The Bottom Shelf: Charlie Chan Vs The Cenobites

Our round-up on new horror DVDs and Blu-rays, including a very special Hellraiser box...

So, yeah, obviously Pinhead and his goth friends win. Glad we’ve sorted that one out. This month’s big release on Blu-ray is Arrow’s widely anticipated and already long sold-out Hellraiser: The Scarlet Box, which wisely eschews the increasingly-rubbish sequels three to eight in favour of a fan’s wet dream of a box set focusing on the first three of Clive Barker’s classic horror film series.

If you haven’t seen at least the first Hellraiser, firstly you should be ashamed and secondly, get watching it now. One of the absolute highlights of eighties cult cinema, horror author (and surely inspiration for Garth Marenghi) Barker’s 1987 adaptation of his own novella The Hellbound Heart retains enough of its power, originality and style to render any talk of a reboot as a terrifying prospect. The perfect blend of horror, fantasy and, erm, S&M, the tale of demons eager to get out of hell (can’t blame ’em, really) via bloody murder and rubber-lovin’ Cenobites ready to send them back is lovingly restored here.

Complemented wonderfully by seemingly endless extras, including a fascinating documentary about the ditched score by industrial band Coil in favour of Christopher Young’s more symphonic/conventional work (as well as Coil’s influence on Barker), this is about as good as it gets.

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The second movie, Hellbound, ups the ante in the fantasy stakes as our protagonist Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) is sectioned and troubled by the satisfyingly malevolent Clare Higgins as the dodgy Julia and, of course, Doug Bradley as good ol’ Pinhead. A kind of messed-up, R-rated Labyrinth with David Bowie replaced by a tentacled schlong-monster (yes, another one), we’re treated to sprawling, bleak hellscapes, the infamous, previously-unreleased deleted surgeon scene and nasty body-horror possibly grosser than before, all adding up to a more than worthy sequel from last-minute replacement director Tony Randel.

Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth is easily the stupider sibling in this dysfunctional family, though is not without its merits. Replacing the hero of the previous two films with journalist Joey (yes, Terry Farrell of Star Trek fame), who encounters the least enjoyable Rubik’s Cube ever via some really bad art and its equally bad collector, essentially, Hell On Earth is the beginning of the long road back to hell for the franchise. Some decent set-pieces, including a subtle-as-a-brick nightclub massacre, and enjoyably ridiculous themed Cenobites (best one has to the CD-shooting ex-DJ) herald a journey towards campy tomfoolery frankly beneath the genuine horror of the first two films. Despite concerns about the Cenobite application process (it seems by this point anyone can be in their employ, regardless of whether they’ve earned the ‘honour’ or not), if you treat this as low-rent, hilarious hair-metal silliness (which is what it really is), there’s plenty of fun to be had here.

And now for Charlie Chan. Not even old Charlie Chan, but Charlie Chan, rebooted in the the early eighties, with Peter Ustinov reprising his yellowface WTF-ery of that Disney film, One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing, six years earlier. Charlie Chan as terrible slapstick insanity, with Ustinov’s plain weird theme song setting the tone horrifically. Charlie Chan with his part-American grandson, played inexplicably by Battlestar Galactica actor Richard Hatch, going full Frankie Spencer with his girlfriend, Michelle Pfeiffer. The rivers of peculiarity run deep indeed with this strange candidate for DVD release.

So, Charlie Chan And The Curse Of The Dragon Queen has to be seen to be believed. Genuinely one of the stranger films this reviewer has come across years into this lengthy wade-through-shit, this bonkers attempt to update the thirties master detective for a modern audience retains all the racism of yore and the only real concession to the modern age being a rocket-powered wheelchair for a scenery-chewing Roddy McDowell as the obligatory butler. So many questions are left begging for answers; perhaps chief among them is how a fresh-from-Battlestar Richard Hatch believed he was good at physical comedy and should do more of it. 

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Speaking of racist stereotypes and inexplicable decisions, somehow the Eddie Griffin vehicle (if such a thing were possible for the low-rent star of Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigalo and Norbit), Undercover Brother, has been given a DVD re-release this month. A kind of black Austin Powers, directed by Spike Lee’s cousin Malcolm D. Lee, our hero is an afro-wearing Blaxploitation secret agent working for an organisation fighting against the white American elite and ‘The Man’.

Treading the fine line between satire, attempted satire and outright anti-Caucasian feeling, whilst for the main part being just a clumsy action spoof, there are decent points made and fine mockery of various political groups, though it’s not really until the third act that Lee’s film really hits its stride. With Griffin doing his usual schtick likeably enough, an equally likeable cameo from a pre-How I Met Your Mother Neil Patrick Harris and one of the most genuinely hilarious OTT death scenes in any film, Undercover Brother emerges as being nowhere near as bad as any reasonable viewer would expect.

Likewise, a Blu-ray horror starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, The Skull, confounds expectations in that Lee plays a rare heroic role, whilst the whole film, though gory at times, relies more on creepy suspense than outright bombast to prompt the requisite chills. Released in 1965, with Cushing at the top of his game, we see his collector of occult artefacts come into the possession of what may or may not be the original skull of none other than the Marquis De Sade. So it turns out that the Marquis had a few socially unacceptable predilections you may have heard of, which means his skull is a bit on the evil side.

Cue possessions, crimes, a gaunt Cushing shaken to his core (quick aside: did said thespian ever don a fat suit for a role? I truly hope so) and some coolly executed scenes of dread, notably a memorable skull P.O.V shot. A great score from avant-garde composer Elisabeth Lutyens, skilful direction from Tales From The Crypt‘s Freddie Francis and original story from Psycho writer Robert Bloch complete the quality line-up.

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We finish up this month with a somewhat timely DVD release of Repo Man director Alex Cox’s so-called acid western, Walker, based on the true story of historical figure William Walker, an American soldier who lead a bloody invasion of Nicaragua in the 1800s before declaring himself president. Ostensibly leading a religious crusade to bring Christianity to the world, though in reality perhaps motivated by the sponsorship of a corrupt businessman, the dependably brilliant Ed Harris as the charismatic, enigmatic Walker is perfectly cast. 

Drawing parallels with the Contra War crisis of American intervention and colonialism in the 80s, Cox’s bold way of demonstrating this is with clunking anachronisms throughout: computers pop up in 19th century Latin America, whilst a helicopter only increases the madness as it descends into the chaos. A deliriously cosmopolitan score from one Joe Strummer jars beautifully with the action throughout; scenes of great humour juxtaposed with bloody violence and the increasingly driven acts of our protagonist are more along the lines of Werner Herzog than Oliver Stone as Cox’s idiosyncratic style comes to the fore. A great cast, including Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin and character actor Rene Auberjonois on top form as Walker’s bewildered lieutenant, bring humanity to what could have otherwise been a coldly satirical political tract, badgering the viewer.

Arguably more relevant than ever to the foreign policies of Western leaders, Cox’s film, though a massive flop at the time that essentially killed his mainstream(ish) Hollywood career, remains an endlessly fascinating curio and perhaps his greatest film to date.