Torn Curtain (1966, Alfred Hitchcock)

TornCurtain

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When an American scientist seemingly defects to East Germany, his fiancée follows – leading to them both being trapped behind the Iron Curtain…

Touted at the time of its release as Alfred Hitchcock’s 50th movie (which it was if you discount short films, Elstree Calling and the German-language version of Murder!), Torn Curtain begins with an impressionistic title sequence reminiscent of the James Bond series. Swirling, fiery images play opposite snatched glimpses of characters and incidents while lush music with a ‘full’, orchestral sound tempts us into a world of espionage. 

There had been four Bond pictures by 1965, when Hitchcock began production, but rather than the current vogue for spy films, the inspiration for Torn Curtain actually came from real life. Hitch had been fascinated by the defection to the Soviet Union of the British diplomat Donald Maclean in 1951, and specifically by what that meant for Maclean’s wife and family. Melinda Maclean followed her husband to Moscow about a year later, and Hitchcock wondered how her husband’s choice had affected her emotionally…

The film’s equivalent of Donald Maclean is Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), an American physicist attending a conference in Norway with his British colleague and fiancée, Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrew). They seem to be deeply in love – our first sighting of them is when they’re cuddled up in bed rather than attending a meal – but Michael soon begins to act oddly. He’s sent obscure radiogram messages, then lies to Sarah that he has to fly to Stockholm. When she learns that his flight is actually heading for East Berlin – in other words, inside communist East Germany – she buys a ticket too and sits a few rows behind him…

It’s typical spy-movie stuff: paranoia and hidden agendas and acrostics and codenames. And it was far from the first time Hitchcock had worked in the genre; he’d dabbled with this kind of material on and off for 30 years. In fact, for the roles of Michael and Sarah, he’d initially wanted to reunite the stars of his phenomenally successful spy film North by Northwest: Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. However, studio bosses insisted on actors who were more ‘current’. Julie Andrews was certainly that: she’d just had a massive hit with The Sound of Music and won an Oscar for 1964’s Mary Poppins. Co-star Paul Newman was hot from movies such as Hud and The Hustler.

Sadly, it often feels like their characters in Torn Curtain have never met before. It’s difficult to recall an on-screen couple in any Hitchcock film who have less chemistry. Hitch presumably wanted Andrews to be one of his classic blondes – an enigmatic female character with sex appeal and a cool exterior, but who is going through emotional turmoil on the inside. The actress, though, plays Sarah too straight, too blandly, to generate much interest. Newman, meanwhile, was a student of the Actors Studio and gives a down-to-earth, tightly wound performance that fails to connect with the heightened tone of the script. (Behind the scenes, Newman infuriated Hitchcock with questions and concerns. The director was more used to actors like James Stewart and Ingrid Bergman – people who showed up, knew their stuff, and did what they were told. When asked about his motivation in a certain scene, a frustrated Hitch is said to have told Newman: ‘Your salary.’)

Landing in East Berlin, Michael is warmly welcomed by the authorities and treated like a celebrity by journalists at a press conference that feels like it was inspired by the Beatles’ famously impressive first public appearance in America. It then dawns on Sarah what’s happening. Michael, seemingly disillusioned with his work at the US defence department being stymied, is defecting to the communists. He’s brusque with his fiancée, refusing to say whether he wants her to stay behind the iron curtain with him or go home.

Thankfully, we viewers don’t have to wait too long for the inevitable plot twist, which anyone who’s ever seen a spy film before will have seen coming from before the title sequence was over. After 40 minutes Michael gives his handlers the slip and heads out into the countryside to meet with a farmer. We’re let into his secret when he and the farmer – who’s actually an undercover agent – discuss how he’s only pretending to defect in order to get some vital information about a revolutionary new anti-rocket system. 

But of course there’s a problem. When he arrived in Berlin, Michael was given a bodyguard, who in reality is there to keep an eye on him. The gum-chewing, American-slang-loving heavy who Michael finds hard to evade is called Hermann Gromek and is excellently played by a sinister Wolfgang Kieling. When Gromek shows up at the farm, Michael initially tries to bluff his way out of the problem – but then must kill Gromek in a blackly comedic scene that’s the highlight of the whole film. With no incidental music to take the edge off the violence, Michael and the farmer’s wife try to subdue their enemy by strangulation, a stabbing, a shovel attack and eventually by forcing his head into a gas oven. (A German gassed in an oven? Hitch was aware of the implication, but later said it wasn’t a political comment.) The scene is a deliberate deconstruction of the spy-film cliché of an easy kill – Gromek is clinging onto life for a long time – and is totally gripping.

Elsewhere, regrettably, some of the filmmaking has not dated well. Alfred Hitchcock seemed to have a high tolerance for artificial devices such as rear-projection screens for scenes in moving cars and matte shots to extend sets and locations. All well and good for a movie made in the mid 1960s. Less excusable, however, is his decision to build an entire – and entirely fake-looking – park on a soundstage for a key scene that comes after 69 minutes. Knowing Gromek’s death will be discovered sooner rather than later, Michael takes Sarah aside and admits that he’s on a secret mission. In a neat trick that Hitchcock used in other films too – Topaz, for example, and North by Northwest – we don’t actually hear the dialogue because it’s information we viewers already know. But the plot swings here: now, Sarah is in the know.

Michael had buried Gromek’s body, but is rumbled when the taxi driver who delivered him to the farm reports seeing Gromek there too. (The taxi driver is played by American actor Eugene Weingard, who went by the stage name Peter Lorre Jr. He actually had no connection to the Hungarian-born star who had appeared in two Hitchcock films in the 1930s – aside from a slight resemblance. The more famous Lorre attempted to stop Weingard using the name, but after the former’s death in March 1964 the latter was free to pretend they were related.)

So the pressure is mounting. Seeking out a famed rocket scientist, Michael tricks him into revealing the secret equations he needs to take back to the States. With the sneaky plot now played out, Michael and Susan then flee down their escape route, which involves a bus service run by the resistance, some help from an eccentric Polish aristocrat (Lila Kedrova’s Countess Kuchinska) and a showpiece finale at the ballet that brings to mind the Albert Hall sequences in Hitchcock’s two films called The Man Who Knew Too Much. 

There’s plenty to admire and enjoy in Torn Curtain, whether it’s the Hitchcockian touch of demonstrating how cold a room is by showing someone breaking up the ice that’s forming in his glass of water, or the cat-and-mouse sequence in a museum that has echoing footsteps creating tension and menace. The blocking – the relative positioning of the actors in a scene – also tells the story just as much as dialogue, such as the distance between Michael and Sarah when she thinks he’s a traitor compared to later when she’s learnt the truth.

However, it’s far from a wholly successful film. It mostly feels too safe, for example. This is the story of a man taking the enormous risk of going undercover in a communist state but it lacks the cynical edge and – Gromek’s death scene aside – the sense of danger seen in other 60s spy films like The Ipcress File (1965) or even the Bond series. Hitchcock also seems to get bored with his lead characters: Sarah in particular goes missing for long stretches, while in the second half of the story both she and Michael feel like passengers rather than drivers of the plot. 

Seven men in the hotel lobby out of 10

Note: In a 1999 interview, Steven Spielberg revealed that as a teenager he’d sneaked onto the set of Torn Curtain to watch the filming. He lasted 45 minutes before someone realised he shouldn’t be there.

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Aquaman (2018, James Wan)

Aquaman

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Having joined Batman, Wonder Woman and others in saving the world, Aquaman is now a famous superhero, but he’d rather live a quiet life. Then a woman from the undersea realm of his ancestors arrives and asks for his help…

Good guys: After a cameo in Batman vs Superman (2016), Arthur Curry (aka Aquaman) was properly introduced in 2017’s superhero mash-up movie Justice League. (Was he called Arthur in that film?! Honestly can’t remember.) He’s played again by Jason Momoa, who enjoys highlighting the character’s flippancy, sarcasm and reluctance to be a superhero. All this lightness helps distract you from the fact that, aside from a minor subplot about his mother, Arthur has no journey or emotional resonance in this story at all. He drifts through the film, being reasonably entertaining but rarely trying to achieve or learn anything. The film begins with a 1980s-set prologue showing us how Arthur’s parents – a stranded mermaid-type called Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and a laid-back lighthouse-keeper called Thomas (Temuera Morrison) – met, fell in love and had a child. It’s a lightly sketched sequence that isn’t too concerned with nuance or texture. In just a few minutes we race through a mini-episode that’s kinda reminiscent of 80s romcom Splash… if, you know, Splash had contained a 25-second shot showing its heroine beating up an invading force of mermen. The sequence then ends with Atlanna being taken away by some goons, back to her oceanic home of Atlantis… In the present day, Arthur is a grown man (a very grown man; seriously, check out his pecks!) but it seems he would rather forget his stint as a world-saving metahuman in the previous film. Then a hot, redheaded woman from Atlantis called Y’Mera Xebella Challa, mercifully aka Mera, shows up and he’s convinced to leap into superhero action again. She’s played by Amber Heard, who’s actually quite watchable despite bucketfuls of woeful dialogue and a character without much personality. Arthur’s help is needed in Atlantis, where Atlanna’s other son has taken control. He wants to combine the seven underwater kingdoms into one force, be ordained ‘ocean master’, become the commander of the greatest military might on the planet, and wage war on the land-based nations. But because Arthur is of royal blood and is Atlanna’s first-born he can challenge his half-brother to the throne. After Atlantean forces launch attacks on the countries of the world, using tsunami to fling battleships and garbage onto shorelines, Arthur and Mera head down into the depths, where Arthur challenges his brother to a ritualistic combat. The film then goes through several genre-movie clichés: fights and chases, cryptic messages and quests, MacGuffins and globetrotting locations, CGI environments and CGI monsters, a sibling rivalry between two men who have never met before and bullshit backstories explained with a straight face… While all this is going on, we also see flashbacks to Arthur’s childhood, where he was trained in the ways of the Atlanteans by a kind mentor type called Nuidis Vulko (a bored Willem Defoe), who also tells him that his mother was executed after she returned to Atlantis. Vulko is still around in the present-day scenes too.

Bad guys: The initial foe for Arthur is a high-tech pirate called David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who we meet while he’s attempting to steal a nuclear submarine. During the heist, though, Aquaman shows up, bests him, and cruelly refuses to save Kane’s father when he’s trapped under a heavy torpedo in a flooding room. So, now with a grudge against Arthur, Kane skulks off to the guy who’d hired him… who happens to be Arthur’s despotic half-brother, Orm Marius (Patrick Wilson, looking so rubbery under the post-production effect of being underwater all the time that he may as well be 100-per-cent CGI). He’s the boss of Atlantis and bobs around his undersea realm in a shiny suit of armour and Aryan hair. ‘The time has come to rise again!’ he says, movie-villain-generically. The culture he wants to dominate is one of those fictional worlds that makes such little sense that you question if *any* thought went into creating it. How can the Atlanteans talk underwater? Why do they speak English? Why do they wear clothes? Why can some people breathe oxygen and others can’t? How have they forged metal underwater? Why has evolution given them arms and legs? And hair? Where does all the light come from at the bottom of the ocean? It’s impossible to take  these scenes seriously. Anyway, Mera’s dad is often by Orm’s side – he’s called Nereus, is played by Dolph Lundgren (no, honestly), and mostly just stands– I mean, swims around saying doomladen things. Later, Kane returns to the story: he suits up in elaborate scuba gear that makes him look like a manta ray, so adopts the superhero-villain name of Black Manta and attempts to get revenge on Aquaman. 

Other guys: There are a host of forgettable characters around the coastline of the story – creatures from other undersea realms who presumably have detailed backstories and personalities that were worked out in story conferences and workshopped in rehearsals but then don’t translate at all into interesting on-screen storytelling. We won’t waste time cataloguing them here.

Best bits:
* Having been taken into Thomas’s home, Atlanna is spooked by a TV playing the title sequence to puppet show Stingray – so she chucks her trident at the screen.
* As a child, Arthur is threatened by some bullies at an aquarium – then they realise the shark in the nearby tank is attempting to smash the glass in order to protect Arthur. All the other life in the tank assembles behind him too, like a gang backing up its leader. (It hardly makes any sense, and the moment – like all moments of drama in this film – is rushed through as quickly as possible, but it’s a decent image.)
* David Kane is a fun bad guy. The sequence that introduces him – as he and his dad storm a submarine – is well shot and works nicely as a character introduction. ‘I’ll do you deal,’ he tells the captured captain of the sub. ‘I won’t tell you how to captain, and you don’t tell me how to pirate.’ There’s sadly then a really awful beat as – right in the middle of taking over a submarine! – Kane’s father decides to pause, give David a family heirloom and impart some parental homilies. It’s almost like he knows he’s not to survive much longer.
* Aquaman shows up! ‘Permission to come aboard,’ he says over his shoulder like he’s in a James Bond film. He then starts beating people up in gleefully cartoony ways.
* Aquaman has a drink in a bar with his dad. A huge, scary, tattooed man aggressively interrupts – ‘Are you that fish boy from the TV?’ – and it seems like a fight will ensue… But the guy just wants a selfie because Aquaman is famous! High-larious.
* The flashbacks to Arthur’s childhood training with Vulko feature an exceedingly irritating child actor giving a wide-eyed performance, but the film actually cuts between the past and the present with a bit of flair.
* It’s quite funny when, in the midst of all the pretentious portent of the Atlantean realm, Arthur is frustrated to learn that he must fight Orm in front of thousands of onlookers. ‘Shit,’ he says to himself.
* Arthur and Mera are in a sportscar-like submersible, being chased by Orm’s henchmen. ‘Heads up, we’ve got a bogey on our six!’ he says. Mera: ‘What does that even mean?!’ Arthur: ‘Bad guys behind us.’ Mera: ‘Well, just say that!’ Arthur, in a high-pitched voice because he’s worried: ‘Bad guys behind us!’ (Momoa and Heard are a pretty good double act. They deserve a much better script.)
* Kane gets an A-Team-style montage as he builds his Black Manta cybersuit, complete with a Depeche Mode song on the soundtrack.
* Needing water to kickstart an ancient hologram machine that they’ve found buried under the Sahara, Mera uses her magical powers to delicately extract a drop of moisture from Arthur’s forehead. ‘Could have just peed on it,’ he later says.
* Hanging out in a picturesque square in Sicily, Mera eats some flowers (because being an ocean-dwelling isolationist means she doesn’t know what they are, I guess).
* Black Manta’s armoured suit looks both cool and ridiculous at the same time.
* Some of the action sequence in Sicily is quite exciting: Mera running across slated rooftops, Manta crashing through walls, that kind of thing. (It’s such an action-movie cliché, though, isn’t it? Characters visit a Mediterranean country? Gotta run across the rooftops! See The Living Daylights, The Bourne Ultimatum, Quantum of Solace, Taken, Skyfall…)
* Mera smashes the facemask of a Atlantean bad guy’s helmet while they fight on dry land. As he can’t breath without the water that’s now drained away, he solves the problem by… plunging his face into a nearby toilet. (Aquaman is basically a kids’ film tarted up with a blockbuster budget.)
* Arthur’s mum is still alive! I did not see that coming when they cast a really famous actress for what seemed quite a small role! She’s been hiding out all alone for several years in an uncharted area of sea near the centre of the planet (I think), so is this film’s equivalent of Ant-Man and the Wasp‘s Michelle Pfeiffer.

Review: One of the most important elements of any film is its tone. Get your tone wrong or a bit off or inconsistent, and you’re sunk. While watching Aquaman – the sixth film in the extremely variable DC Extended Universe series – you start to feel like the filmmakers have approached this issue by attempting 17 different tones all at once. The movie is occasionally so portentously po-faced that you can’t help but giggle (‘You wield our mother’s trident. Powerful, but flawed. Like her. I wield my father’s and it has never known defeat!’). Other times, there’s actually a sweetness and a charm about the characters. Elsewhere, it’s a slapstick comedy, a bombastic action movie or a collection of filler scenes from a computer game. It’s a terrible film. It really is. And it’s not just that it can’t decide on a unified mood; other faults keep piling up too: the dialogue that’s so awful it could have been written by someone who’s never heard human beings speak, the drama scenes done as swiftly and perfunctorily as possible, the self-important characters impossible to find interesting, the fight scenes that lack any impact or consequence, the musical score than hammers home every single point imaginable, the over-reliance on sudden explosions as a way of ramping up the tension, the final third that just becomes white-noise of meaningless action… However… Because the film contains some attempts at humour, and because we get two half-decent actors in the main roles, it is more diverting and slightly more enjoyable than most of the previous movies in the DC series.

Five drumming octopuses out of 10

Downhill (1927, Alfred Hitchcock)

Downhill

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A young man faces a series of hardships when he gallantly agrees to take the blame for a friend’s indiscretion…

Ivor Novello – who also co-wrote the stage play on which this film is based – plays Roddy Berwick, a high-achieving pupil at the kind of English public school later spoofed in the TV comedy Ripping Yarns. He’s the star rugger player and school hottie and an all-round good egg.

We see him larking about. We see him hanging out and listening to music with his pal Tim (Robin Irvine) and local waitress Mabel (Annette Benson). He seems a decent soul. But Roddy encounters problems when Mabel announces to the school’s headmaster that she’s pregnant – and Roddy is the father. He isn’t; it’s actually Tim, but she’s named Roddy because his family are rich. At first Roddy thinks it’s a joke, then the dread dawns on him. He’s faced with expulsion. But he knows that if he points the finger towards Tim, he’d be kicked out instead – and that would prevent the lower-class Tim getting into Oxford. So Roddy takes the blame…

Beautifully restored by the BFI, the print of Downhill now available to view positively gleans with clarity and smooth motion. It’s also been colour-tinted to reflect how audiences in 1927 would have seen it. All this French polishing allows us to appreciate the performances, which while obviously mannered and overly expressive in the style of silent cinema still contain warmth and charm. (There are very few title cards, the visual-minded Hitchcock preferring to let the actors’ expressions and postures tell the story.)

We can also bask in the brilliant mise-en-scene – the sets are very well designed and excellently dressed – as well as Hitchcock’s striking camera angles and lighting. For example, there are long lingering shots of a dejected Roddy standing forlornly on the escalator of a London Underground station or in an elevator. It’s not a coincidence that he’s moving downwards in both images; it’s a reflection of his state of mind. Elsewhere, an actress in a Paris nightclub has different levels of make-up depending on how Roddy sees her. Later, a discombobulated Roddy’s woozy point-of-view shots are achieved by crossfading different takes. His surroundings are often his emotions writ large. It’s German Expressionism transported into a minor British melodrama.

Having been expelled from the school and ostracised by his father, who believes Mabel’s lie, Roddy is left all alone in the world. He gets a job at a theatre, only to fall for a woman (Isabel Jeans in the first of her three Hitchcock roles) who cheats on him and spends all his money. He goes to France and works as a gigolo, but the disappointments keep coming and soon even his health fails him. Eventually – because the moral of this story is that things will come right in the end – an ill and mixed-up Roddy is taken home by some sailors who hope to get a reward. Thankfully, his father has since learnt the truth about Mabel and Tim, and welcomes him back with open arms. The last scene of the film has Roddy back on the rugby pitch of his old school. It’s an unconvincing and perhaps unsatisfyingly happy ending, but the ‘down’ journey there has been be so impressive you don’t begrudge Roddy his moment of ‘up’.

Eight sweetshops out of 10

Horror Marathon: The Hellraiser series

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A few months ago, I saw the horror film Hellraiser for the first time. Impressed and seduced by Clive Barker’s twisted tale, I then decided to delve into its many sequels – some of which Barker was involved with, some of which he’s pointedly disowned (“If they claim it’s from the mind of Clive Barker, it’s a lie. It’s not even from my butt-hole”). I found a wide variety of quality within the series, ranging from the abjectly awful to the surprisingly complex. Here’s my journey into darkness…

SPOILER WARNING: Minor plot points will be revealed.

1. Hellraiser (1987, Clive Barker)
When a married couple move into a new house, wife Julia discovers her missing brother-in-law is in the process of returning from hell…

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Produced for under £1m, this British-American horror movie was directed by Clive Barker and based on his own novella The Hellbound Heart. Searing and stylish, it’s a compelling watch. Affable American Larry (Andrew Robinson) and his uptight British wife, Julia (Clare Higgins), move into a new home. Then Julia discovers an awful truth. Larry’s rebellious younger brother, Frank (Sean Chapman), was recently sucked into hell after toying with dark magic in the hope of an intense pain/pleasure experience. The device that allowed entry to that world is an ornate, cube-shaped puzzle box. Frank is now in the process of escaping, but is being chased by the demonic Cenobites (Doug Bradley and others)… For all its horror elements – intense violence, torture, nightmarish threats, *extremely* graphic gore – this is a story about a twisted love triangle. It’s a psycho-sexual drama about Frank and Julia’s obsessional affair that almost entirely takes place in one suburban house. (Where that house is, by the way, is difficult to answer. Almost every character is American, yet the filming locations are demonstrably in England.) Added into the mix is Larry’s daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), who becomes the heroine of the story as she uncovers the horror going on…
Nine pet shops out of 10  

2. Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988, Tony Randel)
Later that night, Kirsty is in hospital – but her doctor is showing an odd fascination in her case…

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This sequel – made with only light involvement from Clive Barker – is sometimes appealing and has a certain Gothic strangeness. But it’s also often cheesy and hammy and is far less nuanced than the original. Kirsty is in hospital after her experiences in the first film. Her doctor, Channard (Kenneth Cranham), already knows about the Cenobites and is obsessed with them and their mythology. He eventually teams up with Julia (Clare Higgins again, playing her more archly this time) and there’s then a lengthy sequence set in hell, which ticks several predictable boxes: eerie music, endless corridors, macabre circus performers, stop-motion animation, wind and smoke. Meanwhile, the lead Cenobite – now officially credited as Pinhead (Doug Bradley) – gets both a music-video entrance and an interesting backstory.
Four bandages out of 10

3. Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992, Anthony Hickox)
A TV reporter investigates a violent death and encounters the Cenobites…

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Frustrated journalist Joey (Terry Farrell from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) stumbles across a story when she sees a mutilated victim being brought into a hospital. This leads her to an underground nightclub, where the slimy owner has recently bought a strange statue… The first Hellraiser film financed by the Weinstein brothers’ Dimension Films company, Hell on Earth is certainly trash. There’s a lot of crass dialogue and a parade of bad actors (several of whom sound like they’ve been dubbed in post-production). Director Anthony Hickox is also a fan of pyrotechnics, Dutched camera angles and early 90s coloured lighting, then gives us a drawn-out, overblown action-movie finale – so subtly is not the order of the day. But there’s just enough atmosphere and arresting images to keep you watching and entertained. Especially fun is the sequence where Joey is given a ghostly tour of the backstory by Pinhead’s human form (Doug Bradley sans make-up).
Six red roses out of 10

4. Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996, Alan Smithee)
On a space station in the far future, a man tells the story of the demon-summoning puzzle box and says he’s set a trap…

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Rather joltingly, we start in space. It’s the year 2127 and an eccentric man is holed up in a space station he designed himself. The vibe in part Alien, part Babylon 5. Then the man, Paul Merchant (Bruce Ramsay), tells a strange story… We cut back to France, 1796. Merchant’s ancestor Phillip (Ramsay again) is a toymaker. He’s built an ornate puzzle box for a client, who then uses it in a bizarre ritual that brings a demon called Angelique (Valentina Vargas) from hell to earth… It’s creepy if hammy stuff with decent production design, editing and music – and we’re also back to the first film’s themes of obsession and of pain, violence and torture being aspects of sexual pleasure. The bulk of the film is then set in the modern day (1996) and features another member of the Merchant family, an architect called John (Ramsay for a third time). Angelique is still around and targets him and his family. Pinhead (Doug Bradley) also shows up… which is a shame because as he takes centre stage (on the orders of the studio), the sexy and intriguing Angelique fades into the background and the film becomes less interesting. By the time we eventually return to the space station, the momentum has dropped out of the story.
Six twin security guards out of 10

5. Hellraiser: Inferno (2000, Scott Derrickson)
A police detective is tormented by hellish visions as he attempts to track down a missing child…

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LAPD detective Joseph Thorne (the David Boreanaz-alike Craig Sheffer) likes speed chess, wordplay and prostitutes but is trapped in a dour marriage. At a crime scene he finds the puzzle box we’ve seen in previous films and nabs it for himself. But when he absentmindedly opens it, his life starts to get *weird*: a hooker he’s slept with is brutally murdered and he begins to have visions of demons… Rather than the baroque horror of the earlier movies, Inferno – the first straight-to-DVD Hellraiser – feels more like a seedy cop movie. In fact, the connection to the Hellraiser concept is pretty loose and Doug Bradley’s Pinhead barely features. Instead, we get clichés such as an angry police captain, a gullible sidekick, and a minor character played by a famous actor who turns out to be the villain. (The production designers were also surely big fans of David Fincher’s 1995 film Seven.) Scott Derrickson, who later made the Marvel movie Doctor Strange, directs with a music–video sensibility, so we do get some striking horror images, but the script lacks clarity. There’s a gumshoe plot going on about a mysterious man called the Engineer who may have kidnapped a child, but the film doesn’t seem that interested in it. There are loose ends, a central performance that doesn’t convince, and a final nightmarish third that toys with silliness. Nevertheless the dreamlike weirdness and tough-guy edge make it reasonable watchable.
Six fingers out of 10

6. Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002, Rick Bota)
After his wife dies in a car crash, a man is haunted by hallucinations and other strangeness…

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This sixth Hellraiser sees the return of the original film’s Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), but in the first scene she drowns after a car accident, and her widower, Trevor (Dean Winters), is left in a bad way. Physically fine, he starts to realise that his memory is not reliable – and because the film is from his point of view we share in his confusion. Did he have an affair? Did he visit a strange warehouse? Was his relationship with Kirsty as happy as it seemed in the opening scene? The film is playing interesting games with perception and reality, presenting us with a puzzle made up of conflicting evidence. (It feels more like a paranoia thriller or an episode of The Twilight Zone than a horror movie. You can also detect the distinct influence of Christopher Nolan’s movie Memento.) As with the preceding Hellraiser, Doug Bradley’s Pinhead is little more than a cameo – just a few brief glimpses and then an exposition scene at the end where we get a pleasing twist ending. The cast lets the film down, especially Winters, who can’t quite convince us of the horrors Trevor is experiencing. However, this is still a surprisingly complex and engaging film.
Seven camcorders out of 10

7. Hellraiser: Deader (2005, Rick Bota)
A journalist is drawn into a terrifying world while investigating Deaders, a group attempting to gain control of the Cenobites’ realm…

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This is a grimy, putrid film: aside from brief scenes at the proto-hipster offices of UK newspaper The London Underground, the story plays out is decaying, flaking, dark spaces; there are flies and sludge and filth. Journalist Amy Klein (Kari Wuhrer) is sent to Bucharest to report on a death cult called the Deaders. Her only lead turns out to be a corpse, but she then finds the all-important puzzle box. Opening it, she summons Pinhead – who’s engaged in some kind of battle of wills with the Deaders for control of the Underworld – and her life gets more and more bizarre… The film has a few tense scenes and effective scares, as well as some genuinely out-there weirdness (following a lead to a Metro train, Amy finds an entire carriage given over to a steampunk-themed orgy with Hustle’s Marc Warren holding court). The longer it goes on, though, the more muddy the storytelling gets.
Three VHS tapes out of 10

8. Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005, Rick Bota)
A group of gamers are invited to a party connected to their favourite game, but can they trust the event’s host?

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Clichés abound in this eighth Hellraiser entry, which sees a batch of noughties slackers (one of whom is future Superman Henry Cavill) attend a party but encounter hellish experiences and violent deaths. Let’s list a few of the hamfisted, overused tropes: portentous church music and close-ups of Christian iconography to suggest religious overtones; early scenes with clunky expositionary dialogue; a ‘real’ scene being revealed as a dream; gamers being addicted to an online game that’s clearly too basic to engage anyone; a Gothic mansion; a rave where extras dance out of time to the music; a midrange star cast as the villain (Lance Henriksen); a cute female character who wanders off on her own for no reason; sex scenes shot like a music video… It’s a dreadful film: slow, stupid and simplistic.
One ultraviolet, 24-hour, wildly popular and yet utterly purposeless, embraced-by-the-masses internet roleplaying game out of 10

9. Hellraiser: Revelations (2011, Victor Garcia)
Two young Americans go on a hedonistic trip to Mexico, where they encounter violence and a mysterious puzzle box…

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Shot in just three weeks on a tiny budget – as a cynical ploy by Dimension Films to retain the Hellraiser rights – Revelations should be utter garbage. There are daytime-soap performances among the new characters while Doug Bradley has jumped ship after eight appearances as Pinhead (to be replaced by someone eminently forgettable). The film is also crudely edited and relies too heavily on Blair Witch-style camcorder footage. But despite these limitations, it’s just mediocre rather than offensively awful. In the plus column, the movie digs down deep into the same sordid subject matter as the original Hellraiser – it’s another story about perverse pleasure and obsession. In fact, there are several visual echoes and plot nods to Clive Barker’s 1987 movie, as well as the same love of extreme gore. But it’s still mediocre.
Four bullshit genericas out of 10

10. Hellraiser: Judgment (2018, Gary J Tunnicliffe)
Three police detectives hunt down a serial killer called the Preceptor, but the investigation leads to an encounter with hellish denizens…

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In an unspecified city, a trio of detectives are on the trail of a macabre murderer who kills ritualistically for religious reasons. It’s all very sub-Seven, but then the cops comes across the Cenobites, who are attempting to find new ways of tempting souls into hell… There are several clichés of low-budget filmmaking on show here – shaky camerawork, poor framings, a remarkable lack of people on screen who aren’t the lead actors, and a general sense that corners are having to be cut. The design work is decent (check out the Terry Gilliam-esque typewriters!) and gore freaks will love the amount of graphic mutilation on show. But this is grim, pretentious drivel with some really inept storytelling and a fairly rubbish cast.
Two Star Wars quotations (‘What an incredible smell you’ve discovered’) out of 10

Ready Player One (2018, Steven Spielberg)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In 2045, everyone spends their time in a massive virtual-reality game. But then teenager Wade Watts learns that a huge prize can be claimed by finding an Easter egg hidden within it…

Seen before? Once, before which I’d read the source novel.

Best performance: Wade’s love interest in the story is a fellow ‘gunter’ (ie, Easter egg hunter) known by the moniker Artemis, who we initially only see as a digital avatar – a kind of cartoony, anime-ish representation of herself. The character might be a CGI creation in these scenes, but the eyes sparkle and the smile is infectious; actress Olivia Cooke (The Limehouse Golem, TV show Bates Motel) radiantly pops through the mo-cap technology. There’s a subplot going on here about Artemis being ashamed of the way she looks; that’s why she doesn’t want to meet Wade outside the RPG fantasy of the virtual-reality game. Of course, seeing as we’re dealing with a Hollywood movie here, when Wade (Tye Sheridan) does finally encounter her in reality she is captivatingly pretty even with a minor birthmark.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The film is based on a terrific 2011 sci-fi novel, which is full of references to popular culture of the 1970s and 80s. Wade has a love for and a deep knowledge of the period and the book sings with a geeky passion and enthusiasm. The movie does too, and the nods soon begin to mount up: He-Man and The Wizard of Oz, Batman and Superman, Star Trek and Star Wars, Ferris Bueller and The Breakfast Club, a-Ha and New Order, King Kong and Godzilla, Alien and Silent Running, Back to the Future and Tron, The Buggles and Tears for Fears, Dark Crystal and The Iron Giant, Beetlejuice and Buckaroo Bonzai, Bill & Ted and Monty Python, RoboCop and Freddy Krueger, Last Action Hero and Dune, GoldenEye (the game) and Saturday Night Fever, and many, many, many more. When adapting Ernest Cline’s novel for the screen, however, one key section caused a problem. In the book, Wade’s quest takes him into a digital recreation of the futuristic LA seen in Blade Runner. However, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic was in production at the same time as Ready Player One, so Spielberg couldn’t get hold of the rights. As a replacement, the creative team instead used the setting of the 1980 horror movie The Shining. And the sequence is a wonder: a pixel-perfect recreation of the sets, lighting schemes and general mood of Stanley Kubrick’s best film. (Quite what it all means if you’ve never seen The Shining is another matter!)

Review: Ready Player One is certainly a visually dazzling film. Huge stretches of the story take place inside the virtual-reality world of a MMORPG called the Oasis – ‘a place where the limits of reality are your own imagination’. Near-flawless CGI is used to create a sleek, sweeping, 360-degree, photorealistic and immensely detailed environment. It’s a gamer’s wet dream, and there are hundreds of pop-culture references to spot and feel smug about spotting. But for all this razzmatazz and Spielbergian panache, the core of the movie is ultimately hollow. There’s a sense of a good adventure and some decent gags, but the longer the film goes on the more it gets bogged down with boring action scenes. Wade is a limp, uninteresting lead character who lacks the zip and charisma evident in the source novel’s first-person prose. An affected Mark Rylance is miscast the Oasis’s geeky creator. There are some weak young actors in secondary roles (a real rarity from the director who had strong juvenile performances in ET, Jurassic Park and A.I. Artificial Intelligence). And despite a typically watchable turn from Ben Mendelsohn, the story’s business-exec villain is as one-note as they come. It’s not a dreadful film – far from it – but all the fantasy could do with a bit more reality.

Seven corn-syrup droughts out of 10

Five years of reviews…

When writing reviews for this blog, I usually end with a score out of 10. It’s just meant as a bit of fun, but because today (Tuesday 2 April 2019) marks five years since my first review I thought it’d be appropriate to explain the grading system.

The mark is simply a reflection of how much I enjoyed seeing or listening to the thing. It’s a gut reaction, just a number that feels right. However, I do have some principles that I try to stick to. Firstly, I want to keep an optimistic frame of mind. I go into a review hoping I’m going to like the film/show/album and, when writing the blog post and deciding on the score, I try to accentuate the positive. This isn’t always possible, of course – have you *seen* Carry On England?! – but popular culture is important and it’s worth celebrating when we can.

I’m also keen to judge a work on its own merits – in other words, how does it rate against other examples of its type? (There’s no point slagging off a low-budget comedy for not having huge action scenes, that kind of thing.) This can mean that the scoring system is not really consistent across the board. A 10/10 episode of Blake’s 7 is not necessarily as good as a 10/10 James Bond film. Those series have differing qualities, expectations and levels of success.

Anyway, once I’ve watched the movie or the TV show or listened to the album, I come up with a score out of 10 to express how good I think it is. Here’s a guide to what I think the numbers mean…

10 – A masterpiece. Something I adore and think is essentially perfect (it may have flaws but they simply don’t matter). Something I enjoy returning to often. Something that is pretty much as good as it can be.
Examples: action film Die Hard, Beatles album Abbey Road, Hitchcock movie Rear Window, the Fawlty Towers episode The Kipper and the Corpse, all three Back to the Future films…

9 – Excellent. It perhaps lacks that stratospheric element that would push it up into the 10s, but it’s still extremely impressive, very enjoyable and something I think is worth shouting about.
Examples: superhero film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the pilot episode of Firefly, the Blake’s 7 episode City at the Edge of the World, silent movie The Lodger, the idiosyncratic Escape from the Planet of the Apes

8 – Very good. Better than the majority, obviously, and perhaps better than it needs to be. There’s something notable that lifts it above the crowd.
Examples: Hammer horror Dracula A.D. 1972, 80s comic-book movie Superman III, sitcom Blackadder the Third, Hitchcock’s Marnie, Tarantino’s Django Unchained

7 – Enjoyable. Given that I select projects to review, and rarely choose something I know I won’t like, 7/10 can be considered par. It denotes something that is solid, decent, entertaining, but may have some issues. Every review starts out as a 7, so the film/show/album must do something significantly bad to score lower or have something especially admirable about it to score higher.
Examples: 80s comedy Weird Science, 90s Bond picture Tomorrow Never Dies, Spielberg’s first film, ABBA’s final album, Star Wars spin-off Rogue One

6 – Yeah, it was good. Far from perfect, but I liked it. Nothing special but nothing offensively bad or anything.
Examples: the remake of The Karate Kid, blaxploitation chiller Blacula, Oasis album Be Here Now, Marvel movie Thor: The Dark World, sci-fi sequel Alien: Resurrection

5 – Hmm, that’s got problems. It *fine*, I guess. I don’t regret watching/listening. But maybe I found more things I disliked than liked.
Examples: the schlocky Alien vs Predator, the slooooow first Star Trek movie, 90s vanity folly Four Rooms, the clunky 70s remake of King Kong, superhero misfire Suicide Squad

4 – Oh, come on. That’s not great. A movie, episode or album that makes you question whether you’re wasting your time.
Examples: Tim Burton’s lumpen Planet of the Apes, the worst series of comedy show Red Dwarf, limp kids film The BFG, the empty The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the rotten remake of The Omen

3 – Fairly awful. We’re talking properly rubbish here. Something that, while maybe showing promise, really doesn’t work as a piece of entertainment.
Examples: the horror spoof Stan Helsing, the worst film Alfred Hitchcock ever made, the irritating-as-hell Natural Born Killers, the first Ewoks TV movie, the 1960s Casino Royale

2 – ARE YOU SERIOUS? THEY RELEASED THIS? Something that is undoubtedly dreadful. Our lives would be better off if it had never been made. But perhaps there’s one element – a performance, say, or a certain scene – that prevents it getting the worst score possible.
Examples: the depressingly tatty Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, the disco-themed vampire flick Nocturna: Granddaughter of Dracula, the stunningly misjudged Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, an inept 1965 episode of Doctor Who, a jaw-droppingly awful Carry On TV special that contains comedy paedophilia…

1 – Without merit. Total crud. Something that is not only disastrous, it also *annoyed* me when I reviewed it.
Examples: the putrid fifth Die Hard, the Coen brothers’ worst film, the pathetic Carry On Emmannuelle, the amateurish kinda-sequel to The Wicker Man, the gobsmackingly cheesy Star Wars Holiday Special