Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. Today I regret to announce that winter has finally arrived; an oppressive chill has fallen upon New England, and I doubt we’ll be seeing a warm day for a good five or six months. I absolutely hate the cold, and am frankly not too keen on the heat, either; to be honest, the whole concept of “seasons” has always felt a little suspect to me. I suppose they’re at least useful for adding unique dynamics to fiction, but my own life doesn’t require the neat dramatic hurdle of twelve inches of snow separating me from my destination. I suppose the winter at least gives me more of an excuse to tuck in and watch movies though, and today I’ve got a fresh selection of features for you all, ranging from modern horror revivals to more goddamn Naruto. Let’s break ‘em all down in the Week in Review!
Our first feature of the week was the recent Hellraiser remake, or revival, or whatever you want to call it. Regardless, neo-Hellraiser is a generally delightful experience, reveling in the uniquely allure of the cenobites, while offering a relatively straightforward structural update on its predecessor.
Though the franchise’s popular image is dominated by Pinhead and his fellow cenobites, the franchise’s first entry actually has a whole lot of other things on its mind, encompassing multiple dimensions of horror and an appropriately Clive Barkerian personal thread, where destruction and regeneration are framed as a sort of ecstatic culmination of experience even before the Lament Configuration (that menacing little puzzle box) gets to work. In contrast, the new Hellraiser embraces a far more traditional horror structure, rapidly establishing a slasher-style crew of victims to be tormented by creatures from the far reaches of experience.
This will likely come as a letdown for people who enjoyed Hellraiser for how unique it is, but as someone who happily munches through piles of slasher movies without complaint, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the cenobites combined with this familiar narrative shell. Most crucially, the production’s design work is fantastic – each of the new cenobites offers a uniquely terrifying vision of bodily distortion, while the film’s depiction of one of their “gifts” served as a highlight as well. Neo-Hellraiser’s greatest weakness is undoubtedly its character writing; in spite of spending a good portion of its two hour runtime focusing on the personal trials of heroine Riley, she never feels particularly engaging or sympathetic, and her compatriots are too thinly drawn to invite investment. If this one earns a sequel, I’m hoping they incorporate more of Barker’s unique philosophy, as well as his ability to humanize our most self-destructive instincts.
With our whole house in a cenobite sort of mood, we elected to follow up the Hellraiser revival with Hellbound: Hellraiser II. While the original Hellraiser is unusual for how little it relies on its signature monsters, Hellbound goes hard in the other direction, offering a generous parade of cenobite terrors over the course of an extended journey to hell. The film actually reminded me quite a bit of the third Nightmare on Elm Street film, Dream Warriors: both take place in a mental hospital featuring their monsters’ recuperating victims, both expand their stories’ mythology in ambitious yet coherent ways, and both involve the heroes actually taking the fight to their monstrous enemies.
As a result, Hellbound feels both generous in all the ways you’d hope for from a horror sequel (more of everything! BIGGER!), while still remaining true to Clive Barker’s vision of the world and characters. Actually revealing the world of the cenobites doesn’t dilute their mystery; it merely furnishes their mystique with an alluring set of new concepts, like their Lovecraftian god and ever-shifting labyrinthian home. And with the potboiler secret-keeping of the first film behind them, opposing heroines Kirsty and Julia are given the opportunity to really embrace their natures, emerging respectively as gallant hero and gleeful femme fatale. Hellbound is essentially “Hellraiser but more so” in every aspect, making for an incredibly satisfying viewing experience.
Our investigations then splintered in an entirely different post-Hellraiser 2022 direction, as we checked out its director David Bruckner’s previous feature The Night House. I’d already greatly enjoyed Bruckner’s 2017 film The Ritual (if you enjoy folk horror, it’s a must-see), so I had high expectations for The Night House, and they were… well, I’d say more or less met.
The Night House is quite different from Bruckner’s other recent attractions; though it’s still a horror film, it’s more character story than creature feature, focusing on a woman (Rebecca Hall) who is attempting to pick up the pieces in the wake of her husband’s sudden suicide. Stranded in the lake house her husband built, she begins to feel like there is a presence stalking her, leading to an investigation of her husband’s secret life and the true nature of her home.
As you might expect from a film with an emotionally fraying protagonist and an unclear threat, there’s a fair amount of “did that really happen” fear-juicing in this film, with the active threat largely presenting itself as noises or shadows in the night. The hard work of carrying this film’s first two acts comes down largely to Bruckner’s excellent direction, which makes a consistently alienating labyrinth of Hall’s home, as well as Hall’s own dynamite performance. Hall refuses to embrace a sanitized expression of grief – her performance is sharp-edged and brittle, emphasizing to the audience how hard she’s working just to keep herself together.
The film’s last act is conceptually fascinating, but a little narratively sketchy, driven more by imagery and vibes than coherent dramatic escalation. As a result, it doesn’t really succeed as an emotional culmination of Hall’s character journey, but it does offer some vivid flourishes of hostile architecture, including the brilliant concept of an evil spirit who can only be seen as a profile created by the spontaneous, perspective-dependent arrangement of a building’s intersecting angles. I wouldn’t call the film fully successful, but it’s attractive and well-cast, with a couple genuinely excellent horror ideas. I can’t give it a strong recommendation, but I certainly don’t regret checking it out.
Our next viewing was The Manchurian Candidate, a classic ‘60s thriller about a Korean war platoon who are captured by the enemy, mentally reprogrammed as sleeper agents, and sent home as heroes, each of them breathlessly attesting to the grand feats of platoon member Raymond Shaw. Returning home, Shaw is greeted by his domineering mother and McCarthy-aping senator stepfather, setting into motion an attempted communist takeover of America’s political apparatus.
The Manchurian Candidate’s political venom is sadly no less toxic a half-century down the line. Modern republicans have updated the lingo of “there are communists in the defense department” to new boogeymen like voting fraud, but their general strategy of attempting to turn the country into a dictatorship while loudly crowing about their patriotism remains firm. The film thus stings with that familiar pain of seeing the ills of society diagnosed yet unaddressed for decades, but the pain of that realization is significantly ameliorated by Candidate’s relentless momentum and excellent performances.
I’d actually never seen Frank Sinatra perform as an actor before this, but Candidate proved a winning testament to his abilities. He varies ably between manic fear and confident investigation, at all times evoking both his formal training as a soldier and the damage that brainwashing has done to him. Laurence Harvey also turns in an excellent performance as sleeper agent Shaw, with the pitchy obsequiousness of his usual affectation making for a menacing contrast against his atonal programmed responses. But it’s undoubtedly Angela Lansbury who steals the show; as Shaw’s merciless and power-hungry mother, she embodies the unbridled ambition, ruthless cunning, and total indifference to humanity that defines the apex of reactionary politics. She’s a villain you love to hate, one of those politicians who makes Candidate-style direct action seem like our only escape route.
The film’s only weak note is Sinatra’s relationship with Janet Leigh, which falls into that classic Hitchcockian model of a woman instantly flinging herself at the leading man, certain upon first seeing him that he is the man of her dreams. Everything related to the two of them is a drag, but that’s often how it goes in Serious Man Movies from this era, and Candidate is otherwise uniformly excellent. Strongly recommended.
We then continued our journey through the Naruto filmography with Naruto Shippuden: Bonds, the second of the Shippuden films. After the visual disappointment of the first Shippuden movie, I was delighted to see this one returning to the high animation standards of previous Naruto movies. In fact, in terms of general character animation, this is likely the most generous production among the first five films. From humorous gesticulation and facial contortions to delicate expressions of intimacy to subtle shifts in combat posture, Bonds is a feast of character animation. And the animation doesn’t stand alone; both the direction and art design of this film feel a step above as well, as exemplified by its antagonistic force’s beautiful Mayan/Steampunk architecture.
Unfortunately, the film’s story can’t match its visual pedigree. As you might guess by the title, the film’s main theme echoes mainline Naruto’s “bonds are important,” and its articulation of that theme is as vague and simplistic as the show proper. Though the film opens strong with a thrilling attack on Konoha Village, it loses focus fairly quickly, with the events of the latter half lacking much connective tissue. Also Sasuke is here, and like every appearance by Shippuden Sasuke, he mainly just glowers at the camera while refusing to engage with the narrative or his fellow characters. Still, I don’t expect Shakespeare from a shonen tie-in film; Bonds is replete with excellent animation, and that combined with its “what if Naruto did Castle in the Sky” hook was enough for me.