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Posts Tagged ‘Andrew Robinson’

‘I have seen the future of horror, and his name is Clive Barker,’ declared Stephen King at some point in the middle of the 1980s, and there’s probably an interesting discussion to be had over just how right or wrong he proved to be: Barker remains an author with a good degree of name recognition, but – possibly because he’s not as prolific as King, nor his work as accessible – he never quite became the inescapable multimedia presence he at one point seemed likely to become. If he was the future of the genre, then it was only for a relatively brief moment.

Perhaps a sign of this is the fact that Barker is still most closely associated with a film he wrote and directed over thirty years ago: Hellraiser, from 1987. The Hellraiser series is another one of those odd cultural artefacts which proves the indestructibility of a successful genre franchise, a bit like Friday the 13th or Halloween or (outside of the horror ghetto) Highlander – people keep on making these films and they keep scraping enough of a profit for further instalments to seem like a good bet, long after they felt at all fresh or culturally significant.

The original film isn’t quite what you’d expect if you’ve only seen some of the sequels. The central figure, in many respects, is Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman), a debauched, amoral hedonist. His pursuit of new experiences leads him to purchase an odd little puzzle box which he then takes back to his house in London. Opening the box results in what I can only describe as a summoning, and after a degree of nastiness all that is left of Frank is a stain on the attic floorboards.

Eventually ownership of the house passes to Frank’s nice brother Larry (Andrew Robinson), who is in a tepid marriage to Julia (Clare Higgins) – his teenage daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) doesn’t much get on with her stepmother, either. Moving into the house evokes memories for Julia of her adulterous liaisons with Frank – a neatly directed scene intercuts Larry humping the furniture up the stairs with Julia recalling, well, a different sort of humping. Inevitably, Larry cuts his hand in the course of his furniture-moving, and his blood dribbles onto the attic floor (for some odd reason, the attic is left to stand empty, despite the fact it appears by some distance to be the most spacious room in the house). Well, something starts to happen after Julia and Larry leave, and through the wonders of gribbly 80s special effects, Frank reconstitutes himself as a grisly, homuncular revenant.

When she learns of Frank’s big comeback, Julia is not put off by the fact he now resembles a partly-dissected corpse, especially when she learns that he can further regenerate himself, given enough fresh flesh and blood to work with. So Julia starts cruising the singles bars of London during the day, luring hapless men back to the attic and braining them with a hammer so Frank can gorge himself on their remains. Problems arise when Kirsty becomes aware of the murderous lovers’ scheme and steals the puzzle box. The forces within it will not be pleased to learn of the resurrection and could be persuaded to drag the undead Frank back where he came from – if Kirsty has the nerve to strike a deal with them…

Even people who have never seen a Hellraiser may be aware of the striking image used to promote most of these movies: the chalk-faced bald guy with the nails sticking out of his head, Pinhead (a name never used, and disliked, by Barker himself). The thing is that Pinhead (played by Doug Bradley) is a relatively minor character here, appearing well down the cast list and only billed as ‘Lead Cenobite’ (the word cenobite, should you be wondering, just means a member of a monastic community). The focus of the film is really on Frank and Julia’s murderous activities for most of its duration – although the Cenobites are the most visually striking element of it, and they do pose a much greater threat at its end.

I say ‘focus’ but one of the issues I have with Hellraiser is its lack of one – or if not focus, then certainly metaphor. You could argue there’s something quintessentially 80s about a film with a strong, ruthless woman using human flesh as a resource to achieve her own ends, but is there a more specific subtext going on here? There’s clearly something horribly dysfunctional about the Cottons from the start, but the premise of the film doesn’t clarify or develop this. And the question of whom the protagonist is is a pertinent one: it initially looks like Larry (Robinson is top-billed), who then turns out to be a cipher; then Julia becomes the focus (and Higgins gives a commanding performance); finally it is Kirsty who becomes a sort of final girl figure, in true American horror movie trope style.

It seems to me there is something very calculated about Hellraiser‘s attempts to pitch for the lucrative American market. This is technically a British film, set in London, but there are a startling number of American characters amongst both the leads and the walk-ons – only Julia is unequivocally British herself. I suppose it’s financially justified, but it does result in a film which feels like an odd combination of both British and American horror traditions – the American influence, with lashings of gory special effects and a clumping lack of subtlety, eventually proving dominant.

I’m being quite hard on Hellraiser, but it does at least have some interesting ideas of its own, both visually and in terms of its narrative: the Cenobites are a curious creation (Neil Gaiman once claimed Barker was inspired to create them after meeting Gaiman and his friends, going on to suggest that Pinhead is in fact based on horror guru Kim Newman), and there is something arresting about the notion of Kirsty invoking the abstract, cosmic evil of the Cenobites to protect her from the more visceral threat presented by Frank. The only horror novel I’ve ever written which I’m remotely satisfied with was inspired by Hellraiser (although I did mix in a dollop of Lovecraft and some folk-horror, too). So I suppose I have to concede it does have something going for it, at least. Perhaps it’s best to say that this is a film filled with interesting ideas and images, much more so than most horror movies of this period – it just never develops or assembles them into a more satisfying whole. And it has to be said that most of the sequels are much, much worse, not that this reflects especially well on the original. Nevertheless, a film can be a horror classic without being especially brilliant, and this is almost certainly the case with Hellraiser.

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It looks like it’s going to be a slim year in terms of visits to watch new movies: checking my notes, I see I’m five or six down on my running total for the end of September 2013. Partly this is the result of a change in my working practices, with the result that there have been many fewer two-movie days across the summer, but it’s also down to my becoming a fairly regular visitor to the local Picturehouse’s Vintage Sunday strand. New films are, after all, always at least a little bit of a leap into the dark, whereas something forty or fifty years old which is still on the big screen must have something special about it.

Which brings us to Don Siegel’s famous 1971 thriller, Dirty Harry, the latest recipient of a Vintage revival. As ever, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen a film on TV or DVD: watching it on the big screen is a wholly different experience. I note that this movie, which was originally an 18-certificate, has now slid down to a 15, and wonder what this tells us about changes in cinema, censorship, and society: certainly there are elements of this film which seem as urgent and timely as they must have done forty-three years ago.

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Clint Eastwood is unchallengably cool as Harry Callahan, a detective inspector with the San Francisco PD. The film tells the story of a battle of wits and wills between Callahan and a demented killer calling himself Scorpio (Andrew Robinson). Scorpio starts by picking off people from the rooftops with a hunting rifle, demanding to be paid to stop, but later moves on to kidnapping. Callahan – nicknamed Dirty Harry because, as he says, he gets ‘every dirty job that comes along’ – has to stop him, but can he do so while by being a responsible, rule-respecting policeman? Or even a good human being?

Dirty Harry has lasted because, first and foremost, it’s simply a very well-made film: Siegel’s direction is a masterful example of economical storytelling, Clint is at his most impassively charismatic, Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy score adds a lot, and the script, though passing through many hands on its way to the screen, balances elements of action, character, and humour superbly well, barely putting a foot wrong throughout. You could quite easily watch Dirty Harry and think of it as nothing but a supremely polished piece of tough action movie-making – and I’m sure many people do.

But, of course, one of the other reasons why Dirty Harry is still important as a piece of cinema is that it uses the thriller format to introduce and explore a lot of other political and moral ideas, all of them to do with rights and what it means to be a good person. Callahan is a cynical, no-nonsense kind of guy: he shoots first, and then probably shoots some more later. And yet he is surrounded in his work by sociologists and politicians – the mayor in particular is depicted as a slightly wussy bleeding-heart – who seem less concerned with what’s actually right than he is. Callahan, the film makes clear, will do anything in pursuit of a just goal: in one of the film’s most vivid sequences, he tortures the wounded Scorpio for information that he hopes will save the life of a kidnapped girl (the camera pulls back for what seems like forever from Callahan and the killer, until both figures are swallowed by darkness).

The result of this, of course, is that Scorpio walks out of hospital (the evidence being inadmissible) and Callahan gets a rollicking from the DA for ignoring the criminal’s rights. Callahan is duly outraged, and by this point we probably are too: what about the teenaged girl Scorpio has tortured, raped and murdered? What about her rights? It is a debate which is still with us today, with these same questions being asked in the right-wing press all the time.

Of course, Dirty Harry is guilty of stacking the deck in favour of its rather illiberal argument – not least because the mouthpiece for it is Clint himself, who was at the height of his powers at the time the film was made. Callahan is always in the right, and we’re even invited to feel for him a bit – there are references to his dead wife, killed by a drunk driver. Rather less subtle is the depiction of Scorpio, who is depicted as not much more than a frothing, rabid psychopath – he is barely humanised at all, and we learn next to nothing about him (Robinson is just credited as ‘Killer’). He is just plain bad, a dangerous animal to be put down as quickly as possible (and, again, Robinson’s memorably nasty performance serves the film well – I should perhaps mention that I had the privilege of meeting Andrew Robinson a couple of times a few years ago, and in real life he is one of the most amiable and pleasant people you could ever hope to meet).

It’s actually quite tempting to consider Dirty Harry as partĀ of a group of films, all made around this time, reflecting the unease of theĀ traditional American establishment with the values of the counter-culture which had arisen in the previous few years. Harry dresses very conservatively; Scorpio has long hair and, all due respect to Robinson, a slightly effeminate voice. Eastwood taking him on doesn’t feel a million miles away, thematically, from Charlton Heston confronting the cult of zombie-hippies in The Omega Man. By 1971 it was clear that the hippy dream was merely that, and perhaps films like Dirty Harry are another expression of the status quo reasserting itself.

Dirty Harry is a powerful movie, even if its main contentions – let the police do their job, and worry less about criminal rights and more about victims’ rights – are just simplistic. Perhaps the film even recognises this itself, in its rather ambiguous conclusion: having ignored the orders of his superiors and finally disposed of Scorpio, Harry takes out his police badge and looks at it for a moment, then hurls it away in apparent contempt. But is that contempt for the badge itself, and what it stands for? Or contempt for himself, and the things he’s been forced to do in pursuit of justice? We are left to decide for ourselves. It is subtle moments such as this that raise Dirty Harry above the level of simple quasi-fascist wish fulfilment and make it the great film that it is.

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