Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996)
“Do a dissolve.”
That seems to be the extent of the Miramax mission statement when it comes to “fixing” a movie. It’s also a suggestion that prompted a withering response from Brian De Palma in Julie Salamon’s excellent “The Devil’s Candy” when an ambitious production assistant makes a suggestion to an experienced and weary director. I first became aware of the extreme measures the Weinsteins would take to dismantle a film with Prachya Pinkaew’s The Protector (2005), starring Tony Jaa. As I recall, I saw the 111-minute cut first and then somehow only had the 81-minute cut available to show my dad, who wanted to see the famously long take where Tony Jaa takes out a crap-ton of henchmen while making his way up a winding staircase. Whole scenes being excised is one thing, but the use of dissolves is egregious. Dissolves went out of fashion long ago with most filmmakers opting for hard cuts, optical effects, or seamless cutting techniques like an object crossing the frame and cutting to the next scene in a smooth and clever fashion. A transition from hallway to apartment in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001) has always been a personal favorite of mine. I don’t understand how anyone could work with the Weinsteins. This is not in reference to the horrible things they’ve done in their personal lives, although those are significant, but to the cavalcade of horror stories involving very successful directors including M. Night Shyamalan and James Mangold having their films mangled by the Miramax vulgarians. Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996) at least gave me a good laugh right away. Directed by Alan Smithee. Yes, yes, and more yes.
It didn’t have to be this way, of course. Kevin Yagher, the BAFTA-nominated special makeup effects artist known for his eclectic work on projects as varied as The Hidden, Cherry 2000, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Man’s Best Friend, Glory, and Face/Off shared a similar experience with his counterpart , the late John Carl Buechler, a favorite of Stuart Gordon (who fortunately turned this movie down). Buechler had credits ranging from Freeway "Look who got hit with the ugly stick!," The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, and TerrorVision to Red Rock West and Trancers. Both made sequels to very famous horror franchises. Both had a bold and twisted vision that would elevate the series...and both had their films cut to ribbons. Buechler suffered the wrath of the dreaded, stick-up-their-ass MPAA, whose extensive cuts neutered Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988) and the subsequent destruction of the excised footage destroyed any chances of an unrated director’s cut from ever being salvaged (see Crystal Lake Memories for Buechler’s take on the whole bloody affair). Yagher would feel the snip of the Weinstein’s dissolve-happy editing scissors as they demanded re-shoots (shot by Joe Chappelle, a capable filmmaker with some horror cred but who would do his best work on television), moved Pinhead’s appearance up, and eliminated 25 minutes, nearly as much as their hatchet job on The Protector. Speaking of hatchet job, it’s important to note that Alan Smithee is the DGA’s special pseudonym for a filmmaker who wishes to disown a film because of outside forces. The Director’s Guild of America was appreciably stingy with this credit as it needs to be proven that producers, actors, et cetera, actually caused damage to the film and not that the film was poorly directed, which would’ve allowed terrible filmmakers to continue working without critical repercussions. The Alan Smithee credit is no longer in use. Thanks, Tony Kaye. Yagher also suffered in pre-production thanks to Bob Weinstein's insistence that he use a different cinematographer. This was on a Friday, after Yagher had been working with another DP for three weeks, and the shoot was set to begin on Monday.
I had heard about this movie well before viewing it. The infamous “Pinhead in Space” movie. I’d seen the labels “worst of the series” and the “franchise low point” slapped on this film constantly. 1996 was a double-whammy for iconic horror villains in space with both this and Leprechaun in Space, directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith, a very good filmmaker whom I’m glad was working but really should’ve known better. Warwick Davis’ Leprechaun has no business in space and the movie makes very little attempt to explain his presence there. At least in regard to Critters 4 (1992) and Jason X (2001), there’s a logical explanation, silly as it may be. I’m willing to accept a Hellraiser film in space as long as the story has a solid foundation, which it does. It’s wobbly, but it doesn’t absolutely collapse under its own concept.
This would be the last Hellraiser to have anything to do with…well, anything. Hellraiser 5 would try a film noir, hard-boiled detective approach that felt like two scripts crammed together, but Bloodline, thanks to returning screenwriter Peter Atkins, has something to do with the original story, although this one remains the most distant relative. The film is divided into three sections. The first, set in 2127, concerns Dr. Paul Merchant (Bruce Ramsay, in the first of three roles and whose first feature film appearance was in the bizarre Canadian horror Pin (1988)) is a scientist aboard a somewhat familiar looking ship who is trying to use robots to solve the Lament Configuration. Not a bad idea, but like the Alien franchise, which will never be mentioned again in a Hellraiser piece, the government intrudes and demands an explanation. Cue the flashback.
It’s in this section, set in 1796 France, that I must come to the film’s defense. I absolutely love this whole sequence. It’s well-shot, well-paced (although those damn dissolves remain), and convincingly realized. I’ve always been fascinated by horror or science fiction stories taking place in the distant past since it removes the utilization of modern techniques and weapons. Someday I hope there will be an adaptation of “The War of the Worlds” that takes place in the original time period of the novel. The no-budget, 3-hour version simply doesn’t cut it. The Great Martian War 1913-1917 (2013) is a smart film but I’d still prefer a narrative with an adequate budget.
Merchant’s ancestor, LeMarchand, again played by Ramsay, is a master toymaker who is tasked with making a new puzzle box for an eccentric aristocrat. Unfortunately, said box is the Lament Configuration and after delivering it and collecting his fee, watches as the aristocrat, assisted by Jacques (a pre-fame Adam Scott), sacrifices a peasant girl in gruesome fashion. There’s a good balance of gore and shadow work here, hiding the near-impossible prospect of realistically dissecting a human body with the budget at hand. The demon princess Angelique (Valentina Vargas) is summoned, prompting LeMarchand to develop a second box that would reverse the effects of his unintentionally evil original design. There are so many little details, including LeMarchand trying to convince a friend of what happened at Duc de L’Isle’s home and the love for his wife and unborn child that make this section a joy to watch.
LeMarchand dies, his wife escapes, and Jacques kills his master, taking Angelique as his own slave and apparently gaining the fringe benefit of never aging for hundreds of years. If the movie weren’t about the LeMarchand bloodline, the adventures of Jacques and Angelique would probably be an interesting detour. According to the production info, more scenes taking place in 1796 were removed, leaving this section sadly brief.
The blandest and most budget-friendly section takes place in present day 1996 as John Merchant (third time’s a charm for Ramsay) is a famous and award-winning architect with a wife and child (who should stay away from the Overlook Hotel) who built and works in a Manhattan skyscraper. The lobby resembles the Lament Configuration puzzle box which is profiled in a magazine that Angelique sees. Still looking beautiful as ever, she asks permission from Jacques to travel to America, which he refuses, so she utilizes the loophole that any attempt to block the machinations of Hell allows her to kill her master at will. So....that’s convenient.
The ideas in Bloodline are sound. If there were more Angelique scenes, perhaps she’d be a more formidable antagonist and the proposed rivalry, much more important in early cuts, between Pinhead and her ideologies could’ve been explored farther. Her main weapon is sex and temptation while Pinhead’s is pain and suffering. For now, they represent two sides of the same coin and Pinhead’s Elliot Spencer half seems to have been abandoned.
Merchant is developing, based off the recovered blueprints of his ancestor, the Elysium Configuration, which, unbeknownst to him, would free Angelique from her satanic duties by destroying Hell. It’s hilariously demonstrated by some furious keyboard taps and 90’s computer F/X. The 1990’s were not a good time for the horror genre. It had moved on to more mature subjects (Misery, The Silence of the Lambs, Jacob’s Ladder, Cube, The People Under The Stairs, Ravenous) but had fallen prey to the slickness of developing technology, ignoring the goofy fun that made horror films of the 80’s so popular. Still, there are enough practical effects to satiate our need for wild imagery, as displayed by a Chatterer Beast and the melding of two twin cops in a wicked cool scene preceded by a supremely unfunny attempt at comic relief by the two idiot siblings. Merchant is killed but his son lives on to continue the bloodline and watch the Elysium Configuration send Pinhead and Angelique back to Hell.
Zooming back into space and lurching toward a conclusion, Pinhead and his minions, including a scalped Angelique, take out the hapless space guards in a predictable pattern which proves unsatisfying for its lack of surprises and similarity to a boogeyman-stalking-teens film. Luckily, Total Recall (1990) had come out some years prior, so Dr. Merchant fools Pinhead with a hologram, trapping him inside the Elysium Configuration, i.e. the ship. The original ending would have resulted in both Merchant and Pinhead being destroyed, ending the decades long blood feud, but we have to assume that Miramax wanted A) a happy ending and B) the option to continue the Merchant timeline, even though they ultimately wouldn’t.
Hellraiser: Bloodline is not a great movie that could have been. It’s very likely that if Yagher had gotten final cut the movie may have been more complex and therefore more compelling, but that doesn’t guarantee it would have worked. The turmoil behind the scenes ended Yagher’s career as a director and he retreated back to the safety of the makeup shop like many other artists, doomed to be brought down by small-minded money men who pretend to believe in art but are only interested in profit margins. This being the last theatrically-released Hellraiser film, it marked the turning point for a shaky franchise that would abandon any semblance of chronology with Hellraiser: Inferno (2000).