jarring American accents. Post-production decisions tried to relocate the film to the US. Maybe it works for you guys, but for us in the UK it never looks like they’re anywhere but Cricklewood, making the vocal soundtrack sit oddly with the visuals. But what visuals they are. The Cenobites – and chiefly Doug Bradley’s Pinhead, obviously – though briefly featured, get all the attention, but surely the real triumph here is Skinless Frank (Oliver Smith), dripping disgustingly from his exposed muscle, or bleeding through an incongruous suit jacket as he smokes a cigarette. The less said about The Engineer and the Bone Dragon probably the better, but they do up the scale of the fantasy around the domestic elements, even if they make little apparent sense. Incredibly as old now as the original Hammer films were when HELLRAISER was new, it holds up incredibly well as a surreal, nightmarish, slightly off-kilter minor modern masterpiece.

HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II

Commissioned almost immediately after HELLRAISER’s release, if not during its actual production, HELLBOUND is a curious beast, failing completely on some levels but excelling on others. Plunging headfirst into the mythology set up by the first film, it takes us to Hell to explore the Cenobites’ realm, seizing on the popularity of Pinhead and company to give them slightly expanded screentime and hint at origin stories for the four principle Hell acolytes. But while all this is going on, it’s clear that no one is yet quite sure where the series is heading: Barker felt that Julia rather than Pinhead was the great potential ongoing villain of the nascent franchise, so the story of her, Frank and Kirsty is dragged out further. In fact, despite Barker’s hands-on involvement (his executive-producer and story credits were in this case not just about putting his name on the film to help sell it) HELLBOUND feels a lot like fan fiction. Everything that can feasibly be brought back from HELLRAISER is trotted out again in crazily overblown form, and the film is obsessed with having characters’ skin fall off. Skinless Julia (Deborah Joel) is, in her way, as impressive as Skinless Frank, but by the time Kirsty is disguising herself in Julia’s cast-off skin at the climax, the gag has worn extremely thin. Hell itself is, infamously, a series of dusty corridors, with the “Lord Of The Labyrinth”, bizarrely, a geometric shape something akin to the puzzlebox itself (the extra features reveal that Leviathan was envisaged by Barker as a Lovecraftian creature squatting at the maze’s centre. Screenwriter Pete Atkins, wisely, opted to change that). But newly created Cenobite Dr Channard is an extraordinary creation, given unforgettable life (and death) by British Shakespearean actor Kenneth Cranham. As with HELLRAISER, part of the pleasure of HELLBOUND is watching “serious” actors giving Barker’s mad visions their all.

HELLRAISER III: HELL ON EARTH

And here’s what happens when you give the fans what they think they want, and make HELLRAISER flat-out The Pinhead Show. Running with the back-story hinted at in HELLBOUND, HELL ON EARTH sees the lead Cenobite divided against himself, running riot in his demon form while his human alter-ego, First World War captain Elliot Spencer (Bradley out of make-up) joins forces with journalist Joey (Terry Farrell) to stop his rampaging id. Someone does lose their skin early on, but this is otherwise a different entity altogether to its predecessors, giving in to more standard horror spectacle. It’s disheartening to see Pinhead turned into a cackling psychopath, and his new Cenobites (Camera-Head, CD-Head) are feeble. But there’s undeniable pleasure in seeing Bradley cut loose and centre stage, and as always there are unforgettable images. A Pinhead-centric sequel was probably inevitable, and as such, HELL ON EARTH is just about acceptable. But it’s telling that the rest of the HELLRAISERs to date – love them or loathe them – haven taken the less-is-more approach to the series’ signature villain, following the lead of the often excellent Epic comics from the ‘80s and ‘90s in which Pinhead didn’t generally even appear at all.

RESTORATION / EXTRA FEATURES

All three films have been restored in 2k – the fact that 4k wasn’t used perhaps gives us a clue as to the limited potential of the source materials. They look better than they ever have on a home release, but the results of the restoration are variable. Some scenes look incredible. Others, particularly the interiors of the first film’s house, look dull and remain extremely grainy. But to be fair, a boring suburban house was never supposed to visually pop. Sound-wise HELLRAISER AND HELLBOUND get expansive uncompressed PCM Stereo 2.0 and lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 mixes while HELL ON EARTH gets a clean lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0. There’s also an unrated cut of HELL ON EARTH included, but the dropped-in “uncut” bits don’t match the rest of the restoration, and even switch ratio from 16:9 to 4:3.

Many of the special features have been ported from Anchor Bay’s 2004 release of the same three films: the commentaries, several featurettes including the interview with HELL ON EARTH’s director Anthony Hickox, some material with Bradley, and those experimental early Barker short films which you’ll either find mesmerizing or patience-testing – or both. The HELLBOUND disc contains the Holy Grail: the hospital scene with Pinhead and the Female Cenobite (Barbie Wilde) dressed in surgeon’s gowns, a still of which was used on the film’s VHS cover to the lasting intrigue of fans. Turns out it was cut because it was rubbish. If HELLRAISER teaches us anything it’s to be careful what you wish for…

Taking up the bulk of the extras’ running time are re-edits of John McDonagh and Gary Smart’s exhaustive – exhausting – documentary LEVIATHAN, already available separately from the documentary makers themselves. Some of those who contributed to the Kickstarter campaign have reportedly been annoyed that LEVIATHAN has been sold on to Arrow, but the version on this set, totaling four hours across the discs of the three films, is less than half the length of the full cut. So if you bought the three-disc LEVIATHAN set you’ve still got a lot more than you get here. That said, it’s a hardcore fan that would feel shortchanged by the SCARLET BOX version. HELLRAISER gets 90 minutes; HELLBOUND gets 120. Almost every player you can think of from in front of and behind the camera in the first two films contributes, with the only notable exceptions being Barker himself and Ashley Lawrence. HELL ON EARTH gets a 30-minute documentary that was an extra feature in the LEVIATHAN pack (the full LEVIATHAN’s 8 ½ hours cover only the first two films).

Disc Four, THE CLIVE BARKER LEGACY gives us Arrow’s own 50–minute documentary EVOLUTIONS: a broader look at the themes and tics of the franchise as a whole. It’s not bad, but some of its contributors sit oddly with the package they’re part of: Scott Derrickson (director of HELLRAISER: INFERNO – not in this set); Kari Wuhrer (star of HELLRAISER: DEADER – not in this set); Khary Payton (from HELLRAISER: HELLWORLD – not in this set); Stuart Gordon (nothing to do with HELLRAISER); author Del Howison (nothing to do with HELLRAISER but has an uncredited cameo in LORD OF ILLUSIONS)… You get the impression director Ryan Turek was just rather desperately calling in his buddies. Also on the fourth disc is BOOKS OF BLOOD AND BEYOND, a quick rattle through Barker’s novels and short stories by children’s author and fan David Gatward. There’s nothing here that most purchasers of this set wouldn’t already know, and Gatward seems to think that THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW is a novel all about Barker’s paranormal detective Harry D’Amour (it isn’t, although he does show up for a tiny cameo at the end). That’s a bad mistake, but Gatward may be a victim of brutal editing – appearing to say something he didn’t really. The final disc is finished off with A QUESTION OF FAITH, an amateur (and amateurish) hour-long short intended to represent the HELLRAISER fan film community.

Completing the set is the 200-page book, DAMNATION GAMES, perhaps a better evocation of the Clive Barker Legacy – although it’s completely HELLRAISER-centric – than the fourth disc. Another in-depth look at the three films in the box, it also covers Barker’s early work (including the short films presented here) and takes us up to Barker and Mark Miller’s recent novel THE SCARLET GOSPELS. It’s uncritical – if you don’t think Barker is a genius you’ll find nothing that agrees with you here – but benefits greatly from the subject expertise and appreciation of authors Phil and Sarah Stokes, and features a lot of interview material with Barker himself, culled from numerous sources. So he’s not much on the discs, but he’s plenty in the book. You also get the original press kits by Stephen Jones, Unit Publicist on HELLRAISERs I-III, production stills, design work, sketches and art cards. The book is currently exclusive to THE SCARLET BOX, but will be published separately and in expanded form in due course.

There’s some repetition across the extra material – the interview featurettes focusing on single actors like Bradley and Smith are the same interviews that are in the LEVIATHAN features, so if you want to hear anything new you have to sit through a lot you’ve seen already. Given the brief screen-time of the Cenobites in the first two films you’ll also get very sick of seeing their scenes over and over again (“We’ll tear your soul apart” must happen at least ten times). And there’s an annoying obsession with the bad reviews Barry Norman gave the films for the BBC. But that’s a minor quibble on what must be the most definitive presentation of the first three HELLRAISERs imaginable. At £50 for three films it’s costly (currently more so than it should be since the first run has sold out and the scalpers are out in force), but given the experience contained within THE SCARLET BOX, it’s a price – like Uncle Frank – you may well be prepared to pay.

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Tuesday: Mar. 31, 2020

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