Catching up with the Angel of Indian Lake

I was on a roll there – I’d gotten two posts up in two weeks and I knew that a book I wanted to write about would be delivered soon – The Angel of Indian Lake, the third and final entry in Stephen Graham Jones’s “Indian Lake Trilogy,” the first two books of which I’ve already written about here and here. In preparation, I re-read the second book in one week, and then when “Angel” was delivered, I burned through it in about 5 days – I was ready to write and I would get a third post up within three weeks. Awesome.

And then that never happened.

I got hit with some difficult life stuff (which isn’t exactly resolved, but at least is somewhat less volatile at present), a month and a half went by without a post, and now, while I do still have some thoughts and observations about the book, I don’t remember it well enough, in sufficiently specific detail, to feel that I can really write about it in depth.

But I am still gonna write about it – so there, just in a brief, first lasting impressions kind of way. I had thoughts 5 weeks ago when I read it, and I do want to share them. Sure, sometimes life gets difficult, but I don’t want to neglect my blogular duties – it’s good for me, and I hope it can be of interest to you as well, dear stranger reading on the internet (glad to have you).

A preface to this review – it is spoiler free, but it is also written more for someone who has read the book – I don’t go deep on describing the events of the story. So, without further ado, let’s go…

The Angel of Indian Lake (2024)

In this third installment, we pick up with Jade Daniels once more, now four years older, having done a second stint in prison following the events of the first book, coming out of it at least theoretically more mature, more of an ‘adult,’ but essentially the same slasher obsessed outsider she ever was. And what’s more, still with the same crushing degree of self-doubt, hard wired to overlook her own strengths, no matter how many times she has risen against insurmountable foes and been the only one to walk away. She is always looking for someone else to step into the shoes of her beloved ‘final girl,’ never considering herself for the part, though she’s been thrust into it time and time again.

Whereas the first two books jumped between viewpoint characters in third person limited, this is entirely Jade’s book, told in first person (except some interstitial chapters, as in the first books). Jade is an easy protagonist to love and identify with, especially as a horror fan – a socially awkward weirdo who just can’t stop expounding on her favorite movies, surrounded by people who aren’t always that into them (who hasn’t been there?), terrified and scarred (psychologically, but also literally) by the horrors she faces, but always ultimately choosing to stand against them and do the hard things that need doing, losing friends, mentors, and toes along the way. It is a real hero’s journey – and one that never really ends – no matter how many times she learns her own power, it doesn’t matter. She will have to learn it again. She believes in her slashers and that belief fuels her, but she still has trouble believing in herself. You’d think she’d have learned by now, but perhaps that’s not how people work. You get a big moment of catharsis and everything feels clear – you’ve progressed, you’re better – and tomorrow, you’re back to your old ways. Actually changing is really hard. And Jade does, but it is hard fought, and there are many setbacks along the way.

Reading this volume, I found myself often thinking of belief and faith. Slashers/final girls constitute Jade’s religion. She has so voraciously consumed these stories to the point that they make up the lens through which she views her life, especially when the bodies start falling – which they do in great numbers in this case (the dead rise, bears attack, human killers stalk the woods, and more).  Her faith in her holy texts motivates her, gives her comfort, and helps her to understand this so often blood-stained world. But a key element I really appreciated is the extent to which it is not magic. Jade is constantly wrong – through all three books. She reads the events happening around her through the paradigm of her favorite kind of horror movie, and while it offers interpretive, emotional, and psychological value, as a tool for predictions, it has a pretty weak track record. She leaps to conclusions, chases after red herrings, and is forever trying to puzzle out what is actually going on and why. She’ll make a big emotional decision and try doing something because it feels like it should work, and it doesn’t, and she has to try something else. Slashers may have easily trackable rules (thanks Randy), but life doesn’t. And as with previous cases, the underlying story – the reasons for what is happening – is pretty complicated, messy even. But I think that lends a valuable, if surprising, realism to this story of resurrected spirits, unresolved traumas, and mass killers, supernatural and otherwise – life isn’t a story; it is confusing and confused, and no lens can predict it. All we can do is attempt to interpret – to use the worldview we’ve built ourselves to lend meaning to the chaos, to see the beauty of the story playing out in the horrors we must undergo – we need meaning and beauty and understanding, even when it’s wrong.

When it comes to the killer(s) in the story this time, without going into any spoilers (if you’ve read the first two books and not yet this one, you really have to pick this up and I don’t want to give anything away – I’ll just say that there are as many or more twists, turns, and reversals as you’ve come to expect), it all had a kind of magical realism to it (notable given how the slasher subgenre is so often based in a fully human murderer). To a larger extent than the first two books (though the element was certainly present), this volume premises all local folklore as seemingly true, and anything can happen if the emotions are strong enough – if it is at least poetically justified. At first glance, this seems at odds with much of the slasher canon, but in a way, the slasher pairs well with folklore. It may be the tropeiest subgenre of horror, and its iterative qualities read like modern folk stories – sitting around the campfire, trying to scare each other with a fresh telling of the tale of the call coming from inside the house, or the little girl the lake rejected, or the hook ripped off, dangling from the car door… And the folklore here lands with deep resonance – tales of the American west: settlers, religious fanatics, people displaced from their land, human lives crushed by forces bigger than themselves, those left behind when the world moves on.

Furthermore, it is a very emotional read, eliciting tears from me on more than one occasion (though to be honest, I am an easy mark, but that said, it absolutely earned those tears). And I think this may be the strength of the series, and possibly of Graham Jones’s writing writ large. There is excitement and gore and thrills aplenty, but it is all run through with such deep feeling and characters you can love and root for and sometimes mourn. I think they are quite different writers, but in this way, Graham Jones rather reminds me of Stephen King. I feel like they both come to know characters first, and then they have to follow those characters where they will, often resulting in big, circuitous, even meandering plots which are not at all about plot – they’re about people, about their hopes and fears and compulsions and failings. The book makes a breathless dash for the finish line, but it feels like it is desperately running towards a point which is not yet known, which has to be found, which has to make that emotional, poetic, mythic sense, and which will, along with its protagonist, make false starts along the way. All of this could be taken as criticism, but I feel it is a strength of the text rather than a weakness.

So there we are – I rather liked it (though maybe wouldn’t go as strong as “love” – I’d reserve that for the second book, Don’t Fear the Reaper). I haven’t even tried to describe the story – but part three of a trilogy is nowhere to start, so if you’ve come this far and haven’t read the first two books, maybe go pick up My Heart is a Chainsaw – if you read this blog, I expect you’ll likely be into it. The story here could be stated as simply as “people start dying again and Jade has to deal with it” – but there is clearly so much more to it than that. For my part, it was nice to return to Proofrock, Idaho one last time and see Jade off. This was totally engaging and intriguing and fun, and if you have enjoyed the first two volumes, you really do need to check it out.

Brandon Cronenberg: flesh, mind, and loss of self in Antiviral, Possessor, and Infinity Pool

I don’t know why I haven’t watched any of the films of Brandon Cronenberg yet. When I was first really getting into horror as a genre, his dad, David Cronenberg, was my absolute favorite director, making work so rich in concept, with gripping ideas that challenge and stretch the idea of the body, the mind, the self, and not in arsty, self-important packages, but in wild, fleshy, sexual, bloody weird rides (I also don’t know why I haven’t written about any of David Cronenberg’s films yet – one of these days). And when the younger Cronenberg hit the scene with his 2012 premiere, Antiviral, the buzz was that he was similarly invested in big concepts, but that he was also absolutely his own artist, with his own clear voice. By all counts, I should have leapt at the chance to check him out. But somehow, I never did.

Then in 2020, after some hiatus, he returned with Possessor, and I heard from voices I trusted that it was not only an interesting and accomplished work, but that it was also really exciting and intense. But, still, I didn’t watch it for some reason. Finally, most recently, about a year ago, his Infinity Pool made a splash (whoops – sorry, ugh), dividing audience opinions, but sounding absolutely intriguing, and did I rush out to the cinema to see it? No, of course not. Why? Who knows? I am a mystery even unto myself.

Anyway, this week, I just want to jump in with both feet and give my first impressions on his catalogue as it currently stands. I haven’t watched any of these movies yet, so I don’t know what I’ll think, but I sure hope I’ll like them. Either way, I’m going to try to keep this short. I usually run on longer than intended, and it means I don’t publish nearly as often as I’d like, so these will be off the cuff and to the point. If there’s something there, I reserve the right to return to it sometime in the future in depth.

And of course, there will probably be some spoilers…

Antiviral (2012)

What an interesting idea: It’s the near future and society’s obsession with celebrities has ballooned to wild new proportions. Butchers sell hunks of protein grown from the harvested cells of famous people, fans can indulge their darker impulses in computer generated interactions with their celebrity crushes wherein they can dominate, humiliate and/or torture them, and most significant for our story, there is a thriving market in viruses collected from the famous that people pay big bucks to have themselves infected with, attaining a biological intimacy with the objects of their fascination. The companies that buy and distribute these illnesses put them through a copy protection process to make them non-contagious so no one can contract some starlet’s herpes or stomach flu for free. But of course, with such a limited good, there is a thriving black market in hacked viruses.

Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) works for a virus selling clinic and regularly infects himself with their wares to smuggle them out of the premises so that at home he can use a stolen machine to crack their copy protections and sell them to an illicit distributer. He is an intriguing figure, a cipher at the heart of the story. He is always terribly ill, and there is a kind of mystery that runs through it all of what exactly he gets from this. Does he need the money that badly? Is he some kind of celebrity obsessive as well? By the end of the film, it is revealed, but not understanding where he’s coming from is really surprisingly compelling. And Landry Jones is so very good in the role, exuding a weird, sickly charisma throughout. He is pale and clammy and disgusting, but also captivatingly intense in a quiet, broken way. It’s a great performance and it left me wondering what he’s been up to in recent years. I feel like he was exploding in the 2010’s, but I haven’t seen him in a while. I hope he’s ok and not infected with a terrible celebrity illness (I just checked – he’s alive and working – good).

Anyway, Syd is sent to harvest a pathogen from one particular star, and in the process, before the virus has been copy-protected, he steals some, directly injecting a bit of her blood into his veins. You might say this was a mistake as, after he wakes up from what might have been a mini-coma, he sees a news report that she’s died of a mysterious disease, and all of a sudden, he’s thrust into the twists and turns of a conspiracy/corporate espionage thriller as various figures hound and kidnap him, all seeking the valuable commodity flowing through his vascular system. Also, he’s probably going to die.

Sadly, whereas the first act had totally enraptured me and I was so taken with the initial ideas, particularly the interrogation of what celebrity even is and how it connects with other motivating works of the imaginary, more than one character likening it to a kind of faith, in the second act, I just got a bit lost in the circuities of the plot. There is rather a lot of plot. Maybe too much plot. I faded a bit… But in the end, I’d say the final act clicked into place, with Syd regaining control of his story, the concept of celebrity as a kind of cannibalistic fetishism taken to its logical conclusion and, in a private moment, Syd’s compulsive motivations are revealed. It was a satisfying ending, though it was a shame that I had drifted somewhat along the way.

But I’ve gotta say, as a first feature, wow – I’m impressed. It has a bold, confident visual style; it is full of ideas (and Brandon Cronenberg wrote it in addition to directing, so he deserves full credit for exploring those ideas); and while it is impossible not to compare it to the work of his father (there is obvious common ground between this film and other works that play in the borderlands of biology, identity, and technology such as Videodrome, Rabid, or Existenz), I also think a clear authorial voice can be heard. It’s also interesting that the first film of an artist who knows he’s working under his father’s long shadow is entirely focused on the idea of famousness. I’m super curious to watch the next couple of movies and see how he’s developed since his debut.

Possessor (2020)

I think it’s easy to read artistic growth from Antiviral to this. Though the first film impressed me, this one (also both written and directed by Cronenberg) really got under my skin. Again, we have a high concept sci-fi, near future horror-thriller premise, but whereas I felt the big ideas in the first film ended up getting somewhat sidelined by the corporate espionage plot in the second act, in this case, the central conceptual issue just metastasizes throughout the film, with a haunting and horrific payoff by the end. It was all a fascinating, intense ride that was both intellectually challenging and emotionally weighted, with moments of thrilling excitement and horrific acts of violence or violation of self. I was captivated start to finish and it left me in an odd state for a while afterwards.

This time, our protagonist, Tasya Vos (played by Andrea Riseborough, among others) is a fancy assassin whose consciousness is technologically implanted into the brains of unwitting patsies that she rides to get access to high level targets, eliminating them and then getting pulled back to her own body as she makes her host commit suicide, thus fully severing the connection. You get the impression that she is very good at her job, but that it has taken a toll on her psychologically and emotionally. Her relationships are strained at best – it’s as if when she’s in her own body with her husband and son, she is merely playing the role of “Tasya,” and it is a role for which she must prepare, practicing her lines in advance, getting her vocal inflections right for this character, this job: herself. And the job comes with her in other ways. In moments of intimacy, whether sexual or filial, she flashes on violent memories of time she’d recently spent in a host.

Similarly, when we see her do her job and enter a new person (which is not only physical – she must study that person’s life, relationships, and mannerisms to be able to slip into them for days without raising flags), there is a difficult process of adjustment, finding her new legs both metaphorically and literally. This process is not easy or obvious. No matter how much a host has been studied in advance, upon taking over, it is impossible to fully recreate their persona, and when, for example, a host’s girlfriend questions why he’s acting so strangely, it is a high stakes, deeply emotional improv game to maintain the illusion with one who knows that host so well. Similarly, there are basic corporeal elements at play, such as simply living within a new physical form, sometimes with different parts – a sex scene which she has in a male body is more than a bit of a trip – for her and for us.

And it must be said that while Riseborough is excellent when we see her, most of the film consists of Tasya in another body, that of Colin Tate, and that therefore, she is largely portrayed by Christopher Abbott, who does such a nuanced job of playing her playing him. This is a concept that lends itself to rich, subtle performances (Jennifer Jason Lee also stands out as Tasya’s handler) – a big sci-fi idea that depends not on special effects, but on special actors.

Of course, the job goes south (otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie), and the lines between Tasya and Colin begin to blur. Beyond that, the very idea that Tasya (or anyone for that matter) is a whole person, with full agency and will, is called into question. As the film goes on, we see her more and more untethered – something that may be occurring due to circumstances of the plot, but also may be the state she has been living in for some time, but is only now coming into unsettling focus.

All of this sets up the sci-fi thriller premise, but it must be said that the horror is strong here – both in an exploration of a horrific experience of losing or at least questioning one’s self, but also in shocking moments of tragic violence, as well as a disturbing presentation of the degree to which the individual is not at all inviolable, but is only ever an impermanent approximation, existing temporarily in a web of physical and social contexts.  This is largely played out in performance, but it also gets pretty trippy at times, and I must commend Cronenberg’s fascinating visual elements, mostly filmed in camera with practical effects, which is always refreshing, but here feels particularly significant. In a film this concerned with corporeality, I think an over reliance on CGI would be detrimental.

As I wrote earlier, this exploration of what it is to be a mind in a body plays out over the course of the story, but it must be said, that while the film is big in ideas, and does maintain a kind of hypnotic vibe, that doesn’t make it some kind of art film, prioritizing philosophy over narrative – interesting, but heady and sleep inducing. This is a suspenseful, emotional, and intense movie, and its conclusion, lands with a bleakly chilling gut punch.

A fascinating viewing experience, it really planted itself in my head, leaving me in an uncanny mood, feeling a bit odd in my own body for some time after the credits had rolled. I guess a film must be good if it inspires a minor fugue state, right?

Finally, I keep finding myself coming back to the question of how I might characterize Brandon Cronenberg and how his work should be distinguished from his father’s. There are a great deal of similarities so far. It’s like he’s carrying on the family business of “body horror that philosophically interrogates psychology,” and what a family business – some people just go into shoemaking or accounting or something. But still, I hesitate. It feels facile to simply note how they are thematically similar. There is clearly a mind at work here and it seems unfairly reductive to mention his dad so much when these films have been so strong. Perhaps after watching his third flick, I’ll be better prepared to put my finger on his oeuvre.

Infinity Pool (2023)

As mentioned earlier, when this came out last year, it divided audiences, so I came to it prepared for something, I don’t know, divisive. What I found was a hell of a movie. I wonder if it so split opinion because it was simply Cronenberg’s most widely released and marketed film to date (Antiviral being a first feature, Possessor being a pandemic release, and Infinity Pool starring Alexander Skarsgård, a pretty well-known actor and Mia Goth, who has been knocking it out of the park lately), thus bringing in a wider audience, not all of whom might have been up for what they got. In any case, I loved it. But before getting into it, I must say that for the first two films I was generally able to dance around the plot without really spoiling much – I feel that with this one, I’m going to have to reveal certain details, so if you think you might be interested in seeing it, go do it now. It’s available in many places, though I don’t know which version you’ll get (as with Possessor, there is an R-rated cut and an original cut with more explicit sexual and violent imagery) – I rented the uncut version from the production company’s website – and if you get geo-blocked, as I did, living in Poland, my VPN worked for it just fine.

Skarsgård plays James Foster, a novelist who published his first book seven years ago and is struggling to produce a second one. Seeking inspiration, he and his wife, Em, the daughter of his publisher, have gone on vacation to a gated resort in the fictional country of Li Tolqa (shot mostly in and around the Croatian town of Šibenik – which I visited in 2022, about a year after filming). This invented country seems to have fascinating cultural practices, but all that Foster, or for that matter, we, can see are those that are cultivated for tourists, either as gift shop masks, or as economic exchange, the locals literally selling their lives for the entertainment of rich foreigners. At the start of the film, Foster is clearly lost and depressed – going to a tourist resort that offers the most superficial presentation of culture while drinking champagne with the breakfast buffet and lounging by the pool can be pleasant, but unsurprisingly stirs no creative juices – and he doubts if there is even anything within to be stirred. Having married into money, perhaps he is simply now a member of the idle rich, producing nothing of value, empty inside, living a squalid, meaningless life of luxury.

And so, he is given a jolt when they meet another couple at the resort, Alban and Gabi (Mia Goth), who says she’s a huge fan of his novel and is desperately waiting for him to publish again. He is drawn to the seductively frank Gabi, her unfiltered interest in him stroking James’s ego (while she literally strokes other things – at least in the uncut version) and inciting a dangerous risk-taking in him as he drags his wife out of the guarded resort compound for a day trip with the other two into the wilder environs of the country they’ve come to visit – which just means grilling and getting drunk on a beach down the road from their hotel. But then, driving back at night, he hits and kills a local farmer, and that is what really begins our story.

Li Tolqa is a country with a very traditional sense of justice and the local law is that in the case of such a killing, the eldest son of the victim has the right to kill the assailant. However, the country also has an interesting history of folk traditions, mixed with surprisingly modern cloning technology. Earlier in the film, we saw a taste of a local ritual with grotesque masks that revolves around a kind of doubling of character. That has developed into a modern practice of high capitalism wherein they offer Foster the option to have himself cloned, the clone implanted with all of his memories and guilt for the crime, and having that clone killed in his place.

I wonder what the practice was before cloning was perfected – was someone masked in the place of the killer and thus executed? Would that masked person volunteer and their family be compensated or were they discarded serfs without any rights? We’ll never know though as, tourists ourselves, we only know of the extraordinarily expensive service offered to Foster, one that he is willing to avail himself of.

One gets the sense that this cloned execution procedure is a key part of the local economy. We are told that Li Tolqa is a very poor country and that it is dangerous beyond the barbed wire fences of the hotel compound. We understand that tourism is vital to local GDP, and I think this is just another kind of tourism – this is the sort of place where rich westerners can come to behave extraordinarily badly and just pay a financial fee to be excused, exploiting a local population that offers themselves up for that exploitation, for abuse or even death, so profitable is the practice.

Foster is not as horrified at the sight of having himself killed as one might expect. In fact, while his wife is traumatized, he seems happy – finally free, and not just from punishment, but of himself – that schmuck who couldn’t write is dead. Good riddance. Soon he finds himself falling in with a group of terrible, wealthy tourists, pulled their by Gabi, who all embark on acts of debauchery and brutality, safe in the knowledge that they can always pay to have another clone produced and dispatched. They are just having the best time, causing all sorts of trouble for the local people, and James follows Gabi deeper and deeper into their midst, her mask being lowered so slowly that it is hard to pinpoint the truth of her from one moment to the next – it’s a really nicely navigated performance.

For one who has been so disappointed in himself, who already felt creatively and emotionally barren, there is a tempting freedom in this act of self-destruction, killing the failure he once was, now free to hedonistically indulge with no shame, with no concept of ambition or ethics or value. Once haunted by imposter syndrome, he finds that weight lifted from him by means of a literal imposter – who is also, actually, himself – but of course, it does not go well for the imposter.

Whereas in Possessor, one body was being fought over by two personas, each of whom lost something of themselves in the process, here, James instead splits himself, again and again. It is freeing, but perhaps something is erased as well. The film regularly plays with doubts as to who is “real” and who is a copy – characters directly discuss the possibility that they are actually being killed and that the clones are left in their place. That may be, but is never established one way or another, and I don’t think it’s important. I think everything is real and everything is a sham.

By the end, James seems to have been left a husk, hollowed out by this self-destructive experience, but wasn’t he already at the beginning – has this changed him for the worst, or simply revealed to him the degree to which he had already (maybe even always?) been absent? All of the other tourists seem to be having so much fun, and while he goes on this journey with them, and behaves just as badly, he is haunted and miserable. Why the difference? Are they simply gleeful monsters or does his failure to enjoy himself make him somehow worse than them? They all do terrible things, but at least they are enjoying themselves – he is just miserably trying to disappear. And aren’t we, the viewers, implicated in their entertainment: emotional tourists of horrors inflicted on others, and when all is said and done, we just go back to our normal lives, having a laugh, untouched?

I will say that the very ending didn’t blow me away as much as most of the run time had done, but that as a whole, this was quite the ride. The ideas, which still circle around many similar themes from the first two works (bodies, identity, sense and loss of self – all run through with fleshy violence and explicit sexual imagery) are thought provoking and I was emotionally involved in James’s story. Skarsgård and Goth are both great, and the visual style of the film is striking, with crisp, intriguing cinematography and experimental, hallucinatory sequences that get quite creative, and again, Cronenberg leans into practical make-up effects and in-camera visual techniques, and it is a pleasure to see something that feels so solid, even when it’s disorienting and ethereal. This seems at odds, but I think it’s true.

I loved it. The continued play with dividing and questioning the idea of the ‘self’ lands emotionally. The exploration of economic, cultural exploitation rings true – I particularly love how little we actually learn of the fictional setting – as tourists, we merely skate on the surface and are intrigued and enticed by the sense of hidden depths, but feel no need to dig deeper and actually invest thought or energy in learning something. Finally, the drama of James’s self-doubt and the lure of a total freedom from responsibility connected for me – I think it’s something many could experience, though few have the capital resources to follow through on as he does (also, the cloning technology isn’t quite there yet).

For me, I experienced a small taste of something like this during the pandemic: I, like many, can struggle with such an ‘imposter syndrome’ – am I ever doing anything truly worthwhile – artistically, in the theatre, writing this blog, in my teaching, in my interactions with others, or am I just idle, greedy, lazy, indulging in things I like for my own self-serving pleasure? I can only assume this is a commonly felt anxiety and that it’s not just me. But when we weren’t supposed to go anywhere or do anything, and the way we were asked to “help” was to essentially stay home and chill out, I felt a real kind of freedom – no need to perform, to achieve, to plan for the future, or even really imagine it – just read books, watch films, listen to music, exercise, bake bread, work online, and hangout with my wife and my cat – it was a kind of low-ambition bliss that I’d never before felt so allowed to enjoy and that was really hard to come back from. I have (I guess), but it wasn’t automatic. It took effort to get more involved in the world beyond my own four walls again (and now I’m back to feeling guiltily inadequate – that I don’t do enough – artistically, politically, intellectually).

But personal tangents aside, this was a great movie. If you haven’t watched it yet, I hope I haven’t spoiled it for you – go give it a try.

Yeesh – I’d said I wanted this to be a short, “off the cuff” post, and now, 4,000 words later, we’re still here. But I’m glad to have finally dug into this filmmaker I’d long been interested in and somehow had not yet at all explored – a good project for a week. Which brings me, of course, back to that essential question of how I describe his work, and how I think it might be discussed in comparison to that of his father’s. So first of all, having watched these three films, I think Brandon Cronenberg is a really significant new voice in horror, whose name should come up when people discuss the Ari Asters and Robert Eggerses of the world. He is making really interesting and engaging sci-fi/horror, and really capitalizing on the promise of both halves of that sub-genre. For me, the best sci-fi need not include spaceships or robots, but simply involves positing some technologically based possibility that lets us explore an idea – for an individual, for society, etc. Horror invites us to dwell in a dark place, taking some difficult emotion and following it to its natural conclusion, allowing it to develop into something more than natural, something monstrous or mythic. Cronenberg is doing both of these things, and making exciting, intriguing, visually striking stories to boot (writing this post, I find myself overusing and unable to find enough synonyms for ‘interesting,’ ‘intriguing,’ and ‘fascinating’ – that says something about the nature of the work).

Of course, this is quite a similar sandbox to that which his father, David Cronenberg, has long played in, and there are striking overlaps of their recurring themes. In both cases, the physical body is often foregrounded – flesh is important, as is the breaching of its boundaries, which means sex and violence are front and center. And all of this focus on corporeality results in an exploration of the mind and how its sanctity, its permanence, its sense of being discrete and whole might be re-imagined, challenged, or even abandoned. Furthermore, at a higher level of abstraction, commerce often becomes involved – a meeting place of desire and physical reality, with the body and self in play. In both creators’ work there is a tension between a cerebral, philosophical exploration and a visceral emotionality. Yeah – in many ways, their work is not all that dissimilar.

And yet, their films do certainly feel different to me – and clearly have different minds behind them. One aspect of difference may simply be technical – between film stocks and the capabilities of special effects, a body horror/sci-fi piece made in the late 70s/early 80s is bound to look different than one made forty years later. But there is also a difference of mood that is difficult for me to specify. Perhaps one of these days I’ll have to return to the father in the form of some kind of filmic retrospective to see if I can put it in words, but for now, I just feel that though they both circle around similar ideas, if I were to watch a future film by one of them and not be told which had made it, I expect I’d be able to guess, so specific are their respective creative fingerprints. I fear this is a cop out of sorts, but for now, it’s the best I’ve got.

Either way though, I think I can safely say that both have earned the cost of a ticket from me for anything they make going forward.

Permeable Bodies and Minds in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser

I’ve previously made mention of how Clive Barker played a key role in bringing me into the horror genre. Though I’d always loved Halloween, monsters, and the gothic, I really wasn’t a horror kid. I enjoyed themes of supernatural otherness, of dark modern fantasy, of a reversal of expectations wherein what seemed bestial is actually noble and what seemed good and just is in fact cruel, but I wasn’t ready for horror per se – I had an active imagination, and I was just too easily scared. And so, it seems somewhat surprising that a “splatterpunk” author whom Stephen King had crowned the “future of horror” ended up serving as my gateway to darker fare.

One day I happened upon a copy of Barker’s epic novel, ‘Imajica’ while grocery shopping with my parents, and a door was opened. This was not, mind you, a work of horror, so much as dark modern fantasy/mythologizing, spanning many realms of being, doing deep, weird, intriguing world-building, centering on a kind of amnesiac Christ figure who goes on a journey of supernatural otherness, and comes into his own, ultimately rebelling against the cruel, patriarchal, fascistic authority of the many worlds (it was right up my alley). It occupied such an ambitiously large canvas; it was surprising and transgressive in the extremity of its events – narratively, sexually, in terms of violence and action, and also in how character did not seem totally fixed, but was somehow more fluid, in flux, as was everything else in existence. And the writing was cinematic and visual and striking. My imagination was captivated. I’m sure I read it multiple times in those first years and I tried to push it on others – people needed to know about this strange, wonderful book.

From there, I first tore through the other large scale weird fiction epics Barker was writing at the time (‘Everville,’ ‘The Great and Secret Show,’ ‘Weaveworld’) before venturing into the work that had made him most famous, his horror fiction, such as his collections of short stories, ‘The Books of Blood (Volumes 1-6),’ ‘Cabal’ (on which Nightbreed was based), ‘The Damnation Game,’ and ‘The Hellbound Heart’ (on which Hellraiser was based). And I loved it all.

How much I loved it was quite the surprise given how I hadn’t thought of myself as a horror fan yet. I might watch a horror movie occasionally with some friends, but I didn’t really seek it out. In fact, I clearly remember renting Candyman (based on Barker’s story, ‘The Forbidden,’ collected in Volume 5 of the ‘Books of Blood’) with a friend in high school and being so scared part way through that we had to turn it off. But when I finally read the original story, I was so enamored of its gorgeous central conceit (an embodied urban myth seducing the protagonist to willingly be his victim, living eternally in beauty, as story, free of the burdens of being, a cautionary tale told to children, a reason for lovers to clutch each other more tightly in the dark) that I finally returned to the film and fell for it as well (it stands as one of my favorite films of any genre).

Something that struck me as I worked my way through his horror writing was how little it scared me. It was clearly horror – incredibly gory and gleefully perverse, transgressing any and all boundaries of propriety, morality, flesh, or reality, but while it could frequently elicit a delicious shudder of disgust or tragic appreciation, it never made me scared of what lurked in the dark under my bed. It really took a different approach, implicitly introducing me to the fact that horror need not scare to be ‘good’ (thankfully, as these days, I’ve watched so much that new scares are truly hard to come by).

Cenobite concept art by Barker.

And so, this week, I’d like to dig into Barker’s work a bit, and to do so through the lens of one of his most known works, namely Hellraiser (1987), which Barker wrote and directed (his first feature film) based on his own aforementioned novella, ‘The Hellbound Heart.’ Honestly, I don’t exactly consider these the most “Clive Barker-esque” works of his oeuvre, but they clearly contain representative samples of the elements that make him so special, and what’s more, given how large Hellraiser looms over horror cinema (as a great film of its era, as a long running (mostly not great) franchise, as a source of iconic horror imagery), I think it is worth focusing on a piece that is simply this well known. I’ll start with the book and the first film, but will also dig into the first sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) (to which Barker contributed a story treatment), and the most recent entry, Hellraiser (2022) (a strong reboot that I feel does justice to Barker’s ideas and gets a lot of things right). There will be spoilers for all works, so you’ve been warned…

Hellraiser (1987)

As I’ve seen reported, Barker wrote “The Hellbound Heart” with the direct intention of later filming it. He’d had a couple stories adapted and hadn’t been satisfied with the result, and thus set out to write a story that he could pull off as a film – something contained that could be made with a low enough budget that producers would allow him to direct, though he’d never made a feature before. Thus, Hellraiser is a strikingly faithful adaptation, the two works being alike in tone, theme, and with one big exception, narrative.

Hellraiser is often mistakenly grouped in with the slashers – I think because it was a gory product of the 80s, it had a poster featuring a creepy, pale faced killer (with nails hammered into his head), and it spawned a franchise (as 80s slashers were in the habit of doing), but at the end of the day, it (and the book it’s based on) is more of a darkly fantastical haunted house tale, rooted in family drama. Furthermore, the threatening character on the poster (the being who would come to be nicknamed “Pinhead”) is less the main ‘bad guy’ of the story than a kind of force of nature (or something alternative to nature) – an implacable spirit who is not ‘evil’ so much as dutiful in the performance of his admittedly excruciating responsibilities (though he does clearly enjoy them – when he utters the iconic line, “we have such sights to show you,” he sounds genuinely proud of his work).

No, I think the true villain of the piece (who could also be argued to be the protagonist as well) is Julia, a woman languishing in a deeply unsatisfying marriage to a nice enough, dependable fellow for whom she has no passion (Rory in the book, Larry in the film). Of course, she should have known better given how, shortly before their wedding, she had fallen into bed with his brother, Frank, a sleazy, hedonistic, criminal ne’er-do-well, with no redeemable qualities other than the fact that he turned her on. Years later, Julia and her husband move into an old family house where Frank had previously, unbeknownst to them, performed an arcane ritual in search of sensual pleasure beyond all limits, resulting in him being torn apart by extra-dimensional beings called “Cenobites” and pulled into a kind of hell dimension (like you do).

The main story concerns Julia, chasing the dragon of the way he’d made her feel those many years ago, luring men home to murder such that Frank might feed upon their bodies and their lives, thus rebuilding a body for himself, and finally escape from the realm in which he’d gotten himself trapped. Along the way, I think Julia comes into her own, the flush of life returning to her cheeks as she brutally dispatches her victims and courts her returning lover, a half-formed, skinless man – raw, bloody, and domineering, but no less charismatic and enticing for her than he ever was.

The big change from book to film is in the final character of significance, Kirsty. In the novel, she is a coworker of Rory’s, and is perhaps similarly milquetoast, and thus, a seemingly better romantic match for him than the imperious, demanding Julia. In the film, Kirsty is Larry’s daughter from an earlier marriage, casting Julia into the part of “wicked step-mother.” In both cases, Kirsty becomes the secondary protagonist, an audience surrogate pulled into a twisted tale of murder, betrayal, resurrection, and interdimensional sadomasochistic hell-priests, who alone survives the ordeal. And she’s fine – a solid “final girl” (though, again, this is not a slasher) who gives us a “good character” to root for – but I think there is a narrative tension between the external-threat-final-girl-type-horror film Kirsty represents and the internal-threat/fascination-horror-tragedy-dark-tale-of-obsession-and-becoming film that Julia represents (and nothing against Kirsty, but I unreservedly prefer the latter).

The main praise I would lavish on both the film and the book is to do with their content (themes, characters, ideas), but I expect neither really gets enough credit for its technical quality. Barker was famously a first time feature director who spoke of going to the library to find a book on how to direct a movie, but he was surrounded by professionals who really knew what they were doing, thus enabling him to confidently steer the ship creatively and make something unique and special. It really says something that even with some studio interference (e.g., the unfortunate demand, after it had been shot in the UK that some actors be re-voiced with American accents – the dubbing is…not great) and cuts required to get an R rating (with substantial reductions to both sex and violence – both integral elements of the work), this still somehow feels like such a whole, uncompromised, artist-led, serious-minded piece of work. Even though it has its moments that don’t land for me (cricket eating guy, the weird winged demon at the end, the extra spectacle of Kirsty being hounded by Cenobites after it feels like the story’s already finished), it shines as an absolute classic and casts a long shadow (can it both shine and cast a shadow – does that make sense?).

And in terms of the novel, wow – the prose is just gorgeous: propulsive, evocative, and encompassing. The opening scene alone, of Frank first opening the puzzle box and finding how drastically his notion of pleasure diverged from that of those he’d sought to summon, is exciting and sensual and wickedly, playfully sinister. I’d first read the book probably 30 years ago, but when I read it again last summer, I had to go back and re-read the whole first chapter, such a joy it had been. Then to write this, I just went through it once again and its pleasures were undiminished. And as a novelette, you can really tear through it all in one sitting. So, yeah – both are truly great – I won’t go on ad nauseam about this shot or that special effect (but, wow), but they are all pretty special.

I titled this post with the phrase “permeable bodies and minds” and I think that is a dominant theme in Barker’s oeuvre that can clearly be found here. He is a creator unafraid of getting his hands dirty – this is one gory, disgusting, bloody, goopy piece of work. Flesh is hooked and rent; bodies are literally ripped apart (as souls are likewise threatened to be); other bodies are held in eternal states of extreme experience, opened, stretched, reformed, maintaining a transcendent state of pleasure-pain; skins are removed and worn as a disguise (sometimes more convincingly, occasionally less so), their identities stolen and perverted; or skin is gone without entirely, the raw self bared to the world, unshielded from sensation, not masked by artifice or civility: unguarded and whole. The physical border of the body is far from inviolate – it is in play.

And just as there is so much focus on the violent penetration of the body, so too is this a deeply sexual work; another mode of penetration – the points at which the borders of the self are opened/passed/transgressed. But interestingly, there isn’t actually a lot of explicit “sex” in it (partly due to the MPAA, partly because the sexuality of the film is not so obvious). Rather, the focus is on the desire that drives one to act, a physical hunger for more. This surfaces clearly in Julia’s lustful willingness to murder strangers to bring Frank back, but it is also the same drive that pulled Frank into the hands of the Cenobites to begin with, those “explorers in the further regions of experience” whose look is so directly inspired by the leather/S&M/piercing/body modification scene at the time.

One thing that it isn’t though (in my opinion) is terribly scary. This is a different kind of horror. Whereas much in the genre concerns a scary danger from without endangering the protagonist (which does happen, as mentioned above, with the character of Kirsty), I think Barker is often more interested in following the character who meets this darkness and embraces it, and is thus changed by it. We go with them on that journey and there is a delicious attraction/revulsion in vicariously sharing their story (as we do with Julia). I think the first Hellraiser stands as a testament to the fact that great horror need not deliver the “scare” to be horror.

All of these ideas live in the character of Julia. It is clear from the beginning what a mismatch she and her husband are, and we get the sense that if her tryst with Frank had lasted much longer, she might have found him wanting as well, but as it stands, she’s been left yearning for this scumbag who made her feel something, and I think it’s hard not to sympathize. She is not a “nice person,” but she doesn’t need to be for us to understand her very real, human frustration with having settled for a life that does not satisfy. When the accidental spilling of blood brings Frank back, however partially (in the beginning, he’s little more than a slimy brain stem with arms), her hunger/lust/addictive impulse is contagious – though the object of her desire is so abject (even she is disgusted by him, but she also craves his touch). An itch that has so long needed scratching finally can be, and therefore, must be scratched. The need for something outside of the self pulls and redefines the self, causing it to open, to potentially change, to become.

I love the first scene when she brings a man home for Frank to feed on. She’s gone out to a bar in the middle of the day and brought back an unpleasant character, some schmuck in a suit who’d thought he’d been the one picking her up. They both seem somewhat hesitant upon passing the threshold of her house, but he immediately becomes aggressively entitled when she balks at a kiss, strengthening her resolve to take him upstairs to the killing floor. Everything about the scene that follows is awkward and halting until, pants around his ankles, he turns his back on her and she takes up her hidden hammer. The two or three brutal strikes that follow obliterate his mouth and lay him out. It all happens in the matter of a couple of seconds, but when we cut to Julia’s reaction, we are brought back to that sexual element.

Covered in the red stuff herself, Julia’s blood is up, she’s breathing hard, there’s life and lust and power in her eyes – it’s hot. When she goes to wash up as Frank sucks the stuff of life from the corpse, a mad grin breaks out on her face. Returning to the room, Frank is more whole but far from complete, and she finds herself both pulled to and repelled by his still fleshless form. But before they can go any further, her husband comes home and she has to go cover her deception. It’s a great scene and Clare Higgins couldn’t be better in it, bringing nigh Shakespearean notes to the performance.

Ultimately, Frank betrays and discards her, resulting in them both being (re)claimed by the Cenobites who have been put on his trail by Kirsty, and though Julia makes an engaging return in the sequel, it too sadly passes her by in the end (as we will get to in a moment), but she is the beating, bloody heart of the story (well, I suppose her, and the literal one we see beneath the floorboards). Watching her claim ownership of her desire, though it take her down a dark, gory path, we see her flourish; just as Frank must knit himself back together, growing sinew, nerves, and bone, we see her build herself as well. Kirsty gives us the “good person” we can root for, who gets to survive to the end of the story, but I really think that story belongs to Julia: Lady Macbeth, Macbeth, Dr. Frankenstein, and Madame Bovary wrapped into one – you know, just a typical, disposable teen slasher flick.

Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)

Released only one year later, directed by Tony Randel and written by Peter Atkins, Hellraiser II retained a connection to Clive Barker in that he served as an executive producer (which could mean anything) and, probably more significantly, he provided a story treatment. And while I don’t think it could be argued that this film is anywhere near as good as the first, it does feel so deeply, deeply Barker-esque? Barker-ian? Barker-y – so much so that when I first watched both films many years ago, I kind of preferred this one. I wouldn’t still say that’s true now, but there are elements in here that are deeply cool, as well as some stuff that is off the wall wild and fun, and then some other parts that are, shall we say, regrettable.

The story picks up immediately (like the next day) after the first film, with Kirsty in a mental hospital, shattered by the events she’s just experienced. It’s a shame though that she was brought to this hospital, because it’s run by one Dr. Channard, who just so coincidentally happens to collect Cenobite summoning puzzle boxes (small world, huh?), using his corral of mental patients as Guinea pigs to try to solve them, thus gaining him all the forbidden occult knowledge he desires. When he hears Kirsty’s story, he uses connections in the police force to get his hands on the blood-stained mattress on which Julia was killed and sets out to bring her back as she had done for Frank in the first film. Concurrently, Kirsty sees a vision of a skinned man whom she believes to be her father, begging for her help and believes that she needs to go to hell to rescue him. 

Much of the rest of the movie takes place in the otherworld of the Cenobites, referred to as “hell,” but bearing no relation to any Christian interpretation of such. I think it’s just a convenient concept to throw at this realm – a land of eternal torture and pain – but it should be said, with no concept of punishment or justice. The whole place is lorded over by a sky-spanning, darkness emitting, diamond shaped presence which Julia refers to as ‘Leviathan,’ “god of flesh, hunger, and desire…the lord of the Labyrinth.” We also learn that all of the Cenobites we’ve met were once humans who were not destroyed by their encounter with the box, but rather thrived and ascended to their current status. It is in this exploration of this very weird and specific other realm that the film feels so like a Barker property. As mentioned earlier, the first books I read of his were contemporarily-set weird fiction, spanning strange other-worldly spaces, mythic in scope and filled with inversions of what might be deemed ‘natural.’ They could also get quite goopy.

This aspect of the film evoked some of the feelings I’d first had in discovering Barker’s fiction, and though I wish the film went further with its world building in this regard (in this whole hellscape, there seems to be just the same four or five Cenobites that we’ve already seen on earth – and a whole lot of hallways), I do treasure the cosmic horror on offer, and when the matte painting is filmed from above, it has more than sufficient grandeur. It is so big and alien and unique. And I love (as I do with a writer like Lovecraft) being given a vision of the demonic freed from the moralistic ugliness of religion – there is suffering aplenty, but no thoughts of damnation or salvation – only the serving up of experience beyond endurance.

The Cenobites have their own creed and ethos – one of pleasure and pain and leather and chains, worshipping a massive, impassive shape in the sky – weird, but hey, good for them – at least they don’t proselytize or try to encroach their faith on secular affairs (if only other fanatically religious types would so fully stay out of politics).

Sadly, the movie as a whole has some real story issues and, in my opinion, goes off the rails in the final act when Dr. Channard is made into a Cenobite (great sequence), dispatches all the other Cenobites (weird and unsatisfying choice – undercutting their power rather than making him seem strong, but it is intriguing when we see them all transform in the moments of their deaths back to the humans they’d once been – one of them was just a kid – what was his story?), and becomes a wise cracking monster chasing Kirsty around hell and his hospital, making endless cheesy doctor puns until she bests him with cleverness (I’m almost shocked we never get a full Bugs Bunny “Eh…what’s up doc?”).

Also, and I think this is the worst thing about the flick, after raising her from the dead, and allowing Julia a series of chilling scenes where we really see her as something powerful and frightening and cool, the film randomly and abruptly kills her off before we even hit the final act (really –it’s almost as if she steps into an open man-hole cover and, whoops, is never heard from again), freeing up her loose epidermis for a last minute surprise.

I’ve heard that the plan had been for her to really rise as the big bad of the series, but that Clare Higgins hadn’t wanted to do any further films, so I guess they eliminated her to make room for other monsters, but after making such a big deal out of her, it is such a letdown to have her slip away with so little fanfare.

But, all the same, Randel’s film does have some tremendous imagery and sequences that well serve Barker’s thematics, such as when Kirsty finds Frank in “hell,” tortured by endlessly unattainable, sighing, sometimes bloody female forms writhing beneath white sheets. Even at the end, when the penis-headed Channard-Cenobite is twirling his mustache and spouting lame one liners, there are inspired touches of idiosyncratic glory like when his hands birth phallic tentacles and each opens to reveal a new surprise – like a blade, an eye ball, a finger gesturing ‘come here,’ or a pretty flower – I don’t know what all that is, but I sure do like it.

Before that, the sexual tension/power exchange between skinless Julia and the good doctor is rich and dynamic, and her attic abattoir, replete with chained corpses hanging from the ceiling that she’s drained to rebuild herself, is properly horrific, but the standout scene of the whole film for me is that of her resurrection.

While an unwitting witness hides behind a curtain, coming dangerously close to getting caught, Channard brings into his office one of his patients, a poor fellow who sees his body constantly covered with bugs. Channard sits him down on the bloody mattress salvaged from the house of the first film and hands him a straight razor. It gets pretty rough. As Channard watches on with clinical disinterest, the patient (played by Oliver Smith, who also embodied skinless Frank in the first film) begins to desperately slice himself open, leaking torrents of blood onto the filthy mattress until arms shoot up out of it, legs follow, and soon he’s being straddled, chased, and finally devoured by a half formed Julia – all muscles and veins. It is an intense struggle as she takes him down, sinks her hands into his neck and begins to feast on his essence, his blood, and his flesh, all inches away from the poor witness behind the curtain, holding his breath not to be noticed. It is gory and suspenseful and triumphant and slippery and messy. For my money, it’s the best moment in a movie full of great moments which simply fail to cohere into a satisfying whole.

But it all still has a strong Barker flavor, which would soon diminish rapidly in the subsequent entries as the original author/director ceased to be involved in any way. The third and fourth films are not great, but have their fun moments (the Cenobite who’d been a DJ and is now a walking CD changer, not to mention going to space), but then it goes way downhill with six subsequent direct-to-video movies, many of which weren’t even written as Hellraiser flicks, but just had the name tacked on and Pinhead inserted into a couple of scenes to retain rights to the property. It wasn’t until 2022’s “reboot” that Clive Barker again had his name attached in any way to one of these films (for which he’s listed as a producer and reportedly had at least some creative input). So let’s take a look at that one as well (though I did already make some mention of it a couple of months back).

Hellraiser (2022)

Other than hitting the festival circuit, David Bruckner’s film (with writing credits for Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (i.a., Super Dark Times), as well as David S. Goyer (i.a., Dark City) – some real pedigree there) was released primarily to streaming, which really was a shame as some of its visuals are quite striking and would have benefitted from a cinematic release. But I’m just glad it got made. It was labeled a ‘reboot,’ but it’s not like it retells the original story in any way. It could pretty much be another entry in the series (ignoring the fact that some mythos is reworked, but enjoyably so), and quite a good one at that. Honestly, I’m not sure which I prefer, this or Hellbound. There are stylistic changes (most of which I really dig, and aspects of which I understand some people’s issues with), but the film really felt like Clive Barker, and it was so good to have that again after such a long time (there have been plenty of adaptations of other works in the last decade or two, even some based on a few of my favorite stories like “Dread” or “The Midnight Meat Train,” but none of them have quite connected with me).

I think I don’t want to risk spoiling too much as this is a more recent movie, so I’ll keep it general. We follow Riley, a recovering addict trying to hold things together, but clearly hooked by the dull pull of self-destructive compulsion. Through a series of circumstances, she finds herself in possession of a mysterious puzzle box that, upon being solved, shoots out a blade, which she narrowly evades. But the box will have its blood and so if she won’t be its victim, as she falls into a narcotic stupor, chains shoot out of her heart, reaching across the city and pulling to her the only person about whom she still cares. He becomes a sacrifice in her place, leading her down a dark road of discovery as, seeking to save him, she learns about the box, the Cenobites it summons, and Roland Voight, a rich sybarite and the box’s erstwhile owner, who has built his own puzzle box of a mansion to serve his nefarious ends.

The story is engaging and exciting, though there is a stretch in the latter half where it is reduced to a siege with people trapped in a house getting picked off by monsters which is a bit less interesting, but in spite of some pacing issues and running longer than think it needs to, it sticks the landing. I like the new mythos – the box needing to be manipulated through a series of configurations, each requiring a fresh sacrifice, until it finally grants a boon to the one who holds it. And I love the visual design of it all.

I’ve heard some complain about a “de-sexing” of the Cenobites. In their original presentation, they were all leather and hooks and kinky, messy blood play. Here, their bodies have been pulled and stretched and folded almost beyond recognition, but there is a cleanliness to it all, a cold, perfect puzzle-like order to their forms that reflects that of the box in its many configurations. I feel they do right by the concept of the Cenobites, bodies eternally held in extremis as a kind of meditative, transcendent prayer of pleasure-pain, but whereas their original look was reminiscent of a contemporary fetish community, the new look is more alien – less bloody monsters/kinksters, and more unknowable, unrelenting presences, personifications of a concept. It is a different approach, but I think it really works.

Similarly, whenever the box is opened and they appear, the world shifts and slides and reveals hidden depths exactly as the box does. This reflects an effect in the original films where the walls split open, but it takes it further. Between the box, the look of the Cenobites and the opening of worlds, there is a thematic consistency that I really appreciate.

Also, Roland Voight is so a character out of a Barker story: A wealthy bastard, desperate for extreme experience, pleasure beyond anything he can find in the mortal world, builds a complex temple to his obsession, manipulating those he considers below him to sacrifice themselves at the altar of his lust. And in the end, without going into too many details, he both gets a kind of comeuppance and passes a threshold, approaching something akin to glory. Walking that line between horror and holiness is a key offer of Barker’s and we really get it here. In the original versions, I feel we only see characters who expect facile notion of pleasure and discover torment in its stead. In this case, I feel we see Voight pass through torment into…something else, something searing and bright, angelic even. That feels like Barker.

Finally, I really like the element of addiction in the protagonist, though I do wish we got more of it. The box is an object of overwhelming fascination and desire, and it caters to those with the strongest obsessions. When Riley first sits down to explore the puzzle, having relapsed and had an explosive and emotional falling out, her initial interest feels so right. She acts out of a self-eliminating compulsion, and that is inherent in the box’s solving, making her the perfect kind of person to unlock its mysteries. Perhaps this will overtake her chemical dependencies, but it will certainly not serve her any better. In the end, she is given a motivation to keep working the box that is more altruistic (salvation of a loved one) and we don’t exactly follow her down the rabbit hole of an even more destructive addiction, but I at least appreciated that moment early on when it seemed like we might – and it also felt very much like something out of “The Books of Blood.” I wish we got more – in the end, she is more of a Kirsty than a Julia in shaping the narrative, but I still appreciate the echo.

So yeah – there are significant changes, and it is a completely different story than the original – also it is a new cast (plenty of irritating online fanboys had strong objections to “Pinhead” not being played by Doug Bradley, and what’s worse, being played by a woman – forgetting that Bradley hadn’t been in the previous two films and that in the book, the lead Cenobite is never gendered male, but rather is an “it” with a girlish voice), but Jaimie Clayton is tremendously good in the lead Cenobite role – there is a cold pleasure to her delivery that is just so tasty. In one scene, when a soon to be victim claims to pray for salvation, the Hell Priest replies, “And what would that feel like? A joyful note? Without change, without end? There’s no music in that,” and we catch the Apollonian aesthete: a chilling, but also beautiful approach. Yeah – in so many ways, I think this Hellraiser absolutely does justice to Barker’s style and themes and vibe. How satisfying!

Of the three discussed, I think the first still stands as the most significant, the self-presentation of a fresh, vibrant artistic voice in the world; a work that, grounded in human drama and strong emotion, takes itself and its horror seriously, while delivering jaw dropping (and jaw shattering) moments of horror and glorious excess. But both Hellbound and the 2022 Hellraiser bring valuable elements to the table, and both feel (even if he only served as a producer and an inspiration) like extensions of Clive Barker’s expression, and hence I consider them gifts, as he hasn’t been publishing as much of late (and what has made it to print has, sadly, not been his best work (I’m looking at you 2015’s “The Scarlet Gospels”)). Maybe someday we’ll finally get his purported next novel, “Deep Hill.” One can hope.

Sometimes They Return: Cemetery Man

Certain films make such a strong impression that even if you love them, you are rarely drawn to re-watch. It just seems better to sit with the first feeling they gave you – you don’t want a subsequent viewing to rob you of the memory of how they affected you. And sometimes, on top of that, a given film is just hard to find on streaming, even if you wanted to check it out again, such that your remembered first viewing grows in stature over the years: it becomes something treasured, almost mythic, a half glimpsed moment of true magic from long, long ago.

Such it was with today’s film, Michele Soavi’s Cemetery Man (1994). I’ve previously written on this blog about how I first saw it way back when: In high school, a good friend and I wanted to go see a movie, picked up the local newspaper to see what was playing (as one used to do), and saw a listing for a film with no description, but just an intriguing title. We went to the cinema and there was no poster, and the nameplate outside of the screening room was just sharpie scrawled on an index card. We bought two tickets and assumed we were in for something cheap and terrible, and when we went in, found that we were the only ones in attendance. We figured that with no one else around, we could just crack jokes at something that would be ‘so bad it’s good’ and settled in for a laugh. The film started, and we made a couple of early comments and then quickly shut up – because it was kind of amazing.

Poetic, absurd, artful, and successfully, intentionally funny, this was an unexpected gem, and one of the best cinema experiences I’ve ever had. We’d gone in completely cold, expecting the absolute worst, and were rather blown away by this peculiar Italian horror-comedy that was in turns silly, sexy, dark, and disturbing, with moments of grotesquerie both delightful and off-putting, not to mention a surprising depth and shades of existential profundity. I loved it. And I spent years carrying this memory, especially because in the streaming era, it was really hard to locate. Finally, after about 30 years, Severin restored and released the film on 4K and a clear, crisp print showed up on Shudder that did justice to its craft and artistry, so I was stoked to finally take it in again, and I knew it would be worth writing about. And it was, but not only for the reasons I’d counted on.

Rather, I suppose this is a case of something like “you should never meet your heroes” or maybe “you can never go home again” or some other such pat life advice, as my experience of re-viewing was not quite what I’d hoped for – there were still things to appreciate, but what had so impressed me thirty years ago, didn’t quite do it for me now. There were even elements that actively turned me off. I spent some time thinking about it, and then decided to watch it one more time, and happily then found myself enjoying it much more again. Interesting…

And so that is what I want to write about today – not just the film itself, but how and why it clicked for me so well in the mid-90s, how and why it didn’t when I first re-watched it last week, and what finally, on a third viewing, I found I could still love in it regardless of what could be viewed as significant issues. No matter what, it is clearly a unique piece of work, worthy of appreciation and consideration. So let’s get into it. There’s no way to do this adequately sans spoilers, so you’ve been warned…

Cemetery Man (1994) (A.K.A. Dellamorte Dellamore)

Cemetery Man Poster

Michele Soavi has been mentioned a couple times on this blog before. He was an assistant to Dario Argento and worked with a bunch of other big names in the Italian horror industry in the 80s. You can find him on screen in such masterpieces as Lucio Fulci’s The City of the Living Dead  (1980) or Lamberto Bava’s Demons (1985), and of course, his feature directorial debut was one of my favorite slashers of the 80s, the stylish, if sometimes delightfully ridiculous Stagefright (1987) (the killer in the owl mask; Marilyn Monroe playing the sax; the cat jump scare in the back of a car (how did it even get in there?); the theatre director who’s an absolute asshole, but you sympathize with him cause you can see how he can see just how terrible his show is, and he is trying to fix it and can’t, and it just really stings – I love it all!). By 1994, Soave had a few films under his belt and took on this ambitious adaptation of a novel by Tiziano Sclavi, Dellamorte Dellamore, Sclavi being quite well known at the time in Italy for his surreal horror comic, Dylan Dog.

Originally released with the same title as the novel, Cemetery Man follows a worker at a cemetery in a small town in Italy, Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) and his nonverbal, simpleminded assistant, Gnaghi (François Hadji-Lazaro), as they go about their duties: digging and cleaning graves, changing flowers, and most importantly, shooting in the head the zombies that tend to rise within a week of their original burial. Theirs is an absurd, repetitive, dreary existence and the ennui is strong with them. Dellamorte dispatches the undead that surround him with little more than a shrug and a sigh. And outside the gates of the cemetery, things are little better. The town, Buffalora, beyond the borders of which, he has never ventured, is small, venal, frustratingly bureaucratic and corrupt, with the mayor unconcerned about the dead rising as long as it doesn’t interrupt his campaign for reelection.

Things change for Dellamorte when he sees a beautiful widow (Anna Falchi) attending the funeral of her husband and he immediately falls in love with her. After taking her to visit the cemetery’s ossuary, she is so overcome with passion by the assembled skulls and bones that she also falls for him. They kiss like in a Magritte painting and proceed to have sex on the grave of her beloved husband, who rises and bites her, seemingly leading to her death. Dellamorte keeps her body under watch and when she rises, he shoots her, as is his job. But she just keeps coming back. One night, she returns as a seductive zombie, drawing him to her and sexily taking a chomp out of his shoulder before Gnaghi plants a shovel in her head. Later, she seems to return as the new mayor’s (the other one had died before the election) assistant, who already knows and loves Dellamorte, though she’s never before been to Buffalora or met him. They have a short lived romance, dependent on her belief that he’s impotent, as she has a fear of sex – he has himself chemically castrated, only for her to get over said fear and leave him for the mayor (in a problematic turn of events that we’ll get into later). And finally, she appears as a university student that Dellamorte goes home with. She also tells him that she loves him, but he soon discovers that she is a prostitute and that declaration just made the evening more expensive.

Along the way, Dellamorte goes down a dark path, sliding from a state of poetic melancholy at the beginning, through various romantic ups and downs, not to mention social indignities, to cold blooded acts of murder – some funny, some satisfying, and at least one quite disturbing. He has conversations with Death who tells him to stop killing the dead and that if he doesn’t want people to rise, to go shoot the living in the head to ensure that they won’t. This he does, beginning a vein in the film reminiscent of Kafka or Ionesco wherein it seems impossible for him to be caught, impossible for him to retain responsibility for his own acts, no matter how he tries – the police inspector will never see him for who he is and his crimes are stolen from him. The romantic gloom of the first half of the film is supplanted with an existential hopelessness – nothing has meaning: not life, not death, not love, not sex, not murder. Finally, he and Gnaghi drive away from Buffalora only to learn, as suspected, that there is no world beyond its borders – they are trapped within a snow globe – beautiful and pointless. In an odd turn, Dellamorte and Gnaghi exchange roles, Gnaghi now speaking and Dellamorte responding with Gnaghi’s characteristic grunt, and the film ends – they will return, events will play out again – perhaps a new iteration thereof, but with no meaningful change – nothing ever could.

You could imagine how this impressed me at 16. It is a weird movie to say the least, but one with a wealth of concepts, moods, and images. I’m sure I didn’t know what to make of it at the time, but the philosophical vibe washed over me and left me intrigued, puzzled, entertained, and tickled with the idiosyncratic peculiarity of it all.

Plus, it must be said that it is beautiful to look at and also really quite funny, with loads of memorable details: the bus full of scouts that drive off a cliff and of course return as zombies, one of which keeps rubbing sticks between his hands menacingly as if to start an undead campfire, the sex dripping from Anna Falchi’s seductive line, “you know, you’ve got a real nice ossuary,” the scene when Gnaghi, so infatuated with the mayor’s daughter, vomits on her right before her boyfriend shows up on his motorcycle – she exclaims, “he threw up on me,” and the boyfriend responds, “cool – new fad” before she jumps on behind him and they ride away, unconcerned with the regurgitated bile between them, and of course, the sweet, child-like romance Gnaghi later has with her decapitated, reanimated head after she dies in a motorcycle accident. And again, beyond the comedy, I just loved the gory absurdity of it all, the morbid, poetic existentialism found in what I’d expected to be little more than cheap, b-movie detritus.

Thirty Years Later

Everything I’ve written above sounds great, and all of that is there to be found in the film, but that said, I did find myself sadly unsatisfied on the re-watch. First of all, things that had felt deep to me as a teenager, philosophically rich and ghoulishly beautiful, at 45, just seemed, I don’t know, facile? Shallow? Obvious? I didn’t come away feeling like this all revealed some truths of the human condition – but rather, it seemed more than a bit pretentious.

But all of that is fine. I mean it is an unfair standard to expect every film to reveal some profound truth of what it is to be human – that is a pretty high bar, and I wouldn’t judge any other film for not clearing it, and Soavi’s film genuinely deserves credit for actually approaching such an ambitious artistic feat. What really was difficult the second time around was how the philosophical-ness and poetic-ness felt not only slight, but actually ugly when it came to women, or rather, the woman, or even just “She,” which is as far as the film goes in naming Anna Falchi’s embodiment of feminine, sexy, mysterious, eternally unattainable woman-ness.

Dellamorte seems to have no other reason for falling in love with her than that she is beautiful, and she seems to have no reason to fall in love with him except the dictates of the story (to be fair, Rupert Everett is a very attractive man, but her attraction feels more like narrative convenience). While her perpetual return is intriguing, something about it feels uncomfortable: in Dellamorte’s story, there is one woman, without a name, who is all women, who is everywhere, whom he loves, whom he obsesses over, whom he doesn’t really know, and whom he can never truly have – she will always slip away from him, be taken from him; she is a failed promise, a lie, a tease. Life allows no such satisfaction – she exists (occasionally) only to be desired, to be longed for, but she seems to lack essence. She is an empty ideal – not a person – not a character.

And it does get pretty dark. I wrote above of the second half of the film when Dellamorte goes on a bit of an existential killing spree. Much of that is enjoyable – we see him killing people we’d earlier seen be jerks, or we see him kill dispassionately, because nothing matters anyway, but there is one time that he kills emotionally. Late in the film, drunk and despondent after being rejected by the most recent incarnation of “She” (the Mayor’s assistant), Dellamorte is approached by two young, attractive women in a tavern, one of whom is the next incarnation of the object of his desire. He goes home with them, is told that “She” loves him, and proceeds to make love to her. When he discovers that they are prostitutes and that he must pay extra for her declaration of affection, he puts a space heater in her bed, starting a fire that burns their apartment to cinders with them (and one other girl) inside.

It all feels like a Trojan Horse – Rupert Everett has brought so much charm and weary resignation to the role, and we have happily gone along with him on a dark, blackly comic, sweetly grotesque ride, only to end up in this ugly sequence of incel violence – a bitter man, denied the love he feels he deserves, feeling lied to and cheated, murders three young women because his feelings got hurt. It lands like a sucker punch.

Add to that the storyline of the mayor’s assistant (she is initially terrified by sex and feels free to love Dellamorte because the word around town is that he’s impotent (which he’s not) – he goes to a doctor and gets chemically castrated so they can be married – and then she turns up and explains that the mayor has raped her, curing her of her phobia, and she’s now going to marry him instead – you know, a totally normal, realistic reaction for an actual human female), and it’s hard to say that the movie doesn’t feel more than a little misogynistic. Somehow, as a 16 year old boy, so enamored of the glorious weirdness on display, I’d just failed to pick up on it.

Is this a case of changing social mores in the last 30 years (we are certainly more aware and less tolerating of elements of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and such these days) or is it just that I’ve grown up some and now find myself turned off by elements that I must admit I didn’t think about when I was a kid and first watched this movie? Whatever it is, it did sour me a bit on the film this time around.

But Let’s Give It Another Chance, Huh?

For all of the criticisms of the last section, I don’t want to come down too hard on the film (or on my teenage self). In spite of my reservations, there was still a great deal that I enjoyed and appreciated, and I thought I should give it one more try. And I’m glad I did. The first time I saw it, I had no expectations or even had negative ones and was so happily surprised. The second time, I was carrying the nostalgia of that first impression and it was a cold splash of water in the face to confront some problematic elements. And so, I wanted to approach it a third time, more cognizant and clear eyed of what I was going to see.

And I’m happy to report that I kinda loved it again. My criticisms stand – I don’t think there’s much of a way to get around them, but maybe even the most troubling elements can be an important part of the whole. Maybe the point is that the “love” between “She” and Dellamorte is a superficial fantasy – an illusory preoccupation to create a sense of meaning in a clearly meaningless existence. The degree to which She isn’t really a character is just the most prominent example of something that may be true of all of the other secondary players besides Dellamorte and Gnaghi. The degree to which the only significant female character is reduced to a symbol feels disappointing at the very least, but we don’t have to read it as being about gender – she is just the only other “real thing” in Dellamorte’s existence and she isn’t even real either. Nothing in life or death is.

When he murders her (as the college student) and her friends, it feels ugly, but this is a horror movie, after all, and perhaps this moment just brings the weight we should feel regarding all of his murders, but for whatever reason, don’t. We discover that our viewpoint character, the sensitive, charismatic figure at the center of all this hypocrisy and madness, sighing and rolling his eyes at the mendacity and ridiculous hopelessness of the world around him – we discover that he is no better than the rest – he is, in fact, awful. And yet, in the next scene when he shoots a bunch of people at the hospital, I feel we are right back there with him, only having held judgement against him for the moment, and are now feel free to laugh as he coolly murders doctors and nurses. Why was that judgement so short lived? Are we just sold on the lack of meaning, the absence of ramifications for his actions that so frustrates him? Is the movie doing in that moment exactly what it should? Maybe, maybe not, but I don’t want to give up all that I find to value in it just because it also contains parts I respond negatively to.

At the end of the day, this is a fascinating, funny, moving, troubling piece – I don’t think it is like anything else – it is like itself, and if nothing else, that is a thing truly worthy of praise. Furthermore, as written above, it is gorgeously shot, laugh-out-loud hilarious, shocking, and puzzling in a lot of good ways. The performances are uniformly excellent (Everett is so charismatic, Hadji-Lazaro embodies Gnaghi with lovable, quirky commitment – it’s really special, and Falchi, even if one could question the depth of her “characters” in the context of the story, is given a lot to do, and brings a lot of life and play to her four parts). The visuals are creatively striking and beautiful, and the score is a hoot. Finally, the film is thoughtful (even if those thoughts aren’t always the deepest, it is still thinking them) and takes big artistic swings without sacrificing the entertaining pleasures of being a weird, gross little horror movie. How could I not love something like that?

And so that’s that – I didn’t exactly have the experience I’d been looking forward to over the years, but it was interesting and rewarding to re-approach this film I’d treasured, find that it was other than I had remembered, or that perhaps I had changed, and ultimately, to come to terms with it differently. It was a reflective experience and time well spent. Plus, it is still, in many ways, really very cool and weird.