“The Hellbound Fun” – A Hellraiser review

“To William, who doesn’t want a taco”

by Dina Levina

For reasons rooted deeply, we are taught from an early age the notion that pleasure is wicked. Candy is not dandy, it rots your teeth and innards. Masturbation makes you blind. Dirty words make Jesus weep. Say your prayers, have more boiled carrots. Suffer. Perpetually intertwined by the simple logic of our nerve endings, pain and pleasure bind up in a complicated knot with a little help from our family, friends and neighbors. Still, the more illicit things get, the more desirable they tend to become. Such was the case when a mystery man presented a shabby self-recorded cassette to my parents who could never hide bad things well.

The tight tangle of joy and suffering is apparent in horror stories which combine the two openly, so we are pleased by being scared. Such a tale the forbidden tape contained. Even better – two tales at once. I was about seven when a wall had cracked and, along with the intrusion of Western fizzes and sweetmeats, an illegal movie rental manifested itself in my post-Soviet hometown, bringing to its dwellers photocopied lists of movies with titles and genres only. One had to pick carefully, else risking a memorable viewing of something like Jack Frost (1997), where a wayward Snowman violates a girl with his conveniently displaced carrot. Yet some of the faceless rectangular boxes contained wonders, as the one with “Hellraiser I. Hellraiser II” printed crookedly on its soiled sticker soon attested.

It was the perfect time to watch them. My mind was wide open. Not scared but rather fascinated by what was unfolding on the compact TV screen, I absorbed every second of it with my very guts. The puzzle of what was happening to the characters consumed me, the unexplainable was gladly accepted. Two decades later I understand why it worked and still works so well – the story was made with love, a love that is contagious, incurable, permanent. The kind of love an Engineer passes onto its creation to install fear and awe for ages to go.

The story looks simple but works wonders for there’s an intricate universe behind it. Clive Barker translated his written work to the restricted language of movies well, creating a self-sufficing piece, the atmosphere perfectly intact. Like with every translation, some things are lost, some things are gained. While Frank falls wanking to the floor (a Bowie allusion?) in chapter one, his face is being assembled like a jigsaw puzzle on the same floor in the movie, because time and ratings allow the second and not the first. The one essential component from The Hellbound Heart that I miss is the smell, and if cinemas can be equipped to convey all written odors, the audiences will be in for a queer treat – who knew that cenobites smelled of vanilla?

                The setting is a classic worthy of the Grimm Brothers – a clueless dad, an evil stepmother and a relatively innocent daughter arrive at an old house where Evil awaits. Unbeknownst to them, Dad’s rotten brother had a peculiar encounter with a quartet of jaded but well-dressed demonic priests of pain not long ago, and when some blood is spilled on the floorboards of the room where he died, the fairy-tale begins.

 For the most part the story is driven by the stepmother, Julia, who has a relatable quest. When the movie title had to be picked, one of the female crew members suggested “What a Woman Will Do for a Good Fuck”, and was completely on point. To regain her briefly enjoyable (and somewhat censored by the producers) sex life with Frank, Julia kills a bunch of random men and fatally betrays her boring husband, but is herself deceived by her reincarnated lover. Julia happens to be the only truly well-written character in the movie – the fact that doesn’t take anything away from it. The rest work perfectly in their two dimensions. Julia has a ghost, an aim that is taboo, and a load of most bizarre obstacles.

All the tribal horrors can be found here: a no-sex marriage, adultery, inbreeding (uncle Frank with his phallic pocket knife is incest personified) and dead parents of all kinds, stepparents gone wrong and the inevitable destruction of the whole family by its lousy member. Each scene is well-written, each conflict grips you by the balls. Combine it with all the details that broaden the context (the grasshopper-eating hobo, whom I love, is an immediate reference to the Bible, and there are more fun things to find), the special effects that are truly special, considering the low budget, the creepy sound and the beautiful score by Christopher Young, and you get a perfect movie. Julia’s 80-style makeup and hairdos add subtly to the horror. The cenobite scenes are visceral (perhaps that’s how square, middle-aged people envision S&M parties) and they get etched into your memory so you can hear the teeth chatter long after the TV has been safely turned off.

Part II is far from its predecessor’s perfection, with no solid theme or plot in sight. The Lemarchand’s box remains the only three-dimensional character, the Snow White is mentioned openly, and though probably intended as a nod to the original, several scenes look second-hand (Julia chasing Kirsty between two walls in the naughty dimension mirrors the endearing Engineer  scene from the first movie; the final skin twist is silly). Where in the first part there’s a heartfelt tale of people who want to have a fun sex life but fail weirdly, the second only has its ashes for a carcass, and everything falls apart with no spine to get attached to. Doctors are creepy. Hospital security is a mess. Mute girls are mysterious. Cenobites think they’ve been here forever but they are wrong. The Evil is mighty, no one really knows shit, and everything is a fucking puzzle.

The only thing that keeps me really happy during these ninety seven minutes is the hilarity of the freshly made doctor-cenobite – talking in cliché doctor phrases, dragging the perfect first line of dialogue out of the previously mute Tiffany. “And how are we feeling today?” screeches the good doctor before drilling into someone’s skull with a specially equipped tentacle, and I thank him for that. But there’s still no good story, and for me part two is forever a curious afterbirth.

When I first watched them twenty years ago, the conjoined twins on a single greasy VHS, I mistook the teaser at the end of part two for the beginning of a third movie (with no more free space to record onto, Hellraiser II had ended abruptly before the final titles). This was a happy delusion, for as the countless sequels show, the real story had ended here. There is, of course, a faceless number three, the obligatory part about cenobites in space, a movie that was just a random script with Pinhead unnaturally stuffed into it, and many, many more I dared not explore because some doors had better stay shut.

Each fairy-tale has its moral, and some of Charles Perrault’s even have two, at which I pondered while reading the book that should’ve been forbidden for kids but wasn’t. So pick your moral. Sweet things can kill you, sometimes faster than you may have suspected. Sex is bad. Grasshoppers are nutritious. Bad guys come back and good ones don’t. Suffering can be a pleasure. As for the second part, the moral is quite simple: one should always dispose of an old mattress in a safe, responsible way.

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Bruce Springsteen – The Wild, The Innocent And The E-Street Shuffle (1973)

A little too wild, but sincere and it shows. Let the band play, Brucey.

Review by: Charly Saenz (Out of competition!)
Assigned by: Marissa Ashenfarb

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There was once an American Rocker, with big hearted dreams and small pubs gigs, his relentless band with great musicians, and his own music to go along. No, I’m not talking about the Piano Man (Elton John!). This is not the arena rock Bruce you’ll get to know (and love, I bet), mind you. This is a wild and innocent young man who played as hard and as black as he could (Dream on White Boy…). Innocent young man I said? Well it’s hard to be a saint in the city but.. that’s a story from the future.

Bruce tastes all kind of flavours in his debut. Which is fine, it’s a candy store (rock) and you gotta see what’s your thing. The opening song “The E-Street Shuffle”, is quite the R&B affair, heavy bass, all horns, Motown in the chorus. Fabulous song if you ask me, full of space for the band. God, these days Bruce was not that far from Paul Weller.. in 5 years.

I gotta tell you about Garry W. Tallent (adequate last name): what a bass player! and he played the tuba too. Smart guy, the boss, saving money in the horns section.

In other spots, Bruce starts to develop his traditional style. It doesn’t always work for me. Sometimes I feel Bruce sings too many words, and sometimes there’s too much of a big, convoluted sound (dangerously close to that ugly mammoth called “Born To Run”), as in “Rosalita”, which in fact has no spanish (or mexican or whatever) musical tone in my opinion to go along with the title. Well, the slower parts work much better, I’m not such a fan of the E-Street band rave-ups. I try to dance to it, but my head hurts. Worst thing is, this is “la piece de resistance” in this album. It’s not bad at all, but a little underwhelming for me.

Other classics here like “4th of july, Asbury Park” work better – I’ve always loved Sandy and Mary and all her sisters and their stories: sue me. But I think at this moment Sandy wasn’t ready for the prime time, in lyrics terms. There’s too much words and I don’t feel moved (Compare “The aurora is risin’ behind us/The pier lights our carnival live forever” with any bit in The River or Darkness In The Edge Of Town and you’ll see). Still it’s a nice lullaby and I’d play it in the porch while waiting for.. Sandy, you know. Random thought: In a way Mark Knopfler might be more of a Springsteen son than Dylan’s if you think about it. There’s that italian canzonetta feel in the chorus:  Good.

Another highlight is “Kitty’s Back” – This would have fit snuggedly in Shaft’s soundtrack, my God. This is good, as “Born To Run” can’t even dream to be (though the lyrics were better there: you can’t have it all). The groove is fantastic. I can almost hear “Heatwave” in parts. WAIT is that Clarence at 6:35? You betcha. Taking control, the man. Goosebumps.

“Wild Billy’s Circus Story”? I’m on the fence about this one. This is all about the lyrics now, and this goes like what? “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” all over! (OH WAIT Dylan hasn’t released that yet?). One thing I’ll tell you: the tuba is amazing: Tallent. And about 3:00 there’s some delicious guitar plucking, some mean harmonica and a sweet banjo. I’m sold, alright, you get a pass. Anyway, “Incident on 57th street” is more directly engaging, and I love what Vini Lopez did here on drums, but the whole band shines after Bruce runs out of lyrics, finally (that lonely bass  & drum at around 4:00 with Bruce smoothly crooning, well done) Bruce plays that guitar solo on the end? Really? that’s slick. And the piano coda is a little delight too.

To wrap things up, “New York City Serenade” starts on a mystery classic tone. Film Noir Springsteen, you know. A different scene indeed. Bruce’s voice is different too (A motorbike accident? Woodstock retirement?). Well after all it’s a serenade. And all of a sudden at 5:20 there’s a gospel surge! Just a bit. And then some soul, jazzy piano and that magnificent bass. It’s a cute little (but long, yet not overlong) song to say goodbye for now. Clarence does his bits too. Wasn’t he a little underused? Or misused? I’m never sure, but he was a heck of a player.

All in all this is a humble, heartfelt album. Some songs might use a little trimming? I don’t know, it would break the freedom feeling, perhaps. The lyrics are traditional Boss stuff but, the expertise is not there yet, for sure. I like the soulful parts. A lot. It will be better by the second album. Then eventually it will all become too much: Landau, you ruined my boy!

 

Tyler, the Creator – FLOWER BOY (2017)

Review By: Charly Saenz
Assigned By: Michael Strait

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The Bees and The Flowers And That Loneliness Inside Makes You Wanna Rap.

I thought this was a sort of Hip Hop compilation, but in fact there’s a lot of guest singers here. Tyler the Creator is well.. The Creator (“lead vocals, production, recording, art, packaging design”). That kinda intrigued me: why would a rapper whose primary function is to be the frontman, invite other people to do his job? Outsourcing is still a great plan!

My take here was: ignore the rapping, for now at least. So, while the cassette rewinded, I went and bought me a sandwich. We need a picture!

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I’m not sure how much Frank Ocean embellished “Where This Flower Blooms” but the ending is gorgeous. Oh hold on – there’s a guy actually singing in “See You Again”! This could even be a song in a Doris day movie! I feel there’s a flower vibe here (Is this a concept album of sorts?). The rapping sorta ruins it at 1:34! Oh well that’s what the business is all about. But it’s just a bit. Good for tea time.

I’m sinking into isolation and anxiety now.. I mean that’s the album theme it seems – so it’s working. “Who Dat Boy” starts with some buzzing sounds, until a heavy bass underlines the bad words rapped full blast. Mind numbing.

After a few minutes with my head under the water, I’m back. “Pothole” is a bit more in the Barry White style but ain’t this a little muzak? “Garden Shed” starts off like a Who tune! I know it! I know it! I think it might be something from Quadrophenia, no wait it’s “See Me Feel Me”. Who wouldn’t like a Who Opera? Well, sampling is legal, let’s move on. Nice little song!

Anyway I’m quite bored, I gotta say. Until a song called “Boredom” comes along: affinity, you see. There’s some singing here, I like it. It’s like that movie “Breakfast in Tiffany”. Cool and comfy. Someone raps in the middle: who invited this guy? It’s quite the neo soul thing I guess.

Next song sounds quite similar but.. oh, I somehow repeated “Boredom” (makes sense). I went directly to “911/Mr Lonely” because “I Ain’t Got Time”. Let’s inject some lyrics here, people never read, never listen to the words:

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
My thirst levels are infinity and beyond
Sippin’ on that lemonade, I need a Beyoncé
Can’t see straight, these shades are Céline Dion”

Master rhyming, if you ask me. It’s true – the album is about loneliness! I see it now. Reviewers are so smart. Oh there’s a fancy keyboard trick under the rapper (move move!) that is quite fun. At 2:15.

The Grand Finale: “Enjoy Right Now, Today”. There’s a kid in there (“Isn’t She Lovely” was better at this, mind you), a small casio keyboard and a martial drums loop. Not sure what this all means. Didn’t I hear this song in some cooking TV show? Oh, wait.. my sandwich!

STRAIT TO THE POINT: Lady Gaga – The Fame (2008)

Review By: Michael Strait

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Full of failures, and not yet the fun kind.

After reviewing a couple of consistently good/great artists in a row, I decided to try something a little different. Reviewing good music gets boring after a while, but I didn’t just wanna review some horrible shit right away. Now, how about an artist with a lot of raw talent who often messes it up with terrible artistic choices, who seems determined to compensate for her incredible, preternatural sense of melody with the worst taste imaginable? Ah, now we’re talking.  Continue reading “STRAIT TO THE POINT: Lady Gaga – The Fame (2008)”

STRAIT TO THE POINT: Patsy Cline – Sentimentally Yours (1962)

Review By: Michael Strait

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The last in a short line. Still lovely, though not really any more or less so than the other ones.

Three four-star records in a row, eh? On the one hand, the consistency is remarkable, but on the other hand I can’t help but wonder if she ever had it in her to achieve a real masterpiece. Alas, I guess we’ll never know – the plane crash in ’63 put paid to that. Wikipedia tells me the church bell in her hometown still rings out a hymn every day at 6pm in her memory, which I’m sure she’d appreciate. Still, best not to dwell on such mortal matters of flesh and blood – the music lives on regardless, and there ain’t a blemish on it.

I’ll confess, though, that the first half of this album had me worried I wouldn’t have much to write about. The songs are all good, but for the most part they’re just, y’know, Patsy Cline songs: slow, sparse, atmospheric, nocturnal, tragic and beautiful, lovely to listen to and almost impossible to write about individually. “She’s Got You”, “That’s My Desire” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” – a Hank Williams cover, though actually most of these songs are technically covers – are all perfectly gorgeous and, really, perfectly identical, save perhaps for a nice little mini-crescendo near the end of the latter. “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want To Do It)”, meanwhile, is distinguished only by the particularly heartbroken inflection she puts on the words “give me, give me, give me what I c-ry fooor”, her voice cracking as she begs.

It’s remarkable, actually, how much of Patsy Cline’s music is about not just misery, but the loss of all dignity and internal strength; it’s music about suffering emotional wounds so deep that they scar you forever, and every song carries with it the assumption that no happy ending is anywhere in sight. You can hear it on “Strange”, too, with its circling guitars and dolefully placid vocal melody underlying lyrics about a profound level of powerlessness. “Strange you’re still in all my dreams/ Oh, what a funny thing/ I still care for you”, she proclaims to her unfaithful erstwhile lover, still trapped in his memory, permanently rent in two by his betrayal.

She sounds similarly wounded on “You Were Only Fooling (While I Was Falling In Love)”, a song which also serves to remind me how truly tragic it is that pop music has largely forgotten how to tastefully apply the string section. The strings here are part of the tapestry, a central but minimally-applied component to the atmosphere, adding just the right amount of extra smoothness to the gleaming little globe of perfectly-polished sorrow from which Patsy croons her heart out. When did string sections in pop music become irretrievably associated with schmaltz and melodrama? There’s so much more you can do with a few carefully-applied violins than bury your singer in sap. Alas, it’s an art we seem to have buried next to dear Patsy.

I wish she’d done a few more faster numbers in her career, ‘cos the ones on here are both great and unique. “Heartaches” sounds remarkably propulsive for such a sparse song; its rhythm is derived only from a walking swingy bassline and a lilting guitar skank, with the drums almost nonpresent in their quiet minimalism, and yet it still sounds perfectly danceable without giving up that heavenglow charm I associate with Patsy. “Anytime” performs a similar trick, adding lovely little wind instrument flourishes and a string section that melds so perfectly to the choir that they fuse into one glowing instrument. All rather gorgeous, and the sort of music I’d have loved to see her explore more. Oh, alas, if it hadn’t been for that plane crash…

There are a lot of questions about Patsy’s career that crash left forever unanswered. Would she ever have come into her own as a songwriter, rather than simply a singer of other people’s songs? Was there potential in her to grow from merely a great lamenter of heartbreak to an exploratory, boundary-pushing artist, or would she have remained in a comfort zone of steadily diminishing returns for the rest of her life? It’s impossible to answer those questions now, of course, but at least she’s left us with some lovely music to relax to if the mood ever takes us. Now, what next? Another woman, that’s for sure – gotta counteract that UGK misogyny somehow. Stay tuned, I s’pose…

STRAIT TO THE POINT: Patsy Cline – Showcase (1961)

Review by: Michael Strait

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Paintings of an America composed mostly of light, purity, and emotional pain.

Man, I’m still kind of amazed that this music was once as popular as it was. I had no idea the American public once had such a fondness for atmospheric minimalism! “Crazy” is still a bar karaoke classic in the South (and possibly elsewhere too – I can only speak from my experiences) to this day, and that usually stops making sense to me the moment I leave the establishment. It’s a heartbroken ballad, sure, but it seems like kind of a weird one by my modern standards. The instrumentation is more concerned with creating an atmosphere than conveying a specific emotion, as if it’s trying to construct the sort of environment in which a loving connection could, conceivably, be found and then lost rather than actively trying to evoke the way it feels. But what’s most fascinating about the song – and, indeed, the album as a whole – is that this atmosphere is conjured mostly by suggestion, with sparse, barely-there instruments sketching faint outlines of an emotional universe that you are encouraged to fill with your own experiences. I, personally, think the faint pianos and barely-audible rhythm guitar scratches of “Crazy” evoke the lovely emptiness of the American South on a not-unpleasantly warm summer’s night, but that’s almost certainly just my personal biases leaking onto the canvas. The architecture is here for you to provide your own setting for Patsy’s plaintive wailing, and that’s true of much of the album.

It’s evident right away, with “I Fall To Pieces”. Like the rest of the album, it’s mostly very sparse – just a bassline and vocals, really – but it sounds like far more is hiding in the distance, occasionally making suggestions of itself visible for a second or two at a time. Par example: there’s a little three-note guitar refrain that pops up repeatedly in the verses, laden with softly chiming echo effects and matched by a quiet male backing choir, casting a dim and momentary glow over the fields from the heavens before folding back into the vast, velvet darkness that blankets all things, smothering the world in tranquility and peace. Shortly thereafter, we reach “The Wayward Wind”, which sounds as if it has entirely disconnected itself from human foibles and flaws and exists in some ephemeral dreamworld, floating atop tremulous string arrangements and egoless guitar. The flawless beauty of these environments does not, of course, do much to ease poor Patsy’s soul – still she wails out her heart about missed moments, lost love and the miseries of life without companionship, immersed in the ceaseless beauty of this American dreamscape and yet lacking a soul to share it with.

“I Love You So Much It Hurts” is the other song that immediately jumps out at me as a big highlight. It’s barely two minutes, but the world itself seems to slow to a crawl as you listen, with a glacial mist of low organs, near-imperceptible guitar chimes and soft backing vocals coating the world in a ghostly, angelic haze that shields one from the passage of time. It’s easy to get lost in this world, at least until the dancier, more energetic “Seven Lonely Days” jolts you out of the dream-haze and into a more physical, motive world with fewer distractions from poor Patsy’s endless heartbreak. If it seems like a weaker song in comparison, then that’s only fair – it’s a great song, but how can it compare to the rich tapestry that preceded it?

If there’s a flaw with this album, it’s that it’s a little frontloaded. “Crazy” is the last real highlight, save perhaps for a rerecording of “Walkin’ After Midnight” which is just a teensy bit more polished and, alas, less devastating than the original. The other songs on the post-“Crazy” second half are all beautiful, but they contribute to the overriding atmosphere of the album more than they set themselves apart as individual pieces. Great for laying back and bathing in, but if I were to analyse them I’d pretty much just be repeating myself, so I won’t bother. Of the couple of songs on the first half that I’ve not covered, “Foolin’ Round” is very intriguing in that it is nearly impossible to identify any of the individual instruments played on it save for the bass, so successfully do they meld into one unit. “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)”, meanwhile, isn’t quite on the level of brilliance of its immediately surrounding brethren but nonetheless feels like it exists in a far less corporeal world than our own, evoking mystical concepts and distant lands only vaguely corresponding to the places we know as Mexico or suchlike.

Pop music, eh? Amazing what the public is capable of appreciating so long as it comes packaged with relatable lyrics. This is as painterly and atmospheric as any ambient music, and it doesn’t sacrifice an ounce of emotional impact for it. Certainly worth your time as much as any Oren Ambarchi record. Now, how long shall I make my dedicated three-or-so readers wait until my next review? I’m thinking maybe five hundred years…