Monday, January 11, 2010

Issue #8: Hellbreeder (2003)

To borrow from an old adage, the road to Hellbreeder was paved with good intentions. You wouldn't know this if you just watch the movie, but a little poking around into the film's history turns up an all too familiar story of artistic vision thwarted by marketplace interference.

Writer/directors Johannes Roberts and James Eaves originally made a movie called Alice. We don't know what it was about because it was never released. What we do know is that distributors hated it and wouldn't touch it. So Eaves and Roberts went back to the drawing board, sliced and diced Alice, and came up with Hellbreeder.

In an interview with British film site Horror Asylum Roberts described the experience thusly:

"Hellbreeder was originally called Alice. I really enjoyed it. For me I really felt that it was the film that I 'came of age' as it were, as a director (again I directed this with James Eaves)--I threw everything at that both in terms of script and stylistically--with the lenses and the stock and the camera angles. It was a very hard shoot though. The sad thing about Alice is that no one would touch it--all the buyers hated it--they thought it was unmarketable. I eventually re-cut it so it has nothing to do with the original film, and re-titled it Hellbreeder and it sold really well but the original film is probably the best thing, certainly the most personal thing, I have ever directed. Its initial rejection has certainly affected the way I approach every new film, which is a shame. I'm much more cautious, whereas Alice was balls-out craziness. It's an amazing watch. Hellbreeder isn't really a film at all. I can't watch it."
When Roberts talks about the stock and camera angles in Hellbreeder being interesting, he's not kidding. The movie is shot on color reversal film (as opposed to the more common negative format of traditional film), which produces high-contrast, saturated colors. To make the images even more interesting, the filmmakers cross-processed it (meaning they developed it using chemicals/procedures meant for another type of film). The end result is interesting, but probably not for everyone. Many of the scenes have a greenish-yellow cast to them. Meant to reflect the unstable mindset of the film's main character, Alice, they do create an otherworldly atmosphere. But they also sometimes just look muddy and underlit. There's a fine line between arty and overdone, and what might have worked in Alice doesn't always work in Hellbreeder.

The camera angles are equally unique, and overall more uniformly effective. Extreme close-ups, high and low angles, and other tricks are used to create the sense that we are in a dream/nightmare world where nothing is as it seems. It could be argued that there is too much camera trickery used, but given the slight story line the movie benefits decidedly from its visuals.

So what is the movie about? That's pretty easy to sum up. Alice Nelson is the perfectly lovely mother of an 8-year-old boy, Matthew, who was murdered while the two of them were walking home one night. Now Alice keeps showing up at the scene of other child murders, trying to catch her son's killer. When asked by a detective (played, somewhat surprisingly, by well-known French actor Dominique Pinon of Amelie and Delicatessen) how she knows where the murders will be she says, "just call it instinct." If you ask me this is a pretty sorry explanation, but the detective trusts her so we probably should as well.

Also appearing at each of the murders is a dirty drifter type named Sam, who is played by Darren Day, a British actor known as much for his tumultuous personal life (he seems to hold the world record for number of fiancees he never actually married) as he is for his successful turns in musical theater. Alice distinctly remembers Sam from the night she and her son were attacked. More to the point, she distinctly remembers him wielding a huge knife in their direction, so naturally she wants to kill him for what he did to her son.

Not a lot happens, really. More kids are murdered. Sam keeps showing up. Alice keeps having nightmares about the night William was murdered and about her ex-husband and in-laws blaming her for everything. The murder scenes are all very disturbing and arty, and Sam gets more and more dirty and crazy. He also gets some below-the-belt lovin' from a girl in the back of his van, if you know what I mean, although in the middle of it all he appears to have a serious psychotic break and the girl runs away, which is probably a good idea on her part given that he has a bunch of knives in the van.

In Alice's flashbacks we see a clown. Two, actually, although really they're just two manifestations of the same clown. One of them is sort of pleasant looking, although still creepy. He appears with balloons and sits next to Alice and William on a bench in the park where they were attacked. That's him a few paragraphs up. His bow tie is filled with sugary breakfast cereal, and if he sat next to you on the bus you probably wouldn't be any more frightened than you ought to be when riding public transport.

The other clown is not nice at all. He's all long teeth and claws and evil eyes. Watching him, you start to think that maybe he has something to do with all of these murders. You know, just possibly. Also, the film opens with him killing a little girl, so that's a bit of a giveaway.

Some things go on during all of this that really don't make sense, and all I can conclude is that these are the remaining bits of Alice that the filmmakers couldn't bear to throw away.

For instance, a couple of times a man dressed in red with a goatee and yellow eyes appears to give Alice advice. Oh, look, it's the Devil, you might think, as I did. And it makes sense, right? You know, what with the film being called Hellbreeder and all.

But it's not the Devil. It's God. You only know this when you watch the credits, and it's a good thing I did or I might have been left with the totally wrong impression. Also, there's a scene where Sam goes into a church and confronts a priest, and another where Alice is walking through a library and a nun is standing there reading a book. Again, I suspect the original Alice had some religious undertones to it, and that would be interesting to see. In Hellbreeder, though, they just seem out of place. Or do they? We'll discuss later.

Okay, so Alice is chasing after Sam. And she finally catches him. Then she pistol whips him and ties him up, which is a pretty good start to a revenge scene. Only Sam says he didn't kill Matthew and Alice says okay then and unties him and they have sex, even though Sam is still filthy and has hair like Phil Spector, which I doubt many people find terribly attractive. Still, in real life Darren Day is kind of cute, so maybe Alice thought about that while he was all over her.

For this part of the film the directors employ a different style. For a while I couldn't figure out why it looked familiar. Then I realized it looked like the video for a-ha's "Take on Me" that everyone went crazy over in 1985. It's not nearly as good as that, but still you have to give the filmmakers props for trying.

Speaking of music, Johannes Roberts wrote the score for Hellbreeder, and it's a mixed bag. Most of it sounds a whole lot like John Carpenter's familiar score from Halloween. And occasionally it sounds like something else you've heard before. Like at one point I was absolutely certain that it was the melody from Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart," which would have been a nice little joke given that song's line "turn around, bright eyes" and the fact that the evil clown in Hellbreeder glows when he's about to snack on someone. (Also, it fits in with the eyes of the kid on the DVD cover, an image which otherwise has nothing really to do with the movie's plot at all.)

Oh, crap. I just gave everything away. Well, there's no helping it now. Yes, it's the clown who killed Matthew, not Sam. Only it's not really a clown, it's some sort of nameless evil that takes the shape of a clown. And it's not exactly nameless either, as Sam informs Alice that it's called the Hellbreed.

Which brings me to another small quibble I have with the film. If the clown is called the Hellbreed, why is the movie titled Hellbreeder? Did they not want to be associated with the short-lived Clive Barker magazine of the same name? I suppose you could say it's because the clown breeds Hell on Earth or some such nonsense, but I don't buy it. Whatever the reason, that superfluous er bugs me.

Anyway, now that Sam has reminded her Alice remembers everything. It was an evil clown that killed Matthew. Sam did rush at them with a big knife, but he was trying to kill the Hellbreed, not them. In fact, he's been hunting the Hellbreed for a long time, although we never find out why. But we now know to call him the Clown Hunter. Which, by the way, is an awesome title to have.

Now things really get going. Alice is arrested by the detective and his partner, a grim-faced woman with an intimidatingly thick braid and no sense of humor. Why? Because it turns out Alice is an escapee from the Gatlin Psychiatric Institute, where she had been held for seven years following the death of her son.

Fun Fact: Gatlin Pictures is the name of Johannes Roberts's production company. If you're interested you can take a look at his site. There's not much there, but the graphic of a pretty girl with angel wings is nice if you're into that sort of a thing. Also, you can send Roberts e-mail and he might write back and then you could become friends and he might put you in his next movie.

So now we're at the psychiatric hospital. Only something is definitely not right. The patients are running all over the grounds in their nightgowns. At first you think maybe this is some kind of new therapy or what have you, but when the patients swarm the police car and start pounding on it you sense trouble is afoot.

Meanwhile, the Devil God is sitting beside Alice in the back seat. They have the following conversation:

GOD: "The lair is somewhere for the clown to hide. A circus, yes, or . . . ?"
ALICE: "A mental asylum."
GOD: "Where better for a killer vampire clown to hide."
ALICE: "Where better indeed."

The lady detective with the thick braid and no sense of humor gets out and is all, "Get away from the car!" Then the evil clown appears and gives her a good slap. Only she isn't dead, she's just knocked out. She wakes up. The clown whacks her again. But wait. She's still not dead. She's in a field. I don't know how this field got there because it wasn't there a minute ago, but she's definitely in it. And now the clown really does kill her. This all takes longer than it should and is not nearly as gratifying as you might like given that the woman has been a bit of an ass for most of the picture.

Ass or not, her partner is naturally upset about this and gets out, where he is promptly assaulted by lunatics. He stumbles back to the car, but not before the clown swoops in and finishes him off. Now Alice, still handcuffed, is faced with her worst fear. The clown comes at her, mouth open and glowing all over the place. Death is almost certain! It reminded me of the scene in Jaws when the boat is sinking and Quint is sliding down the deck into the shark's mouth. Only without all the swearing.

But just when you think it's all over BAM! Sam appears and shoots the clown with what appears to be a blunderbuss or musket or something. Anyway, it produces a lot of noise and smoke, the clown bleeds green, and it's all over. Sam strides to the car, bends toward the window and . . . isn't Sam.

Who is it? It's Alice! Grinning madly, she looks at herself, still trembling in the back seat, and says, "Who were you expecting, Alice?" Then she gets in, the two have a lovely heart-to-heart about the three R's (retribution, redemption and revenge), and they blow up the car with a flare. Well, Alice gets out first and doesn't go up in flames. But the clown (who apparently wasn't dead after all) does. It climbs out and spins around for a bit and then dies.

Moments later Alice wakes up. She's lying on the ground and the lunatics are circled around her singing a happy little song about God and angels and going home one day. Roberts wrote this one too, and it's actually quite sweet. Alice laughs crazily and we end with some video footage of her being interviewed by someone. There's similar footage at the beginning of the movie, but it doesn't seem terribly important until now, for reasons we'll look at in a bit.

Here's the thing about Hellbreeder: It is far less than the sum of its parts. There are some great ideas here. There's some very interesting and tricky camera work. There are good performances. Yet the first reaction when the film ends is likely to be, "What the hellbreeder was that?"

It's only on repeated viewing that you find little things you probably missed. Something I noticed only when watching the film a second time was that the voice of the interviewer in the video clips (I told you we'd get back to them) sounds remarkably like the voice of God. Which for me raises an interesting question: Is Alice dead--maybe even on a mission from God--and is God debriefing her about her experiences vanquishing his enemy the Hellbreed? Is the footage from interviews taken the night following Matthew's death, or is it maybe new footage taken after Alice is once again committed to an institution?

Personally, I kind of like Option A. It makes for a whole good vs. evil, God vs. Satan, Heaven vs. Hell kind of thing. Then Sam becomes a kind of crazed angel sent by God to destroy the Hellbreed and Alice is the human caught up in it all. That movie would be interesting.

Or maybe I'm totally wrong and it's not the same voice at all. That's certainly possible. I've been downing the Robitussin pretty heavily for the past few days because of my cold, and hearing the voice of God wouldn't be the weirdest thing I've experienced.

Regardless, it's in examining these easily-overlooked details that the film that could have been emerges. Or maybe the film that was, given what we know of Hellbreeder's history. But very, very few people are going to give this movie a second chance, and it's really too bad that the obvious talent behind the film has been obscured or eviscerated in an attempt to make a disposable product. I'd like to see what Roberts and Eaves really had in mind.

Until I do, though, I have to work with what I have, and what I have is disappointing. I've avoided saying so until now, and I'm by no means the first to suggest this, but Hellbreeder feels a lot like an homage (I'm being nice here) to Stephen King's It. What with the child murders, the ancient evil entity taking the form of a clown, and the balloons flying everywhere it all feels very familiar.

There's more. At one point, during a dream sequence, Sam tells Alice that they need to look for the clown "somewhere between Ludlow and Derry," which just happen to be the names of two towns that feature prominently in several King novels, including It. And Matthew, in his blood-spattered raincoat, could be the body double for It's little George Denbrough, whose murder during a rainstorm opens the book. Then there's the weird guy who turns up in Alice's bathtub and suggests she cut her wrists and get it over with, much in the same way Stan Uris in It slits his wrists when he begins to remember what happened to him and his friends when the evil clown Pennywise came into their lives 27 years before. Again, what could have been new and interesting instead feels like a pastiche of things we've seen too many times before.

The way Hellbreeder is packaged, it's just one more so-so horror film. Again, I don't blame Eaves and Roberts for this one. I think it's what happens when someone's personal vision is co-opted by the demands of the marketplace. I understand that no fewer than six speaking roles were cut from Alice to turn it into Hellbreeder.

I can't help but want to hear what they had to say.

Favorite Line: "Mass murderers don't usually stop to say hello."

Rating (out of 5):